Lake Ontario Yellow Perch (Small and Large), Tomatoes, and Very Green Cabbage

My ice-fishing track record has been pretty disappointing this year. Disappointing as in not a single fish caught all season. Same as last year, come to think of it. I do feel like I know better what I’m doing: I read books, I talk to the locals, I sort of know where to look, I drill a lot of holes, I keep track of lake depth and structure. Sometimes I even see blips that look like fish on my sonar.

But all winter long, the fish didn’t bite. At least not my lines. Three times I’ve been to Saratoga Lake, reputed to one of the best fishing lakes in New York State — and got nothing. I spent a day on Lake George, dragging my sled though a foot of snow, struggling against incessant gusts of wind to prevent my gear from getting buried and my holes from freezing over — still nothing. Meanwhile, Outdoorsman Bill was parading on his web site with his daily bucketloads of perch and Putin-worthy pike.

I needed help. I wanted my own bucket of perch. So I made the five-hour drive to see Bill last weekend.

Lake Ontario - Ice Fishing - Yellow Perch

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Lake Ontario, Sous-Vide Lake Trout, and Spring Vegetable Mix

Lake Ontario Fishing - Lake Trout

It’s not easy, preparing elaborate recipes with fish you catch yourself. Sometimes, you come home empty-handed and anything you’ve thought of making has to wait until next time — this has happened a lot to me recently. But at other times, you land 40 lb of fish, and then you have to act fast — like two weeks ago, after a day on Lake Ontario with Captain Troy.

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Fishing the Salmon River

Fishing the Salmon River - Douglaston Salmon RunBack in Russia, fishing salmon for recreation generally requires a taste for northern climates, and, more often than not, some serious travel time. If you want Atlantic salmon, you fish the Baltic, Barents, or Kara Seas, the rivers draining into them, as well as a bunch of lakes connected to them in Karelia. For Chinook or Coho salmon, you look around the Sea of Okhotsk — a region more famous for its gulags and tough climate than its recreational fishing. The fact that you’re probably seeing half of these sea names for the first time right now should tell you something: they’re far, even if you live in Russia.

Here in North America, salmon fishing is significantly simpler. Most if not all of the Great Lakes are stocked with Atlantic, Chinook, and Coho salmon, all in the same place, making the days  of countless fishing charters in the summertime. When spawning season comes in the fall, thousands of salmon (and trout) swim upstream the rivers connected to the lakes to build their nests (called redds). At that point you don’t even need a boat anymore — just find a spot on the bank and cast your line!

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Georgia Strait Coho Salmon: Crab-Stuffed Salmon Paupiette and Salmon Brandade

Vancouver Coho Salmon Fishing - Crab-Stuffed Salmon Paupiette and Salmon Brandade

No, this is not a post about some remote arm of the Black Sea in the Republic of Georgia. The strait I’m referring to is the Strait of Georgia near Vancouver, BC! We took a family trip to Hollywood North last month, and I used the opportunity to book my first saltwater fishing trip with Captain Guy at Bonnie Lee Charters.

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Cayuga Lake Salmon Burgers and Warm Potato Salad

A few weeks ago, we took another fishing trip with Fisherman John on Cayuga Lake, with the idea of spending one half-day focusing on carp, and another targeting landlocked salmon. The carp turned out to be too elusive for us to catch. We didn’t even see any, partly because of the chaotic weather this year — it was snowing the day before! The salmon fishing was going equally badly for the first 4 hours. I was starting to lose hope, when suddenly we got our first strike. Once the school was found, we promptly caught enough fish to feed our little family for a week, and even released a few, including the 25″ beauty you see on the picture.

Landlocked salmon are among the tastiest cold-water game fish one can catch in NY state, and the season lasts from ice-out through spring. In Cayuga Lake, they’re usually the same species as Atlantic salmon, but with a non-migratory life cycle. The flavor is similar to that of its sea cousins, but milder. The flesh is quite pale and turns almost white when cooked.

It came to me that while a burger made with beef requires a ground meat patty so that one can bite into it, a whole salmon fillet is tender enough that it doesn’t need to be ground. In fact, ground salmon often results in a dry or very fragile fish cake. This is why I’m using small portions of salmon fillet without additional processing. If purists object that it’s not a burger, then they can call it a hot sandwich!

I wanted to make a salmon burger that was easy enough to prepare, and of course with an Eastern European flavor — hence the warm potato salad, for one thing. The way I cook the salmon (on a plate, with butter, at a very low temperature) produces the best result. In my opinion this is even better than sous-vide, as it comes out slightly warmer and less soggy.

