Christopher Shane

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How Local Can You Go? Part One

Jeri Gottlieb / June 2012

A carrot is a carrot, whether grown in California, Idaho, Maine, or Tennessee, whether sown and reaped by your neighborly farmer, or whether it wears its terroir like a couture label. And then there are those foods, usually from the wild, that truly speak of provenance and are often too tied to place to travel. They form the backbone of real American regional cuisine.

A culinary psychologist running a chef through standard word association would never get a wrong answer if he were to toss out the names of American states. Maine—lobster, blueberries. Maryland—blue crabs. Florida—citrus, stone crabs. Georgia—peaches. Louisiana—shrimp, crawfish. Washington and Alaska—salmon.

It just so happens no one needs to be anywhere near those states to procure, cook, and eat these once regionally defining foods. Berries are frozen and trucked from state to state, showing up in morning muffins across the country; fresh fruit is available for mail order; locally raised meat and game, day-boat fish and shellfish are cold-packed and shipped overnight; and even nonnative produce is grown at farms across the country. So does that mean that in this age of the open-ended larder, where chefs can pull in produce from the farm down the road apiece as well as gather from afar, that America’s so-called regions are practically borderless, with very few distinguishing food characteristics? Not at all. In fact, this country has many foods that are not widely served, sought after, or even known beyond their locale, foods that unequivocally state a sense of place. Here, in the first of a two-part article, Food Arts looks at some of the distinctive foods that tend not to reach past their hometown digs (without a bit of insider knowledge, effort, and perhaps some additional shipping charges) and showcases how chefs best use what’s found close to home and nowhere else.

(Read Part Two of this article here.)

THE NORTHEAST
Northern shrimp, birch syrup, beach peas, beach plums

Northern shrimp proliferate in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, specifically in the Gulf of Maine, as well as the North Pacific and Arctic regions. These small sweet shrimp are a favorite of Evan Mallett of the Black Trumpet Bistro in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who offers a frequently changing menu to accommodate ingredients in season in his seaside town. “Northern shrimp, having a major renaissance in our coastal area now, have helped our lobster fleets get through the winter when the lobster quotas have been met,” notes Mallett.

“By rigging a device called a Nordmore grate onto the back of their boats, fishermen have been able to harvest copious amounts of these well-regulated and long-lived delicacies. Northern shrimp are best raw or barely cooked, and my personal favorite use for them is potted shrimp, an old British standby, that involves storing these little shrimp in jars after cooking them quickly in shallots, herbs, and cream. “I also work with a guy who makes syrup from certain varieties of birch trees that are fairly common in our great northern woods. Unlike maple syrup, which takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, birch syrup is a 90-to-1 ratio. That’s a lot of labor to produce an unctuous molasses-like syrup with a decidedly savory profile. I mix it with house-made mustard to serve with our sausages. We also use it in sauces and dressings, or as a finishing drizzle in lieu of saba or balsamic reduction.”

Beach peas (Lathyrus japonicus) are found along the sandy shores from New England to New Jersey, and, according to A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America by Lee Allen Peterson and Roger Tory Peterson, by the Great Lakes as well. The pods are smaller than those of garden variety peas, but, like common peas, they’re best gathered while still green and prone to sweetness, as they become drier and less tasty as they age. Beach peas grow all along the New Hampshire coast where Mary Dumont, executive chef at Harvest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lives.

“I often make a salad of the sweet beach peas and the tender tips of the tendrils and its pretty flowers because they are so abundant along the marshes at the end of my road, and easy to walk to before work. I find they’re best with the wild sea beans that grow around the peas, with a bit of shaved radish and fennel pollen vinaigrette. The sweetness of the peas and saltiness of the sea beans go really well together. I think the best tasting foods are ones that grow together.”

Cherry-sized beach plums grow on low shrubs along sandy shorelines from Maine to Delaware, ripening to a blue-purple hue in the last weeks of summer. Annual fruit production varies from prolific to nonexistent, given that the shrub grows in low-nutrient, low-moisture sandy soil and is subject to high salt-laden winds. It’s always a race to the fruit between humans, birds, and mammals. Beach plum expert and jam purveyor Linda Lee Alley of New Lane Sundries, located in West Tisbury on Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard, notes that turning them into jelly is the most popular use of the fruit, a surefire hit with the island’s summer community. But, she notes, beach plums also can be found on island menus, including at l’etoile restaurant in Edgartown, where chef/owner Michael Brisson accepts no boundaries for their use–except dessert.

“You have to wash and pit the fruit, which is tedious work, and then cook the plums like a conserve or compote to use them in all these creations. I have done much with beach plums on my menus, including beach plum/pickled ginger dressing on a roasted local candy cane beet and feta salad; caramelized onion/beach plum/Port jam to accompany a warm game bird boudin; beach plum Cabernet/Port sauce on grilled venison loin; and tart Tatin of Yukon gold and sweet potatoes, cranberries, beach plums, and thyme topped with warm chèvre, a dessert with a savory twist. I’ve served this with rack of lamb. I usually harvest the beach plums myself in mid-September from the island towns of Aquinnah, Edgartown, and Chappaquiddick. I enjoy working with them because they’re such a wild natural indigenous local food that has an unpredictable yield each year—with none in some years—so I feel very fortunate when I get them. They have their own unique flavor profile, much like a cranberry, but are more disinclined to being enjoyed. It’s a lot of work to make them edible, and I like creating new ways to incorporate beach plums on my menus, but I’ve never used them in a dessert. However, I could see them in an autumn fruit cobbler. The beach plum says Martha’s Vineyard to me, and I love Martha’s Vineyard!”

MIDDLE ATLANTIC
Scrapple, hog maw, Randall Lineback cattle

Scrapple, a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty created by the German-speaking settlers of Pennsylvania—mostly Anabaptist groups such as Amish and Mennonites—combines any number of leftover bits of pork, from skin to organ meats, with cornmeal and/or buckwheat flour, broth, and spices into a loaf that’s sliced and pan-fried to accompany, most often, eggs in the morning (see Techniques, June 2011). Often maligned, this beloved iconic regional specialty rises above its humble origins on executive chef Andrew Little’s menu at the Shep­pard Mansion in Hanover, Pennsylvania, as does another Pennsylvania Dutch treat, hog maw, or pig’s stomach lining.

“Our scrapple is house-made from whole hogs we buy from Rettland Farm. We use all the parts. Currently, our scrapple is made with cured ‘short rib,’ ground shoulder, and meat from the head. We use a roasted cornmeal from a local mill as a binder and reduced pork stock as the liquid. Scrapple is served as a first course on my dinner menu and also makes appearances on my tasting menu. Right now, we’re serving it with a poached egg, frisée, bacon fat croutons, and chow-chow vinaigrette. The response has been fantastic! It’s unusual to see scrapple being made outside of the large commercial factories, so when people can get a local flavor like this, they really dig it! It’s also a bit unusual to see scrapple on the menu of a modern American restaurant. For the hog maw we serve, the basics include the stomach lining of the hog, which is then stuffed with ground pork, potatoes, and seasonings. While it can be served hot or cold, we’ve always served it hot.”

Brad Spence, chef/partner at Marc Vetri’s Philadelphia Italian restaurant Amis Trattoria, offers a different take on this local favorite.

“Ours is a variation on the traditional scrapple found in Lancaster and other parts of Pennsylvania. Usually it’s made with all parts of the pig, but I make mine with pork shoulder and pork liver. The pork I get comes from my friend, Paul, who owns Country Time Farm in nearby Hamburg. The scrapple is flavored aggressively with black pepper and a touch of fresh sage. The binder is polenta as opposed to the traditional buckwheat flour found in many scrapples. Scrapple at Amis is a brunch item and is served with two sunny-side up farm eggs. We always serve it with a seasonal condiment. In the summer, we use fresh Jersey corn and basil. In the winter, we do braised San Marzano tomatoes with marjoram. The key to great scrapple is a crunchy outside and a creamy rich interior. We dredge ours in Italian double-zero flour and pan-fry it in extra-virgin olive oil from Puglia—very different from throwing it in the deep fryer like they did at my local diner in Jersey when I was growing up.”

The Randall Lineback is an extremely rare breed of cattle initially brought from Europe during colonial times. Over the years, it was interbred, then ultimately abandoned in favor of other popular breeds. Now the few remaining purebred Linebacks are being revitalized at Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville, Virginia, where the largest population exists. In an effort to increase its popularity, it’s showing up on area menus, notably at Robert Wiedmaier’s Brasserie Beck in Washington, D.C.

