A dozen or more pop up ice shanties are scattered across the frozen South Bay of Lake Memphremagog. Fishermen are huddled in with their mini heaters and high tech Vexilar sonar fish finders, unscathed by the harsh winds and nearly white-out conditions thrashing against their protective polyester walls. Three college kids playing hooky drill 5 holes with their power auger within sight of the parking lot, set up their tip ups and trudge back to comfort of their pickup truck to watch for flags. About 50 yards beyond their tip ups, there is a man sitting on a bucket in the middle of the lake with his goose down hood up and back turned against the pelting snow and ice. His hand crank auger lays near him, inside his bright orange kiddie sled. His arms, tired from drilling through 14 inches of hard ice, rest upon his knees. His toes are numb because he failed to switch the load of laundry containing his wool socks from the washer to the dryer the night before. If they could see his face beneath his hood, they would see a smile on his face because next to those cold feet is a pile of yellow perch slowly disappearing beneath the falling snow.
Last Monday was the warmest it had been for weeks. Twenty-three degrees with a wind chill in low teens felt like a heat wave compared to the polar vortex cyclone bomb of icy death that weathercasters had the gleeful joy of presenting to us during the first week of 2018. I knew that the ice would be nice and thick and being cooped up for awhile, I had an itch that needed scratching. Using my first vacation day of the new year, I dusted off my ice fishing rod and headed North to sit on a bucket in the middle of a frozen lake. It was totally worth it. Within just a couple hours, I caught around 25 fish, including my personal best Fallfish at 17 inches. That one was pardoned back into the icy depths but 11 Yellow Perch and one Northern Pike were not so lucky.
I didn’t make it back home until after dinner so the perch were quickly gutted and frozen whole. I took the time to fillet and bone out the pike, knowing that I was going to cook it up the next day. Pike are a notoriously boney fish, leading to undeserved malignment in the kitchen. Yes they are slimy, but that is nothing a good rinse under the faucet and some paper towels can’t fix. With just an extra two minutes of time and some skillful work with a fillet knife, all of the floating y-bones can be removed, leaving you with wonderfully firm white fleshed fillets that have a myriad of options for preparation. There are plenty of videos out there on the internet that can show you exactly how to remove the bones, so I won’t attempt to describe something here that is easier understood through visual demonstration.
I will tell you that when keeping fish after ice fishing excursions, please please please take the time to gut your fish. Inside each gravid female lies an all too often overlooked culinary treasure…roe. Plump egg sacs full of thousands of tiny eggs. Depending on the species of fish, they range in flavor from strongly fishy to very mild and creamy. I’ve only had roe from pike, perch and pumpkinseed, all of which have been pleasantly mild with a slight eggy flavor. I tried roe for the first time last fall when I was surprised find egg sacs in a few pumpkinseeds that I had gutted. A simple saute in butter was all I did then, but when I discovered that nine of the eleven perch I brought home were gravid as well as the pike, I took the opportunity to highlight what “nose-to-fin” eating can look like. Using the roe from both the pike and the perch, I made some Asian inspired fish roe cakes. Then I cooked up some pike dumplings which were then floated in a fish stock made from the head, bones, and fins of the pike. Every part of the fish, aside from the guts and skin (which made some nutrient dense addition to the compost pile), was used.
Let’s start with the roe cakes. First I took a knife and sliced open each of the ovaries and carefully scraped the eggs into a bowl. I ended up with about 1 1/2 cups of fish roe. 1 cup of grated, soaked, and squeezed dry yukon gold potato and 1/2 cup of grated yellow onion was added to the mixture. I also added 1/4 cup of diced scallion, 1 chicken egg, 1 1/2 teaspoons of parsley, 3/4 teaspoon of cayenne powder, and the juice of 1/2 a lemon. Then I slowly added 1/3 cup of breadcrumbs while stirring. This produced a mixture that was just thick enough to form into patties approximately 4 inches in diameter and half an inch thick. In a frying pan, I heated up 1/4 inch of peanut oil. Any oil or fat that has a high burning temperature could have been used. I just happened to have peanut oil on hand.
