As I was standing at the fish counter of Jess’ Market in Rockland, deciding whether to buy salmon and please all of the people in my family, or branch out and only please one person in my family — me — I caught a scent of something deliciously smoky. A dense, rich waft that almost reminded me of the smell of pine tar, my wood stove and the sea all rolled into one.
As I was asking what that amazing smell was, I spotted them — smoked alewives. They were laid one on top of the other — whole, stiff fish about 12 inches long, with a hint of their iridescence underneath the layer of mahogany-smoked veneer.
Alewives, also known as river herring, have a very short season in Maine. It begins sometime in May and lasts about a month. In this time, they focus solely on procreation to reach their ultimate spawning destination.
Their arduous travel starts in saltwater and, like many fish, pushes against strong currents and sometimes fish ladders to reach a freshwater lake or pond spawning grounds.
Like any small fish, alewives have small bones that are difficult to remove. Most of them are so small and soft as to be insignificant, but there are the occasional firmer bones that you definitely want to remove.
The best way to do this is to steam the fish to soften them to make the bones easier to wriggle from the flesh.
Fill the bottom of a steaming unit with at least 1 to 2 inches of water and bring the water to a boil. Place the fish into the upper steaming unit or strainer, and cover. Steam for about 3 to 4 minutes or until the flesh is soft and warm, but the skin is not beginning to wrinkle.
They should cool quickly when removed so that you can handle them. With your fingers, remove the skin and lift the flesh away from the center bones.
You can alternately pull the center bones away from the flesh and skin. Try both ways and see which one works the best for you.
It may still be necessary to pick through the flesh for any lingering delinquents.
Reserve the skin, bones and head for the court boullion or fish stock detailed in the recipe below.
SMOKED ALEWIVES CHOWDER
Sometimes, milk will break in this recipe if left on high heat for too long. If you need to walk away from the stove, either remove the chowder from the heat or use evaporated milk instead. The evaporated milk adds a creaminess to the texture that is welcome, without any added fat and won’t break when given high heat.
If you have time, make the chowder a day ahead to develop a more full flavor.
ALEWIVES COURT BOULLION
Court boullion is just another name for stock and typically a term used for fish stock. It doesn’t require nearly the time that chicken or beef stock does, as the bones are so porous. Typically any longer than 30 minutes and the stock begins to turn chalky tasting.
Bones, skin, heads and tails of 3 smoked alewives
1 stalk celery
1 carrot, peeled
1 small onion
Any juice left from steaming the alewives
Cut all the vegetables into large chunks. Add all ingredients to a medium stock pot and just cover with the juice from steaming the alewives and water if needed. Bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and strain into a large measuring cup, discarding the solids and reserving the juice. Add water if needed to make 4 cups total and reserve for chowder recipe.
2 teaspoons butter
1 cup diced celery, about 2 stalks
2 cups diced onions, about 1 onion
4 cups, peeled and diced potatoes, about 3 potatoes
4 ounces salt pork, scored
4 cups alewives court boullion
2 cups whole milk
3 smoked alewives, steamed, flesh and bones removed
In a stock pot, melt the butter over medium-high heat.
Add the salt pork meat side down and then the celery and onions.
Cook the vegetables until they are soft and the onions are translucent, about 7 to 10 minutes.
Add the potatoes and saute for another 5 to 10 minutes.
If the edges begin to brown, reduce heat to medium or medium-low.
Add the strained alewife court boullion and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the milk and the alewife meat and bring the heat almost to a simmer, but not quite. The milk tends to break at high temperatures.
Serves 4 to 6
SMOKED ALEWIVES CAESAR SALAD
This is inspired by a salad made at Shepherd’s Pie in Rockport by Brian Hill. Thank you, Brian, for the creative stimulation.
1 small clove garlic, smashed and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon minced smoked alewife meat
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt
several grinds of fresh black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup canola oil
Combine all ingredients except oil in a food processor and pulse until combined. Ever so slowly, while the motor is running, add the oil. After about a minute of dribbling the oil in, you can add it more quickly.
Makes a little less than 1 cup.
1 to 2 romaine leaves per person, cleaned and chopped coarsely
Several pieces of shaved parmesan per person
3 to 4 strips of roasted red pepper per person
Combine all ingredients and dress. Toss with tongs or hands and serve immediately.
Anne Mahle of Rockland is the author of “At Home, At Sea,” a recipe book about her experiences cooking aboard the family’s windjammer. She can be reached at: [email protected]