The ups and downs of loving thy herring

Ari LeVaux

Photo by The Integer Club
Photo by The Integer Club

When I was a small fry, vacationing at the Youth Hostel on Martha’s Vineyard, my family spent an afternoon paddling up Herring Run Creek. When we reached shallow water and got out to push, we noticed our shins were bumping against fish. They were herring. My dad had a fishing license, so we began scooping them into the boat with our hats, T-shirts, and hands. Eventually, we inadvertently scooped our way too close to property owned by Jackie Onassis, which is why a motorboat manned by dudes in suits rumbled up. It wasn’t looking great until they saw our herring haul, and admitted that, by law, if we were fishing we could carry on.

That encounter, and the regrettably stinky cooking experience that followed, summarizes most of what there is to say about herring in America. First: They are all around us, yet we don’t notice until we bump into them. Second: Herring can resolve problems - from trespass to the ecological balance of the oceans.

There are plentiful schools of this fish, though in places the population has crashed. Nonetheless, the more herring we eat, the more we can help them, argues Geoff Shester, California campaign director for the marine protection group Oceana. “You’re actually helping save herring by eating them directly, because if you eat a pound of farmed salmon, it took four pounds of herring to create that salmon,” Shester told NPR. “So, you could just eat the one pound of herring directly.”

Herring are also nutritious, hence the Dutch saying, “A land with lots of herring can get along with few doctors.”

So, why don’t we wake up and smell the herring? The problem - as my family discovered when we tried to cook them - is that fresh herring are messy and smelly if you don’t know what you are doing.

I’m here to change that. These little fish can be delicious if you come armed with some simple knowledge.

You aren’t likely to find fresh herring at the fish counter. It’s just not popular enough here and Japan buys it up like crazy. The Japanese are cuckoo for kazunoko, a type of cured herring roe popular during festivities, especially New Year’s. This demand dominates the economics of the North American herring fisheries, on both coasts.

If you can get your hands on some fresh fish, here is a good set of instructions on how to filet herring (and, if you’re so inclined, to make fermented picked herring). I don’t recommend frying your cute little fishes in a pan as you would a trout. They’ll produce copious amounts of splattering grease and fishy steam. Cook them outside, or your kitchen will never smell the same. If you must fry herring, do so with onion.
The easiest, most elegant option is to grill whole herring. Seasoned with salt and a squeeze of lemon, they taste spectacular.

In some coastal cities and towns in the United States, fresh herring from local runs is showing up on menus as people begin to learn about them. Well-connected fishmongers can also occasionally get their hands on fresh herring from Europe.

But unless things change in the international markets, aspiring herring-vores are generally going to be eating the pickled and smoked varieties.

I enjoy a good smoked herring, especially the canned kippers, which are more satisfying than sardines (which happen to be members of the herring family). But I don’t want to eat it every day, however. Let’s face it, “smoked” is a folksy way of saying “fumigated with carcinogens.” But there are no suspected consequences of bathing fish in brine. That brings us to pickled herring.

My poor Eastern European ancestors had a love/hate relationship with this rich fish. While it got on their nerves - hence the Yiddish expression, “What am I, chopped herring?” - pickled herring was a cheap, stable form of protein that went well with vodka.

Pickled herring has a much fresher quality compared to smoked, and its flavor embodies one of the oldest tricks in the cookbook: the pairing of fat with acid. Think wine and cheese, oil and vinegar, ketchup and fries. The fat covers the tongue, only to be pierced by acid, tickling your taste buds as they do their thing.

Here are some more specific recipes and serving recommendations that work this principle.
With Vodka. Since pickled herring is already a perfectly balanced food, all you really need is a fork, and something with which to wash it down. So eat, drink, and be herring. Oh, and maybe a napkin. It goes well with gin, too: a herring martini is a thing.
Brine replacement techniques. My dad would bring home a jar, drain the brine, stir sour cream and fresh, sliced onions into the jar, and put it back in the fridge. Adding this cream rolls with the fat/acid situation, boosting both, while re-upping the onions harks back to the days when serving herring with onions was a way to cover the smell of less-than-fresh fish. Pickled herring can also be purchased pre-packed in a similar cream sauce, which is essentially the same thing as dad’s. But in my experience the fish has likely sat too long in that cream sauce.

The same can be done with other fatty marinade replacements. Pickled herring can be marinated in olive oil, in the fridge, for a Mediterranean version of dad’s sour-cream style. Another variation on my dad’s technique replaces the sour cream with mayo (or Vegenaise, if you nasty). These creamy fish chunks are splendid wrapped in nori.

Where I shop, it’s possible to get pickled herring by the pound from a big bowl on ice behind the fish counter. It’s not fancy, even by pickled herring standards - just herring in clear brine with onions and a few allspice seeds. The herring is firm and chewy, not soft, and the skin is almost completely stripped off, a sign that the fish was fresh when pickled. Skin from fresh herring comes right off, while skin from older fish will come off in pieces, some of which will remain attached.

Whether you get your pickled herring in jars or in bulk, you now have the tools necessary to hit it hard. As well you should. Because as fish go, herring are anything but red herrings. They should be the main event.

Photo by Jeremy Keith
Photo by Jeremy Keith