A Piscivore's DilemmaApr 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Richard Soderberg
Selecting fish to eat presents a piscivore’s dilemma. Some fisheries are sustainable, and some are not. You cannot, with a clear conscience, consume most wild salmonids, especially the native species. For us in the Twin Tiers, that’s wild brook trout. Fish for them and admire them. They face enough obstacles without your frying pan being one of them.
Fortunately, hatchery-reared salmonids are available to us. They are totally sustainable because they are produced in state-owned hatcheries funded, for the most part, by fishing license sales and stocked for our recreational and culinary benefit in waters that do not support wild trout. My favorite way to cook them is to marinate them in teriyaki sauce and cook on the grill—with the heads on, of course.
Excellent sources of wild fish that may be harvested and consumed with a clear conscience include so-called rough fish like carp and suckers, and panfish like yellow perch and sunfish. These are lower on the food chain than the apex predators of more interest to anglers and thus more plentiful.
Following are some recipes for guilt-free fish that are abundantly available to local anglers.
Sucker Lip Soup
Once upon a time I was called on to develop a station at the local Earth Day celebration. I decided to showcase underutilized species of fish. I made carp balls, smoked carp, pickled suckers, and sucker soup. It was a blustery April day, so the hot soup went over the best. Here’s how I made it.
Obtain some suckers. They are considered trash fish, so there is no season, no limit, and no restrictions on how to obtain them. They are actually nice fish with firm, mild, flakey white flesh.
Filet the suckers, wrap, and refrigerate. You won’t need them until later. Discard the guts and gills, but keep the heads and carcasses. Make a stock from the heads, carcasses, and skins. Use vegetables, fresh oregano, bay leaves, fresh parsley, and a whole lime, cut in half. Simmer for six hours or so.
Crisp up some finely-chopped bacon. When the fat is rendered, add onion, leek, and carrots, all diced to about a quarter inch. Cook until the onions are translucent and the carrots are almost soft. Set aside.
When the stock is about done, make a roux (equal parts by weight of flour and fat used to thicken sauces) and add a small carton of heavy cream. Cook until it is slightly thickened.
Discard the solids from the stock pot and reduce the liquid to about a quart. While lightly simmering, add the roux and the reserved bacon-vegetable mix. Return to a light simmer and gently add the fillets. Simmer for three minutes to cook the fish.
Serve with a garnish of fresh parsley.
Common carp are found in nearly every water body in our area. They are not only invasive exotics, but deemed undesirable by most anglers. They are hard to catch with hook and line because they are smarter than the average fish, so I shoot them with a bow and arrow.
Gut the fish—there is no need to skin or scale them—and cook on a gas grill until done. Remove and discard the skin then, along with the dark muscle, then shred the good part, carefully removing the bones. Mix the fish with bread crumbs, egg, chopped green onions, parmesan, a little Worcestershire sauce, fresh parsley, and mayo until the mixture can be rolled into fairly moist golf ball-sized balls. Fry in oil until golden brown.
When we were kids staying at our grandparents’ cottage we prided ourselves on being trophy fishermen, seeking the most elegant species. When Grandma wanted a fish dinner, she would hand us the shovel to dig worms and send us out for sunfish. The most common sunfish in our area are pumpkinseeds and bluegills.
Most people these days fillet sunfish, but Grandma cooked them with the bones and skin, enhancing the flavor significantly. Here is how she did it.
First obtain some sunfish. They are ubiquitous in lakes and ponds all around our area. Scale the fish with a kitchen fork and remove the heads and guts.
Dust in flour.
Grandma fried them in lard, but canola oil works fine.
Dismantle on the plate and enjoy.
We make fish tacos Baja style with fish or shrimp, corn tortillas, and shredded cabbage. The preferred fish in Mexico is dorado, aka mahi mahi, but we use perch or sunfish. First fry the tortillas for a minute, then fold over and fry a little more until the tortilla is cooked, but not crunchy like a fast-food hard taco.
Assemble components: prepared tortillas, fried fish, shredded cabbage, salsa verde, fresh cilantro, fresh lime. Load each tortilla with fish on the bottom, followed by cabbage, salsa, and cilantro.
Finish with a squeeze of lime. Salud!
One of the favorite treats from my kitchen is lox, a Scandinavian process by which a salmon is cured and smoked. Locally available substitutes for Atlantic salmon are found in the Finger Lakes and Lake Erie. These, as well as Alaska salmon, which are sustainable, can be harvested guilt- free. The most sustainable sources of large salmonids are steelhead from Lake Erie or Lake Ontario, or salmon from Lake Ontario, as they are of hatchery origin. Pre-migratory smolts are stocked in streams, mature in the lakes, and are harvested when they return as adults. Pictured here is a steelhead whose life began in a hatchery and who was eventually caught in a Lake Erie tributary stream.
Most of our store-bought fish presently come from aquaculture, some of which have controversial environmental impacts. Imported farm-raised fish may contain harmful chemicals used to control disease. Farm-raised Atlantic salmon is a beautiful product, indistinguishable in appearance and taste from a wild Alaska silver salmon. Reported environmental impacts of their production include fouling of the sea bottom beneath the cages in which they are reared, transmission of disease to wild Atlantic salmon in the same waters, and possible negative impacts of escaped farm fish on wild fish populations. I make lox from them (with a little guilt) if I haven’t been to Alaska for a while.
Obtain two similar-sized pieces of salmon or trout. They have to fit together, meat to meat, skin sides out. Sprinkle both sides with coarse black pepper. You will need a batch of fresh dill and a mixture of equal parts of kosher salt and brown sugar.
Apply salt-sugar mixture to both sides of each fillet. Apply the dill between the fish pieces and sandwich together shoulder to belly so the pieces fit neatly together. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. After twenty-four hours, drain off accumulated liquid and flip the double pieces of fish. Your lox should be done after a total of forty-eight hours of curing, but if it’s crumbly and not firm enough to slice, continue the curing process until it is.
Smoking isn’t necessary as the lox is ready to serve after curing, but if you have a smoker, I recommend it. Cold smoke the lox for two to three hours. Don’t let the temperature in the smoker exceed 100oF or it will cook and your lox will be ruined. Cool or freeze before slicing. Slice lox as thin as you can. It helps a lot to have the right knife.
Lox is best served on a homemade bagel. This is the assembly process: cut bagel in half, apply cream cheese, capers, red onion, and a pile of the sliced lox.
Just like in the Big City!