Eel River: Benbow, California
Adapted from a recipe demonstrated by Joshua Schwartz: Executive Chef Del Dotto Vineyards
Josh Schwartz has an eye for all tasty things in the wild. When invited to spend a day fishing and cooking with our American Rivers Tour crew, he was quick to suggest we start by foraging for watercress and other wild greens that sprout around the cool, clear creeks which run into Humboldt County’s Eel River. He reminded me that any wild fish we catch should be returned to the resource. Hatchery steelhead are available in Northern California so our recipe will help tell that story.
This recipe comes from Josh’s imagination. He stopped at a friends hatchery on the way up to Benbow, and took time to craft the vinaigrette and cultured cream in his kitchen before packing his drift boat and setting out from the Del Dotto Vineyard in Napa Valley where he is the executive chef. Then, just before launching the drift boat we stopped to forage tender, delicious succulents.
If you take a minute to watch our video, you’ll see that the skin of the steelhead is left on and lightly scored. He places the steelhead’s skin down on a hot, lightly greased surface and tops the filets with a stone to hold the skin tight to the cast iron skillet.
It’s not often that a trout is harvested from any river and transferred directly to the skillet on the American Rivers Tour.
Previously unknown to us, the Idaho Fish & Game Department is focused on reducing non-native rainbow trout in the Snake River. For this special occasion, we harvested a 19 inch non-native rainbow and cooked it along with 2 elk steaks for lunch. This is a simple 2 skillet meal. We prefer to use Lodge Skillets. The vegetables were purchased at a grocery store in Idaho Falls, pre-cut, and poured into the skillet from a bag. The vegetable stir fry with garlic, ginger, onions, jalapeno and soy brought the vegetables and elk steaks together nicely. Adding the rainbow was a unique and unexpected surprise.
As you can see in the video, cooking the rainbow on the bone makes preparing trout over fire easy. It helps to have a large cast iron skillet so the need for a grill is eliminated, the skillet can sit directly in the coals. In 5 minutes the fish is almost cooked through, then allowed to rest for a few minutes before de-boning. This helps to ensure that the trout is heated through to the bone. The skin does a nice job of providing a foil between the high heat and the fishes delicate flesh.
Planning for a float trip requires lists. One of my favorite lists involves kitchen prep for the riverside lunch, or in this case, brunch. Having found a perfect Fishpond canvas cooler at Henry’s Fork Anglers step one was taken care of. Everything I needed fit into one package including the cast iron skillets, paper plates, cutting board, knife and spatula.
Next step was to slice and dice the potatoes, peppers, onions and butternut squash. Ziplock bags make for perfect storage for the prepped vegetables, bacon and chorizo, along with a box of chicken stock. The baguette for our toast also fit. I wrapped it in tinfoil prior to leaving the Lakeside Lodge.
Taking this approach made arriving at the campsite easy. We built the fire, set up the skillets, got the chicken stock and poaching water boiling and in no time we were ready to serve.
Important to note that the fire area always requires extra time for clearing to ensure a safe fire zone, as well as extra time after the meal putting the fire out and secure a safe site prior to hitting the river.
The Lakeside Lodge is hidden and off the beaten path – perhaps that’s what I liked most about the establishment. Situated at the top of the Island Park Reservoir on Henry’s Fork River, it’s a perfect base camp for adventure oriented groups, especially if you’re fishing anywhere in and around Yellowstone. The lodge is located in Last Chance, Idaho, about 40 minutes north on Highway 20. Our group of 5 rented a cabin for a few days and found the amenities top notch and affordable.
As we finished cooking over fire, chef Jacob Dibble began to plate his entree for this recipe and it occurred to me that while the whole buffalo filet is fit for a king, serving a heavenly protein like this as an 8 oz portion might be more than some will really need. As we chatted about his dish he was quick to agree that if served with a starter and a healthy portion of vegetables, it would be appropriate to cut the filet in half and serve 4 oz cuts to 8 guests providing more at less cost and have less of an impact on the environment.
After a successful day at Mesa Falls, on our way to the lodge we took a left hand turn off of Highway 20 late in the afternoon. Heading into unchartered territory for us, not really knowing where we were going or what to expect. In a hurry to arrive, timing was key to catch the light and arrive at the riverside fire pit – just as the sunset was moving into its magic hour, we hit it perfectly as the sun melted into the western sky.
Driving through dense woods on the way in, while I watched for bears, I wasn’t sure we were going to make it, but we did. The Lakeside Lodge crew greeted us and got us started seamlessly. Chef Dibble had buffalo tenderloins trimmed and prepped, blackening seasonings mixed and the chipotle ranch blended and chilled.
This dish can be made with other game like elk or venison, it also serves well for beef. Having just stepped out of the Henry’s Fork River an hour earlier I was especially pleased to see how quickly the whole thing came together as I was hungry and ready to eat.
To use this recipe successfully on your next river trip, follow Jacobs’ lead and have your ingredients prepared in advance, once the fire is started and the skillet is hot, seasoning and then searing the medallions takes about the same amount of time as it takes to plate the greens and boom! – you’re serving a hot and spicy dish for a crowd.
Herb mayonnaise is a great way to flavor a fish fillet or steak while still keeping in the moisture as it cooks. This is a super easy recipe that can be adapted to whatever fresh herbs you have in your kitchen or garden. Serving grilled fish over a kale salad keeps the healthy component of your diet in check. It’s also an easy riverside preparation: just slice the kale, organize ingredients in advance then add vinaigrette as you start the fire.
The kale salad is dedicated to my friend Alec Baldwin’s wife Hilaria. She’s fit and health focused. I’ve combined kale with blueberries, quinoa and a touch of salty feta cheese to give this salad a colorful background to the simple white fluke.
At both Estia’s Restaurants this salad has become a regular special. In Sag Harbor I always feature it seasonally with kale harvested from my garden.