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BRUCE WALLIS: Cooking with Whitefish

Vietnamese Fish Tacos as prepared by Bruce Wallis of Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 5
Vietnamese fish tacos as prepared by Bruce Wallis of Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Vietnamese quick pickles as prepared by Bruce Wallis of Duluth. Photos by Clint Austin / 3 / 5
Close-up of Vietnamese quick pickles. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Bruce Wallis. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 5

I feel like I have been cooking whitefish my whole life.

From my first real cooking job in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, where I had nightmares about a guy who kept sending his whitefish back because he wanted me to cook it “all day,” to the present, where a stop at the fish market on the way home from swimming on Wisconsin’s south shore opens a world of possibilities for the evening’s dinner.

Even before I started cooking, I recall going to Lock City Fish with my mother to pick out a nice fillet of whitefish which she would bake with salt and pepper and probably a little butter. Some green beans and boiled potatoes on the side with a lemon wedge for squeezing made for a simple, wholesome supper. And these called to me to be something more exciting and dazzling with exotic flavor, begging for a person to sink their teeth into it.

This is how food obsessions begin.

Whitefish has a bit of an identity crisis. It doesn’t have the richness of salmon, the meatiness of Ahi tuna or even the tender sweetness of walleye. Its name is the same as what many menus and recipes use as a generic description for any firm, white-fleshed fish. White. Fish.

They have a flaky flesh that is mild in flavor and can be adapted to many cooking styles and techniques. Because they are a cold-water fish, they are high in fat, which makes them more moist and more forgiving to a variety of cooking mishaps. They can be substituted in most recipes calling for “firm, white-fleshed fish.” And they taste equally delicious prepared simply like my mom’s baked whitefish or in a flavor-popping, street-inspired fusion specialty like these Vietnamese Fish Tacos. Feel free to begin your obsession now.

This dish is basically a combination of two classic Vietnamese dishes placed into a charred corn tortilla and served with classic fish taco accompaniments that have been re-imagined with Vietnamese ingredients. That’s all I’ll tell you, I don’t want to ruin the fun of figuring out this dish. Serve it with some tortilla chips (great with the salsa and avocado cream), your favorite preparation of rice and some lime wedges to squeeze over the whole thing. Your next Taco Tuesday is all set.

Contact Bruce Wallis at

Cha Ca Whitefish 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

3 tablespoons fish sauce (Nuoc Mam)

1 tablespoon turmeric

1 tablespoon yellow curry powder

2 tablespoons coconut milk

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1½ pounds whitefish, bones removed, cut into 1-inch chunks

Whisk all ingredients except the fish. Toss fish with turmeric dill mixture, making sure to coat each piece. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour. Heat a large saute pan or skillet and put equal amounts of sesame oil and canola oil in pan, enough to thinly coat when hot. Add fish and its marinade to the hot pan, not more than one layer. If pan is not large enough, do it in two batches. Cook fish while gently stirring or tossing, taking care not to break up pieces of fish. When fish is cooked through — check the largest piece of fish by breaking it open and making sure the flesh is opaque and flaky looking — remove it from heat and reserve it in a warm oven.

Vietnamese Quick Pickled Vegetables 4 cups fresh vegetables (carrot, radish, zucchini, onion, cucumber, etc.), thin slices or strips

2 Thai bird chile peppers (optional)

¾ cup distilled white vinegar

½ cup rice wine vinegar

1 cup water

⅓ cup granulated sugar

⅓ cup raw sugar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

Place vegetables and chiles in a 1 quart canning jar or other heatproof container. Bring remaining ingredients to a boil

Pour hot liquid over vegetables, making sure liquid covers vegetables. Let cool at room temperature for 15 minutes then transfer to refrigerator. When pickles have cooled, they are ready to serve or be covered and reserved for later use. They will keep refrigerated for up to a month.

Nuoc Cham Salsa 1 ½ cups tomatoes, medium dice

⅓ cup chopped green onions

⅓ cup chopped cilantro leaves

1 tablespoon lime juice

½ teaspoon rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon Asian hot sauce such as sriracha or sambal oelek

Note: For a clean herbal flavor, substitute parsley for the cilantro

Gently fold together all ingredients. Add additional fish sauce or hot sauce if desired. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.

Sesame Avocado Cream 1 avocado, mashed

1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted

2 teaspoons sesame oil

½ cup coconut milk

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon soy sauce

pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Taste and adjust for salt.

TACOS (about 12, serves 4-6)

12 taco-sized soft corn tortillas

Warm fish pieces

Pickled vegetables

Chopped peanuts and toasted sesame seeds

Chopped fresh dill and cilantro

Heat a thick bottomed saute pan or cast iron skillet over high heat until it is very hot. If your stove has a hood vent, turn it on. Place tortillas on pan, 1 or 2 at a time, depending on pan size. Let them cook until they begin to char. (Bubbling up is normal.) Flip and cook on the other side until slightly charred and crispy. Reserve in a warm oven. Put 2 or 3 on a plate and place a row of fish in the middle, followed by some pickled vegetables, peanuts and sesame seeds, and cilantro and dill. Serve with rice, lime wedges, chips, salsa and avocado cream.