When Scott and I recently ventured out into Wisconsin’s northeastern region for a weekend canoe camping trip, Scott thought it would be fun to make a traditional shore lunch. I nodded in agreement and thought, ‘hhmmm, yeah…and what exactly is shore lunch?’ I needed to do some research. Here’s what I found:
Shore lunch started eons ago (maybe not quite eons, but pretty close) with fishing guides in Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, and a few other northern U.S. states. It’s traditionally cooked on the shore (not necessarily your campsite, just any spot along the shore during your fishing trip) at lunchtime over a fire with the morning's catch. The fish are battered and fried to crispy goodness, along with potatoes. That’s it. Simple, right? Not completely. The guides of yore each had their own special recipe of breading and spices they used to batter their daily catch. And this recipe was always a secret. Knowing the best fishing hole locations was certainly a priority with these guides, but they also took great pride in having what they considered to be hands-down, the most delicious fish batter in the northwoods.
Here's what seems to be a fairly common traditional shore lunch recipe:
1. Walleye. Definitely the favored fish for shore lunch, but if you aren’t fishing for walleye, use whatever you catch.
2. Oil. Cheap Canola oil works as well as an expensive EVO, so save some money and buy the Canola oil.
3. Breading. A homemade mix of bread crumbs and flour. Add corn meal if you want some extra texture.
4. Spices! This is the secret ingredient—and it’s totally up to your discretion. Mix together whatever spices you like and add it to your breading mixture. Seriously, that’s it. That’s what makes your recipe your ever-so-secret recipe. Like cinnamon fish? Add cinnamon. Don’t actually do that though—that’s gross. But, you could add pepper, salt, garlic, chives, or even Jax or Lion's Tap seasoning (if you’re local to the Minneapolis area, you should definitely try these seasonings), or whatever your taste buds desire.
5. Potatoes. Red, baking, whatever kind you prefer. Potatoes are a key part of shore lunch. Since you want to serve your fish and potatoes at the same time, it’s a good idea to pre-bake your potatoes a bit. Kind of a pain, but since potatoes take so much longer to cook than fish, if you don’t pre-bake, the cooking times of the potatoes and fish won’t match up. My suggestion would be to cook them at least partially before you leave for the trip (and them keep them in a cooler), or cook them with breakfast the morning of your shore lunch (and keep them in a cooler). Again, kind of a pain, but they’re so delicious, you forget about the hassle as soon as you bite into them.
1. Mix your breading and spices together (or have them in a large Ziploc bag already premixed).
2. Throw in your de-boned and sliced fish fillets.
3. Shake it up! Make sure each fish fillet is completely covered in the breading.
4. In a deep cast iron skillet, pour in enough oil to completely cover your thickest fish fillet and heat it to the point that you know the fish will sizzle when you put it in the oil.
5. Using a metal spatula, put your fish fillets in the oil. Let them cook until they're brown on each side (flipping when necessary), and then pull them out.
6. With the oil still hot, add your potatoes to the cast iron skillet. Let them cook for about two minutes, flipping them about halfway through, until they’re crispy.
7. Remove your potatoes and add your spices to flavor them up a bit.
It doesn’t really seem like that much work (except for the potatoes, maybe), but even so, in many places today that homemade secret shore lunch recipe has evolved to store-bought breading in a box with a side of hash browns. Lame. Shore lunch is unique to its maker and something to enjoy, so make it fun and make it how you like it—don't settle for the bland shore lunch in a box you can find in aisle 12 at a chain grocery store.
With all of that in mind, and neither of us wanting to go the route of shore lunch in a box with hash browns, Scott and I agreed upon a modified shore lunch. Here’s what we did:
1. We used a thick steel skillet with a lid and heated it over the fire. Although we are huge fans of our cast iron ware and use it whenever possible, we opted for the lighter weight steel over the heavier cast iron since we were canoe camping and gear weight was a consideration when thinking about our portages. We also used a trivet to hold the skillet over the fire and coals. If you don’t have a trivet, you could use larger rocks to prop up the skillet.
2. Since the idea of eating breaded and fried-in-two-inches-of-oil fish didn’t sit well with me or my stomach (I’m not a fan of deep fried foods—the Minnesota State Fair is lost on me), we decided to forego the breading (gasp!) and used a minimal amount of oil, heating it in the skillet for about a minute.
3. After the oil was heated, we first added sliced potatoes seasoned with our secret recipe (not really all that secret—just a bunch of spices, including salt, pepper, Jax, etc.). We didn’t cook these potatoes ahead of time, so they took 10-15 minutes to fully cook over the fire.
4. Knowing we’d want even more flavor in our dinner, we added sliced onions to the skillet with the potatoes and cooked them for about five minutes, stirring occasionally so they didn’t burn. Remember that heating times can vary based on the type of skillet you're using and the amount of heat coming from your fire, so rather than relying solely on cooking times, I'd suggest cooking your onions until they're all close to 100% clear.
5. When the potatoes and onions looked about ready to eat, we carved out room in the skillet and added the walleye we’d bought at a local grocer earlier in the day. Since we weren’t fishing on this short weekend trip (we didn’t have out-of-state fishing licenses either), we relied on other fishermen to provide our fish. Once the fish was added to the skillet, we cooked everything for about five more minutes, flipping the fish when they browned up on each side.
You can, of course, add more to your shore lunch. Although I didn't mention it above, we did include chicken apple sausage in our shore lunch as an extra, and Scott likes to add bacon as well. Pairing shore lunch with wine is my preferred dinner drink, but coffee (maybe with whisky or Bailey’s) would also work.
That’s it. Fairly quick and definitely easy. It wasn’t a true traditional shore lunch, but it was delicious nonetheless. And we had fun putting it together and thinking about the first days of shore lunch and what being able to cook those meals meant to fishermen.
My plan is to experiment with spices and breading options at home to help perfect my own secret shore lunch recipe. So, next time you decide to take a trip with BMP, request shore lunch—you’ll be in for a surprise! Of course, I’ll have to work on catching those elusive fish…