Food, by nature, is polarizing: every dish a love or hate proposition. We all have a handful of things we’d happily drive across town to eat, or in the opposite direction to avoid eating (this writer is not rushing out to pick up another six-pack of fermented quail eggs any time soon). The line between love and hate is a wholly subjective one, and, like testing the patience of a substitute teacher, you don’t often know where the line is until you cross it. This is why we love trying new things — in part to answer the question, “Do we like it?” but more broadly for the reward of an experience that, good or bad, will at the very least become fodder for a decent story some night around another dinner table.
Maybe this is more of a build up than pickled herring deserves, but the point is, this is some seriously polarizing stuff. Not quite sheep’s-brain-terrine polarizing, but we know few people whose feelings about it are ambivalent. The sight of a packed jar of skin-on herring fillets in wine sauce either makes your mouth water or causes your gag reflex to activate instantly.
We are fervently, ecstatically, and unequivocally in love with pickled herring. During the holidays, obviously, but just as much in the middle of summer when a pleasingly fishy, sweet, savory chilled snack hits all the right notes in the same way “Get Lucky” did the first time you heard it. Lucky for us, Ingebretsen’s on East Lake Street enables us to get our pickled herring fix year-round.
Your feelings about this small, fatty, cured fish aside, if you’ve never been to Ingrebretsen’s, you should go. For over 92 years they have been the go-to purveyor of all things Scandinavian. From authentic imported lefse griddles and cute decorative trolls to a full-on, totally legit meat department with a killer beef / pork Swedish meatball mix and handmade Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish potato sausage, if it’s at all Scandi, you can likely find it at Ingebretsen’s. But man, the herring.
Ingebretsen’s offers both imported and domestic herring. The imported stuff is made with herring from the Baltic Sea and is available by the pound in the meat case. The domestic is made using Icelandic herring pulled from the chilly North Atlantic and is prepared and canned by the Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis especially for Ingebretsen’s.
The imported fillets are a little smaller, but not by much. Both are cured in a traditional wine sauce that consists of vinegar, wine, sugar, spices (mustard seed, fennel, salt), and sliced onion. It’s awesome just like this, served atop a Norwegian rye crisp, toast, or even just a club cracker, or you can opt for flavored cutlets, which are made simply by replacing the wine sauce with another — sherry, mustard, and sour cream.
Traditional herring in wine sauce is undeniably and powerfully fishy, but also sweet and salty thanks to the pickling — all in perfect balance, mind you. This is the bread and butter, and few do it better than Ingebretsen’s. The fish is tender but not mushy, substantial but not chewy. It very nearly melts in your mouth.
The dill flavor is also excellent. The fresh, crisp, and slightly peppery herbs are the perfect complement to the sweetness of the brine. The sherry herring comes with a surprising hint of allspice, but the sweetness of the wine itself seems to bury the flavor of the fish and the savory side of the bargain. The herring in sour cream is absolutely amazing. The full flavor of the sea and the sweetness of the brine are brought harmoniously together with the mellow sour cream sauce. Wow.
If you have any questions when you’re here, ask for Mike or Gary in the meat market. These guys really know their stuff and will gladly guide you through their impressive selection.
And finally, if you’re in the mood for something boozy, herring pairs nicely with anything light and snappy like a traditional German pilsner or a Heineken. Or, even better yet, keep things really Scandi and wash it down with a few stiff swigs of aquavit. Ja!
Ingebretsen’s, 1601 E Lake St, Minneapolis, MN 55407; 612.729.9333