Tips for preparing lake fish makes it all seem easy

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Folks looking to dive into local seafood dishes may find the catch of the day is easier to prepare than they imagined.

Kerry Bowlby, assistant general manager at Islamorada Fish Company Restaurant inside Bass Pro Shops in Portage, said the challenge may be intimidating for those who have never tried to prepare fish. In reality though, lake fish is a fairly simple entrée to prepare.

“No. 1 you’ve got to try it. Nothing is better than sitting around with family and friends and trying different things,” Bowlby said.

Bowlby offered some tips on preparing fish such as lake perch — the hottest-selling dish at the restaurant — that can turn even the most timid home cook into a lake fish chef.

Know your catch

In local fish markets, streams, rivers, ponds and lakes people will find fish such as yellow lake perch, salmon, blue gill, sunfish, walleye, bass and catfish. All are a flakier-style fish, unlike such ocean varieties as mahi mahi, swordfish or tuna.

And there is a huge difference between lake perch and ocean perch, Bowlby said. Lake perch is a delicate, light fish that is generally very small in size. Perch fillets at Islamorada weigh in at about four ounces each. Ocean perch is a heavier fish, larger in size with a much stronger fish taste.

Experiment with seasonings

Like so many dishes in the kitchen, preparing fish as a dish is all about personal taste.

“I’m a big dill and lemon kind of guy,” Bowlby said.

He encourages home cooks to work with the flavors they enjoy and just try a variety of different seasonings until they find a combination they like.

For lake perch, Bowlby said he likes to mix a little cayenne pepper, cinnamon, and garlic powder in the flour coating. Walleye stands up well to a spicier seasoned flour, while he likes to cook bass with butter, dill and lemon. When cooking catfish, he gravitates toward a spicy cayenne and cornmeal mix.

“Honestly, I’m open to trying just about anything,” he said.

Equipment can make
a difference

Many fishermen swear by the old-fashioned cast-iron skillet, Bowlby said. Whether on the stove top, or Bowlby’s preference, an open fire, cast-iron is a cooking surface that produces quality results. The heavy pan spreads the heat more evenly, and cast-iron is virtually non-stick if it has been seasoned properly before use.

What first came on the market as an innovation in turkey preparation, the large burner deep fryer is a great way to prepare perfectly fried fish, as well. Bowlby said the deep fryer gives people an opportunity to fry a large amount of fish at once to a crispy delight; just heat the oil — any variety will do — to 350 degrees.

For those without cast-iron or a deep fryer, and with a penchant for the barbecue grill, tin foil works great. Just put the fish fillet in a tinfoil pouch with a little butter and seasonings to taste — Bowlby said this is his favorite way to use dill and lemon. Then seal the pouch and slow simmer the fish on the grill to perfection.

Easy on the butter or batter

Delicate flaky fish fillets often work best with less. When cooking perch, Bowlby said he does not use an egg wash or even double dip the fish in coating. Instead he lightly coats the fillets with a seasoned flour mixture and gently sautés the fish in just a little bit of butter.

The biggest mistake people make when prepping fish, he said, is using too much butter, which will make the fish soggy, greasy and heavy.

Whatever your choice, seasoning method or fish preference don’t be afraid to just dive in and give it a try.

“You will be really surprised how easy it is once you start cooking it,” Bowlby said.