You don't have to be of Scandinavian stock to appreciate a cold lager and pickled suckers or pike on a warm summer evening.
My grandfather used to pickle small pike in a traditional vinegar/salt/spice pickling solution, the kind that you might normally use for pickled cucumbers. They were fantastic and I always liked seeing an open jar of his pickled northerns in the fridge, just so I could steal a piece or two.
There are tons of fish pickling recipes on the Internet. They all use basically the same foundation of vinegar, salt/sugar, and a spice pickling mix. From that basic palette you can then create myriad variations by adding other ingredients and playing with their amounts.
I tend to favor a salty/savory pickled fish over a sweet pickle. But I've come to like more sweetly pickled and creamed fish, especially after discovering a wonderful cookbook a couple years ago by Niklas Ekstedt, titled "Scandinavian Classics."
It includes some fantastic pickled herring recipes that I adapted for sucker and small northern pike. A small plate with both a saltier pickled fish and a few sweeter pickled fish, along with a piece of aged white cheddar and a few small toasts or salt crackers makes an excellent tapas.
To prepare the sucker (or northern pike) for pickling, fillet as you would any fish, removing the larger bones. Chunk the fillets into 1- to 2-inch pieces. The small Y-bones found in "hammerhandle" northerns will soften and become imperceptible in the pickling process, so there's no need to worry about removing them.
Put the fish chunks in the freezer for a day or two to kill any potential parasites that might be hiding.
Create a brine of about ½ cup of Kosher salt to four cups water. Soak the fish chunks in the brine for three to five days. After they've finished brining, rinse them THOROUGHLY in cold running water for several minutes.
Let them sit in cold water for several more minutes and then rinse them again. They should be pretty well saturated with the salt brine, which hardens them up quite a bit. But you don't want them to taste too salty, so a good, extended rinsing is in order.
Following are a couple of pickling recipes that make good use of ramps, an oniony/garlicky wild edible timely for sucker pickling in that the appearance of ramps and the spring sucker run are both springtime occurrences.
Ramp Pickled Sucker/Northern Pike
- 1½-2 pounds fish chunks
- 2 cups distilled white vinegar
- 1 cup white wine or homemade apple wine
- 1 cup brown sugar
- couple tablespoons of pickling spice*
- ½ cup sliced ramp bulbs and a ribboned leaf or two**
- one or two small Thai or chili peppers for each jar
While you're rinsing the fish boil the vinegar, wine, brown sugar, spices, ramps (omit ribboned leaves) and peppers for a few minutes (keep stirring it as it boils). Pack some sterilized canning jars with the fish chunks and a couple green ramp leaf ribbons for color.
Pour the pickling brine over the top. Use a butter knife at the inside of the jar to allow the pickling brine and spices to flow into the entire jar and remove some of the air pockets. Wipe the rims, put the lids on and screw on the bands. Date the lids and set the jars in your fridge for a few days to let the fish and pickling brine get better acquainted. Use within a few months.
* I use a nice homemade pre-mixed pickling spice mix I get from a local Amish grocer. But you can use any such pickling spice mix or make your own. Basically they all consist of mustard seed, allspice, peppercorns, bay leaf.
** You can substitute red onion for ramps if you wish.
The second recipe for a creamed pickled fish is a bit more complicated and requires a couple of extra days of waiting. Here we use Ekstedt's "Basic Pickling Brine for Herring," which I adapted for 4-5 pounds of suckers I had. The initial freezing and three to five day salt brine preparation remains the same. Then there is a second brining session of two one-day periods:
- 6 cups water
- 2.2 lbs sugar
- 2 cups white vinegar
- 10 allspice kernels
- 4 bay leaves
- Bring all the ingredients to a boil and cook for a bit.
- Let it cool and keep in the fridge.
- Rinse the salted fish chunks in cold running water. Then rinse them again. Then again...rinse the dickens out of them.
- Place the rinsed fish pieces into a large container and cover with the cooled water/vinegar/sugar/spice brine. Put something like a small plate over the fish to keep them under the brine. Let sit in the fridge for a day.
- The next day make another brine like you did above and let it cool. Remove the fish from the day-old brine (I simply placed them in a colander), dispose of the old brine, rinse the container, replace the fish pieces and cover with the new brine. Weight them down again. Let sit for another day in the fridge.
Now you're ready to create the final flavor brine. It's a bit of work, this one. But it's worth it. It makes an excellent tasting pickled fish.
Ramp & Herb Sauce Pickled Sucker/Northern Pike
- 2 cups plain yogurt
- 2 cups mayonnaise
- 1 tbls olive oil
- large bunch chopped parsley
- 1 cup minced ramp bulbs*
- chopped ramp leaves
- 3 tbsp dried tarragon
- sea salt
- ground white pepper
- Mix everything together in a large bowl.
- Add the fish pieces and gently but thoroughly mix.
- Divvy up the sucker in sauce concoction into clean jars with lids. Be sure to write what's in the jar and the date. Pop it in the fridge for three days (the longer the fish and sauce get to know one another the better). Use with a couple months.
* If you don't have ramps you can substitute minced garlic and onion.
All images from Creative Sustenance