Incredibly fresh, sustainably caught walleye fillets from the Red Lake Chippewa reservation require little more than salt, pepper and tarragon, then a quick sauté in butter to be delicious. Recipe below.
Fish are the last wild food. Well, they’re the last wild caught food humans eat on a large scale. And unfortunately, we’ve been eating them on too large a scale—according to the World Health Organization, we’ve doubled our per capita fish consumption in the last 50 years. Many species are in serious decline, and the fishing industry as a whole faces major challenges.
In his book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg says this growing appetite for fish cannot be sustainably satisfied by wild fish alone and that fish farming or aquaculture will actually overtake wild catch in the next few years. Aquaculture is not without its own problems—efforts must be made to greatly reduce its environmental footprint. That’s why the success of the Red Lake Fishery’s wild caught walleyes is particularly heartening.
Red Lake in northern Minnesota is the sixth largest freshwater lake in America, just behind the five Great Lakes. Since 1889, The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians has controlled 83 percent of Red Lake as part of its reservation. But for centuries, the Chippewa had depended on the lake for food and for their way of life. They often referred the lake, with its plentiful fish, as their food store or food warehouse. Especially prized was the walleye. In 1917, with food shortages brought on by World War I, the Red Lake Chippewa and the state of Minnesota created the Red Lake Fishery to help feed the state. After decades of increasing demand and overfishing, the Red Lake walleye population was verging on extinction.
In one of those too rare stories of successful wildlife management, the Red Lake Chippewa got together with the state of Minnesota and the federal government to bring the walleye back. In 1998, they called a moratorium on virtually all walleye fishing on Red Lake and coupled it with a massive restocking program. By 2006, the walleye population had rebounded from a low of about 100,000 fish to a robust 7.5 million. The lake was reopened to subsistence and sport fishing; And in late 2007, the commercial fishery was reopened.
Today, fishing is much more carefully controlled. The Red Lake Chippewa have reverted to traditional, sustainable practices, even for their commercial fishing. Their fish are caught one at a time, by tribal fishermen and women using the old fashioned “hook and line” method. Several hundred tribal fishers support themselves and their families this way.
The Red Lake Chippewa may take an old fashioned approach to catching their fish, but their selling methods are mostly modern. Sure, if you’re in the neighborhood, you can stop by the fisheries and pick up fresh fillets. But you can also order your walleye by phone or on the Red Lake Nation Foods website. They offer fresh or quick-frozen fillets, skinless or skin on, for about $12 to $15 a pound, plus shipping and handling.
I was recently asked by the Red Lake Fishery if I would like to sample and review some of their walleye fillets. After reading their incredible story, I replied with an enthusiastic yes!
I received a box of frozen, skin-on fillets. When I thawed a couple of them for this recipe, the first thing that impressed me was the absolute freshness. I had seasoned the fillets with salt and freshly ground pepper and was getting ready to cook them, when I noticed that I hadn’t smelled anything fishy, even though the fillets had been out on the counter for half an hour. I bent down, practically touching the fish with my nose, and sniffed again. All I smelled was the freshly ground black pepper. I usually can’t say that even of fish I buy at pricey fishmongers here in Chicago.
Because I wanted to make sure we tasted the fish, I opted for cooking them simply—some salt, pepper and butter and a little fresh tarragon. I almost hesitate to call this a recipe. The walleye was amazing, clean and mild in flavor. When I cook salmon fillets with skin on, the flesh pulls away from the fairly sturdy skin as you eat it, and you can leave the skin behind. The skin remained attached to the walleye fillets, but it was so thin and delicate, easily cutting with the side of a fork, that we just ate it.
If you can get your hands on some Red Lake Walleye, you will love this simple preparation of it. If not, you can substitute any really fresh, mild white-fleshed fish.
Sautéed Walleye Fillets with Tarragon
2 four to six-ounce walleye fillets, skin on or skinless
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 generous teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
fresh lemon wedges (optional—see Kitchen Notes)
Pat the fish fillets dry with a paper towel and season them on the flesh side with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with fresh tarragon and press it lightly into the flesh to help it stick. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium flame and melt the butter in the pan, swirling to coat.
Place the fillets seasoned side down in the pan, tilting it to make sure the butter surrounds the fillets, and cook for about 3 minutes. Gently flip the fillets (having the skin on helps keep them from breaking up) and cook on the second side until the fish is just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Plate and serve immediately with lemon wedges, if you’re using them.
On lemon and fish. With oily fishes or rich preparations, fresh lemon can serve a legitimate purpose, cutting the richness with a bright citrus touch. Sometimes, though, restaurants add it to the plate to mask less than fresh fish. In doing so, they’ve made squeezing lemon juice over fish almost an automatic reflex in many of us. Here, the lemon slices added a colorful note to the photograph. We didn’t actually use it on the walleye—it didn’t need it.