Smoked cisco chowder

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A steaming bowl of creamy chowder is the perfect way to keep a chilly evening at bay. Photo: Ellen George

By Ellen George

As a biologist, I’m a big fan of eating what you study. Charles Darwin famously dined on a variety of “birds and beasts which were before unknown to the human palate” as part of his Glutton Club, where rodents, reptiles, and raptors were often on the menu. Luckily for me, I study one of the tastiest species in the Great Lakes: the cisco, Coregonus artedi.

Cisco, also known as lake herring or tullibee, have been a culinary delicacy in the Great Lakes region for centuries. Although cisco are also found in Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Ontario, most cisco you can buy in the fish market come from Lake Superior. They are often smoked whole, and the roe is sold as caviar that’s often marketed as “Lake Superior Gold.” On a recent trip to Bayfield, Wisconsin, I was delighted by the many local fishermen’s markets that proudly displayed smoked cisco in their cases.

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Cisco have played an important role in Great Lakes diets for centuries. Photo: Andrew Muir

If you are lucky enough to live near Lake Superior, I encourage you to give this smoked cisco chowder a try. If you, like me, live woefully far away from a place where cisco are sold commercially, you have three options. You can mail-order smoked cisco and whitefish from many online retailers, which is a great way to support local Great Lakes fishermen. You could also catch cisco yourself in one of the other Great Lakes or inland lakes where they are found, then smoke it at home (my favorite option!). Or, you can substitute in another type of smoked fish in this recipe, such as smoked salmon or trout. Either way, this chowder is a delicious way to warm up on a cold winter night — and enjoy a taste of the Great Lakes at the same time! If you would like to learn more about cisco research and restoration in the Great Lakes, follow me on Twitter @greatlakescisco.

Smoked cisco chowder

Ingredients

Meat from one whole smoked cisco (approximately ½ to 1 lb of meat, depending on the fish)
4 strips of bacon
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced
2 lbs baby red potatoes, cut into quarters
4 cups fish, chicken, or vegetable broth
4 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 cups whole milk
1 cup half and half
Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

  1. Cook bacon until crispy; remove from heat and crumble. Reserve pan drippings.
  2. Cook onions in drippings until translucent. Add garlic and jalapeño, cook 1 minute.
  3. Add potatoes and broth and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook until potatoes are soft, about 30 minutes.
  4. Puree 2 cups of the corn kernels in a food processor or blender. When the potatoes are done, add the smoked cisco, corn kernels, corn puree, milk, half and half, and salt and pepper. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
  5. Top with crumbled bacon and serve with crusty bread.
  6. Enjoy!

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