Trout frying in America 

Strolling by the river the other morning, the smell of flowering cottonwood trees made me dizzy. It was like swimming in a vat of honey. That smell took me back to my pre-school days in northern Utah.

Taste can take you back in time, too…Apricots, for example, take me back to the same place, with the Mormons next door and their pantry full of home-canned pickles and their three blond Mormon daughters that I chased around the front stoop in my birthday suit. Nowadays when I do that, the neighbors call the cops.

The other day I ate something that took me back to Utah again, back to a little restaurant called Maddox, where my parents and I used to eat pan-fried trout.

In the 30 years that have passed since then, I’ve attempted to fry much trout, most of which has failed. I can’t seem to coax the batter to stick to the fish, although it seems to stick quite easily to everything else in the kitchen, like the wall, the floor, my pants…

The problem is that fish are slimy. And eggs are slimy. And slime doesn’t stick to slime, making it tricky to get the egg to stick to the fish. But the other night I finally succeeded. And since fishing season is upon us, I’m going to share my new secret.

But before I do, some brief notes on the acquisition of fish.

The best way to acquire fish is to live next door to fishermen. But they must be the right kind of fishermen.

The esoteric fly-fishers, who love nothing better than to hold a trout’s speckled underbelly up to the light above some pristine stream before releasing the fish…these people are of no use to me, because they don’t bring me any fish. Then there are the bait fishers who share the fly-fishers’ delight in dragging fish through the water via a metal barb in the cheek, but don’t share the desire to do so in clean and pristine settings. If they were to bring me fish from, say, the pond above Milltown dam, I’m not interested. Fish from a skanky place will surely be skanky.

Then there are the subsistence fishermen, who do it for the food. Not that they don’t enjoy the act—of course they do. It’s the hunter’s instinct after all, honed over thousands of years of evolution, that imparts the thrill of chasing and catching animals. It’s a perversion of that instinct that motivates the catch-and-release types. Nonetheless, most bait fishermen are of little use to me, because they eat the fish themselves.

Then there are those like my neighbor Bill, rare individuals who embody that perfect mix of perversion and conscience which results in me getting lots of good fish. Bill likes clean water and derives great enjoyment from dragging fish to the surface of it. Bill is practical enough to realize that throwing back fish is a waste of good food. And if it wasn’t for his wife—who, bless her heart, is sick of fish—Bill would keep the fish himself. But since he can’t, and he still wants to fish, I help Bill out, turning his perversion into a useful activity. I plug Bill, and his vestigial hunter’s instinct, back into the food chain.

Bill is really good at keeping the fish on ice from the moment they leave the water. This is essential. Another essential is washing the fish flesh after gutting or filleting them—you want to remove the stray gut juice and fish piss as soon as possible.

The other day, Bill brought home a load of big lake trout, which I filleted. Then I breaded them with a three-stage technique that I learned from the cooks at the Steelhead Grill. It’s actually a breading for fried green tomatoes, but it works great on fish. The only thing I added was dill.

The beauty of the three-stage breading process is that each layer sticks to the layer beneath it, and the bottom layer sticks to the fish. The layers build up into a three-ply coating that fries like a dream.

To do it, set up the following three bowls:

Bowl 1 (the “dredging mixture”): 3 cups flour, 2 tablespoons salt, 1 tablespoon each of pepper, and dried dill. Mixed.

Bowl 2 (the “egg wash”): 1 cup milk and 4 eggs, beaten together.

Bowl 3 (the “cornmeal batter”): Mix 1 cup flour, 2 cups cornmeal, 1 teaspoon each of cayenne, chili powder, granulated garlic, and cumin, 1/2 teaspoon each of coriander and onion powder.

Coat each filet with flour in bowl 1. Then, dunk the filet in the egg wash of bowl 2. Then roll it around in bowl 3 for the final cornmeal coat. Fry the filets in oil, preferably in a cast iron skillet, until golden brown. Squeeze lemon on top and eat.

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