Tuesday, June 19, 2012

[Up North] Great Lakes Seafood Boil & Fish Fry

Our Up North series will highlight good eats to seek out on your weekend roadtrips as you head Up North – that ambiguous, nebulous region in Michigan where everyone has, or has a friend that has, a cottage on a lake somewhere.

As Gordon Lightfoot would tell you, the waters of Lake Michigan are for sportsmen. Not being much of a fisherman myself, I was oblivious to fact that Lake Michigan was stocked with salmon that has been shipped in from the Pacific Ocean for the past 40 years. This has led to disastrous results in Lake Huron and the stocking of Lake Michigan is now being reassessed due to concerns surrounding the population of native species like trout and walleye.

Now that we have our history and environmental lesson of the day out of the way, let’s get on to the good eats.

My cousin, a camp counselor at a summer camp near our cottage, took the campers on a fishing trip to Lake Michigan and came back with a bounty of about 10 LBs of Lake Michigan’s finest trout and salmon. The only thing more difficult than reeling these fish in was figuring out what to do with all of it. We wanted to prepare a big feast for the extended family, so we needed a method for cooking a lot of fish for a lot of hungry people in a relatively short amount of time. As I went through possible ideas in my head, I recalled a story that my Chicago friends M&H told me about their trip to Door County, WI last year. They had stayed at a B&B that hosted a traditional Great Lakes fish boil on the weekends for all of their guests. Off to the internet I went with my mission established.

Fish boils have been popular across the northern Great Lakes region for a long time, a tradition passed on from Scandinavian settlers. (Have Scandinavians found a food they do not want to boil or pickle?) The most popular area for fish boils seems to be Door County, WI, but the boil remains popular around Lake Michigan and in Northern Michigan. As I began searching for the proper method for doing the boil, most discussions called for hunks of meaty fish - trout, whitefish, and salmon being the popular choices - boiled in a pot of heavily salted water along with potatoes, onions, and herbs of your choosing.

My initial reactions were that a) this sounded bland and b) boiled fish? This didn’t seem to be a recipe for good eats, so I dialed up two audibles:
  1. Our fish boil was going to be a mash-up of a Great Lakes Fish Boil and a Cajun Crawfish or Low Country Shrimp Boil. I decided to add some Cajun seasonings to dial up the flavor and throw in some spicy andouille sausage, corn on the cob, and a couple whole heads of garlic that me and Mrs. T would fight over.
  2. I would add some shellfish to the mix for a little variety. As anyone who’s taken a flash light along the shore of an inland lake in Michigan knows, crawfish are just as abundant up here as they are in the bayou. And don’t be fooled by these nasty, mini-lobster looking guys, they are delicious when cooked in a spicy Cajun broth. (They taste a little like shrimp in case you were wondering.)

The prep work for my version of a Great Lakes Fish Boil started on Friday afternoon with a trip to Cabela’s to pick up some crawfish traps. I couldn’t find a consensus opinion of what to bait a crawfish trap with, so we went with some raw fish and raw pork, we figured whatever there was less of in the morning would be what we would use next time. So we baited the traps, did our best Captain Sig impression and dropped the traps near some rocky spots near the shore. Around midnight, we went down to take a peak and sure enough, the traps had some company. One big guy was poking around, but not all the way in the trap, so we gave him some help and tossed him in, along with two more crawfish that were nearby. Three crawfish in a matter of hours, we were well on our way to a big locavore seafood feast, I figured.

The next morning, I went down to check on our catch.

I was crushed – the crawfish had outsmarted me and somehow managed to escape. I will have my revenge, but it wasn’t going to be this weekend. Stay tuned for an update on my next battle with the crawfish.

Not ready to totally admit defeat to crustaceans, I picked up some crab claws at the grocery store as an impulse purchase that I could drown my sorrows in.

The boil starts with filling a huge pot (I have a 26-quart turkey fryer/outdoor boiler that I got off craigslist) about half way with water – don’t fill it too high or else the water will overflow once you start adding everything to the pot – a lesson you only have to learn once to remember. The water gets a good hit of salt (I used about a cup) and three packets of Zatarain’s seafood boil seasoning. You can just as easily make your own season pouch, the Zatarain’s is just a mix of whole mustard seeds, whole coriander seeds, cayenne pepper, bay leaves, dill seed, and allspice all wrapped together in cheesecloth.

After the water came to a boil, the potatoes go in, along with onions, andouille sausage, and garlic. Slice off a bit of each end of the potato and the top portion of the heads of garlic to ensure that they can soak up the spicy broth as they cook. After about 10 minutes, toss in the corn; 5 minutes later, throw in the seafood and let it cook for about 5 minutes. Strain everything into a large serving vessel of your choice – a clean cooler works just fine.

Everything came out great – the potatoes, corn and garlic all soaked up the Cajun flavor with just a little bit of spice and the fish remained surprisingly juicy - I was worried that all the fat would boil out of the fish leaving it a rubbery blob, but the fish held up great. I held back on the spice level since I was cooking for a crowd, but if I were doing it again, I’d dial up the spice by adding a good bit of additional seasoning straight into the water and not just in the cheesecloth pouch. You can mix your own Cajun spice blend or pick some up at the grocery store – I went with this since I was short on time and sprinkled into onto everything on my plate.

Our seafood fest would not be complete with only boiled fish though; we had a few dozen bluegill that were cleaned and practically begging to be fried. So we fired up the fryer, battered the bluegill two ways: one batch dredged in flour & cornmeal, the other dipped in a batter of milk & eggs and then dipped in crumbled Ritz crackers. Both fried up to a perfect crispy exterior and flaking interior. The perfect accompaniment for the boil.

And we figured we might as well smoke some of that salmon as well. Having never smoked fish before, I turned to Alton Brown for some advice. We didn’t quite have 24 hours for the curing he calls for, but the salmon came out nice and juicy after about a 12 hour cure and 2 hours in the smoker. 

Modified Great Lakes Fish Boil Recipe

5 LBs fish (trout, whitefish, or salmon) cut into 2-3 inch chunks
5 heads of garlic, with the tops sliced off
20 small red potatoes with the ends sliced off
A dozen ears of corn, cut in half
2 onions, quartered
1 LB andouille sausage (any smoked sausage should do)
optional: couple LBs of shellfish of your choice
3 pouches (~1 cup each) of Zatarain’s seasoning or your own batch of seasoning wrapping in cheesecloth

  1. Fill a large pot of water with about 3 gallons of water. Stir in the salt and pouches of seasonings. Sprinkle in a few tablespoons of additional Cajun spices to kick up the heat a notch.
  2. Once the water is boiling, toss in the potatoes, onions, garlic and sausage. Turn down to a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Toss in the corn and simmer for 5 minutes.
  4. Toss in the seafood and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove everything with a wire mesh strainer (or strainer insert if one came with your pot) and serve.


  1. Hey there! I am one of Pat's friends and have been blogging for a few months now. He sent me your blog to look at (we talk food all the time) and it looks AWESOME. I am really impressed with your pics and the general style of your blog. Can't wait to keep reading!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, your site looks very good as well - I think I am feeling healthier just from reading it! I will add it to my RSS feed right now.

  3. Food was fantatic.


  4. What a tease - I am heading back "Up North" to that fabulous place we call "Lake" (literally the town as well as a lake)and logged in for a quick peek before hitting the road. Don't have time to read it now, but I WAS THERE, so can attest to how fabulous everything was. Your pics truly do add an amazing element to the blog - keep up the good work and I will be a loyal fan following your food travels! p.s. your good looking assistant should receive some kudos too!!

    Aunt Mary :)