When you say “Wisconsin” you probably don’t think seafood. Obviously there is no ocean anywhere near here, but there are an awful lot of lakes and streams. Considering the amount of salmon found locally on restaurant menus you might suppose it was our biggest catch. Of course, it comes from Alaska and afar. Lake whitefish, yellow perch, walleye and smelt are all found and commercially fished in the Great Lakes, though much of the fresh water fish sold here comes from Canada. Additionally, stream trout, yellow perch and catfish are farm raised.
Locally caught fish was once more popular. It was the foundation for the Friday night fish fry, so plentiful and cheap that it was “all you can eat.” Certainly its status diminished with the pollution of the Great Lakes and with the advent of modern transportation that made possible seafood delivered from the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf.
But recently, we’ve witnessed a renaissance in the appreciation of all things local. One doesn’t have to wander far to enjoy fresh water fish, available at both the market and some of our best restaurants.
Graze gives an old favorite, rainbow trout, a dramatic makeover. Served in a dark chocolate and pumpkin seed mole with roasted poblano chiles and a radish and onion salad, the locally caught fish becomes as delightfully foreign as it is delectable.
At 43 North the same fish receives a dramatically different but equally delicious handling. Simply yet perfectly grilled, preserved citrus butter and a bouquet of fingerling potatoes and seasonal vegetables adorn the trout.
In the Upper Midwest no fish is more sought out by both anglers and diners than the walleye. Not surprisingly, it graces the menu at Tornado, a temple to the super club tradition. Too often deep frying results in overcooking that destroy walleye’s subtly sweet flesh. Here it’s pan fried with just the right accents of lemon, shallots and thyme.
The foes and fans of smelt are equally vocal. Some find the little swimmers too fishy and bony, but other as addictive as potato chips. Originally a winter treat, the small fish are fried whole and consumed by the handful. On the appetizer menu at Sardine, they’re lightly breaded and cooked to a golden crunch; served with a garnish of pickled red cabbage and a tartar sauce dip.
Its slogan is “Other Restaurants are in Wisconsin, Quivey’s Grove is Wisconsin!” Here history inspires modern dishes. Lake perch is undeniably the longtime favorite at fish fries, but Quivey’s gives it a twist with a pretzel breading and sides of parmesan potato and sugar snap peas with mint, thyme and shallots.
In Wisconsin catfish has never enjoyed the reverence it gets in the South. Today, much of it is farm raised everywhere. As with most of its specialties, Lilliana’s gives catfish a New Orleans’ accent: Blackened, it’s dressed with a Creole favorite, sauce meunière—butter, lemon and parsley, and served with red beans and rice and collard greens.
The Door County fish boil is a uniquely Wisconsin tradition. No one does it better than the charming in Fish Creek. Watching the fresh Lake Michigan whitefish and red potatoes cook in a cauldron over a blazing fire is an engaging show. The cooked fish is pulled and then served with the prerequisite melted butter, coleslaw, and homemade Door County cherry pie for dessert.
Smoked Trout and Horseradish Dip
½ pound smoked trout
¾ cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill leaves
2 tablespoons drained bottled horseradish, or to taste
Discard skin and bones from trout and break into pieces. In a food processor pulse trout until finely chopped. Stir in remaining ingredients and salt and pepper to taste. Serve dip with pumpernickel toasts.
Makes about 2 cups.