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Perch eats, potty talk and the Chicago lakefront: Some secrets, some hopes

Resized/Sun-Times

According to what F.K. Plous learned 30 years ago from a cook at Phil Smidt's, the key to going from this file photo of a mess of fresh-caught perch to the best on the plate is to fry, drain, bone, then butter and serve. Or leave bone-in.
Credit: Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

When it comes to lakefront portable toilets and eating perch, faithful readers have thoughts.

Especially when it came to Mario Pagnucci’s question, “Is there anywhere that comes even close to making lake perch like Phil Smidt’s used to?”

Smidt’s is the legendary defunct perch eatery in northwest Indiana.

Nearly all agreed with Ray Lemieux, “I’m a foodie. Sorry but, no, no perch even close to Smidt’s. I Wish!”

Then came an extended exchange with Chicagoan F.K. Plous, who 30 years ago had a cook invite him into the kitchen.

“The `secret’ to Phil Smidt’s perch recipe was that unlike virtually all other restaurants that served lake perch, Smidt’s did not dip its fish in batter,” Plous emailed. “Perch are a delicacy. A thick, cakey batter overpowers their delicate taste and texture.

“Smidt’s simply rolled the perch in potato starch–plain, dried potato starch, no egg, no milk, no beer or other liquids that might result in the formation of a crust. A thin coating of potato starch is all that’s needed to crisp the skin and turn it an appetizing brown.”

When I did a phone interview with Smidt’s 15 or 20 years ago, they said another secret was to parboil the perch before filleting for bone flavor.

“Parboiling? No way,” Plous emailed. “That must have been a ruse to lure you away from the real recipe.”

The real secret, according to Plous, is that “At Smidt’s, the perch were fried `round,’ i.e., whole. Boning took place after frying, not before. Once the whole fish (minus the heads), were coated in potato starch they were deep-fried in oil, then drained. The deep fry took only a couple of minutes.”

The final presentation was disingenuous, too.

“Because Smidt’s menu offered its perch `boned, in butter,’ many people mistakenly believed they were fried in butter. Wrong!” Plous explained.

Butter overheats and burns.

“At Smidt’s the perch were fried in oil, drained and boned, then ladled with clarified butter that had been heated separately,” Plous explained. He has found no match to Smidt’s perch.

Resized/Sun-Times

Perch are best done simply, such as this plate with skin-on, bone-in perch, pan fried in butter, presented on a bed of rice garnished with December-cut, organic home-grown spinach.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

In the awkwardest segue, to portable toilets on the Chicago lakefront in winter.

Every birder, walker, runner and fishermen is grateful, but Dale Rehus asked the question of many, “They do it for every stinking Bears game, why can’t they do it for the public? Cities like Racine or Michigan city are way more accommodating.”

Christian Howe suggested next up should be “one at 95th by the Coast Guard and the launch for spring salmon.” He’s right about that.

Maryanne Graf, whose extended quote I ran Sunday, summed it up, “The lakefront is enjoyed year round, portable toilets just make it more comfortable, especially for us girls.”

Otherwise, we are stuck doing what Owen Deckinga (author of “Every Stop Has a Story”), noted, “When I was pushing a garbage truck around the city before retirement I knew where every one was.”

Resized/Sun-Times

A portable toilet properly placed at Steelworkers Park for the winter, in time to handle the needs of perch fishermen and others.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

WILD THINGS: Many reports continue of sandhill cranes coming through the Chicago area, though the count at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area has dropped significantly.

STRAY CAST: Aaron Rodgers reminded me of a 7 1/2-year-old buck with gnarly antlers . . . and a memory of the 10-point spread that once was.