Among the most iconic scenes in Vermont, flotillas of small ice fishing huts appear in midwinter on lakes around the state. On relatively warm days, friends and family sit out on chairs under a clear, crisp sky, strolling over to neighbors to chat and pass the time. During colder spells, anglers huddle cozily in the huts, sipping hot drinks and popping out to check the lines every so often.
For many Vermonters, the tradition of ice fishing is as much about the experience as the resulting buckets of fresh fish, although they do make very good eating. A variety of species can be caught through the holes carved into the thick ice, but yellow perch is the most broadly found, notable for its golden striping and mild, white meat.
Nothing beats just-caught perch fried in bacon fat over a campfire or the classic perch basket at Ray’s Seafood Market in Essex Junction, but an increasing number of restaurants around the state are exploring creative uses for local perch in everything from tacos to chowders. Localvore chefs sometimes lament their distance from the ocean and fresh seafood; today, many recognize that Vermont freshwaters also have fish to share, providing yet another reason to take care of our lakes and watersheds.
Ingredient note: For those not planning to catch their own yellow perch, Ray’s Seafood Market in Essex Junction sells frozen yellow perch fillets year-round. Fish size will vary, but we tested these recipes with one-pound bags, which averaged about 15 two-sided fillets (e.g., a whole fish) per bag.
For information on ice fishing and fishing licenses, go to vtfishandwildlife.com.
The Vermont Department of Health offers guidelines for eating some fish caught in Vermont waters, especially for women of childbearing age and small children. See healthvermont.gov/health-environment/recreational-water/mercury-fish for more details.
Cured Perch With Romesco Sauce
Adapted from executive chef Doug Paine, Bleu and Juniper restaurants, Burlington
Chef Doug Paine created this recipe, inspired by European-style cured sardines, for a dinner celebrating Vermont ingredients at the national culinary landmark James Beard House in New York City. The recipe originally called for grilling the perch, but they can be quickly fried, as detailed below. If you can’t find Turkish Aleppo pepper flakes, try about half the quantity of Spanish smoked paprika. The recipe was conceived as bite-size appetizers, but it also works well as a sandwich on a crusty roll spread with the romesco sauce topped with several fillets and some fresh, crunchy greens.
1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
(we use Diamond brand; if you use Morton, which has a different shape and density, cut back to
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons dry herbes de Provence (or equal parts dried thyme,
oregano, and rosemary)
1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper flakes
1 tablespoon whole toasted fennel seeds, lightly crushed
4 bay leaves, crushed
1 pound scaled yellow perch fillets, thawed if frozen and patted
About 1 cup light, neutral oil such
as grapeseed or olive
For romesco sauce:
2 medium-size plum tomatoes (about 8 ounces), cored and roughly chopped
1 large red bell pepper (about 8 ounces), stemmed and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons fresh chopped herbs such as parsley, rosemary, or oregano
1½ teaspoons chopped garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon coarse kosher salt
¼ teaspoon (about 6 grinds) freshly ground pepper
¼ cup blanched, slivered almonds, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Toasted baguette rounds
Cure perch: In a medium bowl or container, combine salt, garlic, herbes de Provence, Aleppo pepper, fennel seeds, and bay leaves. Add perch fillets and make sure they are evenly coated with the cure mixture. Refrigerate for 2 hours. Rinse perch and pat dry. Return perch to clean bowl and add enough oil just to cover. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours up to 2 days.
Make romesco sauce: Preheat oven to medium-heat broil with rack in top position. On a rimmed baking sheet or baking pan, toss together all ingredients except almonds and sherry vinegar and spread into one layer. Broil for about 5 minutes and then stir. Broil another 3–4 minutes until vegetables are soft and charred in places. Cool on a rack in pan for about 10 minutes. Scrape vegetable mixture into a blender or food processor. Add toasted almonds and sherry vinegar and blend until smooth. Taste and add salt as desired. Can be kept, refrigerated, for several days.
To cook fish and serve: Prepare a tray of toasted baguette rounds and spread each with a little romesco sauce. Set a large heavy-bottomed, nonstick frying pan, ideally cast iron, over medium heat. Using tongs, pull perch from oil and cook, in batches if necessary, about 1–2 minutes per side until golden and cooked through. Place one half of each fillet pair on a prepared baguette slice and top with an herb sprig. Serve while warm. Makes about 30 appetizers, or about 4 meal-size sandwiches.
Pan-Seared Perch and Wilted Greens With Warm Maple-Bacon Dressing
Adapted from chef Matthew Pearsall, owner of Vermont Spice of Life Catering and Our House Bistro, Moretown, Winooski, and Plattsburgh
A repeat winner of Lake Champlain International’s Vermont Fish Chowder Championship, chef Matthew Pearsall has even represented the state in the largest chowder contest in the country. For this recipe, Pearsall prefers skinned fillets, but skin-on fillets work fine too, as long as the scales have been removed. He recommends serving the perch and greens with mashed Vermont sweet potatoes.
About 6 loosely packed cups greens such as arugula or spinach, rinsed and spun dry
¾ pound scaled yellow perch fillets, thawed if frozen and patted
Salt and pepper to taste
6 thick-cut slices bacon (about
6 ounces), preferably maple-cured
Neutral oil such as olive or
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1½ cups mellow Vermont amber or
red ale, such as Long Trail Ale
1 tablespoon maple syrup,
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
Squeeze of lemon juice, optional
Chopped scallions or parsley to
Place greens in a large, shallow, heat-proof serving bowl or rimmed platter. Season perch well on both sides with salt and pepper. Set a large heavy-bottomed, nonstick frying pan, ideally cast iron, over medium heat and add bacon to pan. Fry bacon until crisp and drain bacon on paper towels, then crumble. Measure fat left in pan. Add enough oil to total 4 tablespoons of bacon fat and oil. Set pan back over medium heat. When hot, add perch fillets to pan, in batches if necessary to avoid crowding, starting flesh-side down. Cook for about 1 minute each side until lightly golden and just cooked through. Remove to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm. Leave remaining fat in pan, reduce heat to medium-low and add garlic. Cook, 30 seconds, stirring, just until garlic is golden. Add ale, maple syrup, and mustard and increase heat to medium-high. Cook for 4–5 minutes until reduced a bit. Stir in reserved crumbled bacon. Taste and add salt and pepper and lemon juice if needed to balance. Pour warm dressing into bowl over greens, reserving about 3 tablespoons. Toss greens in dressing. Top with perch fillets and drizzle with remaining dressing. Garnish with scallions or parsley as desired. Serves 2 as a main dish with mashed sweet potatoes or crusty bread; 4 as an appetizer.