Michigan’s Smoked Whitefish Dip Recipe

Everyone has their own. It’s like Lebanese seven-spice mix: which seven depends on who is doing the mixing, but the mix is happening, everywhere you go there. And for the record, it’s not always seven. I grew up on three (salt+pepper+cinnamon).

Here in Michigan, where whitefish dinners reign supreme (and lunches too–I ate the finest whitefish sandwich of my life at American Spoon’s Gelato Café recently in Petoskey–God bless them), we do find lots of other ways to eat the abundance of the mild, tender fish that comes from our cold, generous waters.

Whitefish takes to smoking like a boat to water. Like all of the best flavors of summer that come from smoke, from char, smoked whitefish tastes deeply of the outdoors, of both lake and bonfire, an ironic synthesis. Not too many smoke their own fish at home, far as I can tell. I like to think I would if I could stand the steady scent of the smoke. The one project in culinary school that left me intrigued yet somewhat woozy was hot and cold smoking. I tended the wood and the fire and the meats and fish, and by the time we were through, I was through too, so smoked out I vowed I would never eat a smoked anything ever again.

A little time and distance got me back on track, at least enough to embrace smoked whitefish when I headed back to Michigan. Recently my mom and I took a drive over to Charlevoix to watch the whitefish gurus in action at John Cross Fish Market. The fourth-generation, family-owned business is the whitefish heartbeat of the region, supplying pretty much every store and restaurant with its fish, both fresh and smoked.

When we stopped in unannounced the other day, Kellie Cross Sutherland took us in as though she’d been waiting for just such a visit all morning long. That’s the Up North way. The fishery handles a ton of fish every day, turning out filets and smoked whole and hunked whitefish, along with their own smoke whitefish pepper sausage, so delicious, and their family-recipe pate or dip.

The pate and dip monikers are interchangeable. As far as I can tell they end up being the same thing—smoked fish with some sort of creamy binder along with spices and whatnot—call it what you will. I call mine dip because I’m such a huge fan of liver pate that anything else just feels like a fake-out to me. It’s like hummus with no chickpeas. NoCanDo.

I didn’t dare ask what was in the John Cross dip, knowing how protected, how proprietary whitefish dips are in this neck of the woods—every grocery store and restaurant in these parts offers its own special recipe, and puts a pretty price tag on it. And that’s okay, because like every proud cook, I like my own the best, by a lot, of any whitefish dip I’ve tasted (I know, kitchen arrogance is not pretty). We’re talking cream cheese, we’re talking labneh. See?

But Kellie did tell me everything you’d want to know about the process of preparing the fish, which was made that much more real as I stood in a pool of fish guts (next time I won’t wear flip-flops): the fishing in waters all over the place here, the scaling and heading, dressing, fileting, pin-boning, and finally brining before smoking over a maple wood fire.

Our porch time is getting into full swing up north now, which is just the place for lemonade and cocktails, Michigan’s ubiquitous smoked whitefish dip with vegetables, Neva Betta crackers, and happy summer-talk that every year feels as though it’s really never been better.

Michigan Smoked Whitefish Dip

1 hunk smoked whitefish (about 2 cups flaked meat)
3 ounces best-quality cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups labneh or Greek yogurt
2 scallions, thinly sliced
pinch kosher salt

Remove the skin from the fish and flake the meat into small shreds using your fingers and a fork, taking care to remove any pin bones and tough edges.Flaking the fish finely is key, so take your time.

In a medium bowl, stir the cream cheese until it is smooth. Add the labneh and stir until the mixture is smooth, using a whisk if needed. Stir in the smoked whitefish and scallions, taste, and season with a pinch of salt. Serve the dip with vegetables and crackers.

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Melon with Mint Syrup, a thank-you note

My parents were always big proponents of the thank-you note. My dad would say you don’t need fancy stationery; his favorite paper was his yellow legal pad (yes, he was an attorney), and his rationale for his stationery was that in its humility, it elevated the words by letting them stand out above all, expressing even greater depth of the expression of your sentiment.

I can’t say I opt for the legal pad too often for correspondence (I’m such a fine paper hound), but the words, I agree, are the most important thing. They begin and end with what I want to say today to you: thank you, a million times thank you for your great enthusiasm for this special community at Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, for cooking and eating our beloved Lebanese recipes, and for encouraging me on this path with your votes a couple of months back in the Saveur Best Food Blog Awards contest.

