Stuffed Whole Trout

In Uncategorized on October 14, 2014 at 6:48 am

I used to be cool.

You know the drill. Lived in the city. Had friends in bands. Hosted epic dinner parties. Had hidden-gem, independently owned choices for everything: fishmonger, bookstore, coffee shop.

Then we moved to the suburbs, and in a mere one week’s time, I acquired jeggings, a station wagon, and a Costco membership.

(You know what? Jeggings are actually super-comfortable. I’m sorry I made fun of them for so long. So much time: wasted.)

The Burger, who harbors no suburban antipathy (and no memories of living in the city, for that matter), loves going to Costco. Looooooves it. Admittedly, she’s the kind of kid who loves everything. I’m going to the mailbox; are you coming with me? Yeah! You wanna walk to the dumpster? Yeah! How about we go to the post office? YEAH! But Costco generates some serious enthusiasm, mostly because The Husband finds empty aisles then does wind sprints and donuts with the cart to keep her occupied. When the novelty of that wears off, she gets to pick out her favorite snacks, the boxes of which totally dwarf her. Look, kid! A four-foot-tall box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies!

We usually don’t buy much meat or seafood there, but on our most recent trip, we pushed the cart past the seafood bunker and there it was: a single tray of four whole glistening rainbow trout, scaled and gutted. Crazy — why do they have this? It looks really good.* And why’s there only one package left? Is this seriously flying off the shelves? And how is it so cheap? Fourteen bucks for four whole trout? I picked it up and showed it to The Husband.

“We should buy those,” The Burger said seriously. “What are they called?”

Here’s the thing: The Burger never says anything seriously. She is joyful, she is goofy, and like any other 3.5-year-old, she can occasionally be whiny. But I’ve never heard her say anything in such a firm, calm, serious tone.

“They’re trout,” I replied, taken aback by her tone. “You want these?”

“Yes,” she said solemnly. “We should buy those and cook them tonight. I can help.”


“Yes,” she said. “Put them in the cart, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, and duly added them to the cart, a little weirded out by her gravitas. But what the hell, right? We all like fish. I’d steamed and roasted whole ones before. No bigs. We’d have it tomorrow night. (We’d already bought a rotisserie chicken, and I was planning on making our go-to quick dinner when we got home — a cheater’s enchilada casserole. You pull a rotisserie, toss it with a couple cups of salsa verde, layer tortillas on top, sprinkle with chihuahua cheese and run it under the broiler. So easy you don’t even need a recipe. You’re welcome!)

We rolled through the checkout line. The Burger made a point of telling the cashier we were going to cook trout for dinner. Twice on the way home, she asked, “we’re going to make those fish tonight, right?” I lobbed a distracted we’ll see — the parents’ timeworn I’m not going to actually say no to you right now — into the backseat, the week’s dinner lineup playing out in my mind. Casserole tonight. (Yes. I’m from the Midwest. Even with salsa verde, it’s still called casserole.) Fish tomorrow. Pasta Tuesday. You get the idea.

She asked again when we got home. “Can we please make these tonight? Please?”

The Husband looked at me. “Strike while the iron’s hot,” he said. “We said we were going to teach her to cook, right?”

So I rinsed the belly cavities, sliced some lemons, got out the shallot salt**, lined some baking sheets with foil, and sat on the floor. The Burger helped me pat the fish dry, inside and out, with paper towels, then asked if she could touch the fish for a minute. She moved the fins around; opened and closed the tail, accordion-style; checked inside the mouth; then said, “I’m gonna poke the eyeball.”

“Go nuts,” I told her. “Some people eat the eyeball after it’s cooked.”

“I’m going to do that,” she declared, then rammed her finger into the fish’s eye socket. “It squirted and tickled me!”

Ocular destruction complete, we moved on to rubbing the inside and outside of the fish with salt and olive oil, and stuffing the cavities with lemons. The Burger also shoved a lemon slice into each trout’s mouth. The doorbell rang while we were working; it was one of The Burger’s little pals from the neighborhood.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Making fish for dinner,” I replied, half-hoping this would repel her. This was not my favorite of The Burger’s neighborhood pals. But she earned some major points by exclaiming, “Cool! Are those real? Can I help?” I sent her to the bathroom to wash her hands, and the two of them worked earnestly, making patterns of thinly sliced lemons on top of the fish and finishing each one with a chef-ly flourish of salt.

We slid the trays into a preheated 400-degree oven, sent the now-slightly-more-tolerable neighbor girl packing, and The Burger and I called her grandparents for the weekly update while The Husband monitored fish doneness***, sauteed some spinach in garlic-infused olive oil, and portioned out the plates.

“I made trout tonight!” The Burger reported to my dad.

“You did? What kind of trout? Rainbow trout?”

“Ummmmm…Costco trout.” (The next day, confusing her big box retailers, she told her daycare teachers that she’d made Target trout for dinner. They already think we’re strange; I’m sure this sealed the deal.)

