June 1, 2011

The Maine Ingredient: Smoked alewives spawn ideas

By ANNE MAHLE

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.

click image to enlarge

The best way to separate smoked alewives' meat from the bone is to steam the fish to soften them to make the bones easier to wriggle from the flesh.

Elizabeth Poisson photo

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.

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