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Snag a dose of health with 'home-grown' pike

by Doris Penner

From May to October Manitoba is a prairie paradise, offering opportunities for swimming or simply soaking up the sun on sandy beaches, hiking on any of numerous trails, camping at either well-developed or more rustic sites and, of course, fishing from one of the rivers, lakes or streams. While species such as pickerel (walleye) and whitefish lure fishermen to the province from across North America, another species of merit—often overlooked by both Manitoba fish catchers and consumers—is northern pike. Sometimes called simply pike or jackfish, the fish thrives in Manitoba's freshwater lakes and offers not only a sumptuous dining experience, but also a nutritious and economical locally-raised addition to a wholesome diet.

Northern pike—one of four main species of pike—is an olive green colour, marked with short bar-like spots on the flanks. The average size is from two to four pounds, although larger ones are not uncommon. In fact, one tale told among fishermen around evening campfires pertains to the largest pike ever caught, snagged and released in Apisko Lake, Manitoba weighing in at close to 70 pounds. While this is likely a so-called “fish story,” it does cull out other stories about pike, showing the fish—which we want to claim as our own—has been consumed and enjoyed by people in the Northern Hemisphere over hundreds of years. And yet, as residents of Manitoba, we have this nutritious and tasty fish available literally on our doorstep.

Firm white flesh

The pike has firm white flesh and belongs in the category of “lean fish.” That means, like pickerel, it has a low amount of fat in total—a negligible amount of saturated fat with the remainder being polyunsaturated. This offers protection to the heart in many ways, for example in lowering serum cholesterol. Since pike is a lean fish, it does not contain the high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids offered by fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel. However, pike does contain some omega-3—documented as important for the cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure and thus hypertension, inhibiting the formation of blood clots and helping to reduce plaque build-up in arteries—and that together with its well-balanced and high protein profile among several other benefits, makes it a high calibre healthy food with under a 100 calories for a 100-gram (3.5 ounce) serving.

A more focused look at the protein content in pike shows that one serving will supply about 40 percent of daily requirement, with amino acids such as isoleucine, lysine, threonene and tryptophan—all with important roles in the body—being well represented. One serving of pike also provides 33 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin B12, a nutrient often lacking in low-meat diets. In addition, the fish provides significant amounts of minerals such as calcium, manganese, magnesium, potassium and selenium to the diet. The minerals play a part in metabolism and tissue repair and development.

Pike is usually marketed as fillets, which can be prepared in the same way as other lean fish. Many people like it best simply breaded and seasoned, then fried in butter. Another popular cooking method, especially for more mature pike is poaching in bouillon. One area of controversy in culinary circles over the years has been—does one remove or leave on the skin? It likely comes down to a matter of taste. However, leaving the skin on while cooking will help keep the flesh moist.

Soak in vinegar water

Consumers occasionally find the flavour of pike slightly muddy or “silty”--probably because the fish has been caught closer to shore in more brackish waters. To annul any unpleasant flavour soak the fish for an hour or so in a solution of vinegar and water (two tablespoons vinegar in one cup of water). Those who have filleted pike at one time or another will have noticed the large number of bones (unlike most other species of fish, it possesses a second row of “Y-bones” along the back). One way to effectively deal with this is to partially cook the fish, at which point the bones will protrude and can more easily be removed.

It has been noted that pike or jackfish is low in fat and calories per serving. However, this depends largely on your method of preparation. Frying in butter or oil will add more calories to a serving—more so if the fillets are breaded due to uptake of fat—then will broiling, poaching or steaming. You may still choose to fry which is fine, but you may wish to cut back on fat in some other component of the meal. Also be aware that condiments such as tartar sauce or other cream-type sauces also add calories to a dish. Instead of these high-calorie additions, experiment with herbs and spices such as sweet basil, dill, curry powder and tarragon—or a squeeze of lemon or lime—to enhance the delicate flavour of fish.

It is always a good idea to check out foods raised close to home—in this case northern pike—both because this is the environmentally friendly thing to do and you will benefit by having fresh wholesome food to enjoy.