“The Linebacks are a unique breed of cattle, mainly because people initially didn’t know what to do with them,” says Wiedmaier. “They’re an all-purpose cattle, rather than just beef or dairy cows. Joe Henderson, who raises the cattle on his farm, has done an amazing job of keeping the cows pure. They’re raised on grass and water from a fresh spring, then get just a bit of grain. Their flavor is clean, lean, and full, which takes some diners a while to get used to. But if you take the time to properly develop the flavors and present them well, you quickly find out why I swear by the meat. At Brasserie Beck, we serve the veal in a Bolognese sauce over mussels with fried capers, hard-boiled eggs, and Parmesan.”

THE SOUTH
Braunvieh cattle, sorghum syrup, pokeweed, alligator, boudin, tasso, Steen’s Cane Syrup, tupelo honey

Although bred in a number of states, the Braunvieh is still one of the more uncommon purebred cattle around. Considered the oldest pure breed of cattle, it was originally brought to the United States from the mountains of Switzerland. After years of interbreeding, which led to the rise of the American Brown Swiss dairy cow, interest in the United States in the original Braunvieh was renewed in the early 1980s. With its acclimation to a rugged Swiss environment, it seems the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina suit this breed just fine. That’s where Ridgefield Farm, home of Brasstown Beef, is situated, and where Adam Hayes of the Red Stag Grill, a steakhouse in the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, gets this unique grass-fed beef. The chef has replaced Midwestern beef with three local sources, all within 50 miles of the hotel, visiting the farms and getting a first-hand look at how they raise their cattle.

“The Brasstown Beef cows are allowed to graze freely on 1,000 acres of pasture land, drink from a seven mile supply of sweet granite well water, and eat a choice diet of grass, clover, corn silage, dried distiller’s grain, soybean hulls, and a kelp mix that includes cinnamon and garlic, to help eliminate e-coli and sickness. Brasstown is Step Four Global Animal Partnership-certified, meaning they provide pasture-based production. Their meat has clean beefy flavor, very consistent with uniform fibers, a result of their controlled breeding. The beef is hung to dry-age for 14 days, which accelerates the tenderizing process, then wet-aged for two weeks. The butcher used by Brasstown does a fantastic job with the cuts, offering just about every type you can think of. Most processors just do the basics and grind the rest. At the restaurant, we are currently running it on our à la carte steak menu as Brasstown ‘NC’ strip steak—a play on New York strip steak.”

Sorghum syrup results from evaporating the juice of sorghum cane, a type of grass grown mainly in the southeastern United States. It was once a prolific crop that extended into regions of the lower Midwest, but with competition from other glucose syrups, production declined radically from its peak of 24 million gallons produced to a low of 400,000. Lately, its popularity has increased, and now 25,000 to 30,000 acres have been planted for syrup from its low of 2,400. Sean Brock of Charleston, South Carolina’s McCrady’s and Husk restaurants, grew up using sorghum and continues the Southern tradition today.

“Currently, my two favorite ingredients are sorghum and pokeweed,” says Brock. “These ingredients were such a big part of my childhood. When I was a kid, we ate sorghum just about every morning on biscuits or on a simple piece of toast with homemade butter. Those flavors and smells will be with me for as long as I live. True sorghum is hard to come by. It takes passion for that flavor and tradition to want to continue to grow and cook it every year. Unfortunately, there aren’t many people left who are doing it the old-fashioned way. Sorghum is a very unique crop. A lot of people think that they have had sorghum, in the form of molasses. There is a big difference between syrup made from cane and one made from sorghum. The taste is completely different. Where I am from, sorghum is also a means of bringing together the local community. The people who grow sorghum all get together in one spot and press the sorghum together. Then they build a fire under a kettle and cook it down into syrup. These events usually turn into a potluck and individual families bring covered dishes and, if you’re lucky, a mason jar full of clear liquid that will get passed around as the sun goes down. This is how food brings people together. This was a time when people could catch up with each other and tell stories. A time to reflect and a time to talk about the future of the next generation. At Husk, we make my grandmother’s sorghum and apple stack cake, and even use it in some of our cocktails.”

Pokeweed grows as far north as New England and as far west as Minnesota, but it proliferates in the South, where it’s seen less as a troublesome weed and more as a delectable green. The berries, roots, and mature greens are considered poisonous, but the young tender leaves can be eaten after they’re cooked. Usually found in Southern home cooking, Brock also offers it at Husk when he finds it.

