Practical Ways of Cooking Fish


If you want to know how much fun there actually is in a trip to the woods—if you want to know how much genuine enjoyment you can derive from a week's fishing —you must make up your mind to master the art of outdoor cookery. To be the mere desultory sportsman, the dilettante who goes out to rough it with a retinue of cooks and other servants at his heels, or to depend upon the hospitality of inns and fishing clubs for the material comforts of civilization, is to miss more than half the pleasure of an outing. Even when you know that there is a more or less complaisant cook waiting to serve the day's catch in the most approved fashion, you do not sit down to the eating of the fish you have caught with anything like the same keenness of appetite that you display when you have prepared your own repast in accordance with the primitive culinary methods that all true woodsmen know.

To fully realize just what this means it is only necessary to try the experiment and compare the results of the two methods. Even though it may be prepared by a thoroughly good cook, and by the best of recipes, your freshly caught fish will bear but slight resemblance in flavor to the one that you have cooked with your own hands, and with practically none of the facilities that are so requisite to the successful operation of a modern kitchen. In fact, it is because foods taste so much better when cooked by the simplest methods, that all lovers of nice eating still swear by the "plank," or the hot stones that form the foundation upon which that wonderful piece of culinary architecture, the clam bake, is constructed.

The idea of "planking" fish, like that of cooking upon hot stones, and most other methods of out-door cookery, may be traced back to the days of the American Indian, for, in almost every instance, it was in much such a way that the native redskin prepared his simple fare. As Clem Johnson, the planked-shad chef of Marshall Hall, on the Potomac, used to say, "Being short of dishes, Mr. Indian hit upon the idea of pinning his fish to a board, so that he could set it up before the fire to roast, and when the white man came along and saw the trick, it didn't take him long to get to practicing it himself." And, as the venerable Clem might have added, the only improvement that the white man has been able to devise is the invention of the savory sauces with which he now bastes the fish during the process of cooking.


From a gustatory point of view, planking is the ideal method of preparing rather large fish, not shad alone, but many of the more sizeable fish that may be caught in American waters. Thus, blue fish, weak-fish (squeteague), fresh mackerel, sheepshead, etc., may all be planked delectably, and are far more tasty when cooked in this manner than they ever can be when stuffed and roasted, or baked in a modern oven.

Accordingly, after the fish have been cleaned, and split through the center, as though for broiling, it is nailed securely to a thick cypress, birch, or oak plank, which is set on edge before a rousing wood fire. You must be careful at first, not to let the fish stand too near the fire, for that will tend to make the flesh dry and tasteless. Instead, let the first heat be gradual; then, little by little, at regular intervals, move the plank nearer the fire, and, every few minutes, baste it with some appropriate sauce.

While the ingredients of these sauces are largely a matter of personal choice, and must depend, to some degree, upon the nature of the fish that is to be planked, a mixture of melted butter, bacon fat, Worcestershire, lemon juice, mustard, pepper, and salt, can scarcely fail to give satisfaction to the majority of palates.


Hard and soft clams, crabs, lobsters, etc., are always tasty when baked on the hot stones, and, in this case, nearly everything else that goes to constitute the repast may be cooked in the same "bake." To prepare this distinctively primitive "oven," it is first necessary to arrange a foundation of large stones. Upon this bed of rock, build your wood fire, and keep it burning until the stones have become thoroughly heated. At this point, clean the stones well with a long-handled brush; then, cover them with wet rock weed to the depth of about twelve inches, Place the clams, or other shell fish, on the weed, with the potatoes, corn, chicken, and other ingredients of the "bake," being careful to wrap each variety of food except shell fish in pieces of wet cheesecloth.

Cover all with more weed; arrange a thick square of carpeting, or sailcloth over the "bake," secure the corners with heavy stone, and wait as patiently as you can for the results. It will not take more than an hour and a half to two hours. While the clambake is an ideal method of preparing large quantities of food, in the case of a comparatively small camping party it would be impractical to resort to it. At such times, clams, lobsters, etc., should be boiled in a huge pot that has been suspended over the fire, while the fish, when small, should be fried, or, when large enough, encased in a mold of wet clay and cooked in the hot embers. This, in fact,
is about the only way in which trout, pickerel, and the daintiest of fresh-water fish should be cooked.

If you are too weary to take much trouble about culinary affairs, the easiest way to solve the problem of cooking is to roll the previously cleaned and dressed fish in a mold of clay, which is then buried in the glowing coals in the very center of the fire; but, if your love of nice flavors is sufficiently strong to tempt you to pay more attention to details of cooking, there is a way in which your fish may be made to seem far more palatable. If this is your purpose, clean and dress the fish as usual; then stuff it with a mixture of fresh mint, wild celery, and salt pork, that have already been well minced and fried lightly together. When this has been done, wrap some thinly cut slices of pork around the fish; cover the pork with a layer of poplar leaves, and encase in a mold of clay. Bake as directed.


If the demands of hunger forbid you waiting so long for dinner—it takes from an hour and a half to three hours to cook a fish in a mold—very nearly the same results may be obtained far more easily. To meet this difficulty, take a sheet of oldfashioned brown paper and spread it thickly with butter, or, if butter is not any too plentiful, a mixture of butter and pork fat may be used. Wrap the fish in this; around the outside tie a goodly quantity of sprigs of sweet-fern, and cover this again with three or four sheets of the brown paper. Bury this brown-paper bundle in the ashes of the fire, taking care to see that all the live coals, or embers, are removed, and cook for about thirty minutes.

