The woods are fragrant with the blossoms of May, and there is exhilaration in the clean taste of the morning air. The angler shown on the opposite page, working upriver with the good tug of the cold stream against his waders and a thrill of expectancy in each cast, is enjoying one of the most delightful experiences known to the sportsman. If his fishing skill is rewarded and he brings trout to his creel, this angler—and perhaps other members of his family, too—can expect soon to enjoy one of the most delightful dishes known to any epicure.
How should freshly caught trout be handled to insure that the fish are at their best for the table? First of all, they should be dressed as soon as possible after being pulled out of the water. Then the most perfect answer to the gourmet's prayer is to cook and eat them at once. But you can't always do that, and therefore it is exceedingly important for the fisherman to know about the preservation of trout. Whether you're going to take them home to eat for dinner or next day's breakfast or to package and freeze for out-of-season treats, you must take special care of them until they reach the refrigerator or the freezer.
How to preserve trout
After the trout has been eviscerated, wash the fish if there is pure well or spring water available. But not otherwise; the water in lakes and streams is likely to contain bacteria which will cause faster spoilage than would take place if the fish were not dressed.
If you're not going to cook the fish right away, rub salt on the flesh and dust it over the outside skin (1 tablespoon salt to¾ pound of trout). Wrap each trout separately in fresh clean leaves or several thicknesses of paper. Store in the coolest place available. You may put the trout into a basket or box covered with several layers of burlap, which you should keep moist. The evaporation has a cooling effect. It is also possible to keep fish buried loosely in cool earth. Fish treated in these ways will keep 24 hours. They need only to be thoroughly rinsed to be ready for cooking or freezing.
If trout are to be kept longer than 24 hours in the raw, dressed state, they should be well rubbed with salt and packed with as much salt as will cling to them. Do not wrap more than a pound of fish in any one package, and dress the trout so that no piece is more than an inch thick. Fish preserved with lots of salt should keep about 10 days and must be soaked in two or more changes of fresh water for about four hours before they are ready to cook. I suggest that you do not freeze trout which f have been kept this long. And unless no other means of preservation is possible, I do not recommend this method—one which is not likely to produce the most tasty cooked dish.
Freezing the catch
If you're going to freeze any part of your catch, rinse them as suggested above in the 24-hour treatment. Package small trout whole. Very large ones may be cut into several pieces for freezing. Package in whatever is your choice of freezer packaging material, but be sure that it is intended for the freezer. Plastic-film bags are excellent for this purpose. Just be sure you get all the air out before you twist the end and secure it with a rubber band to seal it. Aluminum freezer foil, well sealed, is also good. Be sure to label each package, telling what the contents are and the date on which you froze them. Trout, like any other food, must be frozen at 0° or lower—and held at like temperature. This means they must be quick-frozen in a freezer. They must be placed in direct contact with the freezing surface to accomplish the job with sufficient rapidity. After they are frozen they may be piled or racked in any way you find most convenient for freezer storage. Do not "freeze" trout in the freezing compartment of your refrigerator. It is not equipped for fast freezing or for the maintenance of a steady temperature. (Any food thus treated should be eaten within a few days.) Trout properly frozen should be stored in the freezer not more than four to six months. Defrost them before cooking, because if you cook them from the frozen state you will almost inevitably have to overcook them. However, cook them as soon as they're defrosted. Don't leave them around at room temperature beyond that point, as spoilage will be rapid.
Cooking trout at the campsite
A simple and delectable way to cook trout over the campfire is to salt and pepper them and sprinkle them with lemon juice (one of those plastic "lemons" should be in the fisherman's knapsack). Now impale the trout on a forked stick. Keep turning over the fire until done, which is ascertained by the fact that the bones inside the chest cavity stick out from the meat.
Another wonderful outdoor cookery method for trout is to wrap them in ferns as soon as they're cleaned. Now pack each fern-clad trout in mud a half to one inch thick. Have a good bed of glowing coals ready and make a pit in the center of it. Lay the mud-wrapped fish in the pit and cover with coals. They will be cooked—and utterly delectable—in 45 minutes to an hour and the dried mud will crack off easily. Seasoning? They practically don't need any, but you may add salt, pepper and lemon juice if you like.
If you have caught your trout out of icy water, cut them into 3-inch lengths. Get a skillet very hot, pour in several tablespoons of cooking oil, put in the fish and cook until crisp on the outside and done through. Salt and pepper them after cooking. Magic is accomplished by the juxtaposition of ice-cold fish and the piping-hot skillet.
Cooking trout at home
There are those who would do nothing to a trout in the cooking except to season it and sauté in butter, bacon fat, or a combination of olive oil and butter. While I approve such dedication to simplicity, I should like to point out that if you flour it lightly you will get a crisper skin, and no other interruptive flavor of any kind. As for me, I like to roll it in yellow cornmeal, for the same crisping and for a tiny, delicate added flavor. Depending upon their size, trout should be sautéed 2 to 5 minutes on each side to be done perfectly. Decorate the cooked fish with parsley and lemon wedges. If served for breakfast, grits accompany them very well.
For a big fish
If you catch a big trout, like a steel-head, get hold of a salmon cooker if you don't own one. Lay the fish in it and pour in enough hot water to cover. Bring to the boil and boil one minute. Take the cooker off the range and leave the fish in it until the water is cool. Chill the fish and serve with homemade mayonnaise. A magnificent summer dish.
However you cook trout, as with any other fish the cardinal rule is never overcook it. Remember, the Japanese eat fish raw. You may not want to do that, but if you cook it too much you will just dry it up, which is at least equally undesirable. If you're completely uncertain whether your trout is done or not, separate the flesh a little with a fork in the meatiest part. If the meat is white the fish is done. If it's slightly pink nearest the bone and somewhat transparent in appearance, more cooking is needed. When you become sufficiently expert, you will know by instinct when it's done and not have to make even one break in the skin.