I AM NOT GOOD AT FLY-FISHING. At first I thought it was a matter of skill; as any angler will tell you (and tell you), a good deal of experience is necessary to master casting the line and determining precisely where and how to drop the fly. (And don’t get them started on what kind of fly.) But I tried! I stood on the rocky banks of Holy Ghost Creek in the Pecos Mountains, sent out a glorious cast, and … snagged my fly in a ponderosa pine, then in a patch of sweet mint. I repositioned and relaxed. I breathed in and then out. I tried and tried, then I pouted and stomped and, eventually, cried. I blamed myself. I blamed my reluctant instructor (i.e., my fiancé). Most of all, I blamed the fish.
Later, I learned it isn’t about my lack of skill at all. I’m temperamentally unsuited to fly-fishing. It took me years to realize, but for most of its practitioners, this sport is about doing something in an intentionally difficult way, meeting the challenge of out-smarting a battle-hardened lower vertebrate while experiencing hours of glorious solitude aside or amid a mountain stream. Me? I am intensely social and perpetually hungry. Until recently, I used “catch-and-release” exclusively to describe my dating strategy.
This is unfortunate, because New Mexico has prime-quality trout-fishing streams, and an extraordinary number of them are on public land, accessible to all for only the cost of a license (go to wildlife.state.nm.us/fishing for details). To bolster a fisher’s chances, the state last year raised and stocked more than four million rainbow and Río Grande cutthroat trout. That’s part of the reason why Field and Stream magazine recently pronounced northern New Mexico “one of the region’s most underappreciated and highly productive fisheries.” Guides, outfitters, and cabins abound in havens like Taos, Chama, and Jémez Springs. Annually, the state issues about 305,000 fishing licenses, and fly-fishing enthusiasts pump $268 million into the economy.
Legendary guide Taylor Streit, founder of the Taos Fly Shop (see “Old Man River"), says this is a stellar year, thanks to a higher-than-normal snowpack. “Fishing after the runoff is generally the best of the season,” he says, but he expects the good times to last into August, when shallow streams sometimes spoil anglers’ dreams.
HONESTLY, TROUT ALL LOOK the same to me as they undulate beneath the surface, stubbornly not taking my fly, but I’ve learned that New Mexico has two distinctive native species that are highly sought after: the Río Grande cutthroat and the Gila trout.
The cutthroat, our official state fish, is a lovely creature, painted with a flaming gold belly, slashed with red at the throat, and stippled with black beauty marks across the tail and spine. The state has been stocking more of them in northern New Mexico, from the Jémez River watershed to the Río Chama and Río Grande. Although some waters are catch-and-release only, many places allow up to two cutthroats for a fine dinner. Still, many fly-fishermen prefer chicken and beef. But I love to eat trout! And I have the perfect little fish spatula to cook it with! I just can’t catch one to save my life.
William Penner is an Albuquerque environmental consultant who spends more than 50 days of the year fly-fishing. Although he says he never eats Río Grande cutthroat, once a year or so he’ll cook a couple of browns or rainbows on a riverbank, seasoning them with garlic, olive oil, lemon, salt, and pepper, then wrapping them in foil and tucking the packet into the embers of a campfire.
“For me it’s about conserving a limited resource while still acknowledging that there’s something important about eating those fish every so often,” he says. “It’s maybe a backwards way to show respect for them and where they live.”
New Mexico’s other native, the Gila trout, is an iridescent fish with a coppery gold belly, delicate speckles, and a yellow slash below the jaw. After decades of endangered status, little Gilas are again swimming in tributaries of the Gila River, mostly in the Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas. The recovery is going well enough that the state has expanded fishing to new waters this year. In some places you can keep two of them.
Non-native brown trout thrive in the Río Grande Gorge near Taos, and though they may not be as pretty or as challenging as the native species, they are delicious—and with a bag limit of five per day, browns have great potential for the dinner table.
Most often, though, that dinner table is a lap in a folding chair on the grass. For generations, trout have been a great treat for outdoorsmen and communities along the waters, but fish has never been a primary protein in New Mexico, where beef, pork, and lamb most often take center plate.
Many high-end restaurants serve trout with New Mexico flavoring, and many grocery stores carry it, but what you get is farm-raised trout from out of state. This is true across the country, as states have prohibited the commercial sale of wild fish and game as part of conservation efforts.
“I know that farm-raised fish are getting a bad rap lately but I have yet to hear one bad thing about farm-raised rainbow trout,” says Lane Warner, who is an enthusiastic angler as well as executive chef at Santa Fe’s La Fonda on the Plaza. “Of course, wild trout would be a bit tastier, and knowing that you caught them just makes it even sweeter,” he says, but buying farm-raised fish means you can eat trout any day of the week.
