Ballard’s Best Fiskegrateng for the entire family

Fall comfort food, satisfying and nourishing

FISKEGRATENG

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Ballard’s Best Fiskegrateng comes together in a flash, perfect for a family dinner or any occasion.

Julie Pheasant-Albright
Seattle

I grew up in Ballard, an old neighborhood in Seattle. To say it was primarily Scandinavian and primarily a fishing town would both be gross understatements. Ballard is home to the North Pacific fishing fleet: crab boats, halibut schooners, purse seiners, salmon boats, long liners, and fish processors. It was a rite of passage for high school and college kids to go to Alaska to work in the canneries or on fishing boats. I spent four summers there working in Bristol Bay.

Ballard was primarily a Norwegian neighborhood, although there were plenty of Swedes, a smattering of Danes, a tribe of Icelanders, and the occasional Finn. There was a Norwegian Lutheran Church, a Swedish Lutheran Church, an Icelandic Lutheran Church, and a Finnish church. There was a Danish bakery, a Norwegian bakery, and a Swedish bakery, all within a few blocks of each other. We had two separate Norwegian delis as well.

To say this neighborhood ate a lot of fish would be overstating the obvious. During the Depression, my mom’s father died and my godmother’s father died. Their kindly fishermen neighbors provided a lot of fish. Then along came World War II, and fish was one of the only things not rationed. My godmother said she ate fish six days a week and chicken on Sunday, and after the war, she never ate either again.

My mom, on the other hand, worked as a secretary at San Juan Fishing and Packing during World War II and it never put her off fish, except for lingcod, which we never ate.

North Pacific fishing

Photo: Madison Leiren
Seattle’s historic Ballard neighborhood is home to the North Pacific fishing fleet.

As it happens, my mother once won a prize at the Juneau, Alaska, salmon fishing derby for a huge king salmon. Once when I came back from sport fishing in Puget Sound, proudly displaying my barely legal salmon, she looked at it with disdain and said, “Well that will make a nice hors d’oeuvre for someone.”

Although my father was an avid sports fisherman and not a commercial fisherman (he was an airline executive, and he handled all the marine accounts), we probably ate fish at least three or four days a week.

We had a freezer full of salmon fillets, halibut steaks, Portlock canned “hard smoked” salmon, “Nova” smoked salmon (gravlox), and if we were very lucky, black cod. We had cupboards full of canned salmon. There was herring in the refrigerator, and my dad had king crab legs sent down from Kodiak in giant waxed boxes at least twice a month or so. (I took it entirely for granted for which karma will punish me the rest of my life…for uttering these words: “Crab legs again?”) We had lots of friends who were fishermen, and they shared their bounty with us. We were strangers to the fish stick and the Filet–O–Fish.

Tuna made its round through the rotation, but my friend Barbara Hegge brought a halibut salad sandwich pretty much every day to school.

And if by some unforeseen occurrence my mom didn’t have exactly the kind of fish she wanted, she would go down to Øyvind Witzoe’s fish market in a little store down an alley off Market Street with a giant neon fishhook outside.

Every once in a while, we had a glut of halibut and my mom would make fiskegrateng. It was the perfect way to use up leftover white fish. Much later in life, a couple of friends commented that they always hung around at dinner time hoping to be invited to join us.

This fiskegrateng recipe contains neither mashed potatoes nor pasta nor cheese. Heresy! It can either be made as a strictly fish gratin, or as more of a fish souffle. My mother had it filed in a recipe box under both fish and souffle.

I must add that this is the first thing I ever learned to cook after my Betty Crocker baking set mixes as a child. If I could make a bechamel sauce in grade school, you can, too!

fiskegrateng

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
It was a special occasion when Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall enjoyed Ballard’s Best Fiskegrateng with gourmet chef Julie Pheasant-Albright at the Ballard home of Janet Pladsen Clancy and Brian Kleven.

 

Ballard’s Best FISKEGRATENG
Servings: 6 – 8

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups cleaned, flaked, cooked halibut (You may substitute cooked, canned, or fresh salmon, cod, or pollock.)

For the Bechamel Sauce:

  • 4 tbsps. butter
  • 4 tbsps. flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/8 tsp. mace
  • 1/8 tsp. ground bay leaf powder
  • handful of minced onion (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Make a roux of 4 tbsps. of butter and 4 tbsps. of flour, whisking together over low heat. Slowly add 2 cups of milk and bring very slowly to a low boil, whisking continuously.
  2. Take off the heat and add 2 egg yolks at the very end. Add salt and pepper to taste, 1/8 tsp. mace, 1/8 tsp. ground bay leaf powder, and a little minced onion. Your mileage may vary.
  3. Mix well with 2 cups of cleaned, flaked, cooked halibut. You may substitute cooked, canned, or fresh salmon, cod, or pollock.
  4. At this point, you may or may not desire to whip the leftover egg whites until stiff peaks form and fold them into the fish. If you do, remember not to open that oven till it’s all nice and brown on top and suitably puffy!
  5. Put it in a shallow buttered baking dish and top with bread crumbs or cracker crumbs and dot with butter. Don’t be shy with either.
  6. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes at 350° until the top is nice and golden brown. Serve with green beans or peas and new potatoes with butter. For an extra special dinner, you may want to top each serving off with some cooked shrimp and some of the Bechamel Sauce.

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Julie Pheasant-Albright

Julie Pheasant-Albright is a baker standing on the shoulders of baking giants—her mother and godmother. She is the author of the book Early Ballard, a history of Seattle’s historic Norwegian neighborhood. She is also a member of several Norwegian organizations in Seattle.