Dinner was a hit. The burger cleaned her plate, spinach included, and asked for two more helpings of trout. Despite her voracious appetite, we had a ton of trout leftover. It was a Costco-sized package, after all. The Husband repurposed it into a spread/dip kind of thing (lemon mayonnaise, sour cream, minced red onion, parsley and capers) that we ate ourselves sick on the next night while watching football.

But you know what? We forgot to eat the cheeks. And the eyeballs.

Next time.

*How do you tell if a fish is good? It should look healthy. Look at the eyes — they should be shiny and bright, not sunken or cloudy. The skin should glisten, and if you poke the flesh, it should be firm. And it shouldn’t smell, well, fishy; it should smell clean and briny.

** Shallot salt. It’s awesome. It’ll change your fish life. It’s just sea salt mixed with crushed dehydrated shallots — an allium, a cross between onion and garlic, but milder and sweeter than both. I bought my first bottle from Penzey’s, my second bottle from Savory, and now I just make it myself with The Burger’s help. Just put a bunch of dehydrated shallots in a zip-top bag, have your toddler smash them with a rolling pin or meat tenderizer, then mix them with fine sea salt. Boom.

*** How do you tell if a whole fish is done? Try to pull the fillet away from the bones (use a knife, not your fingers) — it should pull away without too much resistance. If you’re not worried about appearances, you can also break through the skin with a knife or fork and see if the flesh flakes easily. Remember, too, that your fish’ll continue cooking for a minute or two after you remove it from the heat, so if it seems a shade underdone, you’re actually right on target. This goes for portioned fillets, too.

Girls Can’t Be Chefs

In Uncategorized on October 4, 2014 at 2:38 pm

It all started with Top Chef. And Costco, later, but first: Top Chef.

One of our favorite past-times is to crash-land on the couch with a bottle (or two) of rosé on Friday nights after The Burger’s tucked in, and watch old seasons of Top Chef that we missed the first time around due to, well, being parents. So last Friday night I was doing the interminable, universally scripted bedtime-with-a-three-year-old routine, and — clearly stalling for time, desperate to have a conversation — my daughter asked me, “well, what are you going to do now?”

“Watch Top Chef,” I told her, rubbing my foot where I’d stepped on a Hot Wheel.

“What’s Top Chef?” she asked, sounding skeptical.

“It’s a show about a cooking contest, where they compete to see who can be the…top chef,” I said lamely. (You know how it’s utterly unhelpful to define a word with that same word? It happens a lot when you’re a parent, especially when you’re tired and maybe have already opened those bottles of rosé.) “Maybe someday you’ll be a chef.”

I added this last sentence absently, perfunctorily, totally as an afterthought, with no agenda or projected aspirations. It was just this completely reflexive thing that I think you feel hardwired to do as a parent, and I probably would’ve tacked on something similarly dopey had we been about to watch anything else, like Glee or Batman. Maybe someday you’ll be a singer. Maybe someday you’ll be a vigilante.

And then this tiny voice piped up from the darkness, and it said loudly and cheerfully, as if I’d just told a hilarious joke, “Girls can’t be chefs! Only boys can!”

I stood there, my hand on the doorknob, my mind racing. Wait a minute. I cook dinner every night. I used to be a chef. Hell, I used to be a women’s studies major (not that she has any way of knowing either of those things). She’s seen Ratatouille like a million times. But then I realized: Disney. In The Little Mermaid, the chef’s a guy. In Beauty and The Beast, the chef’s a guy. Even in Ratatouille, Janeane Garofalo’s character isn’t The Chef, she’s just a line cook. Our company’s corporate chef, whom The Burger adores (seriously, adores! she spied him once from across the parking lot, screeched “CHEF! HEY, CHEF!”, and then went tearing into his outstretched arms as if they were in a field full of daisies), is a guy.

So apparently to The Burger, a chef is a dude — always and only a dude — who wears a white jacket, occasionally sports a handlebar mustache, and likes to hack up crabs with a machete.

“Of course girls can be chefs,” I said. “You and I’ll go to a restaurant where the chef’s a girl, and you can watch her cook.”

“Okay! What’s the name of the restaurant?” she asked.

Girl and the Goat,” I answered reflexively, figuring I’d deal with reservations and logistics and the possibility of the girl chef not even being there when we showed up later.

“Okay! What’s the name of the goat?” she asked.

Stephanie Izard,” I said. Again, I was tired and there had been wine.

So I closed the door, went downstairs, and hatched a plan with The Husband. I’d email a bunch of female chefs in Chicago, telling them the preposterous thing my kid had just said to me, and asking if we could come in to eat and maybe catch a glimpse of them if they had an open kitchen.

We’d also teach The Burger to cook. Which is where Costco comes in. But again, that was later.


In Shopping for Food on March 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Week 30, kind of

A few months ago, after teaching a cheese class, I was approached by one of the students — it turns out she’s one of the organizers of the Bucktown Apple Pie Festival, and she wanted me to enter and write about the contest. She pressed her card into my hand and whispered conspiratorially, “Winning’s all about the crust. You’ve got to get that proportion of lard to butter just right, you know?”

