Today we stop by Shelsky’s Smoked Fish, Peter Shelsky’s Carroll Gardens shop specializing in appetizing – the smoked fish yin to delicatessen’s meaty yang in the food culture of Jewish New York.
Alright Peter, what do we have?
You have got to try this Door County, Wisconsin whitefish. They are remarkable. Absolutely incredible. You can just feel how meaty and juicy they are. They smell amazing. Smoky, with that delicious mild fish smell you get with fresh water fish.
This is a really special whitefish. We get it directly from the fisherman who catches it in Lake Michigan. They’re a family who’ve been fishing whitefish commercially in Lake Michigan for almost two hundred years.
So how is this whitefish different from the average smoked whitefish?
There are a couple of differences. Normally, the big smokehouses like Acme in Greenpoint and Banner in Coney Island buy whitefish in bulk from distributors who work with fishermen in the Great Lakes area. They get a big shipment of fish and then they smoke it and sell it wholesale to the shop who sells it to you.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Those guys have some really great products that I carry here. It’s just not as good as this stuff. I get this directly from the guy who catches it. He smokes it when it’s really fresh. And I get his best fish. They pick their best fish to smoke whole. The best smoked whitefish is small enough that it can be smoked whole and sold whole. I get the smaller ones. The bigger ones are cheaper, because they’re not as good. Those are usually sold in bulk to the big smokehouses.
This stuff is the best smoked whitefish I have ever had. When we first tried it, we were bowled over by it. They smoke it with the skin on, which allows it to cure and take on that great smoky flavor without drying out. They’re incredibly moist and oily. Almost juicy. It’s rich and smoky and oily, but still mild and not too salty. They’re luscious. It’s a fantastic product, and we’re the only store carrying it in New York City.
Do you only sell them whole?
We sell them whole, in halves, or we’ll sell you a little sliver of it. Whatever you want. When we do platters, we bone them out but keep them intact. We take the bones out and close them back up so you can just eat the whole thing. If you want, we give you the bones anyway. The bones are really good for stock. In winter we do a smoked whitefish chowder. We save all the heads and bones that people don’t want and they make an amazing smoky chowder.
What would you serve with it?
It’s really great with bagels and cream cheese, if you want to go the traditional Jewish route. It’s also really good with crackers and beer. Some good beer and smoked whitefish? That is an awesome afternoon snack.
I also like to pick the meat out and make a carbonara pasta dish. You make spaghetti or bucatini or something, toss it with some pine nuts, some picked whitefish, and top it with a really nice pecorino or parmesan, and the yolk of a nice fresh pastured egg. I love that.
When you’re using an ingredient as good as this whitefish in something, you want to make sure all the other ingredients are just as good. You don’t want to drag it down, so no supermarket eggs with this whitefish.
We’re also getting whitefish caviar from the same fisherman. It’s unbelievable. It’s a small golden egg, and it’s really mild because it’s a fresh water fish, but it’s still loaded with really nice flavor. Every once in a while I’ll take a jar home to my wife and say, “Let’s have some caviar!” We have it with Doctor Brown’s Celery Soda because she doesn’t like champagne. [laughter.]
Shelsky’s Smoked Fish is located at 251 Smith Street, between Douglass and Degraw, in Carroll Gardens
Photography by Heather Phelps-Lipton. All rights reserved.