“Pokeweed was something I took for granted when I was a kid. We ate it all the time. In fact, my mom’s nickname was Poke Salad Annie, based on a great Elvis song and her obsession with this roadside weed. People who love it go crazy for it. When I was a kid, I remember how excited my mom would get when she spotted an undiscovered patch alongside the road. She would always pull over and make us pick it. As a kid, that was a little embarrassing. I was always scared that one of my friends from school would drive by and see my family picking weeds for food. These days I’m the one who stops the car in sheer excitement. I suppose I inherited that pokeweed gene. My mom’s favorite way to cook pokeweed is quite simple. Dredge the leaves in flour, followed by a quick dip in buttermilk, and then finally a coating of good yellow cornmeal. She then slowly pan–fries them with some peanut oil and a dollop of bacon grease. Lastly, she’ll take the scraps and leftover batter, mix it all together, and make little fritters. They also get pan–fried in that same black skillet she’s been using for as long as I can remember. We prepare pokeweed at Husk the same way I learned from my mom and will sometimes serve it with a buttermilk vinaigrette.”

Found in the wetlands of the Southeast, from central Texas to the coast of North Carolina, with most situated in the coastal marshes of Louisiana, the American alligator has proved to be a popular delicacy in this region. According to Stephen Stryjewski, chef at Donald Link’s Cajun-oriented Cochon in New Orleans, its unique taste is a cross between frog’s legs and rattlesnake, with a seafood type flavor and the texture of a light white meat. Using both wild and farmed alligator, he serves it year-round.

“I use the ‘roll,’ or tenderloin, which will still taste like alligator after being cooked. If you use other parts of the animal, because it’s all muscle, with no fat, it has to be braised for a long time and will just take on the taste of the braising liquid. I slice the tenderloin thin, coat it in batter, fry it, then toss it in chile aïoli. It’s so popular, it’s become a signature dish.”

Boudin is another Cajun specialty, with as many preparations as there are cooks, according to Stryjewski. The pork- and rice-filled sausage is served everywhere in the region, from gas stations to the likes of Cochon and its sister sandwich counter and butcher shop, Butcher.

“We prepare it according to the standard—pork shoulder, rice, and a little liver—and vary the seasonings. We then add jalapeños, black pepper, cayenne, green onions, and parsley. We braise the pork shoulder and the liver with the seasonings until fork tender, pass it through a meat grinder, mix it with rice, encase it, and then steam it. At Butcher, it’s a small plate item we serve with bread and butter pickles. At the restaurant, we serve boudin balls, which is the sausage without the casing that’s been breaded and fried. They’re paired with mustard and pickled banana peppers.”

Tasso, seasoned and cured pork, is another Cajun specialty Stryjewski makes at Cochon.

“Our tasso, served on our boucherie plate, is the top neck muscle on the pork shoulder seasoned with a dry rub for seven to 10 days, hung, and cured. It has a similar flavor profile to typical tasso, but is more palatable to eat by itself.”

Steen’s Cane Syrup, made from Louisiana sugarcane and not easily found outside the region, is Cochon’s go-to sweetener.

“We use cane syrup in a gâteau de sirop, which is a spice cake with the syrup baked in. For savory items, we use it a lot in marinades and vinaigrettes instead of honey.”

Tupelo honey is produced only in the wetlands of Georgia and northwest Florida, where white tupelo trees flourish on the banks of rivers and swamps, mostly around the Apalachicola and Ochlockonee rivers. The tupelo trees flower for only two to three weeks, making hectic work for beekeepers, who must get their bees to tupelos at the right time, in clean combs free of other honeys, and remove them just after the April or May flowering, so no cross-contamination of honeys occurs, mixing the nectar of another flower with that of the pure tupelo. Tupelo honey has a light golden color and a mild taste. Because of its high fructose content, it resists crystallization. Lawrence Klang, chef de cuisine of the WaterColor Inn & Resort’s Fish Out of Water restaurant in Santa Rosa, Florida, sources his tupelo honey from L.L. Lanier & Son’s Tupelo Honey of Wewahitchka, Apalachicola, whose swampland, bee yards, and expertise were used in the filming of the movie Ulee’s Gold. Klang works it into a dish of salt-roasted local beets with tupelo honey/lime dressing.

“The simplicity of this dish is meant to showcase the citrus, floral, and spice aspects of the honey. Earthy sweet beets with a hint of salinity from roasting in salt works well with the tupelo dressing. I also pair local arugula with a tupelo honey/vanilla dressing with curried pumpkin seeds and labne (Middle Eastern yogurt) in the summer.”

