Wild Carp: An Excellent Source of Food

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/SERGEY GORUPPA
Suckers are marketed in large amounts for use as human food. Millions of carp and other "trash fish" are eradicated from western waters each year to be replaced by game species.

Special Carp Catchin’, Cleanin’ and Eatin’ Section

Sometimes I get the impression that guests at my table may
be just a bit wary . . . when they’re not downright worried
about what they’re eating. This is true, anyway, of those
who’ve read my articles extolling the gourmet delights of
many foods that are unused — or underused — because
of prejudice.

These little cutlets, now, could they be rattlesnake?
Truthfully, no. I’ve heard such fare praised, but frankly I
haven’t gotten up enough nerve to give it a try. If I were
starving . . . well, maybe I would.

Then there’s always some suspicion about wild plants,
berries, and whatnot. Can I be certain they’re
non-poisonous? Yes, I can, or I wouldn’t try them myself .
. . especially the mushrooms that I eat only when
I have absolutely no doubts about their safety.

The fish on the table — fresh, pickled, canned, in
loaves, or whatever — may be a different matter,
however. That is, it may not be trout, bass, salmon, or any
of the so-called “game species. Instead, it could very well
be some of the numerous varieties we tend to label as
“trash” or “rough” fish . . . you know, carp, suckers,
chiselmouths, squawfish, bullhead catfish and others in the
non-game category.

Even though my guests may eat these fish with pleasure and
praise, many will nevertheless appear somewhat shaken when
they’re informed of the exact species they’ve consumed. The
old business of, “Ughhh . . . trash fish!”

Such a reaction is, as far as I’m concerned, plain silly.
Why all this fuss about labels? Such traditional biases are
doubly ridiculous during the present inflation, with
salmon, tuna, and so on soaring into the luxury class. Even
the once inexpensive mackerel and sardines have price
tags that send me to the nearest stream, lake, or reservoir
to catch my own fish.

On many such expeditions, my quarry is carp. This prolific
fish — introduced into the U.S. by more appreciative
Europeans way back in the 1880’s — has become a bit
more acceptable as food than some “trash” species . . . and
is also getting a reputation as a darned tricky creature to
catch with light tackle. As a result, several million
pounds of carp are harvested and sold as human food
throughout this country each year. Even more is used to
feed pets, chickens, and hatchery-reared fish.

Carp caught in non-stagnant waters make excellent eating
whether baked, fried, pickled, smoked, or canned for use in
patties, loaves, and so on. Almost as good are the many
varieties of suckers. Their meat is softer when canned, but
also very sweet and flavorful . . . and far superior to
mackerel.

Skinning these and other rough fish eliminates a lot of
their undesirable strong flavor. . . and is the easiest way
to prepare: them anyway. A soak in a salt or vinegar
solution also helps to control odor problems, especially if
the catch came from somewhat stagnant water.

Canning fish — and meat in general — isn’t as
difficult as some people believe, but a pressure cooker
must be used and the directions for treatment of these,
spoilage-prone foods must be strictly followed. The packed
jars, for instance, are always processed in the
cooker for at least 90 minutes at a pressure of 10 pounds.

Since methods of canning fish vary with the species
(because of differences in firmness of flesh and so on), a
good book on the subject should be consulted. Some useful
sources are Putting Food By by Ruth Hertzberg,
Beatrice Vaughan, and Janet Greene, $4.50; Butchering,
Processing and Preservation of Meat
by Frank G.
Ashbrook, $4.95; and CompleteGuide to Home
Canning, Preserving and Freezing
by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, $2.50. All are available through
MOTHER’S Bookshelf. You might also want to consult
Conservation Bulletin 28, Home Canning of Fishery
Products,
U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington,
D.C. (current price available from the publisher).
The Kerr Home Canning Book (Kerr Glass
Corporation, Consumer Products Divisions, Oklahoma) and The Ball Blue Book
(Ball Brothers Company, Indiana) are very
reliable guides to home canning.

A good pickling recipe will produce a product that can be
used directly from the jar (which should be pint or
half-pint sized only). Here’s one I picked out of an
intriguing cookbook issued by the South Dakota Department
of Game, Fish, and Parks (Pierre, South Dakota). It’s
called Cooking the Sportsman’s Harvest ,
costs only one dollar, and contains directions for
preparing many infrequently used fish, mammals and birds.

Carp Recipes

Pack chunks of raw fish into pint or half-pint jars. The
pieces can be one to two inches long or larger, depending
on the species. Mix together:

1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup tomato cocktail sauce
1 teaspoon brown sugar

Pour this solution over the fish, leaving the usual inch of
head space. Seal the jars and process there an a pressure
cooker at 10 pounds for 90 minutes.

Some pickling recipes advise simply soaking fish in a salt
brine for a few hours (even overnight), rinsing it several
times in cold water, and then canning. Or you could try the
following method to make a sardine-like product from
squawfish, suckers, chiselmouth, or carp:

To each pint jar of fish pieces, add the
following:
 

1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 teaspoon dried onion flakes or onion salt
1 teaspoon olive oil or soy oil
Dried hot pepper to taste

The seasoning can, of course, be varied. If you like
mustard, add about one tablespoonful to each pint of fish .
. . or try horseradish or tomato sauce. Then seal the jars
and process them in a pressure cooker at 10 pounds for 90
minutes.

If you want pickled fish without canning, here’s a basic
recipe (also from the South Dakota cookbook)

Fillet whatever fish you have, and cut the pieces into
strips one inch wide. Pack the chunks loosely into quart or
other jars until the containers are about 3/4 full. Add to
each quart:

3 tablespoons salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pickling spices
1 medium onion, diced

Top off the jar with vinegar (white is often preferred) and
refrigerate it for about four days. The mixture will keep a
long time in the refrigerator, and should be shaken up a
bit from time to time.

It’s fortunate that there are so many delicious ways to
prepare carp, suckers, and the like . . . because they’ll
be much more common in the diet of the future. As the
world’s population continues to grow — with no
corresponding increases in food production nor advances in
our system of distribution — trash and rough fish, both
freshwater and saltwater, are becoming increasingly
important sources of protein. In the years ahead, hungry
people will discard their squeamishness and these highly
prolific species will be not only acceptable but
respectable. When I eat my canned rough fish, I’m glad I
got rid of my own prejudices long ago.