Fishing the Salmon River

Fishing the Salmon River - Douglaston Salmon RunBack in Russia, fishing salmon for recreation generally requires a taste for northern climates, and, more often than not, some serious travel time. If you want Atlantic salmon, you fish the Baltic, Barents, or Kara Seas, the rivers draining into them, as well as a bunch of lakes connected to them in Karelia. For Chinook or Coho salmon, you look around the Sea of Okhotsk — a region more famous for its gulags and tough climate than its recreational fishing. The fact that you’re probably seeing half of these sea names for the first time right now should tell you something: they’re far, even if you live in Russia.

Here in North America, salmon fishing is significantly simpler. Most if not all of the Great Lakes are stocked with Atlantic, Chinook, and Coho salmon, all in the same place, making the days  of countless fishing charters in the summertime. When spawning season comes in the fall, thousands of salmon (and trout) swim upstream the rivers connected to the lakes to build their nests (called redds). At that point you don’t even need a boat anymore — just find a spot on the bank and cast your line!

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Kutap, Armenian Stuffed Trout

This recipe is the first of my own interpretations of the mythical “Lake Sevan Gifts” that I talked about in my last Armenian Adventures post. It was the perfect thing to do with the trout I just caught on Cayuga Lake!

Kutap is an ancient Armenian dish consisting of a whole, boned trout, stuffed with a mixture of rice and raisins. Now, as with most if not all Armenian recipes, there is controversy about whether it really is Armenian. In Azerbaijan, this could easily pass as a fish dolma… In fact, an Azeri was recently asking me: “If dolma’s an Armenian dish, how do you explain that the word for it isn’t Armenian?” (In fact it comes from the Turkish verb dolmak, “to be stuffed.”)

My version uses pounded fillets instead of the whole fish, making it more akin to a paupiette. The stuffing is very close to the one described in Pokhlebkin’s Cookbook of the Soviet Peoples, except I prepare the rice like a risotto. I served the kutap with a zucchini and basil purée.

Kutap
Yields 4 servings

1 1/2 oz Arborio rice
1 1/2 oz golden raisins
3/4 oz butter
1/4 tsp grated fresh ginger
salt
Urfa pepper, ground
1 1/2 oz white wine
4 oz chicken stock, warm
2 cleaned (skinned and boned) trout fillets, about 9 oz each (or 4 fillets half that size)
1 1/2 tbsp finely chopped parsley

  • In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook the rice and raisins in the butter for 1 minute. Add the ginger, salt, pepper and white wine, and boil gently until almost dry. Add half of the chicken stock and simmer until fully absorbed, then repeat with the rest of the stock. Remove from heat and let cool.
  • Take off 3 oz of flesh from the fillets and reserve. You can either use the tail ends if the fillets are small, or cut off the thickest part if they’re larger.
  • Place the fillets between sheets of plastic wrap and lightly flatten using a meat pounder. You want to obtain four 4″ x 6″ rectangles, 1/4″ thick — approximately, this is not a math class.
  • Chop the reserved flesh into small dice, and add along with the parsley into the rice mixture, then divide between the four rectangles and roll into cylinders. Tightly wrap the cylinders in plastic film, making sure that the stuffing is tucked in (this happens almost naturally).
  • Steam the fish for 5 minutes, let rest for 1 minute, then remove the plastic wrap. Cut each portion on a bias and serve.

Armenian Adventures, Part 4

Every Armenian, from the taxi driver in Moscow to the shopkeeper in Yerevan, waxes lyrical about Lake Sevan if you give them a chance. “What a place! The beaches! The fish!” They would no doubt prefer being there instead of being stuck in their daily routine. Reading the Lonely Planet guide, I, too, was getting excited: “hectic 10 weeks in summer”, “bustling little town of Sevan”, “Armenian Riviera in the brief hot summers, with bars, beach volleyball, water-skiing and paddleboats”! Sure, I wasn’t expecting a post-Soviet Ibiza, but I had reasons to believe we could enjoy ourselves for a day or two.

The “bustling little town”… “sleepy” came more to mind when we went there at the height of summer. It’s kind of odd to build the main town several miles away from the lake. I understand that the water level fell significantly following artificial draining during the Stalin era, but over 50 years later this remains a rather unique situation compared to other lakes I can think of. It certainly doesn’t encourage tourists to come downtown. Here are pictures of a couple of street vendors:

… and Sevan’s market:

Calling Sevan an Armenian Riviera is a downright joke. Yes, the landscapes around the lake are very nice, except for shores that look like a vast amusement park sponsored by Coca-Cola. But where is the beach?

