Mojito Cured Rainbow Trout
My friends, here begins a tale of woe. You see, last week I became a murderess of the most irredeemable and despicable ilk. I am certain that I have become a cruel fraud, and I am ashamed. To make it even worse, it all began in a local supermarket (my SAFE PLACE) last week, on a sunny afternoon. I thought that bad things weren’t supposed to happen on sunny afternoons……
You see, the weather here is finally starting to warm up. The snow has almost all melted off the frozen ground, and despite the fact that the crocuses are still in a deep sleep and spring is yet a twinkle in our eyes, we’ve all started to shake off this long winter and are infinitely happier for it. The air smells earthy, the days are getting longer, and I’ve been craving tropical flavors and lighter, fresher foods. Like seafood. As if I need an excuse to crave seafood, because I’m almost always craving fish and seafood.
So off I trotted to one of our pseudo-Asian grocery stores. It markets itself as a No Frills, but this is no ordinary No Frills. If anything, this one is closer to an Chinese market than a suburban Canadian discount grocer – a fact which I find to be a joy most of the time. I love this store for their variety (I’m always bringing home strange random groceries that Mike looks horrified by, until he eats them of course) and their fresh butcher shop and fish market. Their seafood is generally divinely fresh and affordable, which are two very important features in my opinion.
My other consideration with seafood, which is strengthening over time, is the desire to be environmentally conscientious. The sustainability issue, as it applies to seafood, is now being widely publicized (thanks David Suzuki!) and for the most part I think that we’re gradually starting to get it. No longer do we hit up the counter only to see what’s fresh that day, we also look for species that are locally farmed or fished, ecologically stable and won’t burden our already overfished ecosystem. It’s generally held that locally farmed rainbow trout is a good choice, so that’s what was on my agenda for dinner. Fresh, tender, sweet and delicate rainbow trout.
As I cased the seafood counter checking out the wares, the affable seafood clerk came over to me and in his endearingly broken English said, “Warm! Sun!” I agreed and mimed wiping sweat off my brow. He laughed, and then I laughed because he laughed at such an obviously hackneyed gesture (which was ever so polite of him!). I was just chuffed to not only be buying delicious fresh seafood but also to be building rapport with the Fishmonger. After all, everybody should know and trust their fishmonger, right? So this is good! Oh, hidey-ho and only good things could possibly come of this glorious spring day!
I perused the counter and saw tuna loin, salmon, swordfish, grouper, roughy, lobster….but no trout. So I stood and stared, as if I could somehow, magically, WILL a trout filet into sprouting up from the ice. So Mr. Fishmonger asked me, “Fish?” I nodded vigorously, and asked if he had any rainbow trout. His face brightened, “YES! Trout! YES!” Wheeeeee!!! But then….but then he started walking over to one of the tanks. And then he was reaching into the tank, netting a giant, thrashing, furious rainbow trout from it’s murky depths. “This one, good?”
I paled. That was not a plastic wrapped filet nestled neatly on a styro-bed. That was a living, breathing, ANGRY fish which apparently I had just selected. Oh god. Oh god. A live fish means that if I said yes it would soon be a dead fish. Deep breath. I did my best to weigh the pros and cons in the half second that I had while he waited patiently for a response. If I said yes, I was a deep sea (well, or Ontario fish farm) murderess. But then again, this is common practice, right? And somebody had to kill the fish anyway before it hit the supermarket, and at least this way I know that it’s about as fresh as it could possibly be, and I’ve never actually gone through the process of choosing a live fish so this would be an exciting learning experience that I could recount to Mike when I got back home, right? Uhhhh…..jeepers. I gulped, and then I nodded to him that yes, that fish is fine, before turning around and busying myself intently with my wallet for about 35 seconds as I waited for the inevitable.
(Oh god, that’s it, he’s chopping off the head)
(Holy crap, I am witnessing the death of a living being)
(This is awful, this is awful, this is awful…..wait – I think it’s over)
I turned around just in time to see the fish twisting and thrashing on the board. The fishmonger sneered with a disgusted look on his face. JESUS H.C., he didn’t kill the fish, he just maimed it. But then – wait, what’s that? It’s got a motor, and it looks like the sander that my aesthetician uses when I’ve been slacking between pedicure appointments, and HE’S REACHING FOR THE FISH! The fish which is STILL MOVING, and fighting for life. My mouth started gulping open and closed like that poor little trout as I watched him start scaling it. The fish was still alive. And I was absolutely frozen.
In a complete panic, I tried to start talking myself down.
- Tina, don’t be an idiot. You will ABSOLUTELY NOT start to cry in the middle of this very busy grocery store. Where’s your dignity?
- Okay, breathe – wait, no, I said NO, DO NOT vomit, hold it in just a little bit longer, okay?
