Food from the supermarket provides consumers healthy nutrition, but flavors are enhanced when fish and game meat put on the table was harvested and processed at home or in camp.
This time of year ice fishing successes provide a few extra fillets for the freezer and ice anglers able to get on the ice over feeding fish have an opportunity to store some high-protein fish meat for later.
No two anglers fillet/process fish the same way. A rare few folks freeze fish whole and then thaw and process them the day they will be served. In recent years, fish cleaners have filleted and skinned fish, leaving just the pure, white chunks of fish for cooking.
Commercial processors still leave the skins on fish, mainly saltwater species, but some freshwater fillet producers continue to process yellow perch and walleye and other fishes with skins intact.
Either with skin on or removed, fish meat can be enhanced with various soaking methods to remove “fishy” oils, odors and other undesirable stuff. Everything from baking soda to salt baths can be used as an initial pre-marinade soaking, but a quick squeeze reduces hours of soaking on a shelf or in back of the ‘fridge.
Moons ago, Dick Harlock at Derry Air Outfitters in Gogama, Ont., offered a speed-up suggestion to fish soaking. It works. Once the fish are cleaned, place the fillets in a bowl or sink of clean, cold water and begin lightly squeezing the fish fillets.
It may take two or three emersions of clean water, but eventually the fillets will no longer exude that milky, oily presence that tends to give fish an off flavor. Storing fillets is mainly for the freezer. Fillets put in a milk carton or plastic container filled with water results in blocks of fish that will remain fresh for a year or more.
The most popular storing method of late is the vacuum-sealing devices that also keep fish fillets much longer than plastic or freezer-paper wrapping. The trick to retaining flavor in vacuum seals is to dry the fillets as much as possible. Paper towels work well, but for complete absorption go with a clean hand or bath towel, especially on those larger trout and salmon fillets.
Canning fish seems to be a lost art, but those few who do receive high praise for the fruits of their filleting labors. As with the pre-freezing process, a good soaking and drying of fillets adds to the flavor of canned fish.
Commercial canners reduce juices to a minimum for sales products. Home canners have the luxury of extra juices, both to ensure lid sealing and to retain meat structure in the pressure cooker.
No two canners prepare fish meat the same way, but go with the health recommendations to put the pressure setting at or slightly above 10 pounds at full steam for the recommended meat durations of 50 to 60 minutes, depending on bottle size.
Seasoning canned fish includes salt, but the rest of the content varies with the cook/processor; some experts go with pickling salt and seasonings, fixings that go into dill relishing.
Virtually every seasoning used in meat canning can be added to fish fillets. Soup lovers might try added cilantro, dried or freshly chopped.
From the smallest panfish to chunks of gargantuan game fish, canned fish fillets can be eaten cold from the bottle, heated, or mixed into pates or salads usually reserved for tuna. Home canning meat can be some work, but it gives Spam a run for serving options. Waterfowl, small-game and big-game meats all can well when trimmed off the bone or cooked of the bone. For duck and goose breasts, cubing and a light sautéing before canning adds to firmness and flavor retention.
Hunters who have deer done at a processor miss out on an option that takes time but produces great soups and stews. Each year we have trimmed straps and roasts and then put the rib and long bones in a large pot to cook the meat off the bones.
After cooking and separating the bones and meat, it would be good to let the meat and water cool overnight. As lean as venison is, a considerable amount of fat remains in boiled meat.
That tallow which forms on the water surface works beautifully as suet to be set out in cages for birds.
The remaining liquid can be drained for soup broth and the meat can either be canned whole or mixed with stewing veggies before canning. The end product is cooked well enough to be heated in the microwave.
One canning tip: Veteran home canners recall the days of rubber seals that were reused often by boiling the seals before making the next batch. The modern sealing lid, held in place with a metal ring, requires sanitizing in water, but the process is a bit tricky.
A helpful service rep at Ball Canning Products pointed out that the rubber/vinyl seal on modern, metal sealing lids should not be left in heated water to the boiling point and should never be reused. Both rings and seals should be immersed in warm water for cleaning, but the heated water mainly helps soften the seal so it adheres properly.
Lids left in boiling water may loosen after sealing, which creates a nasty smelling mess in the larder.
Freezing remains the mainstay for fish and game storage, but the right canning methods can add to the variety of food offerings and reduce the need for freezer space when fish and game seasons peak. Best of all, folks enjoy that feeling of cooking and consuming one’s own bounty.