When asked if I could do a recipe in keeping with the theme of the Annual Mountain Issue of Our State, I thought I could probably pull it off without much problem.
Just exactly what would make a good “mountain” recipe was the question. And then, it was suggested that I might prefer to do one based on Brook Trout, a native fish to Western North Carolina.
Brook Trout are considered game fish. That means, you can’t just run out to the store and buy them. You have to catch them. I love to fish, but there are lots of rules, regulations, and sometimes special permits needed in order to fish for Brook Trout.
See our guide to mountain trout. With the help of writers, foodies, and travelers, we compiled a unique set of information about mountain trout in North Carolina. Click here to see it all.
As it turned out, my brother and I were headed through the mountains to deliver one of the pig cookers he sells. I thought surely I’d be able to talk with someone along the way that could clue me in on a good traditional mountain recipe.
Five hours away from home, we reached our destination and delivered the cooker. We always get into various conversations about cooking with the new pig cooker owner on these trips, which is a lot of fun. As we were about to leave, I asked the lady of the house if she knew of anything in particular that I might be able to use as a mountain recipe. Her eyes lit up as she started telling me about a very special dish that her grandmother always made for her as a child. It wasn’t about fish though.
I mentioned that I had hoped to do a recipe using Brook Trout, but had to abandon the idea because I couldn’t buy trout. Her eyes lit up again and a big smile came across her face.
Without hesitation she said, “I’ve got a couple right here in the freezer you can have.” Turns out her whole family enjoys hunting and fishing and she had a few Brook Trout leftover from a recent camping trip. Needless to say, my brother and I both were flabbergasted with her offer. She handed me three foil wrapped pieces of fish and told me how her family enjoyed cooking them around the camp fire.
Grinning from ear to ear, I told her she had just made my day. We thanked her a few more times and then loaded up for the ride back home. I was so thankful for my blessing of three simple fish that day.
I decided to fish pan fried trout for my recipe. It’s fairly easy and I do hope you’ll give it a try. If you don’t get the chance to fish for your own Brook Trout, I hope someone might be generous enough to share some with you as well. Until then, grab some Whiting, Tilapia, or another flaky white fish and let’s get cookin’!
Since Brook Trout are game fish, you can’t buy them in a store or from your local fish monger. You’ll have to catch your own or hope someone shares some of theirs with you. Here’s a picture of the three trout that I was given. They were securely wrapped in aluminum foil and already frozen.
This is what I had when I unwrapped the foil packs. They had already been cleaned and skinned. I placed them back in the refrigerator for a couple of hours to let them thaw out properly. Most Brook Trout are fairly small but the North Carolina record for the largest one caught was recorded at 7 pounds 7 ounces, and has held since 1980.
We’re going to coat the trout lightly with a breader mix. Use a pan or bowl large enough to place the fish in so you don’t mess up another item that you’ll have to wash later. Begin by placing the corn meal in the bowl.
Next, add the flour.
Add the lemon pepper.
Add the salt.
Add just a dash or two of Cayenne Pepper. We want to get the flavor of the fish and not a bunch of heat, so use it sparingly.
Grab a fork or whisk and mix all the dry ingredients together.
Gently rinse the fish, inside and out, under cold running water.
Pat each one dry with a cloth or a paper towel.
A lot of folks wonder why you would want to even eat trout this small because of all the bones. You can de-bone the larger one’s, but we’re cooking these with the bones still in them. Hopefully, if we do it right, you’ll be able to easily remove most of the bones after the fish are cooked. Stay with me.
Place the trout in your breading mix.
Coat the outside of the fish with a good layer of breader. Don’t bother trying to get the mix inside of the fish, it probably wouldn’t cook very well since we’re not deep frying the fish.
Lift the fish up out of the bowl and gently shake off any excess flour mixture. We’re using just a very light coating with this recipe.
Place the coated pieces on a plate and set aside for a few minutes. Let them rest while you heat up that skillet.
Add a couple tablespoons of lard to your skillet. You can also use a light layer of cooking oil. I’ve set the heat to just a notch below medium on my stove; yours may vary. Let the oil heat up until it’s ready for frying.
When the oil appears to be hot, drop a pinch of the breading mix in the pan. If it sort of sizzles and dances around, the oil should be hot enough for frying. You don’t want it too hot though, and it can certainly get too hot with just a small amount of oil in the pan. Reduce the heat if the breading goes really crazy in the pan. Some folks also place just a single drop of water in the pan to see if the oil is hot. The problem with this method is that it pops all over the place when the oil gets hot. Still, the old timers used it and you can too with a little practice. Just one drop from the tip of your finger should be enough for the oil to “talk to you,” when it’s hot. It will also dance and sizzle across the surface if the oil is hot enough. Just don’t let it pop out of the pan and on you. It can easily burn your skin.
Carefully place the fish pieces into the skillet. I’ve only got two pieces to begin with, but if you had more you could add them, just don’t overcrowd the pan.
Don’t be afraid to flip them several times during the frying process. You certainly don’t want them to burn and by flipping them every couple of minutes, you can keep a close eye on them. If the fish start to curl or bow up a bit, the pan is probably too hot. Reduce the temperature and let them continue to cook.
You should start seeing some bubbles under the skin of the fish when they are done. If you look closely, you can see where a couple have popped up right at the corner where I’m holding the spatula. It would be more visible if the trout hadn’t been skinned to begin with. If in doubt, use a fork to see if you can flake up a bit of the fish from one of the sides. Don’t go making fun of my spatula. I picked it up at the local auction I visit and I love it. It works really well for flipping eggs when I cook them in the cast iron skillet. I think I paid a dollar for it. Well worth the price.
When the fish are done, remove them from the pan, and place them on a couple of layers of paper towels to drain for a few minutes before plating them up for serving.
Now, about those bones. You should be able to easily use a fork to flake the meat away from the bones. Just gently pull the meat away and to the side of your plate. You’ll more than likely be able to remove the spine and most of the bones in one piece. Still, it is fish and you should always be careful about finding bones. I highly suggest that you carefully pick through it if serving it to smaller children.
I do hope you get a chance to enjoy Brook Trout. Getting out and catching a few fish is always a good day. And if you can’t, you can still find some great fish at your local grocery store or farmers market.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and memories about Brook Trout. I’ll be waiting to hear from you in the comment section below. Special thanks to the “W” family for sharing of their bounty and providing the fish for this recipe.
Steve Gordon is a writer, recipe tester, and lover of all things Southern. You can read more of his writing and step-by-step recipes at tasteofsouthern.com.
He was smitten with the flavors of her Zimbabwean cooking. She was intrigued by his rural North Carolina upbringing. Together, they created a life in Durham — and a namesake restaurant that was the first of its kind in the entire country.