- Jesus girl, I see your widdle wower wip trembwing again. Man-up there kitten face, this is the way of the world. This is nature taking it’s course. You eat fish, don’t you? Then you should be able to deal with this, because if you can’t deal with this then you don’t deserve to have trout for dinner tonight.
I was just starting to steady my breath and gird the loins of bravery when he started sawing off the head. That’s when I almost passed out.
I always used to think that in a past life I was a bear (a big, lazy, stinky, bumbling Pacific brown bear), but now I know that’s not the case. Well, unless I was the bear that died of malnutrition because I couldn’t catch and eat any fish by myself, and all that a steady diet of blueberries had done was give me purple squirts and a new faith in hell. So here is the moral dilemma: if I’m not able to catch and kill an animal by myself, should I still feel entitled to eat it? Because if I can’t bear to watch the dirty being done with a fish, I sure as heck wouldn’t last 2 minutes on a pig farm. Are things too easy now that food – particularly meat – is readily available and packaged in ways that disguise what it once used to be? I mean, when I see a steak, I see a steak, and not a portion of the cow, blinking it’s big, glossy brown eyes at me. When I see a vacuum sealed pork tenderloin I’m not picturing Babe. Have we become too disassociated from where our food is coming from, and is culinary existentialism the new –
“Miss, fish ready!” And with that, a bag with two trimmed trout filets was slung across the counter in my general direction.
Shuddering, I gingerly picked up the bag and placed it carefully in the basket of my cart. Looking at the fish I was totally stricken, and I knew that there was no way I could stomach eating the trout for dinner that night. The horror was still too fresh, too raw. But what to do, because if I DIDN’T eat the trout then I would have participated in the vicious slaughter of another being for nothing. That trout must NOT have suffered in vain. So…I reached out to a compromise: I would cure the trout in a salt and sugar combination, similar to gravalax. This way there would be a three day resting/waiting period for me to (hopefully) suspend my inherent tendency towards melodrama and come to terms with this as a ‘learning experience’.
I decided to make Mojito cured rainbow trout , which is similar to gravalax but with three significant differences:
- The fish used is trout and not salmon.
- Instead of seasoning with dill and a liquor like vodka or aqavit, the fish is seasoned with the flavors of a classic Mojito: mint, rum and lime.
- Gravalax is a traditional curing method with Scandinavian flavors. Mojito Cured Trout uses the same method of curing but with bright Caribbean flavors. Mind you, saying “Scandinavian style with Caribbean flair” is like replacing the pitchfork in American Gothic with a set of maracas….
Three days later and I’ve finally had (almost) enough time to come to terms with this experience. Note: part of my ‘coming to terms’ includes never again approaching the fresh seafood counter of that particular grocery store, because despite what I’ve since read about the fish slaughtering process, I feel that there was still some needless cruelty involved. Moving forward, I’ve spoken to a number of people in my geographic area to get their recommendations on the best places to purchase both sustainable AND ethically culled fish. I’ll check them out, one by one, over the next few months. But now, it’s time for trout.
Oh, one more thing in case you were wondering. When I got home and I recounted the escapade for Mike (“…but he was THRASHING, and it was AWFUL, and he wasn’t even DEAD but the guy was SCALING him and it was CRUEL AND BEASTLY AND IT WAS ALL MY FAULT!!!!”) I did, actually, embarrassingly, start to cry. Big, sea-salty, childish tears. My battle loins are spun from candy floss.
Mojito Cured Rainbow Trout
- 1 whole rainbow trout, deboned and in two filets
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 2 tbsp peppercorn (preferably a mix of pink and black)
- 1.5 tbsp coriander seeds
- 2 limes
- 1 large bunch of mint
- 1/2 cup white rum
* Okay, so this is the second dish that I started on the day when I forgot to put a memory card in my camera, so the pictures are few and far between (read: absent) until day 2.
Rinse the trout filets under cold running water and pat them dry with a clean tea towel or a thick and hardy paper towel. Set them flat, skin side down, on a clean cutting board. Run your finger up and down the center of the fish to feel for any pin bones that might still be remaining. Because karma was definitely at work for me, my filets were riddled with bones running the entire length of the filets. Using a small set of pliers (which you probably want to reserve as ‘kitchen pliers’ rather than going to find your good ol’ ‘plumbing pliers’) grasp the small tip of bone and yank it up in the direction of growth. Repeat until there are no bones remaining in the filet.
Place the peppercorns and coriander seeds in a mortal and pestle and pound them until they are coarsely ground. I suppose that you could also use a spice grinder, and I probably would have, except that I don’t own one. Measure out the salt and sugar into a medium bowl and add the crushed peppercorn and seed mixture. Using a zester or a rasp, fully zest both limes and stir this into the sugar.
