Idaho is known for its trout, and rightfully so. Caught wild from a cool creek or hand-picked from the fish case, it always seems to please.
Not too long ago, if you ate trout in the Rocky Mountains there was a good chance it was taken from a high alpine lake or meandering stream. Rainbow trout—with its firm, mild, off-white flesh—became especially popular as the West came into its own. And, for many of us, it never tasted better than grilled over a campfire and doused with fresh lemon.
Today, much of the trout we eat is red-fleshed fish from commercial farms in southern Idaho. But don't be deceived: The romance of eating a fish plucked from an idyllic mountain stream might be lost, but the freshness and taste are not. And in these times when we're all chasing bargains, the affordability of trout in central Idaho is well worth noting. In general, it costs about one-quarter or one-third the price of popular ocean fish varieties.
Fish farms in southern Idaho produce an average of about 40 million pounds of trout per year, some three-quarters of the nation's commercial total. Some are produced to have light pink flesh and some to have red flesh, like salmon. The latter are fed a diet plentiful in tiny crustaceans that salmon eat, which activates a naturally occurring pigment that turns the flesh red. Some trout connoisseurs believe it adds a little bit of richness, too.
Whether from the wild or a farm, trout can be a healthy source of protein. It is moderately fatty but is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, widely thought to be beneficial for the heart and eyes. Some doctors recommend eating fish high in omega-3 fats two or three times a week.
For the chef, trout is very versatile. If it's truly fresh, it requires little more than a few minutes on a grill, under a broiler or in a sauté pan. Alternatively, it can be dressed up and made the centerpiece of an elegant meal. There are numerous recipes out there for poached trout, many of them superb. Some of the best versions call for poaching the fish in wine and herbs, then topping it with a simple sauce.
In the Alsace region of France, I used to frequent a rustic little restaurant called A La Truite (literally, At the Trout). If you
ordered the "truite au bleu," or blue trout, you were sometimes invited back to the kitchen to pick a live fish from the tank. Then, if you were brave enough, you could
watch one of the stout hostesses pull your trout from the tank, whack it over the head with a wooden club and roll it in some vinegar until it turned blue. She'd then toss it in a hot "court bouillon," a light stock with vegetables and herbs. The finished trout—a faded blue—was then served with lemon butter (some use hollandaise sauce) or herb butter.
Trout "a la meunière"—pan-fried in butter—is another classic French preparation that takes only minutes and doesn't require clubbing a live fish. It's a great summer dish that pairs well with dry, crisp white or rosé wines.
Trout 'a la meunière'
4 large, fresh trout fillets
4-5 tbsp. butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
1-2 tbsp. coarsely chopped parsley
Rinse trout in cold water and pat dry. Roll fillets in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. In a good, thick pan, sauté fillets in hot butter until brown (about 5 minutes). Using two spatulas to keep the fish whole, flip and sauté on the other side. (Do not overheat or the butter will burn.) Put browned fish on a warm serving platter and sprinkle with the parsley. Squeeze lemon into the brown butter (keep the seeds out) in the pan and pour the sauce over the fish. Serve immediately.
Gregory Foley, Web news editor for the Idaho Mountain Express, has been a professional writer and editor since 1997. He has worked as a restaurant sous-chef and for four years guided food- and wine-focused bicycle tours in Europe.