The Feast of the Fishes continues as we work our way through my catch of closing week. It was a remarkably benign week of weather for the end of September--a bit of a disappointment, really, as I enjoy fishing at least one day at season's end in a chill rain, which clears the river of most other fisherfolk, and seems to pique the trout's appetite. With clear, sunny skies and daytime highs pushing well into the 70s, the weather didn't really make one think of chowder--except that mornings started out in the low 30s, and sunset saw the temperature drop quickly into the 40s. It was weather I'd associate more with a high, dry mountain climate than with valley life here in Near North Wisconsin. The long story short: though the afternoon sun had me thinking of grilling, I knew that by suppertime we'd be pulling on the wool socks and sweatshirts; so I made chowder.
My first thought as I started to prep the dish was to do something a little fancy, a bit "deconstructed," if you will--with large pieces of bacon and thick slices of potato in a sort of "chowder sauce," the fish cooked separately. That proved to be just too much to think about at the end of the day, so I made a fairly traditional chowder. The only divergence was that I fried the fillets of trout and served them atop the chowder, rather than simmering the fish in the soup; I like the crisp skin of a well fried trout very, very much.
Oh, and I did get a bit creative with the garnish, because (all together now!), "It's all about the garnish!" I peeled and seeded a Green Zebra and a red tomato and chopped these roughly--a concasse, which is a nice French cooking word to know. I also fried some shredded kale in the pan I cooked the trout in, cooked it quite crisp.
I've heard brook trout referred to as "northwoods bacon," and with these little babies the analogy is easy to see. It's especially nice when you can have bacon with your "bacon." That's actually a brown trout tidbit I'm holding.
If you're not starting with whole fish, and therefore don't have the frames to add flavor to the soup, use fish, chicken, or vegetable stock instead of water--or just don't worry about it, as the bacon and all the vegetables will provide quite a bit of flavor on their own.
Fried Trout & Chowder
2 ounces slab bacon, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 small red onion, sliced longitudinally
1 small leek, well washed and sliced, white and light green parts
1/4 cup fresh fennel bulb in 1/4-inch dice
1/4 celery root in 1/4-inch dice
1 small jalapeno chile seeded and chopped fine
1 heaping tablespoon flour
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups whole milk
salt and pepper
2 small trout, about 8 ounces each, filleted, save the frames
2 medium red potatoes, in 1/2-inch cubes
1 medium Green Zebra tomato, peeled, seeded, chopped
1 medium red tomato, peeled, seeded, chopped
6 leaves kale, thick stem removed, sliced into 1/2-inch ribbons
Start to render the bacon slowly in a medium saucepan over medium heat. If the bacon is lean and not giving up much fat, add a bit of cooking oil. Add the onion and leek as the bacon begins to brown. Cook a few minutes until the onion is translucent. Add the fennel, celery root, and jalapeno, and cook, stirring, for two minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir it in to the fat in the pan. Cook, stirring, for about a minute.
Combine the water and milk and gradually add it to the pan, scraping with a wooden spatula to dissolve the flour into the liquid. When all the liquid is added, add the fish frames--bones and heads--to the pan, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Fish out the fish frames; save the cheeks for garnish. Add the potatoes and a couple sprigs of fresh thyme. Add a couple generous pinches of salt. Simmer another 15 minutes or so, until the potatoes are tender. Taste for salt and add a few grinds of black pepper.
Season the fillets with salt and pepper. Fry them in just a bit of oil--or bacon or duck fat--over medium-high heat, skin side down, for about three minutes, until the skin is nicely browned. Flip them and finish cooking flesh side down for about two minutes. Add a little more oil or fat to the pan, and fry the kale until it is crisp.
Serve a ladle or two of the chowder out into wide soup plates, top with the fried fish, garnish with the cheeks, both tomatoes, and kale, and serve.