I just returned from a whirlwind couple of days in Las Vegas, where Saveur hosted the group of food bloggers receiving their Best Food Blog awards. The awards are a terrific honor, and the trip? Unheard of. Most of the time we are working in rather solitary environments, the creative and often upside-down worlds of our kitchens strewn with props and cameras and lighting equipment, along with simmering pots and rolling pins and flour (the camera lenses’ worst enemy!). Even the most famous bloggers among us don’t often get wined and dined and gifted with kitchen bling the way we did out in the desert last week.

I came away with an affirmation of the respect I already had for my fellow food bloggers, each of us with a different passion that motivates us to do what we do despite the risks to career and pocketbook. I also came away with a newfound respect for one of if not the greatest of the Las Vegas hotels, the Bellagio. We were toured “where no visitor has gone before”—that is, behind the scenes in the Bellagio kitchens where the best dim sum chefs hail from China and exceptional pastry chefs from France to make every last morsel served in the hotel…from SCRATCH. And where a master sommelier took us on an “art and wine pairing” tour of the hotel’s museum of fine art. Now that’s a museum tour I’ll take any day!

Our hosts, in addition to the hotel, included revered brands like Le Creuset cookware, Highland Park whisky, and Talenti gelato (yes please!). What do you award a food blogger with? Not a statue, no. A frying pan, of course, inscribed for the occasion.

Then, there was a parting gift of another sort. One of my favorite Chicago restaurants, Mon Ami Gabi, has an outpost in Vegas. A quiet wind-down breakfast there before heading back to Michigan included a subtle plate of melon with mint syrup. Subtlety had not been on the menu all week long; that was so much fun. And all the more reason this plate grabbed my attention.

Our Lebanese love for fresh fruit and our na’na, our mint, found a lovely expression here against their backdrop of a plain white plate and paper-lined table. I share them with you as my note of thanks; the good, sound flavor of gratitude on a quiet sheet paper.

Melon with Mint Syrup
The syrup can be made ahead and kept in a jar or other airtight container in the refrigerator for several weeks.

3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
Big handful mint leaves (at least 20), torn or cut in chiffonade, plus more for garnish
Lemon or lime wedges
Ripe honeydew or cantaloupe

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring them to a boil over medium heat. When the sugar is fully dissolved, boil for another 3 minutes. Remove the syrup from the heat and stir in the mint. Cover, and let the syrup steep for 30 minutes. Strain and discard the mint.

Serve the melon, cut however you like, with the syrup and a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, garnished with mint leaves.

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Basil Zucchini Soup Recipe, and my friends in food

I get the chance to get to know some of you through your comments and emails, and sometimes when I run into you in person. New friends, in a steady stream, are a delicious fruit of the labor I never could have imagined when I first started blogging here.

My new friend Brian is a case in point. I first heard about him through a cousin who told me there was a great food person in Lansing reading my blog who wanted to meet and cook together. Then Brian invited me into his Foodie Friends group on Facebook, and turns out we know and love a lot of the same people. He ran a tea room next door to my Aunt Pat’s antique shop years ago, and just like tea and antiques are a perfect match, they became fast friends too. And now they are neighbors, living on one of the most gracious neighborhood streets in Lansing, where the homes are vintage 1920s (and earlier) and the rolling greens of the Country Club of Lansing frame the scene. It’s stepping ever-so-happily back in time to be there.

Early this spring Brian invited me to cook and eat with a group of his culinary friends, people he met on a French cooking adventure in Provence with Patricia Wells (what heaven). They wanted to make Lebanese food, pulling recipes from my blog and diving in like the adventurers they are.

Brian and Ken’s home (Lansing’s historic Harper House) is an idyll, a place that, like its owners, gives and gives and gives. Pretty much everything at Brian’s can start with the word homemade. In the butler’s kitchen there is a barrel of red wine vinegar being fed with remainders of bottles of wine, a pantry wall of spices curated from travels, honey from their home apiary, homemade sauerkraut and homegrown horseradish and–of course my favorite—homemade yogurt.

The giving doesn’t stop there: in this home of all homes, the doors are opened for events that raise money for all kinds of good causes. Seems like there is so often a true connection between people who love to cook and, well, caring across the board.

Brian has been so great cooking so many of my recipes (including testing for my upcoming cookbook) that I was thrilled to receive a recipe of his to try in my own kitchen. Seems Patricia Wells was as delighted with Brian’s culinary interests and his extra-wow soup as everyone else–she included his recipe for zucchini soup with fresh basil in The French Kitchen Cookbook.

