When I returned from my trout fishing trip to Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada, I vowed to create dishes that would celebrate the two greatest foods that part of the world has to offer — Lahontan cutthroat trout and piñon pine nuts.
Both are major foods eaten by the Paiutes, who have lived on the east side of the Sierra Nevada since the last Ice Age. The Pyramid Lake Pauites traditionally originally favored a large type of sucker fish, the cui-ui, over the trout, but the sucker is endangered now, so now they eat trout. And in September, manyPaiutes still gather pine nuts for the winter and spring, just as they have for millennia.
Other groups of Paiutes focused on different foods. We know this because each band is named for its main food source: crayfish, salmon, desert parsley, marmot, wild onion, sage, hares, squirrels, cattails and pine nuts. I love this! For a cook, it’s like having an easy guidebook to making a Paiute-inspired dish.
Marmot, eh? Fresh out. But I do have wild onions, Nevada pine nuts and wild sage kicking around (Yes, I know my pantry is odd).
Nevada pine nuts. Yep. They are not what you buy in the store. They are far superior to every other pine nut in the world, except those from the Italian stone pine, which are about equal. Close to 90 percent of the pine nuts available in American stores are from China, and these are the ones that can give you “pine mouth,” which makes everything you eat taste metallic for days afterwards. You will never get pine mouth from American pine nuts; I buy mine from Penny at Goods from the Woods.
On to the recipes.
Lahontan trout are special. They are so large you actually treat them more like salmon than like “normal” trout, and while their meat is rich with fat, it is cream-colored, not bright red like a salmon or some trout — to get that color you need crayfish, and Pyramid Lake trout live almost entirely on other fish.
I wound up with more than a pound of fresh caviar. I know, poor me, right? So trout eggs feature prominently in these recipes.
After filleting out the fish, I made a rich trout broth with the heads and bones (recipe is below). In went some wild onions and wild sage, plus some dried matsutake mushrooms — this is the mushroom I think goes best with fish. After a quick initial blanching to cook the fish, I drained them and picked off a lot of the meat, and especially the cheeks of the trout. I had plans for them.
Within a couple hours I was armed with a gallon of trout broth. First up: Trout Bisque, only instead of cream, I’d thicken the sauce with Nevada pine nuts. I initially thought I’d need cream anyway, but the dish came out so well I decided to skip it.
I did not skip a couple of heaping spoonfuls of trout caviar, though. I was inspired by a classic Southern she-crab soup, which relies on crab roe for its color and flavor. The trout roe did the same for my bisque.
Such a rich, lovely soup! Pale yellow and smooth, and full of flavor from the trout roe, trout broth and some of the trout meat I pulled off the bones and heads. A little sprig of chervil from the garden topped it off.
I used the rest of the trout broth as a base for a trout risotto, again with lots of trout eggs. On top of the risotto went a trout fillet breaded with a mixture of cornmeal and ground pine nuts. And on top of the trout went — you guessed it — more trout caviar.
Damn, this was a knockout of a dish! Like the bisque, it was essentially a trout threeway — fillet, caviar and broth. The best part is the juxtaposition you get from the briny pop of the caviar with the rich sweetness of the crunchy pine nut-cornmeal crust, all bowing down to the true star, which is the trout itself.
Trout and pine nuts aren’t the only wonderful foods native to the Great Basin. I am hoping to return to the Paiute Reservation throughout the year to gather yampa, wild onion, desert parsley and some of the wild seeds and herbs to spice them with. For those of you who live in this region, what wild plants to you eat? What should I look for next time I am in Eastern California, Nevada, Utah or Northern Arizona?
The pine nut-cornmeal crust on this trout is exceptional, really crunchy and rich all at the same time. And once you bite into it, you get that luscious, fatty trout inside. If you have trout caviar or salmon eggs, use them in the risotto. If you don't no biggie. They do add to the flavor, but they are not as vital to the dish as they are in the bisque. Be sure to use a neutral oil to fry the trout in -- you'll taste the pine nuts better that way.
- 2 tablespoons safflower oil or other neutral oil
- 3 tablespoons shallot, minced
- 2 cups risotto rice
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 1/2 quarts fish or vegetable stock
- 6 ounces cooked, flaked trout (optional)
- 3 tablespoons trout or salmon caviar (optional)
- 2 pounds trout fillets
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup fine cornmeal
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup safflower oil or other neutral oil
- Trout caviar for garnish (optional)
- Put the pine nuts, salt and cornmeal into a food processor and buzz until combined. You want the pine nuts pulverized.
- Put the trout broth for the risotto into a pot and bring to a bare simmer.
- To make the risotto, heat the oil in a heavy pot and saute the shallots over medium-high heat until they turn translucent. Do not brown them. Add the rice and the dried thyme and stir well. Let this cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring often. Sprinkle salt over everything.
- Start adding the trout broth a little at a time. Start with 1 cup. Stir this in and let the rice absorb it, stirring almost constantly. It is the stirring that makes the risotto creamy. When the broth is almost absorbed, add more and repeat the process until the rice is still a little firm in the middle. Taste for salt. You may or may not need all the broth.
Turn the heat to its lowest setting and let the risotto rest while you make the trout. Put the oil in a large saute pan and set it over medium-high heat.
- Set up a breading station for the trout. Dip the fish in the flour, shake off the excess, then dip the trout in the egg, and then the pine nut-cornmeal mixture. Fry until golden, about 4-5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the trout.
- To serve, turn the heat up on the risotto and add a little more broth. Stir to loosen the rice up, add the optional trout meat and trout caviar, then heat this through, about 2 minutes. Lay some risotto down in a shallow bowl or rimmed plate and top with a piece of fish. Garnish with trout caviar.