Hooked on whole fish
Summer has finally descended upon me. The kids have been out of school for weeks, I know, but for me it took a spontaneous fishing trip up to the Grand Mesa for summer to settle into my bones and tease my palate. My tomatoes are still green, my peppers and eggplant are only blossoms and my cucumbers are just beginning their climb. Unbeknownst to me I was craving a fresh meal to kick start my summer.
This past week we were fortunate to have my 12-year-old nephew staying with us from out of state. Each year I hope to host my nephews, and when they do visit, we always make a point to highlight all that Colorado has to offer. We usually hike, camp, ride bikes, river raft and fish. I also, not so surprisingly, like to throw in a little cooking lesson in there somewhere if I can. So when our good friends asked if we all wanted to join them on a fishing trip to Grand Mesa, we jumped at the chance to not only explore a new area and get some fishing time in for my nephew, but hopefully create a fantastic meal at the end. Yes, I do always have an agenda and yes, it usually involves food. Of course, the backup plan was take-out, as we all know fishing is not a sure thing.
As expected, fishing can be frustrating, boring and unfulfilling for young folks. However, as one matures, the true joys of fishing become more apparent with or without actually bringing anything home.
As a foodie, fishing presents an opportunity for a meal that I know will not compare to anything you can get from the market or from some of the best restaurants.
There is something truly remarkable about any kind of fresh-caught fish served within hours of its harvest that truly surpasses anything I have ever tasted elsewhere. After this past Sunday I am confident my family agrees.
I have fond memories of fishing. I grew up with a fisherman (not so much of a catcher-man) father. I can still smell the familiar scent of the two-tone, gold and brown 1973 Ford truck and cab-over camper — it now seems so dinky — that my mom would have stocked and had ready to go as soon as my dad pulled into the driveway on Friday night. My sister and I would throw on our jammies, get comfy in the top of the camper (yes, no seat belts remember?) and drive in the dark of the night to my dad’s fishing destination. By the time us girls woke up in the morning, dad had already put in several hours of solid fishing. My sister and I would polish off our meal and sprint down to the lake or river to join in the fun. The solitude in fishing always gave him time to create stories of the “ones” that got away. The “ones” that didn’t get away were promptly served up and added to our favorite camping meals. My mom will never turn fresh fish away.
I am a huge supporter of catch and release; however, I am also a proponent of teaching the skills of fishing to young people and, more importantly, educating them about the need to eat what you harvest. However, more often than not, people tell me that they enjoy fishing but are nervous or uncomfortable about preparing it. I have even included fresh trout in my cooking classes at the request of fishermen’s spouses who want — but just have not been able — to successfully prepare their spouse’s bounty.
I have had fresh-caught fish prepared many different ways; deep fried, pan fried, poached, breaded, you name it. But by far my favorite way to prepare it is not only the simplest but the most flavorful, in my opinion.
No stress. No fussy ingredients. If you are confident in your filleting skills and waste not, then go for it. But for me, I prefer keeping the fish intact, head on. I want to be sure to use the whole product, waste little and create an eye-teasing meal.
After cleaning the fish and leaving the head on, rinse it under clean fresh water and pat dry with a paper towel. Preheat your grill. Sprinkle coarse kosher salt and fresh cracked Tellicherry peppercorns (or your favorite pepper) inside the cavity. Finely chop about 1 tablespoon of your favorite herbs. This is where I get excited about my summer herb garden. Tarragon is my favorite with trout, but chives and parsley are a close runner-up. Sprinkle the herbs into the cavity. Thinly slice lemons and place two or three lemons inside the cavity, folding them if the cavity is not deep enough. (I will not make fun of the size of your fish). A thin pat of butter is optional but so worth it. Drizzle the outside of the fish with a little olive oil, using your hands to rub the entire body of the fish. This helps the fish not stick to the grill and also satisfies those who want to nibble on the crispy skin (Mom).
Once the grill is hot, place the fish on the grill. Do not move the fish until the skin is charred and naturally releases. Depending on your grill and the amount of oil you use, this really should only take about 3-5 minutes. Tuck your hands in your pockets and resist the urge to move the fish around.
When the fish is ready, gently flip the fish over using a wide spatula and grill on the second side another 3-5 minutes until desired doneness. I prefer my fish on the “less than done” side, where the flesh has just become firm and flakes when slightly pulled with a fork.
Serve the fish whole. Using the tines of a fork slowly peel the skin away and — voila — you will see the beautiful whitish-pink colored meat. I find that is best, using a fork, to start at the back bone of the fish and gently pull the meat off toward me, leaving the tiny bones attached. Always double check to make sure the bones are removed.
This method is also excellent for pan frying if you do not have a grill.