You know how it is with the Lebanese: good friends aren’t just good friends. They’re cousins. They’re family. Even Brian’s blonde-blonde hair couldn’t keep me from calling him cousin from here on out.

Cousin Brian’s Fresh Basil Zucchini Soup
The flavor of this soup will knock your socks off! And it’s had with such ease, owing to the basil being added at the very end, after the soup is cooked…a very simple soup to eat any day of the week, and good enough to serve at an elegant dinner party. The recipe is adapted from Patricia Wells’ The French Kitchen Cookbook.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 pounds zucchini, cut in 1-inch slices
4 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
Fine sea salt and black pepper to taste
Big handful basil leaves
1/2 cup heavy cream, lightly whipped (unsweetened)

In a stock pot or 8-quart pot, heat the olive oil over low heat until it is hot but not smoking. Add the sliced onions and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Saute the onions for about 8 minutes, or until they are soft and translucent, but not browned, covering them and stirring occasionally.

Add the zucchini to the pot along with the chicken or vegetable stock and season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the zucchini is softened

Remove the soup from the heat and allow it to cool, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to release steam. Stir in the fresh basil leaves just before pureeing. In a blender, puree the soup in batches and return to a smaller, clean pot (a 3- to 4-quart pot). Or, use an immersion blender to puree the soup in its pot.

Taste and add more salt and pepper, if needed. Serve the soup heated through, room temperature, or chilled.

To serve, top each bowl of soup with a small dollop of the whipped cream.

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Favorite Things: Stone Herb Markers, and the stones of Harbor Springs


I don’t think there is a road you can take in Harbor Springs that doesn’t offer some formation or another of stones: retaining walls, yes, but also chimneys and lamp posts, pillar bases and home foundations and water fountains. They are so present that they become, as such presence often does, unseen. They are with us, like an arm or a leg, and we assume their necessary position without a thought.

My sense has always been that the rocks were excavated from the lake and land here, not unlike the creamy stone bedrock of Lebanon that lends uniformity and beauty to most every home and structure in the villages scattered from north to south there.

When I planted a little herb garden in the backyard recently, Dan wondered about the herbs when he saw me getting rid of the plastic markers that came with them from the nursery. How will we know what they are? he asked. I know exactly what they are, that was my first thought, no markers necessary.

Then the about-to-be-married thought, of the sort that I really appreciate these days, rose to the surface. We’re sharing this garden, and he imagines pinching off an herb or two for me while I’m chopping away in the kitchen. A marker would be nice so we end up with basil and not sage for the (ever so wonderful) spring soup we’re making this week that calls for basil, and not sage. Besides, he thought the markers would look nice. And they do.

I started the search for lovely herb markers that wouldn’t be too obtrusive, and wouldn’t take away from the natural beauty of the garden. The stone markers I found got me all excited, for the garden and then for the unfurling of creative thought that they inspired.

The stones made me think about all of the stones around Harbor Springs, and sent me out on a little mission to document some of them. My curiosity about the stones is peaked, and I want to know more about them, really know where they came from and how far back into history their stories reach.

Dan drove me around and around town for the scouting, entering into my whim without a thought, without a question as to why or how long it would take.

It’s a solid foundation those stones make for, he said. He’s showing me a lot about that these days, and I couldn’t agree more.

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Lebanese Recipes for Memorial Day Weekend

Up North here in Michigan, Harbor Springs loves a good parade, even the very short one that passes by at 10 a.m. on Memorial Day each year (a foil to the giant 4th of July parade a few short weeks later). The veterans line up and the high school band sounds its stirring, mournful drumbeat that calls us out to the porch—where we’ll stay, for the most part, all summer long. Often with a plate of food in our laps, salads and dips and other beauties charred from the grill.

Even if you don’t have a Memorial Day parade to call your own, this parade of Lebanese (or, at least, Lebanese-style…) recipes ought to get us all off to a good start to our well-deserved summer.



Grilled Pizza with Tomatoes, Fresh Mozzarella, and Za’atar

Baba Gannouj, Roasted Eggplant Dip

Muhummara, Roasted Red Pepper-Walnut Dip

Lamb Kofta Burgers

Lebanese Warm Potato Salad with Mint

Quinoa Tabbouleh

Fresh Mint Chip Ice Cream

Crunchy Sesame Cookies

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