MIDWEST
Pawpaws, native persimmons, hickory nuts

Pawpaws (Asimina triloba), sometimes called Hoosier bananas or Kentucky bananas, are the largest edible fruit native to North America, growing wild in many temperate states across the country, from as far north as lower Michigan to as far south as the Gulf Coastal plain. According to Kentucky State University’s Pawpaw Research Project, many of the named varieties originated in the Midwest. Resembling a papaya, the pawpaw tastes like a cross between a banana, pineapple, and mango, with several large seeds embedded in its custard-like flesh. They have a shelf life of a few days when not refrigerated and are thin-skinned, making transport tricky. Most are found at farmers’ markets in the regions where they grow, including Kentucky, where they ripen in late fall. Jonathan Lundy, chef/owner of Jonathan at Gratz Park in Lexington, Kentucky, makes sure he’s able to feature the pawpaw year-round, preserving it when in season, and serving it in various dishes throughout the year.

“Late summer here in Kentucky is when pawpaws just start showing up in my kitchen. I get them from Roland McIntosh of the Paw Paw Plantation in Stanton, Kentucky. Here he’s known as the Pawpaw Man, and part of doing business with him is returning the seeds for replanting at his farm. The fruit needs to be ripe, but ripe goes to rotten quickly with pawpaws. We have to rotate or manage the crop because not all of them ripen at the same time. Refrigeration works well, but eventually, you just have to put on gloves, peel and squish them to get at their pulp. There are four to seven lima bean–sized seeds inside each, which makes for a lot of seed and not a lot of pulp. It’s like picking pulp from tamarind. At this point, you can freeze the pulp into usable portions or make preserves. My recipe for the preserves has both caramel and vanilla tones that blend well with the mango/banana/tutti-frutti flavors of the pawpaw. It’s those caramel and vanilla tones I wanted for a dish I created to pair with Maker’s Mark Bourbon for Distillery Live 2009, an event highlighting Maker’s Mark Bourbon and Laphroaig Scotch Whisky: seared scallops wrapped in Colonel Bill Newsom’s Kentucky prosciutto, a handcrafted slow-cured artisan ham out of Princeton, Kentucky, served with pawpaw jam.”

The American native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) grows wild throughout the southeastern United States, into the Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic as far north as New Jersey. But for some reason it’s most associated with southern Indiana. Smaller and rounder than its common Asian counterparts the Hachiya and Fuyu, native persimmons are extremely tart until fully ripe, when the dense flesh becomes mellower, sweeter, and pudding-like. Daniel Orr of FARMbloomington makes the most of this autumn-time bounty with fruit he buys from local folk on his way to work, lured by their hand-painted roadside signs advertising the ripe pulp. He makes a persimmon tiramisù, a spiced persimmon pudding, and a specialty cocktail.

“For our persimmon tiramisù, I dip the lady fingers in a mixture of coffee and Frangelico. That gives it a better flavor balance with the persimmons. To prepare the persimmons for the tiramisù, I cook them in simple syrup, puree them, and then mix them with mascarpone to make what is almost a mousse. To finish, I top it with a lightly whipped unsweetened cream.”

The persimmon pudding recipe Orr uses was one he found at a flea market in a file of recipes he bought. The recipe said it was the 1965 Indiana State Fair Grand Prize winner. “When I found the recipe, it was very 1960s in ingredients. I added crème fraîche, along with fresh ginger and my spice blend, Sweet Seasons, which includes a ground combination of powdered ginger, cinnamon, annatto seeds, pomegranate powder, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, star anise, cloves, mace, nutmeg, and bay leaves. The fruit is also found in First Frost, our persimmon cocktail–a combination of vodka, Cointreau, persimmon puree, and a twist of orange. And a persimmon beer will be offered at FARMbrew, opening in Columbus, Indiana, in early 2013.”

Shagbark hickory trees, with their hard white-shelled sweet rich nuts, are said to populate parts of the eastern half of the United States, from Texas to Maine, with most of the few independent sellers situated in Wisconsin. Jonathan Justus of Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Missouri, brings them in from Audrey and Robert Biersach of Hickory Nut Heaven in Columbus, Wisconsin, just a few states away, where the couple forage, hand-crack, sort, and clean each one.

