Hunter, angler, or general paleo type; it doesn’t really matter how you classify yourself; odds are, if you are any good at it, the freezer is probably full this time of year. Summer’s fishing season has long since peaked and the fall bite has subsided. We’re basically done with many of the big game hunting seasons. Waterfowl, upland birds, and small game are in full swing too. Now, we’re all looking at Holiday Season and copious amounts of visitors and visiting. What does all this mean? It means, now is the perfect time to prepare some of your hard earned food to share with friends! Since this is a fishing column first and foremost, let’s talk fish.
Now, if you ever harvest fish to eat, you may have some in your freezer. I dislike freezing fish if possible, strongly preferring to eat them fresh, but I’ll admit to freezing some occasionally in the interest of preserving them for later. I bet you do the same and if so, I’d double down that every now and then you leave some in the freezer too long to be ideal, or perhaps that you packaged somewhat less than ideally and it has now passed the point of perfection. I say that because I know it happens to me every year at some point and I also get emails from folks saying the same thing. So, since you have Holiday company coming over and less-than-fresh fish that should be consumed ahead of that tasty whitetail or elk you just stuffed in the freezer, let’s look at a couple of ways to make those fish tasty. We’ll start with the salmonids, meaning trout or salmon.
The simple answer to serving previously frozen trout is fish dip. I like this one because you can cook the fish virtually any way you like and then take liberties with the dip to take the flavor profile any direction you like. The obvious choice - and my favorite - is to smoke the fish. I use a Camp Chef SmokePro Pellet Grill and Smoker and smoke either fillets or whole fish over applewood pellets. Even whole trout tend to dry out quickly when freezing, so I thaw it in a light brine solution which helps hydrate and flavor, effectively covering two steps (thawing and brining) in one process. Brine time depends on the potency of the brine and your taste buds; I typically thaw and brine “old” fish in a five percent solution for about three hours or so, then remove, rinse thoroughly in cold water, pat dry, and rub lightly with salt, pepper, cayenne, and brown sugar. The goal is to lightly season; remember it’s only one ingredient - albeit the main one - in the dip. You can also grill, broil, or bake the fish. Grilling is my second choice and I do so over medium high heat on a Camp Chef Grill Box, starting fillets flesh side down (that added color helps with overall flavor) for a few minutes before flipping to finish cooking skin side down. Preheat your grill or it will stick at first. The Grill Box heats up to 450 in a couple of minutes.
After cooking, let the fish cool slightly and flake by hand, being careful to remove all bones. Then mix with a base of softened cream cheese, sour cream, a touch of mayo, and some sort of acid; white wine, lemon juice, etc. A little grated fresh Parmesan or Cotija cheese helps. Good flavor additions include hot sauce, capers, or soy sauce. Almost any kind of herbs or seasoning round out the dip. Make the dip ahead of time; a few hours in the fridge will allow the flavors to come together.
Maybe you got on a hot white bass or walleye bite and now have white flaky fillets that may not be so white and flaky anymore. If the fillets are past their prime, soup or chowder are great options to prevent waste. Cooking even freezer burned fish in liquid will make it surprisingly good again. The worse off your fish looks, the bolder I’d go with my dish. A spicy fish soup is a great choice for your worst fish, while a milder chowder is great with any decent white fish you may have. The recipes are nearly endless; let Google be your friend. When cooking fish in soups, make sure the dish is almost completely done, adding the fish with only a few minutes of cooking time to go. Freezer burned is bad enough, don’t compound it by overcooking the fish. All soups or chowders are best when cooked in a cast iron Dutch oven, keeping good control of the heat.
The last idea will work with literally any kind fish you have; make fish patties! As with the dip, cook the fish however you want, then flake. I strongly prefer a “mashed potato” base and even left-over mashed potatoes work great, to which I add the flaked fish, a little Panko and an egg or two, along with some minced and sautéed onion/bell pepper/Jalapeno/garlic (whatever flavors you like). Cool completely, form patties, dust with Panko/flour and brown them evenly in a cast iron skillet, turning once. Fish patties are a favorite at La Cueva del Fishful.
Hopefully these concepts will help you use the fish that got overlooked in the freezer while enjoying the Holiday with family and friends!