Many amateur cooks—and some who are not strictly amateurs—seem to have the idea that fish, to be properly fried, must first be covered with a coating of egg and crumbs, or egg and meal. This, however, is a most erroneous theory. Trout, for example, can be spoiled more easily by this sort of treatment than in any other way. To fry trout, the only facilities that are necessary are a good fire, a frying pan, and plenty of fat salt pork. When the pan has become heated, several slices of the pork should be fried in it until practically all the grease has been extracted, after which the meat scraps are removed, and the fish are dropped directly into the hot fat. It is only necessary to turn them once or twice, and, when done, the only seasoning they require is a sprinkling of salt. Most fresh water fish may be cooked in this fashion, although some of the less dainty varieties will stand the egg-andmeal, or egg-and-breadcrumb treatment.

The majority of salt water fish should be coated with the beaten egg and crumbs, or with dry meal, before being fried. When it is tautog (blackfish) that are to be cooked, they should invariably be skinned, as it is extremely difficult to scale them, and before they are fried they should be scored across each side, about an inch apart. Fry some slices of fat salt pork as before; and when it is crisp, remove the scraps, roll the fish in corn meal, and fry them in the sparkling hot fat until they have browned deliciously.

If there is a gridiron in camp—and there certainly ought to be when there are so many fish that may be broiled so nicely— it will be found quite as useful as the frying- pan. Fish, to be broiled on the gridiron, should first be salted, and, if it has been caught in fresh waters, it may well be left in a salted water bath for an hour or more before it is cooked. When ready to cook it, score it evenly to prevent it from bursting open when it swells under the action of the heat; then place it upon the greased gridiron and brown carefully. Just before serving, baste the fish lightly with butter and season to taste with pepper and salt.


Should the fish be too small for ordinary broiling, and yet it should be necessary to utilize the gridiron in cooking them, this difficulty may be overcome and a pleasing note of variety given to the menu by combining them with potatoes. To do this, boil and mash the potatoes as usual, and season to taste with butter, salt and pepper. When thoroughly mixed into a paste, envelop each of the little fish in a coating of the potato, and broil for several minutes, or until the potato has browned.

If, as sometimes happens, even such commonplace culinary utensils as the frying pan and the gridiron are out of reach, there is little reason why the ingenious fisherman should go hungry if he has plied the hook and line at all successfully, for—should the fish be in evidence— it is possible to prepare a very dainty repast practically without the use of anything like a pot or a pan. To meet this emergency, first start your fire, and, while it is getting under way, select some of the small fish on your string, and clean and scale them thoroughly. If you have a broiling fork, or wire, you may string the fish upon it, or, in the absence of such a utensil, a stout greenwood twig will answer the same purpose, but, in either instance, be sure that you do not neglect to place a thin strip of salt pork, or bacon, between the fish, that the melting fat may baste each of them constantly as it drips into the fire. As fish prepared in this way need to be cooked very slowly, the twig should not be suspended too near the fire at first. Later, when more than half cooked, they may be brought closer to the heat, that they may brown more attractively. While most sportsmen prefer to broil, or fry, their fish, or, at the most, to bake them in the embers, it is so much easier to boil the larger varieties that it is rather surprising that they are not cooked in that fashion more frequently.

To boil fish properly, it is necessary that the cook should have a clean piece of cloth at hand, and, after cleaning the fish, and salting it with discretion, it should be wrapped closely in this towel, or cloth, the end of which should be tied, or pinned securely. Before putting the fish into the pot, you must be certain that the water is actually boiling, and be sure to add a handful of salt. Cover the pot closely, and keep it simmering, but do not let it boil. This is particularly important in the case of freshly caught salt-water fish, which are very apt to become hard if the water in which they are cooked is permitted to boil. In estimating the time required to boil fish, it is pretty safe to allow ten minutes to each pound, although especially large, or thick, pieces may take a few minutes longer. When done, serve with the simplest kind of a white sauce. This may be made by mixing a lump of butter and a tablespoonful of flour with the necessary quantity of warm water. Let this, simmer slowly for a few minutes; then add a little minced parsley—if you can get it—or, if more convenient, a hard boiled egg that has been cut into small pieces. Season to taste and pour over the fish.


To the man who is "roughing it," no dish can be more appetizing and filling than a good chowder, and, fortunately for the fisherman who is near the ocean, a good chowder may be made with either clams or fish, If clams are within the reach of the digger, this, of course, obviates all difficulties.

To make any chowder—either fish or clam—begin by frying diced salt pork in the bottom of the pot. When the pork has become crisp, remove the scraps, and, in the fat remaining, fry some sliced onions until they are nicely browned. At this point, add some diced potatoes, with the clam juice—if a clam chowder is to be made—or some water, if the chowder is to be of fish. Boil the mixture slowly until the potatoes are practically done; then add the fish or clams, and continue cooking about ten minutes longer. Prom time to time, while the chowder is cooking, the scum that rises to the top should be carefully removed, and if the mixture threatens to become too dry, a little more hot water should be added. At the last moment a quart of milk may be introduced, if milk is obtainable, or, if you have such an article among your supplies, a can of tomatoes will add an agreeable flavor to a chowder made from clams. Just before serving, add the pilot-bread, or hard-tack, crackers, and season to taste with salt and pepper. The result cannot fail to prove amply satisfying to the hungriest member of your party.

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