I ate some herring last night. Actually I ate lots of herring last night. This was not pickled herring, the modifier our brains typically put in front of the word 'herring', or the disgusting creamed herring that some of my relatives of Scandanavian descent savor. This was fresh, sweet Lake Superior herring, prepared by some of the best executive chefs in the area, and served as part of an event sponsored by Minnesota Sea Grant called A Salute to Lake Superior's Sustainable Fisheries. Restaurants like Fire Lake Grill House, Stella's Fish Cafe, and the Oceanaire Seafood Room were involved in creating the entrees, which were judged in a competition endorsed by the American Culinary Federation, with a grand prize of $1,000. A cash bar was available and Michael Monroe, the eclectic Grand Marais singer/songwriter came down, along with the herring, from Grand Marais, MN to perform at the event. It was his website that alerted the VOR, a big fan along with her sisters, of this event. I kinda favor Jimmy Page and Robert Plant but the music was fine.
The event was held on the U of M campus in the McNamara Alumni Center, a building that always rankles me a bit because they tore down Memorial Stadium to build it and then played losing football for 25 years at the giant, sterile, teflon smelling pot pie, the HHH Metrodome downtown. Now there is a brand spanking new outdoor stadium right across the street. It is a great space however, and the event was wonderful for both the VOR, a big sustainable local food advocate in her job of feeding 11,000 kids a day, and for me, an 'early herring adaptor' according to the VOR. In the little restaurants around the lake a diner can get herring in season and I always order it. Places like the Angry Trout in Grand Marais, MN, Don & GG's in Ironwood, MI, and the Village Inn in Cornucopia, WI have lake herring on the menu, especially now during the spawning season when a lot of the catch is harvested. I noticed the 'fresh herring' sign on the Halvorsen's Commercial Fishery operation in Cornie on my way through Sunday, but they were closed. As good as the herring entrees are at those restaurants, the chefs at the McNamara Center last night took it to another level. Herring and fresh micro greens salad garnished with herring caviar, blue cheese risotto with sauteed herring and a squash based reduction, mashed parsnips with coriander, caramelized apples with Panko breaded herring, Nepalese dumplings with saffron infused herring and a lentil sauce............hell yeah I ate some herring; I ate a pile of herring and so did most everyone else at the event. As you can see from the food shots with my lovely 'herring model' the food was outstanding and I'm glad I wasn't the judge, although my favorite, an entree that I had to sample twice just to make sure, won the silver medal.
I spoke with most of the chefs and this was the first time that many had been exposed to fresh Lake Superior herring and all were impressed by the quality of the fish. One compared it to the reef fish that he would buy from fishermen when he learned his trade in Hawaii and said that if there was a distribution system that could get the herring here as fresh as the ocean fish that are flown in daily, it would be a great seller. That and coming up with another name. He mentioned that he once served Lake Superior Whitefish as 'freshwater char' and it flew out of the kitchen. It reminds me of the conversation I had with a brewer in St Louis about his 'session IPA'. I told him it tasted suspicously similiar to a good bitter or ESB and he confessed that he had indeed brewed a bitter. He said that people shy away from the word 'bitter' (speak for yourself buddy) and that he sold a lot more 'session IPA' than had he called his beer bitter, even though they were identical brews. I talked the Red Rocks crew from Iowa and Nebraska into some fresh whitefish at the Village Inn in Cornie when we were storm bound and they all raved about it. Yet I suspect a few burgers would have been ordered had I not pointed out the virtues of the whitefish, which came out of the lake about 4 hours earlier.
You can read about the rebound of the herring population in Gitchee Gumee and its life cycle here. There is also a recipe or two on this site. It's a great fish, high on Omega 3's, and it tastes wonderful as well, a claim that can not be made for all 'healthy' foods. It dovetails nicely with the Eat Local and sustainable food movements and it's great on the grill. In fact I may need to talk the GurneyGranny into picking up some fresh herring on the way to deer camp this weekend.
Next time you are in a restaurant around the lake and see herring or cisco on the menu, give it a shot. You won't be disappointed and perhaps the lake herring, which the taxonomists now officially refer to as cisco, can filter its way inland and become a staple like the venerated walleye, a fish not nearly as interesting in the taste department as the lake herring.....sorry, the cisco.