“Hickory nuts are a nice middle ground between the dark bitter flavor of our native black walnuts and the very sweet native northern Missouri pecans. Although they’re everywhere in the woods, extracting the meat is extremely labor intensive; therefore, finding a source for the cleaned nuts is very challenging,” says Justus. “At the restaurant, we serve them in a chocolate/hickory nut cake set over honeyed coffee/chocolate ‘paint’ and topped with cocoa Chantilly. It’s paired with caramel popcorn/sour cream ice cream, a bit of bacon, hickory nut brittle, and a few bonbon-sized pieces of rum/vanilla pear gelée.”

GREAT LAKES REGION
Walleye, wild rice, white fish, rainbow smelts, pad­dle-­fish roe

The regional take here centers on the innumerable freshwater lakes—at least more than the 10,000 Minnesota pro­claims as its own. Walleye, Minnesota’s state fish, is a hearty white fish popular with anglers. At Stone­Ridge Golf Club in Still­water, excutive chef Ron Bohnert of Danny’s Bar and Grill presents walleye alongside Minne­sota’s state grain, wild rice, a local farmed variety from nearby Aitkin. It’s akin to the wild rice that grows along lakeshores, hand-harvested in canoes by members of the Ojibwe tribe.

“We use Red Lake walleye from Red Lake, Minnesota, delivered fresh from our supplier. It’s a very clean and great tasting white-fleshed fish. For the accompanying dried cherry/maple pecan butter, we use Door County, Wisconsin, dried cherries and Hale’s Sugarbush maple syrup from Cottage Grove, Minnesota, about 10 miles from StoneRidge. The wild rice that accompanies the dish comes from Chieftain Wild Rice Co., where it’s farmed, and after harvesting, dry-roasted. It offers an exceptional nutty wild rice flavor and good texture. The walleye is our number one selling item on the menu, so we offer it year-round, serving it with fresh asparagus in summer and with Axdahl’s Garden Farms butternut squash in winter.”

In Minneapolis, Stewart Woodman, chef/owner of Heidi’s, offers his own take on wild rice.

“The Minnesota license plate reads: ‘The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.’ Wild rice grows in small shallow lakes, and slow flowing streams, so, as you can imagine, it’s another ingredient that is commonly found in this area. For years it was relegated to wild rice soup, but its nutty and woodsy flavor goes perfectly with pancakes. We serve them with lingonberry jam and foie gras butter.”

Woodman also likes to use local caviar from nearby North Dakota, where a nonprofit company harvests the eggs of sport-caught freshwater paddlefish, using the proceeds for research and habitat improvement for this endangered species.

“North Star Caviar from Williston, North Dakota, or NoDak as we like to call it, harvests paddlefish from the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. In these parts, the rivers run very cold, so the resulting product has a clean finish, without the fishiness that can sometimes come into play with other caviar. At Heidi’s, we’ve used the paddlefish caviar in a few different presentations, including our caviar sundae—a lightly frozen preparation with egg foam. We also serve the caviar with cauliflower custard and popcorn powder.”

Bruce Sherman of North Pond in Chicago also boasts a menu with offerings from the Great Lakes in the form of pot-caught white fish from upper Lake Michigan and rainbow smelts when in season.

“The whitefish is available the majority of the year, depending upon weather conditions and when the fish is spawning. The preparation is changed seasonally, depending upon availability of other seasonal accompaniments. One way is pan-browning a fillet and serving it with apricot/lemon/pistachio semolina, snap peas, gingered carrot puree, shaved carrots, candied lemon, and pea tendrils. We also serve smelts from time to time, mostly as a garnish rather than a main dish. Diners here tend to like the idea of something über Midwestern, yet not want to eat large center-of-the-plate quantities of them. We will typically use them to accompany a spring soup or run a small salad with the delicious little guys.”

At nearby Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago, Yves Roubaud offers a more traditional take on rainbow smelts. “About 23 years ago, we got this recipe from The American Legion in Port Washington, Wisconsin. We start with the best smelts, which are those fresh from Lake Michigan, no bigger than three inches long. We soak them in the secret batter developed over the years by the Legionnaires, which they very kindly passed on to us. We then roll the smelts by hand in cracker meal. That way you get even coating inside and out. We fry them in hot oil at 375 degrees and serve them with tartar sauce and cole slaw. By order of the Legionnaires, ‘Eat dem tails!’”

Click here to continue reading with Part Two of this article.