Hank Pennington

T

his is an embarrassing time of year for many anglers.

Last year’s success collides head on in the freezer with the reality of a return to fishing. 

We’ll all return to fishing in the near future, yet many freezers are nowhere near bare. There’s a whole lot of fish left over from winter and not much time to use it up.

If your impulse is simply to throw it all away and start over in spring, it’s time for a frank look in the mirror.

Do you really need to kill so much fish in 2017?

Is there a problem with the way you froze the fish, rendering it unpalatable or even inedible?

Did you run out of ways to prepare it and now your family is sick of it?

I can’t judge for you how much fish you really need. But the evidence in your March freezer should provide clues for how much to kill this spring, summer and fall.

Our family eats more fish than almost anyone we know, but we’re very careful with it from catch to freezer to table. The biggest decision is how much of what species to keep. 

By actual count, we eat 14 species of fish over the course of a winter. If you’re really curious, those are halibut, rock sole, black rockfish, dusky rockfish, ling cod, greenling, cod, black cod, pollock, king salmon, silver salmon, chum salmon, pink salmon and Dolly Varden.

No matter how you cut it, that’s a lot of fish. 

Experience has taught us that despite our high consumption rate, we have trouble going through more than 200 pounds in total.

Sure, there are greater and lesser quantities of individual species, but we have target weights for each species as we load the shelves. That means when we get enough of one, it’s time to start catch and release fishing for it and concentrating on the next.

Because fresh fish usually starts hitting our shelves in April, that means we should be down to 20-30 pounds total in March. 

Some years we have more, and some we have less. But those are pretty good average numbers for our family.

If you’re faced with lots more than 30 pounds in the freezer and the prospect of a family in rebellion over yet another fish dinner, drastic measures are in order.

In years of over-abundance we resort to smoking the excess salmon while delving into new and different recipes for the others. We have less of a challenge than some families since we can move between all those species for variety.

It gets more challenging when you’re faced with way too much of any species.

That’s where the new recipes come into play.

The easiest solution is to reflect on your family’s favorite non-fish dishes and devise the means to substitute fish for the original meat.

The best example I know was a favorite when our kids were young, and it’s still one of our favorites today.

We love Chicken ala King and Turkey ala King.

But in fact we love Halibut ala King and Cod or Rockfish ala King even more.

Halibut and rockfish are relatively easy substitutes because they tend to be a little drier and hold together better. Just hack the fish into bite-size pieces and use it rather than the original meat in the preparation. 

If you’re careful not to stir too much, the chunks will hold together, and a great meal will follow.

Cod takes a little more preparation. It tends to release a lot of moisture when cooking, especially if your freezer was slow to freeze it in the first place.

I prefer to cook and drain it first before adding to the recipe. I suppose you could nuke it, but you risk it becoming tough or rubbery. I’ve found it better to steam or poach the cod first, then cut it into bite size pieces.

Be gentle and fold it into the recipe just before serving.

By nature and nurture, we eat a lot of salads.

Our frequent meal of grilled fish and a salad for dinner has progressed to fish in or on top of the salad rather than alongside.

The first fish we added to salad was smoked salmon, but that merely opened the door to other species.

Now, every single one of the species in our freezer is a likely candidate for inclusion in or on salads. Just as restaurants will often serve Caesar salad with grilled chicken on top, we do the same with fish.

But we’ve learned a little trick that makes it even better.

Fish is so mild that without a little help it can virtually disappear among the assorted vegetables and especially the salad dressings.

After a little experimentation, I now put a small amount of butter in a non-stick pan or cast iron skillet, then cut the fish into roughly the same size as an average crouton. Right after I drop it into the pan I add the seasonings of the day.

The trick comes in how much seasoning I use. 

Lots is good.

I’d never use so much seasoning when serving the fish by itself, but when including the fish in the salad, extra seasoning really seems to bring it to life.

What seasoning?

It depends on the salad.

I use everything from taco seasoning and lemon pepper to some of the prepared salad seasoning mixes. I particularly like to marinade the fish chunks in teriyaki, then quickly grill the chunks before adding to a Cobb salad.

Another favorite category of leftover fish dishes in our house is soup or chowder.

If your family is a fan of clam chowder, whether the white New England version or the red Manhattan version, forget about the clams.

Use white fish instead, whether halibut, cod or rockfish. Our family and numerous guests over the years all vote that it’s even better than clam chowder.

I don’t particularly care for salmon in a white New England chowder, but it’s terrific in the red Manhattan-style chowders for some reason.

We also eat a lot of clear broth vegetable soups. There’s no real recipe for them, because they change from one batch to the next, depending on the array of vegetables in the house at the moment.

The principal thread between all of them is using chicken broth in the preparation. It seems to liven up any vegetable soup along with the fish of the day.

If I still haven’t tantalized your taste buds, I’ll make one more stab at it.

How about fish tacos?

You can adjust the ingredients to suit your family’s preferences, but try cubing, seasoning and sauteing halibut or other white fish and using that rather than beef, chicken or pork in tacos.

Our favorite seasoning has emerged to be plain old prepared taco seasoning available on the spice aisle of supermarkets. A little goes a long way with fish, and in my experience it’s best to use about half the amount recommended for ground beef.

But does it ever make great fish tacos.

Depending on your family’s taste, you can go one step further in making great fish tacos.

We like coleslaw in the first place, but using that rather than lettuce in the tacos is the perfect finishing touch. We like both creamy slaws and vinegar-based slaws in the first place, so it’s natural that we’d like either in our fish tacos.

Are you hungry yet?

With a little thought, that pile of fish in your freezer should be less of a problem.

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