Chop the mint up into a moderately fine cut. It doesn’t need to be superfine, but it’s easier to mix the mint in evenly if the pieces aren’t too big. I know that ‘a large bunch’ is rather open to interpretation, but there should be approximately 1.5 cups of packed chopped mint that you can then add to the sugar mixture. Give everything a stir to combine.
Find a glass dish which is large enough for the filet to sit flat (I used a 9×13″ glass casserole dish) and line it with a long piece of plastic wrap. It should overhang on each end by about 8 inches. Sprinkle 1/4 of the sugar mixture onto the plastic wrap and lay one of your two filets skin side down on top of it. Sprinkle 2/3 of the remaining sugar mixture (this is 1/2 of the original mixture, in case you’re not a fan of fractions) evenly on top of the filet and press it in gently. Drizzle the rum on top of the sugar, and don’t worry if it runs down the sides a little bit. Place the second filet on top of the first, skin side up, so that the flesh of one filet faces the flesh of the other with the sugar in between. It’s like a little fishy sandwich. Spoon the remaining sugar mixture on top.
Fold the sides of the plastic wrap in towards the center, overlapping them slightly if you can. Pull the ends down and tuck them in so that you have a tightly sealed little package of fish. And now, just when you think that you’re done, wrap the whole thing up again in another piece of plastic wrap, because no matter how tightly sealed you think it is, it’s probably still not sealed tightly enough.
Place a large flat plate or dish on top of the fish parcel (I used an 8×12″ glass casserole dish so that it would nest in the one below that houses the filets) and weigh it down with several cans. Tuck your contraption into the fridge to start curing.
After about 12 hours take the fish out and flip it over. You will notice that a lot of liquid has collected in the bottom of the dish, but just leave it be for now. That liquid is a combination of dissolved sugar, salt, rum, and the moisture which is leeching from the trout as it cures.
Replace the weights and tuck the fish back into the fridge to continue curing. After another 12 hours (1 full day) drain the excess liquid off of the fish, turn it over again, replace the weights, and put it back in the fridge. Continue doing this cycle of draining and flipping every 12 hours until the fish has been curing for a full three days. The curing process is easy-peasy and really doesn’t require much effort. I flip and drain the fish in the morning before I go to work, and then again at night after dinner. The salt and sugar take care of the rest.
When the fish has cured for about 3 days, drain off any excess liquid for the last time and unwrap the plastic. The fish will feel firm and dense to your touch. Scrape off the exterior minty sugar mixture and rinse the filets under cold running water to remove the rest of the sugar and salt. Pat the filets dry with a clean tea towel or heavy duty paper towels, and place a filet skin side down on your cutting board.
Like gravalax or smoked salmon, cured trout is delicious when sliced über-fine and served as an appetizer. Place your long, thin, very sharp knife on a 45º angle and shave off slices that are as trim as possible, being sure to carve the cured meat off of the fish skin. There is a time and a place for eating fish skin, and I am a fan of crispy salmon skin sushi hand-rolls, but chewy cured trout skin is not quite as much of a treat to me.
And now, you wonder, what to do with these two filets of Mojito cured salmon? Well, you could treat them like smoked salmon or gravalax and serve slices on toasted bread, but instead of a dilly cream cheese you might want to dollop on some cilantro or mint and basil scented creme fraiche.
You can also slice the salmon thinly and pile it into rosettes on top of a salad with mixed greens, grapefruit, blood orange, and toasted hazelnuts in a honey-lime vinaigrette.
The slightly sweet and minty flavor of Mojitos is a perfect complement to the trout, so pair it with flavors that speak to your inner Island goer. Bright citrus, fresh flavors, light food. The trout is just slightly salty and the classic Mojito flavors have permeated gently into the meat. Mike went as far as to say that he likes this more than gravalax, which is high praise in his book.
Although thinly sliced is usually my preference, the first time that I had gravalax it was cut into small cubes and served in a salad with corn and black beans. I will never forget that sensation – the texture of semi-firm but tender meat, not ‘cooked’ as I knew it (but definitely not raw) in a delicious dice against the crunch of sweet corn kernels and the creamy richness of black beans. It still makes me drool, and I still like gravalax cut into small cubes. If you want a more substantial dish than an appetizer or salad, why not cut your Mojito Cured Trout into cubes and serve it on top of jasmine rice cooked in coconut milk with spring peas? A squeeze of lime and you’re off to the races.
As devastating as my first ‘really fresh fish’ experience may have been, I try to take comfort in the fact that at least we did our trout justice. At the risk of sounding like an errant hippie, throughout the curing process and the eventual consumption, I gave thanks to the fish for providing us with nutrients and sustenance. I’ve been making peace with myself in consideration of the circle of life, and the respectfully symbiotic relationship that we must have with all other living organisms.
And I suppose that I should leave it at that before I start smoking sage, burning bras (these babies are expensive, thank you very much!) and getting all glassy eyed over Earth Mother poetry.
PS – tomorrow’s dinner? Vegan.