For fans of seasonal seafood, summer’s end is an eagerly anticipated event. This is the time when oysters recover their former glory and plump wild char return to northern rivers and lakes.
Not familiar with wild or even farmed char? You’re not alone. Although more than five years have passed since U.S. News and World Report ranked char No. 2 among the “11 best fish” to eat, this eco-friendly creature has yet to hit its stride with consumers.
I suspect the snub is inadvertent. When browsing supermarket display cases, shoppers tend to gravitate to what they know. They see fat, pink slabs of salmon and immediately reach for them instead of the coral-fleshed fillets and steaks labeled “Arctic char.” Unfortunately, by grabbing the old standby, they’ve deprived themselves of a versatile and delicious omega-3-rich fish.
Char pairs well with many flavors, can be cooked in endless ways
Those who take a chance and replace their usual purchase with char will find striking similarities. Like salmon, char possesses bright, silvery skin and flesh ranging in color from pale pink to ruby red. Its firm, juicy meat calls to mind a mild salmon or a bold trout.
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In terms of cooking, char responds well to a host of techniques, including baking, broiling, braising, grilling, pan frying, poaching and cold or hot smoking. I find that it goes beautifully with a wide range of ingredients. Basil, chervil, chives, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, barbecue sauce, cream, curry, ginger, lemon, sesame, mushrooms, spring onions, shallots and white wine all complement its pleasant taste.
Flexible. Flavorful. Good for you. Sound a bit like salmon? It does to me. However, unlike salmon, which has a complicated track record with sustainability, char is an environmentally sound seafood choice.
Several varieties of char exist. Of these, I most often see Arctic char in markets and on menus.
How Arctic char gets its name
If you’re a stickler about nomenclature, you may think the name Arctic char is a bit misleading. Char comes not from the North Pole but 500 miles south of it, from lakes and rivers in Alaska, northern New England, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Great Britain, Scandinavia and parts of Russia. Its remote homelands make it the most northerly freshwater fish species in the world. These locales also provide it with the “Arctic” in Arctic char.
Most often the char I buy has been raised on land in tanks. This method of aquaculture releases little pollution or parasites, making farmed char a safe seafood choice. For the same reason, it is also a good alternative to farmed Atlantic salmon, whose aquaculture pollutes waters and contains a large amount of toxins.
Although I’m a big advocate of farmed char, I still look forward to wild char’s brief fall showing. After a summer spent gorging on cod, shrimp, snails, salmon eggs and other aquatic life, these char return to their cold, freshwater lakes 50% fatter than when they left. Thanks to their rich and diverse diets, some reach up to 34 pounds in weight. Meanwhile, farmed char only grow to between 5 and 15 pounds. The added girth helps the wild species survive brutally harsh winters. It also makes them quite rich and delectable.
For centuries, native people have relied upon fat, hearty, wild char for sustenance. The Inuits of North America and the Arctic are especially indebted to this fish. They eat it in raw and cooked forms, smoking, drying, curing and grilling the meat.
Char roe is high in protein
They consume char roe, which is high in protein and Vitamin B, and leaving nothing to waste, Inuits have been known to use fish bones for knitting needles. They also turn the skin into a waterproof material for sewing pouches and coats for kayakers.
Because I am nowhere near as resourceful as the Inuit, I just stick with cooking char. When I’m lucky enough to come across wild char, I broil, pan sear or grill the fillets or steaks. Juicy and flavorful, wild char needs nothing more than a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a drop of olive oil.
Should I crave a flashier preparation, I make the following dish. As with salmon, char has finished cooking when it reaches an internal temperature of 137 degrees F or its flesh has become opaque and flakes when probed with a fork.
- 2 tablespoons tamarind paste
- 2 tablespoons boiling water
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 tablespoon plus ¼ teaspoon sugar
- Salt to taste
- ¼ cup sesame seeds
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 4- to 6-ounce char fillets, skins on
- 1 egg white, lightly beaten
- 2 teaspoons water
- In a small bowl, mix together the tamarind paste, water, lime juice, sugar and salt, stirring until the tamarind paste has dissolved completely into the liquids.
- Place the sesame seeds in a flat, shallow dish.
- Heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. As the oil is heating, whisk together the egg white and 2 teaspoons water. Brush the mixture over the char fillets.
- Coat the skinless side of the fillets with the egg white and then dredge them through the sesame seeds. Place the fillets, seed side down, in the frying pan. Cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Turn the fillets with tongs and cook on the skin side until just done. The fish should be pale pink and tender. Depending on the thickness of the char, this could be anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes.
- Place the fillets skin side down on four dinner plates. Drizzle the tamarind sauce over top of each. Serve immediately.
Photo: Pan-seared char. Credit: Kathy Hunt