Head out fishing or locally source your favorite Great Lakes fish including perch, whitefish, trout, or salmon to create a delicious one-pot supper your family and friends will love. Celebrate winter in Northern Michigan with this delicious freshwater fish stew recipe.

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

Turning a Fun Family Activity into a Delicious Meal

The First Catch!

“All right, feel him pulling?” the captain asked. “Then you reel when he stops,” he explained. Three minutes later the shimmering giant crested the water and the coaching intensified. “Reel! Reel, bud!” the captain instructed. “That’s a big boy,” my husband declared, “Hold on to that, James!” This summer, as a birthday present, we got our sons a fishing charter on Lake Michigan. We booked a trip out of Leland, woke before daybreak and climbed aboard Captain Wes Smith’s “Pier Pressure,” speechless and still dreaming. We were maybe a mile off Whaleback as the sun started to turn the horizon blush, then orange, then blue. “Happy birthday, bud,” Captain Wes said as he worked with James to lower that first lake trout into the cooler. “Look at the size of that thing, dude.” By 10:15 a.m. we were back on the docks at Fishtown, the massive 100-quart cooler so full of fish that it would hardly close. We hauled it to Carlson’s, who will clean your catch. The staff there was still tittering about a record-breaking king salmon haul the day before. A woman came flying through the door asking for perch. Someone else wanted smoked whitefish. Standing there in line with a bathing suit on under my clothes, I thought about Christmas. Specifically, Christmas Eve.

Photo by Dave Weidner

Photo by Dave Weidner

A Holiday Feast of Fishes

In many countries, Christmas Eve is the main holiday meal, and often, it includes fish. One of the most elaborate Christmas Eve menus I know is the Italian-American tradition of a Feast of Seven Fishes. For this legendary meal, cooks cover an entire table with seven different fish dishes—everything from handheld prawns and oysters to family recipes for baccalà and bottarga.

One-Pot Freshwater Fish Supper

In this neck of the woods, where Christmas Eve is often a supporting actor to the main meal on the 25th, I suggest a simpler approach. For those of us within striking distance
of a Great Lake, why not marry several freshwater fishes—lake trout, perch, walleye, whitefish—in the same bowl for an elegant one-pot supper that is laced with fresh fennel, saffron, white wine and other flavors of the Mediterranean? Whether you are still working your way through a chest freezer of summer’s catch or you need to phone your favorite fishmonger, join me in celebrating our abundant freshwater coastline this season.

Photo by Dave Weidner

The Ultimate Freshwater Fish Stew Recipe

What you will need:

  • 4 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 small yellow onion, diced
  • 1 diced fennel bulb, fibrous stalks repurposed and fronds reserved for garnish
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 pinches crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • 1, 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • 1 ½ pounds tomatoes, grated against the coarse side of a box grater, skin discarded
  • 1, 32-ounce carton of vegetable broth
  • 1 cup dry Michigan riesling
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • 8 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed and stems discarded
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 ½ pounds any mixture of lean freshwater fish such as perch, whitefish and walleye
  • ½-pound piece of smoked freshwater fish such as whitefish or lake trout
  • 1-pound fillet of fatty freshwater fish such as lake trout or salmon
  • Zest and juice from 1 lemon, separated
  • 1 Tablespoon anise liqueur such as Pernod or sambuca
  • Sea salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Photo by Dave Weidner

Photo by Dave Weidner

Photo by Dave Weidner

Step-by-Step Freshwater Fish Stew Directions: 

1. Set a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat and add 3 Tablespoons olive oil. Once the oil is hot but not yet smoking, add the onion and fennel and sauté until the onion is translucent and the fennel is soft, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper and saffron and cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Use a small spatula to scrape the tomato paste into the pot. Add the grated tomatoes, stock and wine and stir to combine, scraping all bits off the bottom of the pan. Bring liquid to a near boil and promptly reduce the heat to simmer. Add the parsley, thyme leaves and bay leaf to the stew and partially cover, cooking it over low heat for 20 minutes until the flavors have melded, and it has reduced ever so slightly.

2. While the stew cooks, prepare the fish. Run your fingers over each piece of fish to feel for any remaining bones, using tweezers to remove them. Using a sharp knife, pull the lean fish such as perch, whitefish and walleye away from its skin, discarding. Cut the perch, whitefish and walleye into bite-sized pieces that will fit on a soup spoon. Using a fork, gently flake apart the smoked fish into bite-sized pieces, discarding the skin. Leaving the fatty, flavorful skin intact, cut the laker or salmon into 8 equal-sized serving pieces and salt each piece to taste.

3. Place a large skillet over medium heat and add the remaining 1 Tablespoon of olive oil. Add the skin-on, serving-sized pieces of laker or salmon to the skillet, skin side down,
and sear until the skin is golden brown and crispy, about 4 minutes. Use a fish spatula to flip each piece of fish, cooking again—undisturbed—until the flesh side easily separates from the pan without sticking, another 4 minutes depending on the thickness of each piece. While the salmon or laker cooks in the skillet, add the perch, whitefish and/or walleye to the pot of stew to poach it. Gently fold in the smoked fish, lemon juice and liqueur, and season the stew with salt and fresh ground pepper to taste. Cover and remove from the heat.

As soon as the 8 pieces of salmon or laker are cooked through, place each piece of fish in the center of a shallow pasta bowl, crispy skin side up. Top each piece of fish with chopped fennel fronds and lemon zest. Ladle the stew into each bowl around the piece of laker or salmon, making sure each portion contains several different types of fish. Serve with crusty, toasted garlic bread.

Photo by Dave Weidner

Stacey Brugeman is a 20-year food and beverage journalist. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Saveure, Eater and on Instagram @staceybrugeman.
Dave Weidner is an editorial photographer and videographer based in Northern Michigan. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook @dzwphoto.

Sarah Peschel
is a stylist and photographer with an appreciation for all things related to local agriculture, food and drink.

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner