My earliest memory of catching a fish is one that still stings a little bit. I was around four, and my mother had taken me to a public pond where there were ducks and hungry little bluegills to catch. The park loaned out kid-sized bamboo poles, and my mom got one for me and one for my older brother. She had brought a bag of old white bread, and we learned to compress pieces in our fat little fists to use as bait, carefully impaling the balled-up bread on our hooks.
I remember eating the bread balls and offering one to a duck who promptly bit my fingers to get it. I remember crying. Somewhere in this meltdown an older kid came over and offered to teach me how to fish. Maybe he just wanted me to stop wailing and scaring the fish away.
We plopped my sodden bread ball in the water and waited. Just as soon as I had given up watching, my bobber went under. "Look, look, you got one!" he shouted.
Together we pulled out a bluegill. It was probably 3 inches long, and was flailing valiantly in the sunlight. The older kid flipped it onto the grass, where it lay gasping. “Don’t touch it.” He said, reaching out as I grabbed the fish. Its gills cut my already duck-abraded fingers and I started wailing again. So ended my day of fishing. I never really got any better at it; too much sitting quietly for my taste.
Now that I live in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I have access to great freshwater fish, no bobber required. Wherever you live there will be regional specialties; in Minnesota we have Walleye, a mild, sweet fish, and a Lake Herring that rarely gets exported because we eat it all. If you can find a source for a favorite regional fish, chances are it will be both super-fresh and a taste of the local culture.
When it comes to cooking, the things you need to know about a particular fish is whether it is lean or oily, and whether the texture is delicate or sturdy. When in doubt ask your fishmonger whether your fish is rich or lean.
Salmon, herring and whitefish are classic examples of oily, sturdy-textured fish. Their fat content is over 5%, which makes them flavorful and sought after, since the fats in fish are some of the healthiest due to their rich EFA content. Oily fish like trout or herring can be roasted, broiled, poached or pan-fried, but you might not want to deep fry them. Because they are already rich, they are complemented by a lighter sauce, like a salsa or a teriyaki glaze.
Bass, perch and catfish are less oily, but still relatively sturdy. Lean fish is very easy to overcook, so check your fish often. Delicate fish will stay in one piece better in the oven, although a careful cook can sauté them simply, even on the shore of the lake. Leaner fish is often served with richer sauces, like beurre blanc or a coconut-based curry.
Don't be intimidated by cooking fish, it's the ultimate fast, fresh main course. Just make sure that you have everything ready to go before you put that fish in the pan. A 3/4-inch thick filet of fish will cook in a 350 ⁰F oven in 20-25 minutes, or in a hot sauté pan in 7-10 minutes. Thicker filets or steaks just need a few minutes more. If the thickness of your filet is naturally uneven, fold the thin tip of the filet under, making it as thick as the wider part, for even cooking. You can also steam a 3/4-inch thick filet in 10-12 minutes, or grill it in 7-9 minutes.
To check the progress of fish as it cooks, simply insert the point of a paring knife into the fish and open up the flakes of flesh—when properly cooked they should separate easily and be opaque. In a sauté pan, you will see the flakes start to separate in spots, that means it's done.
Whether you are dropping a line in the lake or, like me, stopping by the fish counter at the local co-op, you can reap the benefits of nutritious and delicious freshwater fish!
Here are some tasty recipes to try: