Even if you’ve never had the good fortune to visit the shores of Lake Michigan, these quintessential recipes from Amelia Levin’s love letter to America’s Third Coast and its rich food traditions are bound to transport your tastebuds.
Lake Michigan is a quiet, subtle force in the American landscape. It’s a source for recreation and fishing and food, affecting what we grow, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. On clear days, we stare into the sunset, thinking we can catch a glimpse of our neighbors on the other side of the lake, but let us not fool ourselves; we never do.
This is the vast and clear mishigami (“great water”), as the Ojibwa call it — the place in and around where Native American tribes go for fish and wild rice, and indigenous berries, nuts, and more. This is the lake where for centuries, fishermen have cracked the dawn with their boats and tugs and trap nets of whitefish. It’s the place where the rocks can either hurt your feet or the sand will tickle your toes; where cool winds blow at night, tempering the air and earth for vineyards and fruit orchards nearby and tenderizing asparagus and sweet onions after the first snow’s thaw. This is the lake where tourists flock from Memorial Day to Labor Day in hopes of a relaxing retreat or, come winter, where sheets of ice coat the surface and powerful winds make for oceanic sailing. This is the nearly 23,000-square-foot body of water that can give life as easily as it can take it. This is the spirit, power, and beauty of the Upper Midwest.
One of the most scenic routes in the United States is the Lake Michigan Circle Tour. As the name implies, it follows state highways around Lake Michigan, through Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. It would take 14½ hours with no stops to cover the roughly 900 miles.
It would be impossible to squeeze the cuisine from the entire coastline of Lake Michigan into one reasonably sized book. That’s a testament to the great food along America’s “Third Coast.” But you don’t have to have lived on the shores of Lake Michigan to know that there’s nothing quite like a homemade pie with just a few ingredients, grown with the most care and attention. You don’t even have to have vacationed there to imagine the flavor of pan-fried lake perch, fresh from the waters next door.
If you haven’t yet made it to this special place, perhaps a handful of favorite recipes from my book, The Lake Michigan Cottage Cookbook — recipes that, in my view, represent the region’s fresh foods and food traditions — will tempt you to the lakefront to enjoy for it yourself.
Panfried Perch with Tartar Sauce
A good ol’ fish fry reminds me of Friday nights at supper clubs in Door County in Wisconsin, where I spent weeks in the summer as a kid and where I have since vacationed with my own growing family. Every Friday, I anticipated those chunks of meaty local perch, lightly breaded, fried, and dipped liberally in tangy tarter sauce. My family and I often dined at Schartner’s, down the street from Bay Shore Inn, and farther north in Fish Creek at Greenwood Supper Club. The Mill in Sturgeon Bay and Sister Bay Bowl are also favorite stops in Door County for fish fries.
For the Tartar Sauce
- ¼ cup finely chopped dill pickles
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- 1 teaspoon drained, chopped capers (optional)
- ½ teaspoon dried tarragon or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh (optional)
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon lemon zest
- ¼ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
- 1 cup mayonnaise
For the Fish
- ¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon paprika or smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil, plus more if needed
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1¼–1½ pounds small fresh lake perch fish fillets, with skin
- Lemon wedges, for garnish
- For the tartar sauce, mix the pickles, parsley, capers, tarragon, lemon juice, lemon zest, and Old Bay in a small bowl. Fold in the mayonnaise to combine, and chill until serving time. The sauce will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.
- For the fish, place the flour, paprika, salt, and pepper in a plastic or paper bag. Heat the oil and butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until the butter is melted and very hot. Shake several perch fillets at a time in the flour mixture and add to the skillet. When all the fish is in the skillet, turn the heat to medium and cook until golden brown on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Turn and continue to cook until golden brown on the bottom and the fish is cooked through, about 4 minutes.
- Serve immediately with the tartar sauce and lemon wedges.
Door County Cherry Pie
A relic of both Door County and Michigan’s Traverse City, cherry pie can be found in both places with minor variations (all-butter vs. part-shortening crust; for the record, I’m an all-butter crust person). The common thread in this classic sweet treat is the tart, super plump Montmorency cherries that grow in both Northern Midwestern regions. My favorite place to pick up a pie is at Sweetie Pies in Fish Creek, Wisconsin (Door County). Many orchards pack cherries in their natural juices, which I prefer, because it gives you more control over the amount of sugar in your pie recipe.