Potato salad
Yields 4 servings

18 oz peeled fingerling potatoes
2 oz butter
8 oz thinly sliced onions
1.2 oz cornichons
2.2 oz crème fraiche
0.6 oz whole-grain mustard
4 tsp finely chopped chives

  • Place the potatoes in a pot with salted water, bring to a boil, and simmer until fully cooked. Drain, cut into large chunks, and reserve.
  • Melt the butter with a little bit of water in a small saucepan. Add the onions, cover, and cook over low heat for 30-40 minutes, until very soft, stirring regularly.
  • Heat a non-stick pan over high heat. Add the onions and the fat from the saucepan, then mix in the potatoes, and cook until golden brown, stirring constanly.
  • Transfer the potatoes and onions to a bowl, and let cool for 5 minutes. Dry the cornichons with a paper towel, and cut into a brunoise. In a plastic container, combine the crème fraiche, mustard, and cornichons, then mix into the bowl.
  • Serve immediately, with chopped chives sprinkle on top.

Salmon mousse
Yields about 8 servings

6 oz cleaned salmon fillet
1/4 tsp smoked salt
black pepper, ground
0.3 oz butter, sliced
2 oz heavy cream
0.5 oz lemon juice

  • Season the salmon with the smoked salt and black pepper, then place on a plate with the slices of butter spread on the top and bottom sides. Cover the plate with plastic wrap, and cook in a 200 F oven until medium-rare.
  • Transfer the salmon and any grease from the plate into a blender, add the cream and lemon juice, and process until smooth. Let cool and refrigerate.

Salmon burgers
Yields 4 servings

4 oz baby bok choy leaves
0.5 oz water
1.5 oz butter, sliced
black pepper, ground
4 portions of cleaned salmon fillet, about 4 oz each, trimmed into an octagonal shape
4 brioche buns, about 3.5″ diameter
4 oz salmon mousse
2 oz cream cheese
2 tsp finely chopped chives

  • Place the baby bok choy leaves in a small saucepan with the water and 1/3 of the butter. Add some salt and pepper, cover with a lid, and cook over low heat until soft. Reserve.
  • Season the salmon with salt and pepper,  then place on a plate with the remaining slices of butter spread on the top and bottom sides. Cover the plate with plastic wrap, and cook in a 200 F oven until nearly done to your liking (I say nearly, because the fish will be finished in a frying pan). This will take between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the plate you’re using, the thickness of the fish, and the doneness you want to reach.
  • Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat, add the fat from the plate, and quickly sear the salmon on both sides.
  • Toast the brioche buns. Spread the bottom halves with salmon mousse, and the top halves with cream cheese sprinkled with chives. Assemble each burger by stacking the salmon fillet and the drained bok choy leaves. Serve immediately.

Cured Lake Trout Roe

The icing on the cake when you catch your own fish is that you’ll get plenty of fish roe during spawning season – my last trip alone brought almost a pound! Cured trout roe (personally, I don’t like calling it caviar unless it comes from a sturgeon) has become an increasingly expensive delicacy, with stores charging as much as $100 for 4 oz.

And yet curing roe is incredibly fast and easy! The whole recipe requires only 3 ingredients, a scale and about 10 minutes of your time. If you don’t have curing salt, you can replace it with regular salt. You’ll be amazed by the result, too. Trout roe is milder and has a much thinner skin than its salmon counterpart, which makes it a good starting point for the fish roe skeptic.

The cured roe can be kept refrigerated for a couple weeks or more, depending on the amount of salt you use (feel free to tune it to match your taste). In theory you can even freeze it — something that retail stores do regularly to even out the effects of Caspian caviar import quotas, for example.

Cured lake trout roe
Yields 8 oz

8 oz lake trout roe, still in its sac (called skein)
about 0.35 oz (10 g) salt (see below)
1/8 tsp (0.75 g) curing salt
2/3 tsp (2 g) canola oil

  • Place the roe on a cooling rack over a bowl, and rub gently to separate the eggs from the membrane (see picture below). Rinse the eggs with cold water and strain. Weigh the roe and return to a dry bowl.
  • Weigh 4.5 % of the roe weight in salt, then mix with the curing salt and sprinkle over the roe. Gently mix with a spatula, add the oil and mix again. Transfer to a plastic container and refrigerate for at least 1 day, stirring every 12 hours or so.

Cayuga Lake Fishing, and New Recipe Page

We went back to the Finger Lakes last weekend, and spent a day fishing with Fisherman John on Cayuga Lake. It rained most of the day, but the catch ended up being pretty good. We caught a few bass, and during a brief sunny spell we managed to catch five lake trout in short succession, the biggest 28″ long, just under 7 lb.

Since this is becoming a favorite category, I am starting a recipe page dedicated to trout, char and salmon.

Keuka Lake Fishing and Lake Trout Tartare

On a visit to the Finger Lakes last weekend, we spent a morning trout fishing on Keuka Lake with Fisherman John. When he’s not teaching freshwater angling and fly fishing at Cornell University, John is on the lakes nearly every other day all year long, and you can trust him to figure where and when the action is. We had a slow start, but around 10 am the bite picked up for about an hour, which was long enough for us to land 5 nice lakers, all between 18 and 24 inches!

