The delicious taste of sustainable success: Sautéed Walleye Fillets with Tarragon

by Terry B on May 11, 2011

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.

red-lake-walleye

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
Serves 2

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.

Kitchen Notes

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.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

altadenahiker May 11, 2011 at 4:10 pm

These wonderful fish just fell in your lap, metaphorically speaking? Oh, you lucky, lucky guy. I’m going to look at their website, as their practices are impressive and the price very reasonable. (I’ve been paying $30 a pound for fresh Copper River Salmon this month.)

Ronnie Ann May 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm

What a wonderful post on so many levels, Terry! I often have frozen fish in my freezer ready for a quick “I forgot to plan for dinner” meal. And even though I think I’m doing something good by buying from places that carry fish that aren’t over-fished or filled with mercury, there is indeed a fishy smell that greets me as I open the package. What a great alternative. Thanks!

Terry B May 11, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Altadenahiker—I know, right? I’m so glad I blog about food and not, say, urology.

Ronnie Ann, this stuff really was amazingly fresh. I steamed a couple of fillets the following night with various Asian aromatics, and the only smells that lingered in the apartment after cooking were of ginger and soy sauce, not fish.

randi May 11, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Lucky you!
I haven’t had walleye in a long time. Nice to see they’ve restocked successfully. This is my favourite way to prepare fish but never with Tarragon. I don’t know why I don’t use it more often. I have it growing in my garden, it just grows there looking pretty, never touched. My youngest caught 2 beautiful trout that we had for dinner last night. I suggested we cook it in a similar way to yours but he wanted to invent a recipe. So we let him go in the kitchen and I think he used a splash of pretty much everything we have and it truly was the most delicious fish I’ve ever had. If only we and he knew what was in it.

The Rowdy Chowgirl May 11, 2011 at 9:05 pm

This brings back good memories! My Grandpa used to fish for Walleye, and my Grandma would coat the fillets in cornmeal and fry them. Nice!

Terry B May 11, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Randi, it’s so great that your son is interested in cooking—and that you turn him loose in the kitchen! Getting our kids cooking is a great way to help them eat healthier.

Great story, Rowdy Chowgirl! As I was doing a little research on walleye, I discovered that they’re a favorite with sports fishermen (and women). As a result, many of the recipes I found included breading and frying them much as your grandmother did, often over a campfire.

Holly May 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Lucky you! I wish I lived in a place where I could get fish as fresh as the ones you describe above.

Bianca May 19, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Holly, it may not be available where you live, but I work with the Red Lake Nation Fishery. Feel free to give me a call at (877) 834-2954 and we will ship it overnight via FedEx.

By the way great post Terry!

Terry B May 19, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Thanks for the phone number, Bianca! Holly, I hope you do call and give this fish a try.

Tim W July 1, 2011 at 6:19 pm

I have the FRESHEST walleye story for you….On a trip to Canada a number of years ago our group of eight fishermen gathered at a predetermined island on the lake for a shore lunch. We took walleye caught that morning, filleted them, wrapped them tightly in foil (with butter, salt, pepper, thinly sliced onion, and capers), then laid the foil pouches on some hot smoldering coals. The memory of the aroma of the steam that escaped when I opened the foil still makes my mouth water. Clearly the best fish I have ever had. Thanks for bringing that memory back again!

Terry B July 1, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Great story, Tim! The way you describe your fish, my mouth is watering too. Capers and butter are a hard combo to beat with really fresh fish.

Janis April 6, 2012 at 3:57 pm

If walleye is not readily available, what would be a good alternative? This looks really good and the ingredient list doesn’t seem too overwhelming. I believe I can try this dish and I can’t wait to.

Terry B April 6, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Hi, Janis! Try any firm, lean white fish. Tilapia, halibut, pike, sole… (although sole tends to be delicate and may want to fall apart on you). You might also consider this lemon caper butter recipe. It has become my go-to choice for a quick, delicious weeknight meal, usually with tilapia.

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