For the Pastry
- 1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces, cold
- 3–5 tablespoons ice water
For the Filling
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 4 cups well-drained bottled tart Montmorency cherries in unsweetened cherry juice
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
For the Topping
- 1 tablespoon whole milk
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- For the pastry, combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl. Add the butter and use a pastry blender or two knives to cut in the butter until it is the size of coarse crumbs. Drizzle 3 tablespoons of the ice water over the top and stir with a fork. Gently knead the mixture with your hands until the dough holds together. If it is dry, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and knead until the dough holds together. Shape into two oval disks, wrap each in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 40 minutes.
- Roll one of the chilled dough disks on a lightly floured surface to ⅛-inch thickness and about 11 inches in diameter. Gently roll the pastry around the rolling pin and transfer it to a 9-inch pie pan or dish. Without stretching the dough, fit it into the bottom and up the sides of the pan.
- Preheat the oven to 325ºF (160ºC).
- For the filling, combine the sugar and flour in a large bowl. Add the cherries and mix well. Spoon the mixture into the pie shell and top with the butter.
- Roll out the remaining dough disk to ⅛ inch thick and about 11 inches in diameter. Drape the dough over the cherry filling. Fold the edges under the bottom crust and flute attractively or use a fork to press down the crust. Cut several slits in the center of the pie to allow steam to escape during baking.
- For the topping, brush the milk over the top and sprinkle the sugar evenly over the pie.
- Place the pie on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 1 hour 30 minutes or until golden brown. Let stand on a wire rack for at least 1 hour before serving.
Blueberry Sour Cream Coffee Cake
Southwest Michigan is considered part of the state’s “fruit belt,” and is one of the top fruit-producing areas in the country outside of California. Thanks to the region’s rich, fertile soil and mild temperatures caused by the lake’s cooling breeze, it’s here that you’ll find some of the best blueberries, strawberries, peaches, nectarines, and grapes. We often make this coffee cake while staying at my sister-in-law Nicole’s house in Grand Beach/New Buffalo, after we’ve picked up (or picked ourselves) a bushel of super sweet local blueberries. It’s the perfect accompaniment to morning coffee.
- 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
- ¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup sour cream (do not use fat-free)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups fresh blueberries
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Grease a 9- by 13-inch baking dish.
- Combine the walnuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a medium bowl, mixing well. Set aside.
- Beat the butter in the large bowl of an electric mixer until light. Gradually beat in the granulated sugar until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, then the sour cream and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Add half of the flour mixture to the mixer bowl and beat just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Repeat with the remaining flour mixture. Stir in the blueberries by hand.
- Pour half of the batter into the baking dish. Sprinkle half of the walnut mixture over the batter. Repeat with the remaining batter and walnut mixture.
- Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown and a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for at least 1 hour before serving. Leftover coffee cake may be covered tightly and stored at room temperature, or frozen for up to 3 months.
Beer Cheese Soup
Nothing reminds me more of Lake Michigan — save perhaps bratwurst — than Beer Cheese Soup. When I was growing up, my family had a tradition of spending a few days around the winter holidays at The American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin. We would kick off a hearty lunch at The Horse and Plow restaurant by sipping on Beer Cheese Soup, with its subtle hoppy undertones, rich cheddar finish, and crunchy, buttery croutons that were best when we let them soak in the soup just long enough to retain their bite. I developed my version with this memory in mind.
- 4 tablespoons butter
- ⅓ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole milk or half-and-half
- 1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
- 1 (12-ounce) bottle pilsner-style beer, such as Lakefront Brewery’s Klisch, New Glarus’s Edel Pils, or even Milwaukee’s Schlitz
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
- 2 cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
- croutons or garlic croutons, popcorn, chopped fresh chives, cooked crumbled bacon, or, if you like, make your favorite grilled cheese sandwich, let it cool, and cut it into small squares to use as croutons
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook for 1 minute, whisking constantly. Whisk in the milk, broth, beer, Worcestershire, and cayenne. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheese until completely melted. Ladle into soup bowls and add toppings as desired.