- This recipe appeared in Volume 1, Issue 1 of Hunt to Eat Magazine.
Take a flavor journey with walleye overtop barley risotto, ringed with a little zippy buffaloberry sauce and topped with a light and crunchy fish skin chicharron
The English chef Marco Pierre White once noted that, “Nature is the true artist, and that our job as cooks is merely to allow her to shine.”
Wiser words have never been spoken.
There is a truism in the professional cooking world that what goes together in life goes together on the plate, and nowhere can a cook achieve this better than as a hunter, an angler, or a gatherer of wild plants and mushrooms. All it requires is vision—nothing extraordinary, but merely observing what is all around you as you hunt or fish or gather. Let me show you an example.
I once made a dish I called Walleye Minot that celebrated a fishing trip I had on Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota. I was thinking about the dish the entire way back to my hotel that night. My first thought was to make a fish risotto the way they do in Venice, but North Dakota is pretty much as far from Venice as you can get, both culturally and geographically. Nevertheless, barley makes a nice risotto, and I was driving through thousands of acres of it at that moment.
I decided I would make this dish as a hat tip to everyone in North Dakota who had helped me so much— NoDak was definitely a highlight of my book tour that year. Sitting in the back of my truck was a bottle of buffaloberry syrup from a friend from Bismarck. I decided to make a sweet-hot-sour gastrique with it to brighten my dish. By itself, the syrup tastes like the illegitimate love child of a cranberry and a peach. I added some malt vinegar, salt, and chile to balance it.
I filleted the walleye I’d caught, skinned the fillets and portioned them out all pretty. I oiled the bones and heads with sunflower oil and salted them, then roasted everything until it was well browned. This is what I would use to cook my barley risotto.
As for the fillets, I salted them for an hour, then poached them very gently in butter. That left the skin. Nope, I did not toss it; instead, I made walleye skin “pork rinds.”
The result: an incredibly flavorful barley risotto, topped with sweet butter-poached walleye, ringed with a little zippy buffaloberry sauce and topped with a light and crunchy fish skin chicharron. Virtually everything in it was living in or around Lake Sakakawea on that day in October. I used no foams or molecular techniques to make this dish, nor was it just a simple plate of fried walleye.
Now let me break down this dish and why:
North Dakota is a cold region where they grow barley and sunflowers and where most of the people are of German or Scandinavian descent. That set the tone.
I chose butter as my fat because it made sense culturally, the way olive oil would with a Mediterranean dish. I wanted something like a risotto, but used local barley instead. That hit the starch and fatty notes, the walleye the savory element, and the crispy skin the crunch. The final bright note was the gastrique, which is basically a French sweet-and-sour sauce of vinegar, in this case malt vinegar, and the local buffaloberry syrup.
It all worked—really well, I might add.
My point here is that you might want to consider playing with your fat, starch, sweet, sour, and spicy elements depending on where you live.
Now I am definitely not saying that someone in, say, North Dakota shouldn’t cook tropical food. Go for it. But you can create very satisfying, and, dare I say unique variations on classic dishes by paying attention to your local specialties. Are you in the Southwest? Tequila, lard, chiles, Sonoran flour, and mesquite or prickly pear syrup are all go-to ingredients you can use to make a great plate of fish or seafood. That’s just one example.
You can also riff on where the seafood came from, like a Caribbean stew made from fish you caught on a trip there, or a New England fish chowder with haddock.
So long as you hit the savory, salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and fatty notes—and be aware of them when you eat someone else’s food—you will go a long way toward never needing a set recipe again.
All of this is not terribly difficult to achieve. Understand the place you are in, its crops, its human geography, and most of all its wild treasures.
Think about how some or all of these might play together. A great dish bounces flavors off each other, and a great cook thinks about how random combinations of these flavors will shine. This is necessary because those who eat your food will eat it as they wish, not as you do.
Beyond flavors, also think of colors and textures. I wanted the buffaloberry syrup in the walleye dish not only for its sweet and tart notes, but also to add needed color to an otherwise beige dish. And without the crispy skin chip there would be no crunch in the dish.
Making skin chips too hard for you? No problem: toss some roasted sunflower seeds into the barley risotto at the last moment and you’ll get your crunch. Or do both!
Our hunts, our fishing trips, our journeys into the fields or woods for food are special moments in our otherwise harried and screen-dominated lives. Bringing a piece of that home, and carefully working a bit of humble, quiet magic on it in the kitchen not only celebrates the experience, it inspires you to go out there and do it again. Soon.
Hank Shaw’s Walleye Minot
- 3-5 lbs fish bones and heads (gills removed)
- 1/4 cup sunflower or other vegetable oil
- 2 large carrots peeled and chopped
- 2 celery stocks chopped
- 1 large onion chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp celery salt
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1/4 cup buffaloberry or other syrup
- 2-3 tsp Tabasco or other hot sauce
- Salt to taste
- 4 skinless white fish fillets
- 1 lb unsalted butter
- 2 cups barley
- 1 cup onion minced
- 1/4 cup wild green onions chopped
- 5 tbsp sunflower oil or unsalted butter divided
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- Smoked or regular salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Start by making the stock. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Coat the fish carcasses with oil and salt them well. Lay the carcasses side-by-side in a roasting pan and roast until nicely browned, about 1 hour. Flip the bones halfway.
- Once they're browned, move the carcasses to a large stockpot and just barely cover with water. Pour some water into the roasting pan and use a wooden spoon to scrape up all the browned bits in the pan. Pour all of this into the stockpot. Add the remaining stock ingredients and bring to a very gentle simmer for 2 hours.
- While the stock is cooking, mix together the ingredients for the sauce. When the stock has about 30 minutes left to go, take the fish from the fridge and salt it. Melt the butter over low heat in a large pan, then turn off the heat.
- As soon as the stock is ready, begin the risotto by sautéing the onions in 3 Tbsp of sunflower oil or butter in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Salt them as they cook. When the onions are translucent, add the garlic and barley and sauté for 2 minutes, stirring often. Grab a ladle in one hand and a fine-meshed strainer in the other. Ladle some stock through the strainer into the risotto pan. Start stirring the barley. You will need to do this more-or-less constantly until the barley cooks, which takes about 35 minutes.
- Add the thyme and a healthy pinch of smoked salt and keep adding more hot stock as you go, one ladle at a time, replacing the stock when the liquid has mostly evaporated.
- Once you start adding the stock to the risotto, pat the fish dry with paper towels and submerge it in the melted butter. Turn the heat to low and very gently poach the fish as you make the risotto. Don't let the butter sizzle!
- When the barley is ready—you want it to be cooked through but still a bit al dente—add the wild onions, salt, and black pepper to taste. Stir in the final 2 Tbsp of sunflower oil or butter.
- To serve, spoon some risotto into shallow bowls or plates and top with a piece of fish. Drizzle some of the sauce around the edge of the barley.
A chef, hunter, angler, gardener, gatherer, and award-winning writer, Hank Shaw lives by honest, wild food. After spending 18 years as a political journalist and time as a commercial fisherman, Shaw decided to switch direction and begin writing cookbooks. His James Beard award-winning site, honest-food.net plays host to his many delicious creations as well as his podcast and many accolades.