Just like my Quick Seared Trout with Smoked Trout Rillettes, this tartare recipe is simple to make and emphasizes the flavor of the fish. If you want to experience ultimate piscine freshness, you can even mix all the ingredients, put them in a plastic container, take it on the fishing boat and mix in the chopped trout as soon as you catch it! If you prefer the comfort of your dining room, serve the dish with some oven-roasted potatoes and a glass of Keuka Lake Riesling, like this one from Bully Hill Vineyards.

Fennel dice
Yields 2 servings

1/2 oz butter
2 oz small-diced fennel

  • Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the fennel, season with salt, cover and cook until soft, stirring regularly. Let cool and refrigerate.

Zucchini dice
Yields 2 servings

1/2 oz butter
2 oz small-diced baby zucchini
2 thyme sprigs, stems removed

  • Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the zucchini and thyme, season with salt, cover and cook until soft, stirring regularly. Let cool and refrigerate.

Tomato dice
Yields about 2 servings

2 vine tomatoes
piment d’espelette

  • Mark an X into the bottom of each tomato with a knife, plunge into boiling water for 30 seconds, then shock in ice water. Peel, cut into quarters and seed. Cut the flesh into small dice, measure exactly 2 oz and reserve the rest for another use. Season with salt and piment d’espelette and refrigerate.

Lake trout tartare
Yields 2 servings

10 oz skinless, boneless trout fillets
1 tbsp top-quality olive oil
black pepper, ground
2 tbsp lemon mayonnaise
2 half egg shells
2 tsp trout roe
fennel dice
zucchini dice
tomato dice

  • Chop the trout fillets into small dice. Mix with the olive oil, salt and pepper.
  • Spoon the mayonnaise into the egg shells and top with the trout roe.
  • Arrange all the elements on the plates and serve immediately.

Ice Fishing, and Quick Seared Trout with Smoked Trout Rillettes

During a family trip to the Adirondacks earlier this month, I decided to continue my exploration of the great outdoors with a half-day of ice fishing and a day of hare hunting. While the hunting was, like last time, a failure that I will save for another post, the fishing was pretty successful.

Forget the comfort of heated fishing shacks, complete with TVs and mini-bars. Fisherman Gary made it clear that these, as well as any other forms of shelter, were good for ice drinking, not for ice fishing. And judging by the amount of fish I caught, he certainly knows what he’s talking about! We went to a quiet pond near Lake Placid:

As New York Game & Fish magazine so rightfully pointed out in a recent issue, “ice angling always begins with cutting a hole in the ice to fish through”. We had about 6″ of ice that day, 3″ being the minimum for safe fishing. Gary was a great guide, who knew exactly where to drill the holes and showed me how to do every step.

You clear the area around the hole with a shovel, and remove any leftover ice from the water using a skimmer. Then you’re ready to install your tip-up. Here’s an old wooden model that Gary got from his father:

Basically, the line is under the water, and any fish biting the bait will cause the red flag to pop up. When that happens, you just run to the hole, make sure the fish is still biting, and pull out the tip-up and the line together. You can have up to 5 tip-ups and 2 jigs per person, so things can get pretty hectic at times. Here’s my first fish of the day:

I ended up catching 2 splake (a hybrid resulting from the crossing of a male brook trout and a female lake trout), 2 brown trout and 4 yellow perch. I released 3 of the yellow perch as they were much smaller and not so interesting to eat in my opinion.

Back home, I wanted to come up with a recipe that lets the fish speak for itself, can be prepared with the limited tools and ingredients you have access to while on a fishing trip, and yet offers a special touch. I topped the fish with buckwheat greens and served it with multi-colored carrots, but feel free to replace them with whatever you have. The smoked salt and piment d’espelette do make a difference and are sold in containers small enough that you can take them anywhere.

Smoked trout rillettes
Yields 4 servings

4 oz of small trout fillets, skin on
olive oil
1 oz butter, small dice
smoked salt
piment d’espelette
4 slices French baguette

  • Saute the fish fillets skin side down with olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Press a couple times with a spatula, flip and remove from the heat.
  • Discard the skin, and transfer the flesh to a bowl. Add the butter, season with smoked salt and piment d’espelette to taste, and mix with a fork.
  • Toast the bread, and spread the rillettes on top.

The picture above shows a brown trout (top) and a splake (bottom) before filleting. I have a slight preference for the splake, though both taste very good, and both are way more flavorful than the rainbow trouts you typically find in stores. Just make sure you don’t overcook them!

Seared trout
Yields 4 servings

4 trout fillets, skin on
black pepper, ground
olive oil

  • Season the fillets with salt and pepper. Sauté skin side down with olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Press a couple of times with a spatula to crisp the skin, flip and remove from the heat. Serve immediately.