“Oh, I know,” I said knowingly, even though I had no idea what I, or she, was talking about. I’d never used lard before, never even seen it; it seemed both antiquated and totally British, and I was pretty sure I’d never be able to find it for sale. Plus it’d been years since I’d bothered to make a pie crust, placing it, at some point, squarely into the too-much-trouble-to-bother-making-from-scratch category. (Other items in that category include potstickers, croissants, and tamales. [Lobster and crab, incidentally, I place in the too-much-trouble-to-eat category. The work-to-food ratio's all wrong.])

But then I went up to Harvestime in Lincoln Square, where I like to stare curiously and fearfully at the offal in the meat department cases (cow tongues are really gigantic), and I saw it: a bunch of blocks of lard stacked on top of the stainless steel meat counter. (It was Armour Brand, which I looked up online because I was pretty sure Armour also made hot dogs and I thought making the hot-dog-and-lard connection was kind of genius, and would make a good bit of blog trivia. It turns out that Armour has a pretty fascinating and strange history that I won’t go into here. But suffice it to say that the lard I bought is connected to Chicago, the origins of labor unions, Breck girls, Dial soap, Greyhound busses, and military food poisoning.)

With the words of the apple pie contest lady whispering through my head, I bought the lard; I had to; I had to win the contest, even though I hadn’t made a pie crust since I was 16. (The Last Crust was for an apple-cranberry pie that I baked for my dad’s birthday. When I unveiled it, he wrinkled his nose — the slightly more polite adult equivalent of that finger-pointing-down-the-throat gesture — then said: “Cranberries? Nothing worse in the world than cranberries.” I took the pie to school, where the science teachers I TA’ed for fell on it like jackals. One told me, after hearing that my dad had rejected a homemade pie, “Boy, I wish you were my daughter.” I swear I’m not making this up.)

So the lard came home with me, and because as soon as I got home I lost interest in making pie and winning pie-making contests, it sat in my freezer for a couple months. But it nagged at me and fell on my foot every time I went in there searching for popsicles, so I did what I usually do when I don’t know how to make something: I scheduled a pie-making class. Nothing like the prospect of public humiliation to make you want to learn to do something really, really well.

But before I get to the lattice crust pie I made, which surrounded a bunch of apples liberally dosed in Chinese five-spice powder and merits a blog entry of its own, let’s explore lard a bit:

Made from rendered pork fat, lard fell out of favor about the same time it was decided that eggs were bad for your cholesterol, olive oil was superior to butter, and animal fats were what’s killing everyone. It’s been regarded as an unhealthy, unsexy cousin of butter, and the words “rendered pork fat” tend to be off-putting in the marketplace vernacular, so when a flaky pie crust is what’s at stake, most people reach for Crisco or other vegetable shortenings — but those shelf-stable butter substitutes are hydrogenated, meaning that they’ve got loads of trans-fats and will kill you with irony if not elevated cholesterol.

But lard’s actually not all that bad for you — inasmuch as something that derives 100 percent of its calories from fat can be “not all that bad for you.” It’s got more unsaturated fat than saturated fat, meaning it’s not as bad for your heart as you might think, and because it’s got a higher smoke point than lots of other fats, foods fried in lard actually absorb less oil.

(Understand that I’m not positing lard as a health food here. I’m just dropping science.)

With the increased interest in “real foods” — and by real,  what’s meant is minimally or unprocessed ingredients that were around long before hydrogenation, Red Dye No. 5 or high fructose corn syrup — and traditional cooking methods and recipes, lard’s actually enjoying kind of a renaissance these days. A few years ago, Britain actually experienced a lard crisis, which has to be one of the best descriptions ever for a nationwide ingredient shortage.

The British Lard Marketing Board, which warns that its website is ‘NOT suitable for weirdy vegetarians,’ is doing its best to keep lard visible. Literally. You can get t-shirts, coffee mugs (“Even Jesus Ate Lard!”), tote bags, mousepads and thong underwear from the Lardstore, their online gift shop. The BLMB website’s chockful of useful lard-centric trivia, songs, and scientific facts such as: Chips cooked in lard taste over a thousand times better than those cooked in namby-pamby oil.

Few recipes call outright for lard these days, with the notable exceptions of chocolard, which I hope to God is a joke, and lardy cake, a traditional British dessert that kind of seems like a croissant-pannettone-fruitcake mashup. It’s yeasted, studded with raisins and citrus peel, heavily spiced, and can be made in loaf form or shaped into swirls like cinnamon rolls.

Even most pie crust recipes don’t call outright for lard, which is a shame: using it in combination with, or instead of, butter in a pie crust recipe will, as my Bucktown Apple Pie contest co-conspirator said, produce an outstanding pie crust — one that’s super-flaky and crispy, and that audibly shatters when you cut into it with your fork. And making a killer pie crust’s much, much easier than I’d remembered — as in, it takes about all of five minutes. Visual, though not audible, proof to follow next week(ish).


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