How to cook a splake
November 9, 2008
Martin and Vanya are grad students in the Queen’s Biology Department. They have taken quite an interest in finding alternative sources of food in an urban environment, but since Dr. Bill Barrett suggested that I warn them to check all pigeon’s lung sacs for T.B. spots, they have confined their foraging to squirrels and porcupines they find in our woodlot. The most recent porky was quite a success, according to Martin. From his description it sounds as if it tasted a lot like beaver, a delicacy that I tried with colleagues and 450 Canadian studies students at my school one fall day in 1973. For the record, the large beaver (provided by my grandfather) tasted like finely-grained beef with a hint of liver. This may be more of a tribute to the skills of the ladies in the Chimo cafeteria than to the innate flavour of the critter, but it wasn’t bad, actually.
Martin and Vanya have taken to following Charlie along to the farm on weekends in hope of an invitation to hunt in the woods, or failing that, the offer of a meal of wild game from the family grill.
The first time they showed up I cooked a pile of largemouth bass fillets and dumped them on a cooling tray while they prepared corn in a propane boiler. In my experience if there’s a crowd around the fillets will disappear from the tray at a good rate, and the first sign that the crew is filling up is when a fillet actually makes it to a plate before it is eaten. It took until the third cast iron pan full for this to happen, and it might have been that Martin and Vanya wanted to leave some for the other six people; nevertheless, it does a cook’s heart good to see how a bunch of hungry twenty-somethings can eat.
Their most recent visit came about for the same reason that I had gone fishing the night before: it was simply too nice a fall day to remain inside. I had coaxed a very active splake onto the shore and its fillets were cooling in the fridge as they arrived.
I lit the grill and they required no coaxing. I pontificated away on the tricks of making an inedible fish into a delicacy, but their ears seemed to be blocked by hunger. All they wanted was the food, which they dispatched with haste and relish, did the dishes, looked briefly around the woods for squirrels, then raced to my secret fishing hole, though they claimed they were overdue for work on campus.
The following day brought my largest splake ever, and so I had to circulate a photo or two. Vanya responded with a few photos of his own and the following note:
Nice fish. Here are pictures of the one I caught.
After eating the splake at your house, I thought it was impossible that these fish could taste bad. So that evening, I grilled the splake that I caught the night before, and my god it was terrible. Tasted fishy and strong, and smelled equally bad. They’re a pleasure to catch but a chore to eat!
Ah ha! He had made the classic rookie mistake: you must never mistake a splake for something good to eat! A splake looks somewhat like a salmon (though it’s a lot prettier), but while an Atlantic’s oil is sweet, a splake’s is almost as rank as that of a lingcod. I still remember the smell in the house that January day when I first tried to fry a ling fillet in an open pan. We had every window of the house wide open, just to get the smoke out. It turned out that the ling’s oil has a very low fuming point, and it smells awful when burning.
Memory of the ling debacle is why I only cook splake outdoors and downwind of the dwelling, if possible. But I’d heard someone — it might have been Lennie Pyne — talking about how ling is quite good if you deep fry it and get rid of the oil. Actually, I think Lennie gave me that ling, but he denies it, so maybe it was someone else in the group ice fishing off Trout Island that day.
Later on after I discovered downrigger fishing I was catching significant numbers of splake during my run of beginner’s luck, and I was unwilling to admit that they were almost inedible. I wondered if Lennie’s principle of broiling the grease out might apply equally as well to splake as ling.
I decided to slice the fish into skinless fillets and try to burn the oil out of them with an open flame. This worked surprisingly well. The whitish oil would rise out of the fillet when heated, and would then burn off when I turned it. You just didn’t want to be downwind.
Butter hides a lot of evil flavours simply by coating the tastebuds on the tongue. It works for August bass, so why shouldn’t it help a splake? I decided to baste the fillets in melted, unsalted butter each time I turned them throughout the cooking process. I singed a few hairs off my hands, but the process worked better than I deserved: it turned out that butter is denser than the splake oil, so as the segments of the fillet open up from cooking, the heavier oil displaces the lighter to the surface, only to be lost to the fire when the fillet is turned.
A splake fillet will sustain a great deal of flame without charring. It is like a salmon that way. Basically you can treat it like steak on a barbecue. Cook it until it breaks in half, then serve it with lots of salt. The fillet will have a great texture and appearance, and will taste like butter and salt – not bad, under the circumstances.
Just don’t be lulled into thinking that these magnificent fillets actually taste good.