San Leon, Texas is a small drinking community with a large fishing problem. Being gifted with live fish is a thing here. It’s a way of saying, “Howdy, neighbor” or “Thanks for the ride home last night”. You can’t pussyfoot around with fresh fish. It must be dealt with as soon as possible. Dealing with fish means learning to fillet like a boss. I’ve seen fishing guides go through 20 fish in 15 minutes. Butterflying this trout took me about 15. Still, it is an easy technique as you don’t have to scale or de-bone the fish. My uncle Carl Dunn says trout start to deteriorate the minute you take them off ice so I’d better bone up on my de-boning.
Cold smoking is a great way to keep meats for longer stretches. Our ancestors all did it but they had fancy smoke houses. All you need for this dish is a cast iron skillet, rice, tea and some heavy duty foil. Once the fish is butterflied the technique is easy.
Unlike wood-chip stove-top smoking this technique is very subtle and won’t smoke up your house. The result is a clean fish taste with a hint of tea and lavender. I can think of a million variations I’d like to try: orange rinds, sage, anise, lemongrass…. I used Lavande tea which you can get at the Eastside Farmers Market. Pair the fish with a complimentary sour cream sauce and cracker for an hors d’oeurvre or add it to a whole grain salad with cranberries and cheese.
Cast Iron Skillet Lavender Smoked Trout
For the trout:
- 1 Whole Trout
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- 1/4 tsp black, green or red pepper
- 1/4 tsp brown sugar
For the “smoke”
- 1 cup dry rice (brown or white)
- 1/2 cup lavender black tea or any other tea.
To butterfly the fish:
Reach your knife under one gill of the fish. In one motion, cut through the throat of the fish and under the gill of the other side. Cut the head off of the fish applying pressure to the back of the fish’s spine. Separate the head. Stick the knife into the neck of the fish and cut the fish from the belly to the neck so that it opens up. It helps to use a clean towel to help grip the fish and protect your hands. Scrape the stomach and intestines from inside the fish working from the flayed part towards the backbone. Remove all the insides. Clean up the fish with lots of running water. Spread the fish open as much as possible. Working on one side of the spine, start to remove the backbone. You will have to crack through some bones to make this work. I like to work from the tail to the head scraping my knife as close to the spine as possible so that the fillet looks nice and I get all the meat. Remove the back bone. Now the fish should butterfly nicely and you can season it with the salt, pepper and sugar.
To smoke the fish:
Get the skillet on the fire and set the heat to a low medium. Measure out a bit of foil that will seal the smoke and cover the fish. When the pan is nice and hot add the brown rice and tea. Create an air gap between the fish and the smoke. You can use a commercial grate, or bundled up aluminum foil. I used a pile of spoons formed in a criss cross pattern. When the pan is hot and you start to see rice popping, place the fish skin side down on the grate. Seal the whole thing in foil so that smoke can’t escape. It will be a very subtle smoke so don’t worry if there are no billows. It’s important that the heat isn’t too high or you will burn the rice. If the rice burns, start over with new rice and lower heat. When all of the fish has turned from a fleshy color to an opaque white it is done. The time will vary widely with the size of the fish. Check it after about eight minutes. When it is done remove it from the heat and cool it down. The fish should be very easy to separate from the skin at this point but you may also choose to leave it on for a more dramatic presentation.