Whole roasted brook trout is an easy meal that really feels like a privilege to eat. Perhaps because I’m obsessed with water and the natural habitat of fish, I really appreciate how special a good piece of fish really is without being a production. When I was in high school, I had an after school job as fish monger. Twice a week we would go down to the fish market on Fulton Street at 3am and bring back the freshest catch. Because I was sixteen years old and a girl, it was rare that the traditional Italian owners, a couple, would allow me to accompany them to the market. They didn’t want me to see the prostitutes, cross dressers and mafia men who also frequented the market. It was no place for a young lady. On the days of their market runs, I’d come in and scale, filet, stuff, chop, devein and refrigerate or hang their haul. I learned how to clean a soft shell crab, skin an eel, clean a sturgeon and stuff a clam. I learned that shrimp is almost always frozen and figured out how the industry marketed different kinds of fish. Monkfish became the poor man’s lobster. The patagonian toothfish was marketed as Chilean seabass and subsequently became over-fished. I also learned that different countries have different names for the same fish and that there really is no industry standard for names in many cases, a problem that cooks and fisherman have tried to address internationally. The best of our stock came from private customers who would go out deep sea fishing in their boats and sell us their days’ catch. Most importantly to a teenage girl, I also learned that fresh fish does not smell.
The other day I went to an Italian restaurant and ordered the whole roasted trout. It was so buttery, without having butter and extremely receptive to flavor. It was infused with lemon and the oil from the olives with just a touch of heat from the chili pepper. I knew I had to recreate this experience in the kitchen with all of the flavors complementing the mild taste of the fish rather than overwhelming it. And thus, an homage to my younger self. With the weather warming up and the sun still up when I leave work, I’m becoming more myself again and it’s such a wonderful relief.
When you make this dish, don’t let the fish monger cut off the head. There is a little treasure in the muscle behind the eye that many consider a delicacy. You may want to use your hands for this. Not just for the muscle, but for stuffing, for eating, for picking. When I found the treasured muscle, I was reminded of myself at sixteen again, my whole life ahead of me, overwhelmed with schoolwork, unaware of my capabilities, oblivious to any of my own charm and impatient. Sitting at the bar, filled to the brim with people, life and heat, the door open behind me, it made me feel like I had more air in my lungs. This was one of those simple unexpected nights that gleam. With this treasure in front of me, and my dear one beside me, I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere else in that moment and that I’m actually really excited to be who and where I am. At least for that moment. Go ahead, treat yourself. Make a brook trout.
Whole Roasted Brook Trout w/ Lemon, Olives, Chili Flakes, Shallot & Cilantro
- Two whole brook trout, cleaned with the heads on
- 1/4 lb pitted olives, chopped
- 1 small shallot, chopped
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1 lemon, sliced into thin wedges
- 2 tablespoon chili flakes
Preheat oven to 400F. Fill the cavities of the fish with half of the chopped olives, cilantro leaves, half of the chili flakes, lemon wedges and shallots, reserving the other half to spread on top of the fish. Once dressed, place in the oven for 40 minutes. After this the main bone from the inside should be easy to pull right out, leaving two sides of delicious, fleshy white meat. Eat the inside leaving over the skin. There is also a small piece of muscle right behind the eye of the trout that is considered a delicacy in many places. See if you can find it. Use your fingers, watch out for small bones, which are fine to swallow, just don’t choke. Enjoy.