My dad picked up some beautiful steelhead trout for dinner tonight. I was pretty happy to get a chance to work with it, only having cooked trout a couple times in the past. Steelhead trout is in the same family as salmon, and could almost be mistaken for salmon itself. The flesh is the same gorgeous rosy color. Fish this fresh doesn't need much at all so a simple treatment was in order. My parents are on a low-carb & low fat diet, so any kind of butter sauce or even tomatoes were out of the question - two things I've turned to for trout in the past. Instead, I went with a super simple gremolata, allowing fresh herbs, garlic and lemon to enhance the natural flavor of the fish. I turned to the same technique I use for pan searing salmon fillets in a cast iron pan and the results were so fantastic I decided to go ahead and post the recipe right away.
I'd describe the taste of the steelhead trout as clean and slightly sweet, with a texture that was moist and flaky. It reminded me of salmon but was much more subtle in flavor and had that freshwater essence to it that's just a little different from saltwater fish. It wasn't fishy or muddy tasting at all. This was a treat. I could have eaten twice my share! Although this recipe features steelhead trout, it will work for most any skin-on fresh fish fillets up to about an inch thick. When choosing fish, it should look and feel clean, fresh and smell faintly of the sea if anything at all. If the color looks off or cloudy, has a slimy texture, or smells fishy, it's probably not very fresh and may even have gone bad. Even at reputable grocery stores, ask the fishmonger when fish came in and what they recommend for the day. Having a basic recipe like this under your belt will give you the freedom of flexibility to cook whatever you end up with that day. This is my favorite way to cook when possible... fast, easy and fresh.
When you're making a dish with so few components it's really important to use the best ingredients you can get. I used Meyer lemons, but if you can't find them this time of year definitely buy organic lemons since you'll be using the zest. Herbs should be crisp and bright green, garlic should be freshly peeled and plump. Natural flaked sea salt and your best olive oil are also key. It feels important to mention that dishes like this are an exercise in restraint for me. I am big on flavor, usually in the form of bold spices and complex sauces. Fish is something I've been using lately to practice a simpler form of cooking. It never fails to amaze me how delicious a fresh piece of seafood can be when cooked properly, seasoned with nothing more than good sea salt and cracked black pepper. Learning to appreciate any food in its natural state can only make you fall in love with it that much more.
Pan Seared Steelhead Trout & Gremolata
2 lbs fresh steelhead trout fillets
2 Meyer lemons
1/2 c. parsley
1 clove garlic
2 tbsp sea salt, plus additional to season as needed
Cracked black pepper, as needed
2 tbsp grape seed or canola oil
Extra virgin olive oil, to finish (optional)
Prep Time: 20 min (includes 15 minute brine)
Cook Time: 10 to 20 min, depending on skillet size
Suggested Equipment: Cast iron skillet
The first step is optional, but it's something I take the time to do with salmon and it worked for this preparation too. A quick saltwater brine seasons the interior of the fish and helps prevent that ugly white albumin from oozing out when it's cooked.
Dissolve 2 tablespoons of sea salt in 4 cups of ice cold water. Submerge the trout fillets and allow to brine for 15 minutes.
Drain the water and lay the brined fish out on papertowels, patting both sides well. You want the surface of the fish to be as dry as possible before searing. Season the flesh with plenty of cracked black pepper and a light sprinkle of sea salt. I opted to cut my fillets in half so as to better fit the width of my skillet. Turned out to be a good way of controlling how long each piece was cooked too, since some of the fillets aren't as thick all the way through.
While you preheat your cast iron skillet (or while the fish brines) you can prepare the gremolata. All you need to do is finely mince your parsley...
Then use your knife to mix the parsley, lemon zest and garlic into one big pile. Add a good pinch of sea salt, and run your knife through a few more times to chop it all up together. Make sure the garlic is evenly distributed. That's it. One of the easiest condiments in the world to make.
By now your skillet should be hot, just shy of smoking. Grease it with a healthy drizzle of grape seed or canola oil, or any other neutral flavored high smoke point oil. Carefully lay down the fish fillets skin down. Cook whatever comfortably fits without crowding the skillet. The fish should immediately sizzle and contract a little bit. Use your spatula to press down on the flesh of the fish for a few seconds when it hits the pan to help stop it from curling up.
Don't move the fish once it hits the skillet. Watch as the flesh of the fish turns opaque around the edges to know when it's time to flip, about 3 minutes or so. You want to give the skin as much time to crisp up as you can but you don't want to overcook the flesh.
When the skin has properly seared, it will naturally release itself from the surface of the skillet without much help at all from the spatula. Trying to move the fish any sooner than that can result in skin stuck to the bottom of the pan. This can also happen if your skillet wasn't hot enough! Gently lift up one corner of the fish using your spatula just to make sure it's ready, then carefully flip the fish over onto the flesh side. It should only need to cook for another minute or two as these fillets are pretty thin. The flesh should flake easily and be opaque, but moist.
Set the cooked fish on a baking sheet if you're not plating immediately, flesh down so that the skin stays crispy. Continue cooking the remaining fish in the same manner, being sure the skillet heats back up in between each batch.
Serve the trout flesh down, spooning gremolata over the crispy skin. Finish with freshly squeezed lemon juice and a drizzle of good quality olive oil. Enjoy!