Canadian Tastemakers: Jenn Hess, The Yukon's Ingenious FishWitch
January 30, 2015
--Jenn Hess' Smoked Char or Salmon Candy--
I just put two kilos of Arctic char livers on an Air North flight, destined for Edible Canada on Granville Island in Vancouver. There, chef Tyler Dalner will smoke the delicate organs and serve them at a dinner to kick off Yukon Month, the first in a jam-packed year of promotions celebrating regional Canadian cuisine.
You may not have heard of smoked Arctic char livers. I hadn't, until I met Jenn Hess. The Whitehorse-based fish broker has a genius for turning by-products into inspired cuisine.
I first met Jenn the summer of 2010. She worked at Icy Waters, an inland Arctic char fishery on the outskirts of Whitehorse, and I had just published The Boreal Gourmet. Beloved Yukon fisheries biologist Susan Thompson brought us together to do a demonstration beside the fish ladder on the Yukon River by the Whitehorse dam. Jenn’s job was to filet the Arctic char donated by Icy Waters; mine was to cook it.
Jenn’s fileting technique was exquisite; she slid her knife through each fish in long easy strokes, peeled off two beautiful filets and left behind a bare skeleton with head and tail still attached, just like the ones cartoon cats steal from garbage cans. The crowd was mesmerized. I brushed the filets with birch syrup glaze and grilled them. We served 40 filets in two hours. I’ve been learning about fish from Jenn ever since.
Jenn says, “I’m obsessed with fish. I can’t help it.” When she was two her grandpa plunked her into his boat on a lake near Manitouwadge, Ontario and took her fishing. She loved it. From then on, whenever she visited him they’d go out on the lake for northern pike or Jenn’s favourite, pickerel.
In her hometown of Tahsis on Vancouver Island, then a tiny logging community, now an eco-tourism destination, Jenn would grab her rod and her dog and spend hours on the airline dock fishing for salmon, rockfish, perch, ling cod—whatever was in season. When her stepdad groused about how expensive it was to feed his stepkids, “It felt really good to know I could go out with my dog and come home with my own food,” says Jenn.
From the beginning, her philosophy was to use the whole fish. As a filleter at a seafood supplier on Vancouver Island she grew curious about salmon cheeks. She tasted them, found them delicious and developed a new product that proved wildly successful: smoked salmon cheeks.
She came to Whitehorse in 2001 and 2009, twice “ending up” as supervisor at Icy Waters. (Jenn “ends up” in positions of responsibility. She admits she’s a stickler for hard work, and “can get pretty bossy.”)
At Icy Waters Jenn wondered if smoking char could solve a seasonal problem: char, wild or farmed, loses its natural red pigmentation in summer, and turns a pale orange colour unpopular with chefs. Jenn smoked the paler char in a Weber’s Big Green Egg according to her own recipe, and sent samples to head office in Ontario. They loved the product, but weren’t ready to start smoking on a large scale. So Jenn created her own company, FishWitch, and started selling farm-gate smoked char and char candy.
At that time Icy Waters still fileted fish by hand. One day Jenn looked at the livers she was chucking into the dog-food bin and thought, why not? So she took some livers home and smoked them. They were a revelation: soft, creamy, intense; reminiscent of foie gras, but smoked. She sent some to Jeffery Mickleson at Klondike Kate’s restaurant in Dawson City, who promptly put them on his menu.
In 2013, Jenn left Icy Waters to became a sub-contractor, with a license to sell char and salmon to the company’s Yukon clients. She's busy, sometimes moving as much as 500 lbs. of salmon and 400 of char per week, in season. Even so, she still finds time to sell smoked char and char candy.
But not char livers.
Icy Waters no longer filets by hand. It’s impossible to salvage the livers during the new, mechanical process—the machine cuts the fish in such a way the liver is sliced in half. To move an employee from the machine back to the knife is expensive. It took two hours and 65 hand-filleted fish to harvest the two kilos of livers donated to Edible Canada. Suddenly, char livers are a premium item, “rather like caviar” says Icy Waters manager Jonathon Lucas. He will happily market them in future, but they won’t be cheap.
At Edible Canada on February 2, diners will sample a rare treat. It may not happen again. But if char livers do become the next caviar, it will be because Jenn Hess had the imagination to recognize the potential of a beautiful northern product.
Jenn Hess demonstrates fileting for a Yukon College Culinary student and Lynn Crawford of Pitchin' In. photo by Archboul Photography
Jennifer Hess's Smoked Char or Salmon Candy
If you manage to get hold of Arctic char livers, you'll find instructions for brining and smoking them in The Boreal Feast. In the meantime, salmon or char filets are easier to find, so here's Jenn's excellent recipe for smoked char or salmon candy. She says: “There are hundreds of recipes for smoked fish candy, but this one is basic and good.” In order to make this treat at home, you’ll need a smoker; I use a Bradley 4-rack model with a separate oven control. But a simpler model such as True North will also work; the temperature gets up to about 165 F (75 C).
Whichever model you use, start checking the candy after an hour to see if it’s the texture you like. Jenn tends to set her oven at 120 F (50 C) and smoke the fish for an hour for a softer, more fatty texture; I set mine at 175 F (80 C) and smoke it for two hours for the chewier texture that I prefer. [Note: The food-safe recommendation is to keep the temperature at 140 F (60 C). Use your judgment.]
2 lbs. (905 gr) filet Arctic char or sockeye salmon, skin on
2 qts. (about 2 L) fresh, cold water
6½ oz. (200 mL) coarse sea salt
1 lb. (454 gr) golden yellow sugar
Make a brine by whisking the salt vigorously into the water until it dissolves.
Remove the pin bones from the fish—these are the interior bones that run along the meaty part of the fish from the head to the stomach—if you run your finger backwards from tail to head you’ll feel them poking up. Needle-nosed pliers or industrial tweezers work well for this job.
Cut the fish into 1-inch (2-cm) cubes. Immerse the cubes in brine for 15 minutes. Drain, pat dry and transfer to a bowl.
Pour sugar over top and work the mixture gently with your hands, turning the fish so each piece is thoroughly coated. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours. Every couple of hours, turn the fish, bringing up the grainy sludge from the bottom of the bowl and incorporating it into the mix.
When you’re ready to smoke, get the smoker going for 15 to 20 minutes so that the fish will go into a preheated, smoky environment.
Oil two fine-meshed screens (you can find these at hardware stores in the outdoor section) with a neutral oil like canola or grape seed. This step is crucial—the candy is so sticky that it adheres to the screen like glue.
Place screens on a couple of baking sheets to catch the drips enroute to the smoker, and arrange the pieces of salmon with space between each one.
Place candy in smoker, and start checking for doneness after one hour.
When candy is done to your liking, remove from screens while it’s still hot. Cool to room temperature and store in a covered container in the fridge for up to 10 days, or freeze for up to six months. Eat with the fingers, as is.
Makes about 1 ½ lbs. (670 gr) smoked char or salmon candy.