By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2009 Gourmet Magazine
On the western edge of Lake Superior, superlative natural ingredients reign supreme. Prolific orchards contribute ripe fruit for mouthwatering pies, and the pristine waters of the lake yield firm-fleshed fish. We’ve been known to indulge in over-the-top pies, but when it comes to just-caught fish, the preparation should be as simple as possible. Here’s the recipe for one of America’s most delicious regional specialties.
1 whitefish, filleted
• Broil fish. Add salt and pepper to taste.
It’s best if the fish was caught only a few hours earlier, and its Great Lakes character is ineffably enhanced when it is broiled on a cedar plank. Insert the tines of a fork into the cooked fish and give a light tug: Up comes a flake of luminous white meat, its freshwater clarity completely unlike briny ocean creatures or oily river fish. Whitefish has an agreeable purity that makes it a candidate for dolling up with smoke and spice. Smoked whitefish is a staple of Upper Midwest cheese-curd shacks and Jewish delis everywhere, but the complex flavor of smokehouse whitefish bears little resemblance to the pleasure of fish fresh-caught by the shore of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water.
There is something especially good about savoring the north-country catch at Maggie’s, in the old lakeshore village of Bayfield, in northernmost Wisconsin, where the 21 Apostle Islands punctuate a horizon of enamel-blue sky and steel-gray waves. Whitefish is almost always on the menu at the screaming-pink town café, where tourists line up to eat during the summer and locals come for refuge and companionship when temperatures head into the way-below-zero range. A few days each year, Maggie’s does not serve whitefish because the kitchen cannot get it fresh from the boats that work within 30 miles of town. Caught-that-morning is the rule, and during October and November, when Wisconsin prohibits angling for whitefish, Maggie’s reaches out all of 40 miles to fishermen who ply Michigan waters, which do not close for the season. “If we get their morning catch later in the day, we will serve it,” says Jeff Shannon, Maggie’s floor manager. “If they’re late, or if they don’t have a truck on the road, I invite you to have a hamburger.” (The Wisconsin Burger is a Dairyland tour de force, topped with aged Cheddar, Colby, Amish blue, and Swiss cheeses.)
Whitefish fillets, which are also available broiled without the plank or sautéed in butter, are delivered with a dozen pin bones still attached to the top of each piece, but Maggie’s kitchen staff removes the bones one by one with needle nose pliers. On most Friday evenings, you can get a special of whole whitefish sautéed in a pan of butter. Even if you’ve never faced a whole fish like this, getting all the meat is a snap. The waitstaff will show you how to peel back the skin, then start at the top and easily separate moist forkfuls from the bone. The flavor of whole whitefish is not significantly different from those that are filleted and broiled or sautéed, but the presentation adds fish-camp fun to the dining experience.
Speaking of fish-camp vittles, have you ever eaten whitefish livers? It takes a lot of fish to gather enough of them to make a meal, and vendors who sell to local restaurants and markets traditionally have thrown them away, but old-time fishermen have long considered them a delicacy. In recent years, as Bayfield has gone from quiet fishing village to a popular tourist destination, livers have begun to appear on the menus of a handful of restaurants in the area. Like the flesh of the whitefish, the livers’ most distinguishing characteristic is a pure, inland water taste, more mellow than chicken livers or any mammal organ meat we know. Maggie’s rolls them in spiced flour and sautés them with peppers, onions, and mushrooms until their outsides have a bit of crunch and the insides turn soft.
Although Bayfield hosts an apple festival each October and Maggie’s apple pie is certainly fine, all pie hounds visiting the area must make the short trip around the lake’s western tip, through Duluth, to Two Harbors, Minnesota, and a legendary café called Betty’s Pies. Well over a dozen baked fruit pies and cream pies are on the daily menu of this homespun diner, including coconut cream that is as smooth and dense as cheesecake; multilayer chocolate cream that features a cinnamon meringue; and cornucopian Great Lakes Crunch, which is apples, blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb, and strawberries packed under a cookie-crumb crust. That last one should be eaten warm with ice cream melting on top.
For those who favor the à la mode duet, Betty’s recently created something special: the pie shake. One entire slice of pie goes into a mixer along with a splash of milk and ice cream of your choice (vanilla is generally preferred as the universal pie complement). The ingredients are whirred until pourable. Our waitress assured us that Betty’s will make a shake with any kind of pie but advised that baked fruit pies yield a grainy texture that some folks find disconcerting. Heeding her guidance, we chose the banana-cream-pie version. The shake was silken luxury, deeply satisfying for the most ravenous sweet tooth and a holy grail for those of us who consider banana cream pie the ne plus ultra of blue plate desserts. It is served with a straw, which we quickly discarded because it kept getting clogged with bits of banana and little shards of savory crust. A pie shake is best gulped straight from the glass.