On June 11, the classically trained chef behind the Minnesota Spoon, the 2017 cookbook Venison, andÂ theÂ award-winningÂ Animales Barbeque Co. will releaseÂ Fish: Recipes and Techniques For Freshwater Fish.
Itâ€™s a natural segue for Wipfli, given that the native Wisconsinite grew up fishing walleye, crappie, and bluegill at his familyâ€™s cabin in Vilas County. In his 20s, he moved to Montana and learned to fly-fish. Later, he got into ice-fishing and â€ścaught the muskie bugâ€ť thanks to a group of hunting friends. But even those experiences didnâ€™t prepare him to write a whole cookbook on freshwater fish. In the name of research, he fished with the pros in Michigan, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas for everything from steelhead and whitefish to lake trout and herring.
Wipfli doesnâ€™t teach fishing techniques in the book, but he does offer methodical instructions for cleaning, scaling, gutting, storing, and filleting your catch for maximum freshness. If youâ€™re not much of a fisherman, thatâ€™s fine; you can buy your fish (Wipfli recommends the Fish Guys), but to ensure you get the best product, take the time to inspect your specimen.
Smell is one big indicator of freshness: â€śIf the smell raises alarm, then you probably should be alarmed. Every fish is going to have a fish smell, but it shouldnâ€™t be a rotting fish smell,â€ť Wipfli says. The firmness of the flesh is another important freshness factor. If you stick your finger into the flesh of the fish and the imprint stays, that means the skin is deteriorating and is starting to lose its bounciness. If the indentation raises right back, youâ€™ve got a fresh fish. Buying a whole fish? Look at the eye; one that’s clouded and opaque means the fish has been sitting there for a while.
So you have your fish and youâ€™re ready to cook, but maybe youâ€™re intimidated by fishâ€™s delicate nature. Poaching is a great way to keep it intact; cooking a whole fish is another way to avoid disaster. Steaming is also a good option. If youâ€™re searing fish and want to avoid sticking, use a â€śsuper-hotâ€ť stainless steel pan with a thick bottom and use a high-heat oil, like grapeseed oil. Pat your fish dry with paper towels, and when your pan and oil are hot, lay your fish into the pan.
One of Wipfliâ€™s personal favorite ways to cook fish? Over an open fire. (Yes, he has instructions for that, too.)
How do you know your fishy feast is done? Wipfli goes by feel. When fish is raw, itâ€™s soft. As it cooks, it becomes firmer, but there’s a point where too firm becomes overcooked. Knowing where the line is just comes with experience. Wipfli recommends that if youâ€™re cooking multiple pieces of fish, cut into one fillet and make sure thereâ€™s nothing thatâ€™s completely red (for salmon) or grayish (for walleye).
If you canâ€™t remember all the rules, no worries. Thatâ€™s what Wipfliâ€™s book is for, complete with crisp, step-by-step photos by local photographer Colleen Eversman. And as for the recipes, Wipfli wanted to lighten up this time around. â€śWith the venison, I felt like we missed a style of cooking which was a little bit lighter, a little bit fresher, and maybe had a little bit more diversity. And I think we were able to do that with fish,â€ť he says.
His recipes are refined yet simple, with a focus on coaxing out natural flavors. â€śOne of the things I try to avoid is using a ton of spices. In the book, and just in general in cooking, I use a lot of salt and pepperâ€”fresh cracked black pepper. Thatâ€™s our base,â€ť Wipfli says. When he does want to kick it up a notch, he uses chilis and fresh acidity in the form of limes and lemons. â€śThose flavors help elevate the flavor of fish,â€ť he says.
What to pair with your perfectly prepared fish? Wipfli recommends vegetable-based sides like marinated cucumbers, corn succotash, and shaved asparagus salad. In fact, the cookbook is near carb-free, save for a sandwich or two. â€śI donâ€™t think thatâ€™s a reflection of how to eat all fish; I think thatâ€™s just a reflection of how I generally eat currently,â€ť Wipfli says.
Even if youâ€™re a novice in the kitchen, youâ€™ll enjoy Fishâ€™s celebration of the natural, sustainable food source available right in our backyards. (Or at least nearby.) If youâ€™re inspired to cast your line in Minnesotaâ€™s many lakes and rivers but donâ€™t catch anything, donâ€™t get discouraged.
â€śSuccess when fishing isnâ€™t measured by fish caught, follows, or inches measured,â€ť Wipfli writes in the cookbook. â€śItâ€™s all about getting outside, drinking some beers with friends, and learning about whatâ€™s happening in the natural world that surrounds us.â€ť