Here is the largest beach we could find in the two hours we spent paddling along the “Riviera”. Apparently, the government’s recent policy to raise the lake level again has resulted in the beaches going under water!

Now about those hot summers … It was gray, rainy and rather cold on the morning and early afternoon of our arrival. Things got slightly better later on before relapsing the next day, which is why you don’t see that many people in bathing suits in my pictures. In fact, you don’t see that many people at all! The two hotels I checked were empty, and there really aren’t that many hotels around in the first place. Of course there are some other options, like those metal boxes that must have served as temporary dwellings after the earthquake years ago and are now rented by people waving at you from the shoulder of the highway. But most people seem to come only for the day. They start the grill, play cards, eat their khorovats (kebabs), take a swim if they’re brave, turn on the radio to dance to some Armenian pop, and then pack and go home. By 8 pm, we were all alone. By 10 pm, we were closing the hotel bar.

Taking a closer look at the khorovats, I must say they look better than many of the kebabs we were served!

 
As for the legendary fish from Sevan… The most widespread species is Coregonus Lavaretus, a whitefish locally called sig. However, it isn’t native to Sevan. It was introduced in the 1920′s from Lake Ladoga, with the assumption that it wouldn’t compete with the endemic trout. Of course things didn’t go as planned, and the trout are now nearly extinct. Paradoxically, that same trout species was introduced in the 1970′s into Lake Issyk-Kul (in Kazakhstan), where it survives quite well, ravaging the indigenous species. Today, your options in cafés and restaurants consist of farmed trout, whitefish, or crawfish — another introduced species. The endemic trout was listed on at least one menu for a ridiculous price nearing $100 a head, but I didn’t bother asking if it was actually available.

And indeed, availability isn’t always a given. I remember going to one supposedly excellent restaurant and asking about a dish mysteriously named “Lake Sevan’s Gifts”; after 10 minutes of confused, incomprehensible explanations and a few round-trips to the kitchen, the waiter took the order, only to come back later to tell us the dish wasn’t available! To this day, I don’t know what Lake Sevan’s Gifts consisted of, but I have my own made-up interpretation in the works. I managed to capture a whitefish on skewers below.

Although as I mentioned above, much more than any kind of fish, the specialty on the lake is… meat kebabs.

Speaking of meat kebabs, here are a couple of butcher shops in the area. Now, I understand that in many places in the world, meat is still kept without refrigeration — which then forces people to systematically overcook it, by the way. But can someone explain to me the point of hanging it in the sun above a barbecue???


Next time, onward to controversial Karabakh!

Lake Trout Sausages

This is my last lake trout recipe for a while, I promise! Not only do these sausages buy you a couple days before you have to eat them (because you have to eat your trout tartare and your seared trout fillets first, remember?), they also make use of a lot of fish trimmings. I serve them with a simple mix of thinly sliced onion and fennel tossed with salt, sumac, chives, lemon juice and olive oil.

Natural sausage casings can be purchased here. As far as hardware is concerned, if you have a KitchenAid stand mixer, the food grinder and sausage stuffer attachments will do a perfect job as long as you don’t plan to start your own commercial operation.

This recipe also makes fish stock. You can freeze the stock and use it for another recipe, such as a fish soup, into which you could blend any leftover trout trimmings, as well.

Cooked trout trimmings
Yields over 10 oz cooked trimmings and 2 qt fish stock

30 oz trout heads and bones
salt
pepper
1/2 oz olive oil
3 oz onion
2 garlic cloves
8 oz dry white wine
6 thyme sprigs
3 parsley branches
24 oz water

  • Season the heads and bones with salt and pepper, and sauté in olive oil over high heat in a pressure cooker without the lid. Add the onion and garlic, and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Add the white wine, bring to a boil and simmer for a couple minutes. Add the thyme, parsley and water. Cover and pressurize over medium heat, then cook for 20 minutes. Let cool.
  • Pass the liquid through a chinois and reserve for another recipe. Pick the meat from the fish heads and bones. You can keep the lean flesh, the fat, the gelatinous head matter — taste it and decide! Keep in mind this will all be blended in the sausages, so you can err on the adventurous side (do you know what meat parts are used in hot dogs?!). The amount will vary greatly based on your choice, but you should have at least 10 oz. Let cool and refrigerate.

Lake trout sausages
Yields 10 sausages

5 ft sausage casings (natural hog, 1 1/4″-1 3/8″ diameter)
2 oz butter
1 oz Arborio rice
salt
3 oz chicken stock
2 oz ice cubes
10 oz cooked trout trimmings
0.3 oz smoked salt
1 tsp Urfa pepper
1/4 tsp onion powder
16 oz cleaned trout fillet
2 tbsp chopped chives
1 oz olive oil

  • Soak the sausage casings in a bowl of water in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
  • In a small saucepan, melt 1/4 of the butter over medium heat, add the rice and cook for 1 minutes. Season with salt, stir in 1/3 of the chicken stock, cover and cook over low heat until the liquid is fully absorbed. Add the rest of the chicken stock in 2 more pours, until the rice is cooked. Mix in the rest of the butter and let cool.
  • Transfer the rice to a blender with the ice cubes, trout trimmings, smoked salt, Urfa pepper and onion powder, and blend until smooth.
  • Grind the trout fillet using the large die of the grinder. Combine with the blended mixture and the chives, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  • Rinse the inside and outside of the casings with cold water, pat dry, and stuff using a sausage maker. Refrigerate the sausages, loosely covered, for at least 24 hours.
  • To serve, poke the sausages with a fork on all sides, and sauté in olive oil over low heat, turning regularly.

Pickled Lake Trout

So you’ve caught all that trout, you’ve pan-seared or cured the best fillets, and you still have plenty of fish left. Pickle it! This recipe is perfect for smaller fish, as pickling will dissolve the bones, sparing you the tedious task of removing them. Moreover, the jars can be kept refrigerated for over a month.

If you find that the result tastes too much like vinegar, strain the trout and vegetables and mix them with sour creamthe day before serving (you can add back a little bit of the pickling liquid if you wish).

You could also try adapting my recipe for  Dill and Sour Cream Marinated Shad,  though the jar won’t keep nearly as long with that one.

Pickled trout
Yields 2 pint jars

2 1/2 oz peeled carrot
4 oz peeled shallot
4 thyme sprigs
0.3 oz fennel green, very coarsely chopped
0.6 oz salt
o.5 oz sugar
3 1/2 oz white wine vinegar
2 oz olive oil
2 oz orange juice
20 oz trout fillet, cleaned

  • Slice the carrot and shallot very thinly using a mandoline. Transfer to a bowl and add the thyme and fennel green.
  • Place the salt, sugar, vinegar, oil and orange juice in a blender, and process until smooth. Pour into the bowl and mix.
  • Cut the trout into pieces 2″ to 2 1/2″ long. In sterilized pint jars, arrange successive layers of vegetable mixture and trout, and top with the liquid mixture. Refrigerate for at least 3 days.
  • Remove from the fridge about 30 minutes before serving, and eat with toasted rye bread.

Vodka-Cured Lake Trout

Following our successful Keuka Lake fishing trip, I have a few more trout recipes to share with you. Since I don’t want to freeze fish and I can only eat so much while it’s fresh, I had to come up with a number of curing and marinating plans. This one involves vodka and is particularly successful: instead of giving a marked alcohol taste to the fish, the vodka blends in and produces a very mellow result. If you want to add some smoke flavor, you can substitute half or all of the salt with smoked salt.

The cured fish can be wrapped in plastic film and kept in the fridge for a couple weeks. Serve with pancakes and sour cream.

Vodka-cured lake trout
Yields about 6 servings

1 oz salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 1/2 oz sugar
4 oz light olive oil
4 oz vodka
1 large trout fillet, skinless (about 16 oz when cleaned)

  • In a blender, mix the salt, pepper, sugar, olive oil and vodka. Place the trout and the curing mix into a plastic pouch, and refrigerate for 48 hours. Flip every 12 hours, making sure the fish remains completely coated in the liquid.
  • Take the fillet out of the pouch, rinse under cold water and pat dry. Slice very thinly and serve.

Keuka Lake Fishing and Lake Trout Tartare

On a visit to the Finger Lakes last weekend, we spent a morning trout fishing on Keuka Lake with Fisherman John. When he’s not teaching freshwater angling and fly fishing at Cornell University, John is on the lakes nearly every other day all year long, and you can trust him to figure where and when the action is. We had a slow start, but around 10 am the bite picked up for about an hour, which was long enough for us to land 5 nice lakers, all between 18 and 24 inches!

Just like my Quick Seared Trout with Smoked Trout Rillettes, this tartare recipe is simple to make and emphasizes the flavor of the fish. If you want to experience ultimate piscine freshness, you can even mix all the ingredients, put them in a plastic container, take it on the fishing boat and mix in the chopped trout as soon as you catch it! If you prefer the comfort of your dining room, serve the dish with some oven-roasted potatoes and a glass of Keuka Lake Riesling, like this one from Bully Hill Vineyards.

