The Ultimate Wisconsin Fish Dinner

Because nothing says summer like an effervescent mojito and a whole butterflied grilled trout.

Photo by Chris Hynes. Food styling by Jim Rude.

“Trout is the perfect fish,” says Dori Sorensen, director of marketing for Rushing Waters Trout Farm in Palmyra, Wisconsin. “The older generation has such fond memories of it, and younger folks are eager to try it.”

Thanks to abundant natural springs—like those spilling out of the Kettle Moraine and feeding Rushing Waters’ fifty-six fish-rearing ponds—Wisconsin is the ideal place to grow trout year-round. So the savory salmonoids you see for sale today were very recently swimming about. And as any cook will tell you, freshness is the name of the game when it comes to fish.

SWEET AND SUBTLE

But it’s more than just freshness that makes Wisconsin trout tops for the table. Trout thrive in cold-water environments. And they forage on a smorgasbord of aquatic critters. This adds up to aculinary one-two punch that’s been dazzling diners for decades: firm flesh and sweet taste. Often served with their fine-spotted skin still on, trout are also beautiful on the plate, which adds another dimension. While walleye and perch are tasty, they lack trout’s je ne sais quoi elegance.

For side dishes and drinks, trout seeks partners, not powerhouses. Keep it local with a well-chilled Wollersheim Prairie Fumé or an understated Capital Pilsner. Mixed drinks should be similarly subdued. Nothing says summer like an effervescent mojito and a whole butterflied grilled trout.

Because I’m a forager, I often pick wild asparagus on the way home from trout fishing. Do the same or buy a bunch at the farmers’ market. Gently steamed or grilled with olive oil and lemon, asparagus is the perfect early-summer fish side. Green beans are a good second bet. Steam them, sauté them in butter with almonds or go counterpoint—an Asian treatment with soy sauce, sesame seeds, ginger and garlic.

If you’ve got the grill on, wrap up some new potatoes in foil. Season them with olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh herbs. Corn on the cob, grilled or steamed, is another go-to summer side. And no civilized summer soiree should go without a baguette and a stick of butter.

Dessert? Flan or fruit torte will fit the bill, as will fresh berries over local vanilla ice cream, like Sassy Cow.

THE MAIN DISH—SEARED OR SIMMERED

Back to sweetness. Salmon and swordfish stand out for robustness; they can handle big flavors like teriyaki and garlic. White fish like perch and walleye are so delicate that one hesitates to do anything but pan-fry or broil them. Trout are somewhere in the middle—milder than salmon or swordfish, more flavorful than perch or walleye.

After twenty-five years of preparing them, I’ve developed two go-to recipes: a quick sear and succulent cakes.

For searing, begin with one butterflied, boneless trout per person. Find fresh trout at the farmers’ market, Willy Street Co-op or Whole Foods. Blot off any moisture on the fish with a paper towel, rub with cut lemon and season.

You can go any number of ways here. Old Bay Seasoning, Szeged Fish Rub, Penzey’s Fox Point or a modest-heat Cajun rub are personal favorites. Try fresh herbs with sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper.

Searing can happen in a hot, smoking skillet—open the kitchen windows and turn on the fan—or over a 450-degree outdoor grill—make sure to scrape and oil it. Cook three minutes per side, until the edges curl.

I’ve served trout cakes to discriminating foodies and fussy children alike. The review is always the same: “Are there any more?” Trout cakes can be adapted to whatever taste you like—dilled, downhome, Latin and so on.

Other ways to cook trout include poaching in white wine and herbs, pan frying with ham or bacon, stuffing with shrimp and baking, and grilling after a brief soak in your marinade of choice.

Whatever the cooking method, lemon enhances trout’s natural sweetness. Serve a bowl of wedges, to pass, with your delicious trout dinner.

John Motoviloff is a avid cook and outdoorsman. His new cookbook, Wild Rice, Goose and Other Dishes of the Upper Midwest, will be published  by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2014.

RECIPE: Trout Cakes

INGREDIENTS

Three 12-inch trout, dressed (gutted)
1 egg, beaten
1 cup bread crumbs
2 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp lemon juice
Old Bay seasoning
Butter for browning
For sauce: Reserved cooking liquid, 1 tbsp butter, 1 tbsp flour, 1 tbsp lemon juice

DIRECTIONS

Simmer trout in water for 20 minutes. Remove fish from broth; cool and debone. Reserve 1 cup of cooking liquid. Place fish in bowl; add beaten egg, bread crumbs, mayonnaise and lemon juice. Mix everything together and form into four patties. Season patties, on both sides, with Old Bay seasoning. Brown patties on both sides in butter; keep warm. For sauce, strain 1 cup of hot cooking liquid. In a small saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon butter and quickly blend in 1 tablespoon flour. Add hot cooking liquid and stir until smooth. Add lemon juice, correct seasoning with salt and pepper and serve over cakes with a side of steamed asparagus. 

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