Carefully placing each patty into the oil, making sure that there was enough room so that they didn’t touch, I fried them about 2 minutes before flipping. This was just enough to reach a deep golden brown. Upon removing them from the oil and placed them on a plate lined with paper towels and immediately seasoned with a pinch of salt. I wasn’t sure they had cooked all the way through, so after carefully blotting off any extra oil with a paper towel, I transferred them in a glass baking dish and baked in a 375 degree oven for an additional 10 minutes. The finished product was plated with a slice of lemon for squeezing. Like I stated before, this roe was not fishy. There was a bit of an eggy flavor but what stood out was the creamy texture which was matched perfectly with the crispy potato bits on the exterior. I tried the first few bites without any accoutrements, then added a bit of Sriracha. This was a match made in heaven. The added spice from the Sriracha melded perfectly with the slight egginess of the roe. The only thing that I will change when I do this again (this recipe may become a staple in the Benton household) will be to use garlic chive in place of scallion for a little more pungency. Once the snow melts and spring comes along, the addition of wild leeks will make for the perfect springtime snack.
On to the rest of the pike. First, the Man Cub and I tackled the fish stock. We cut up 1 whole onion, skin and all, the equivalent of 1 large carrot (we only had baby carrots), 2 stalks of celery, and ran 1 clove of garlic through the garlic press. He dumped the veggies into the pot and then assured me, “it not going to bite you,” in reference to the pike head lying on the cutting board. I told him he was right and asked if he’d like to touch it. He did a gentle one finger touch and then we placed it in the pot with the veggies. We then poured in 1 cup of dry white wine and just enough water to cover everything. After adding 1 Tablespoon of salt and a healthy pinch of black pepper, we took a one inch cube of chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) and plopped it in with all of the other ingredients. Chaga is an incredibly medicinal mushroom that grows only on birch trees. It has an exterior that looks like burnt wood. While this exterior has many medicinal properties, I find it unpalatably bitter. The inner portion is orangish in color, has a corky texture and gives off a very mild vanilla flavor. This is the part that I included in the stock. Next week’s entry will go more in depth with this wild mushroom.
We brought the liquid to a boil and then reduced it to a simmer, covered, and let it cook for 1 hour. The fish had given off its flavor in 30 minutes but the chaga needed longer to steep in order to extract more of the antioxidant properties. After an hour, we strained it all through a fine mesh sieve and returned the liquid to the pot.
After the Man Cub reluctantly went off to bed with Mama, I started in on the dumplings. I had recently seen an episode of The Mind of a Chef on Netflix where Chef Andre Soltner makes pike dumplings in a lobster cream sauce. I wasn’t going to buy a lobster (though I do have a friend who frequently dives for them… maybe I’ll try this part of the recipe once the waters warm up enough for diving) so I just followed the recipe for the dumplings and replaced the sauce with my chaga fish broth. You can find the Chef Soltner’s recipe here: Chef Andre Soltner’s Pike Dumplings Recipe
I did my best, but alas, I am not a classically trained French chef. That and my food processor broke down midway through blending the panade with the pike. I transitioned the mixture into a deep bowl and proceeded with a handheld electric mixer. Upon scooping the spoon into the dumpling dough, I realized that my dumplings were going to be far more flat than Chef Soltner’s. Still, I ventured onward and lowered each dumpling or “quenelle” into the slightly simmering water for poaching. The end result was a dumpling that was much more light and airy than the dense American dumplings that I grew up with. The texture was light and fluffy but not quite as seen on T.V. The flavor was rich with some of the pike shining through. The flesh of the pike had a sort of a sweetness to it, though not sweet like perch. It was more of a savory sweet that was hard to describe. On its own, something was lacking. Then when I placed them in the stock, some culinary magic took place. The stock had a certain pungency from the garlic that cut right through the richness of the buttery dumplings. The high in the sky airy quality was brought back down by the earthy fishy flavors from the chaga and pike in the stock. Overall, it was an enjoyable bowl of food and I quickly gobbled down 6 dumplings. There will be some fine tuning that I’ll make to both the stock and the dumplings, but it was a solid first attempt at a challenging dish.