My Uncle Jerry loved to fish. Each summer, he and my Aunt Gloria would pack up my cousins and head up to Spooner, WI, where they rented a cottage for a week or two. I’m not sure exactly how my cousins spent the time, but I know that Uncle Jerry spent pretty much the whole time fishing, thinking about fishing and cleaning fish (and sometimes doing two of those things at once). I never had a chance to visit them in Spooner, but our families used to spend time together in Eagle River and Jerry and my Dad would fish for hours, catching their limit in sunfish. It wasn’t always hard to catch their limit as they used to keep just about every fish they caught. Sometimes they would throw a particularly little one back saying, “Go tell your Dad,” but most of the caught fish ended up in the basket. “It is good to get the little ones out of the lake so the others can grow bigger,” they would say.
The thing about catching all these fish was that they then had to be cleaned. Dad and Jerry used to clean fish by gutting, finning and then scaling each one. Then they started just fileting and skinning the fish, which cut the workload significantly. Of course as frugal Norwegian-Americans they wasted nothing, so they cleaned even the smallest fish. Jerry had a phrase for most situations and this was no different. As he was cleaning that tiny bluegill he would always say, “You never know when you are going to want just one more bite of fish and here it is.” I use this phrase often while I am teaching my cooking classes when people leave a spoonful of batter or a pool of mixture in the bottom of a bowl. “You never know when you are going to want just one more bite, so clean out that bowl!”
The classic way to cook panfish is to dip the filets in flour that has been well-seasoned with salt and pepper and then fry the filets in oil until they are crisp and golden brown. This is best done outside on a burner or you (and your wife) will remember for days that you recently fried fish. If you don’t have one, just buy a little burner that you can safely set on an outdoor table (without causing a fire) and everyone will be a little happier.
I love fish cooked this classic way as much as any Wisconsin fisherman, but as a chef I am always trying to find new ways to use ingredients. Several years ago I had some bluegill filets I was trying to use for my annual GameFeed. I already had plenty to fry and I thought about making a dip. I remembered having cold clam dip that was sold alongside the French Onion Dip in the dairy case at the grocery store. I haven’t seen it sold for years but I came up with a recipe using the filets to make the following fish dip. It was a hit and my cousin Ellen (Jerry and Gloria’s second daughter) even asked for the recipe. I like to eat this dip on saltines. If I am feeling particularly fancy, I will get the whole wheat saltines.
Fresh Wisconsin Panfish Dip
Simply sit in front of the TV with a clean finger and a bowl of this dip.
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sour cream
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon grated onion
1 clove garlic, pasted, pressed or crushed in a mortar or pestle
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup cooked boneless panfish filets, flaked
¼ cup minced parsley or chives
Method: Stir the cream cheese and sour cream until creamy and smooth in a bowl. In another bowl, whip the heavy whipping cream to soft peaks. Fold the whipped cream into the creamed cream cheese along with the remaining ingredients. Chill 1 hour or longer to allow the flavors to develop. Makes about 2 ½ cups or serves at least one.