Fennel dice
Yields 2 servings

1/2 oz butter
2 oz small-diced fennel
salt

  • Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the fennel, season with salt, cover and cook until soft, stirring regularly. Let cool and refrigerate.

Zucchini dice
Yields 2 servings

1/2 oz butter
2 oz small-diced baby zucchini
2 thyme sprigs, stems removed
salt

  • Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the zucchini and thyme, season with salt, cover and cook until soft, stirring regularly. Let cool and refrigerate.

Tomato dice
Yields about 2 servings

2 vine tomatoes
salt
piment d’espelette

  • Mark an X into the bottom of each tomato with a knife, plunge into boiling water for 30 seconds, then shock in ice water. Peel, cut into quarters and seed. Cut the flesh into small dice, measure exactly 2 oz and reserve the rest for another use. Season with salt and piment d’espelette and refrigerate.

Lake trout tartare
Yields 2 servings

10 oz skinless, boneless trout fillets
1 tbsp top-quality olive oil
salt
black pepper, ground
2 tbsp lemon mayonnaise
2 half egg shells
2 tsp trout roe
fennel dice
zucchini dice
tomato dice

  • Chop the trout fillets into small dice. Mix with the olive oil, salt and pepper.
  • Spoon the mayonnaise into the egg shells and top with the trout roe.
  • Arrange all the elements on the plates and serve immediately.

Ice Fishing, and Quick Seared Trout with Smoked Trout Rillettes

During a family trip to the Adirondacks earlier this month, I decided to continue my exploration of the great outdoors with a half-day of ice fishing and a day of hare hunting. While the hunting was, like last time, a failure that I will save for another post, the fishing was pretty successful.

Forget the comfort of heated fishing shacks, complete with TVs and mini-bars. Fisherman Gary made it clear that these, as well as any other forms of shelter, were good for ice drinking, not for ice fishing. And judging by the amount of fish I caught, he certainly knows what he’s talking about! We went to a quiet pond near Lake Placid:

As New York Game & Fish magazine so rightfully pointed out in a recent issue, “ice angling always begins with cutting a hole in the ice to fish through”. We had about 6″ of ice that day, 3″ being the minimum for safe fishing. Gary was a great guide, who knew exactly where to drill the holes and showed me how to do every step.

You clear the area around the hole with a shovel, and remove any leftover ice from the water using a skimmer. Then you’re ready to install your tip-up. Here’s an old wooden model that Gary got from his father:

Basically, the line is under the water, and any fish biting the bait will cause the red flag to pop up. When that happens, you just run to the hole, make sure the fish is still biting, and pull out the tip-up and the line together. You can have up to 5 tip-ups and 2 jigs per person, so things can get pretty hectic at times. Here’s my first fish of the day:

I ended up catching 2 splake (a hybrid resulting from the crossing of a male brook trout and a female lake trout), 2 brown trout and 4 yellow perch. I released 3 of the yellow perch as they were much smaller and not so interesting to eat in my opinion.

Back home, I wanted to come up with a recipe that lets the fish speak for itself, can be prepared with the limited tools and ingredients you have access to while on a fishing trip, and yet offers a special touch. I topped the fish with buckwheat greens and served it with multi-colored carrots, but feel free to replace them with whatever you have. The smoked salt and piment d’espelette do make a difference and are sold in containers small enough that you can take them anywhere.

Smoked trout rillettes
Yields 4 servings

4 oz of small trout fillets, skin on
olive oil
1 oz butter, small dice
smoked salt
piment d’espelette
4 slices French baguette

  • Saute the fish fillets skin side down with olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Press a couple times with a spatula, flip and remove from the heat.
  • Discard the skin, and transfer the flesh to a bowl. Add the butter, season with smoked salt and piment d’espelette to taste, and mix with a fork.
  • Toast the bread, and spread the rillettes on top.

The picture above shows a brown trout (top) and a splake (bottom) before filleting. I have a slight preference for the splake, though both taste very good, and both are way more flavorful than the rainbow trouts you typically find in stores. Just make sure you don’t overcook them!

Seared trout
Yields 4 servings

4 trout fillets, skin on
salt
black pepper, ground
olive oil

  • Season the fillets with salt and pepper. Sauté skin side down with olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Press a couple of times with a spatula to crisp the skin, flip and remove from the heat. Serve immediately.