Hot Smoked Wild Herring

IMG_1786.JPGI love fish. One of my first jobs was at Monahan’s Seafood Market in Ann Arbor, MI when I was 17. My rowing coach worked there and introduced me to the owner, Mike Monahan, who hired me for a summer. This was one of my first experiences understanding how important food is, and that quality really matters. Monahan’s has been open since 1979 and when I was there had fish flown in fresh 6 days a week in the bellies of Northwest Airlines planes from the coasts. The business had this rickety white F150 that transported the fish every day for the 20 mile trip to Detroit Metro Airport. What was amazing is I was trusted to fillet whole fish from day one (these were expensive fish), even though I spent a lot of time cleaning squid, washing the floor, and cleaning out the basement cooler during the week. I learned from a long term employee that ‘if it smells like bleach, it is clean’. Amazingly, 20 years later, some of the guys I worked with are still at Monahan’s.

On the weekends, the shop was extremely busy and anyone working was serving customers. Mike believed that staff needed to know their product to properly serve customers, so he sent us home with fish on a regular basis on the condition we cooked it ourselves and reported back. 10 minutes to the inch. Even though I cook to temperature now I’ll never forget that rule of thumb. When interviewing for a job in college I was advised to never remove my “fishmonger” title from my resume. While it eventually came off I will never forget my fishmonger days and they influenced a lifelong passion.

After moving to the Twin Cities over ten years ago, I found Coastal Seafoods. While I am disappointed that there is very little wild Minnesota fish available in general, sometimes they have whole herring. You can also find whole herring on the North Shore when you are lucky. Hot smoking them is one of my favorite meals, and results in fatty and moderately pungent flavors under a nice crispy skin.

Whole Rainbow Trout are also good and are widely available. Brining with some brown sugar, salt and preserved lemons is optional. An alternative is a rub with large pieces of salt, citrus peel and allspice. You can stuff the fish with aromatics like fennel and tomatoes.  Hot smoke (I use my Big Green Egg) on a warm cedar plank at 275 or 300 until the fish has an internal temperature of about 175. At this point, you could serve and eat whole. Or flake the fish and crisp the skin, contributing to a fantastic salad with a light vinaigrette and a poached egg. This is a meal that is fairly simple and elegant. Oh, the possibilities…..


The smoke and moderate “fishiness” pairs with a medium bodied red, such as a syrah, or a funky cabernet franc, such as a Chinon from the Loire Valley.