Although it’s increasingly popular, fly-fishing isn’t the only way to land (or not) a local trout in your frying pan. Those of us who are fly-challenged can pull trout with any old rod and reel at Albuquerque’s Tingley Beach, which is stocked with rainbow trout, as are Abiquiú, Fenton, Heron, Navajo, and other lakes. You know, the kind of lakes where you might set up a big camp with a bunch of friends, drink cold beer, catch and keep fat, lazy fish to fry in bacon fat. That’s the kind of fishing that suits me.
FISH FOUR WAYS
If you’ve ever rolled a trout in cornmeal and thrown it in a hot pan, you know it’s hard to improve on tradition. But we found four chefs who have managed to do it, starting with familiar ideas and pushing them to scrumptious new heights.
CornHusk-Grilled Trout with Chipotle Crème, Quinoa-Piñon Fritter, and Cilantro Salsa
By Andrea Meyer at the Love Apple in Taos (803 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; theloveapple.net; 575-751-0050)
This dish is a perfect example of the “regional and organic home cooking” promised by this tiny restaurant nestled in an old chapel on the west side of Taos. Chef Meyer is a passionate omnivore obsessed with sustainable agriculture, local meats, and foraged ingredients.
For the Lime Compound Butter
- 4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
- Zest of 2 limes
- Pinch of salt
- Combine the butter and zest with a pinch of salt and set it aside.
For the Cornhusks
- Steam 8 cornhusks until soft and pliable; cool and set aside
For the Quinoa-Piñon Fritters
- 1/4 cup quinoa flour
- 1/8 teaspoon xanthum gum
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/4 cup milk
- 3/4 cup cooked quinoa, cooled
- 1 teaspoon each lime and orange zest
- 1/3 cup carrot, finely diced
- 1 tablespoon chopped chives
- 1/8 cup toasted piñons
- 2 egg whites
- Mix all ingredients through piñons and let batter rest 30 minutes.
- Beat two egg whites until stiff, fold into batter.
- Fry fritters, 2 tablespoons batter per fritter, in grapeseed or canola oil until crispy and cooked through, approximately 6 minutes.
For the Cilantro Salsa
- 2 cups cilantro, most stems removed
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic, finely minced
- Zest and juice of 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon honey Pinch salt
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- Combine all ingredients in a food processor and puree until very smooth.
For the Chipotle Crème
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 cup cilantro, stemmed and finely chopped
- 3 chipotle chiles, in adobo sauce, chopped
- Mix with whisk until all ingredients are incorporated. Heat in small saucepan just before serving, about 5 minutes, until just simmering and slightly thickened.
For the fish
- 4 whole trout, cleaned, with bones, heads, and tails removed
- Open each piece of fish and nestle, skin side down, on a softened cornhusk.
- Salt fish and place on a hot grill, husk side down.
- Grill on medium high for 5 minutes.
- Lower heat, add 1 tablespoon lime compound butter to each fish and finish another five minutes, until butter is melted and trout is just heated through.
- Serve with the chipotle crème over the fish, alongside hot quinoa fritters topped with cilantro salsa.
Blue-Corn-Crusted Trout and Eggs with Chipotle Hollandaise
By Lane Warner at La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe (100 E. San Francisco St.; lafondasantafe.com; 505-982-5511)
Warner says this is the perfect camp dish. It uses breakfast ingredients you were probably packing anyway. (You always bring a cast-iron skillet, don’t you?) Try it. Your buddies will name you camp chef for life.
For the trout
- 12 boneless rainbow trout fillets, 3–4 ounces each
- 1 cup flour 3 eggs, mixed for an egg wash
- 2 cups blue cornmeal
- Kosher salt and white pepper to taste
- 6 ounces bacon grease or your choice of oil
- 12 eggs, cooked to order
- Flour the fillets, shake off excess, dip into egg wash, remove, and dredge in the cornmeal.
- Add bacon grease or oil to a hot pan. Once it’s heated, add the trout and fry a few minutes on each side, making sure to season with salt and pepper; remove to a paper towel to drain excess oil.
- Place 2 trout fillets onto plate, top with eggs and then the hollandaise.
For the Chipotle Hollandaise Sauce
Makes 2 cups
- 1 ounce white wine
- 6 egg yolks
- 12 ounces clarified butter, heated to 95°
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon pureed chipotles
- Salt to taste
- Worcestershire sauce to taste
- Cayenne pepper to taste
- In a stainless steel bowl, use a balloon whisk to whip the eggs and wine over simmering water until the yolks ribbon and triple in volume.
- Gradually add the warm clarified butter, whipping constantly.
- Add the lemon juice, chipotle puree, and seasonings to your taste. You can thin it out a bit with some super-hot water if the mixture is too thick.
- Cover and set aside, making sure it stays warm so the sauce doesn’t break.
Smoked Trout Hash With Poached Eggs And Tomatillo Salsa
By Katharine Kagel at Cafe Pasqual’s in Santa Fe (121 Don Gaspar Ave.; pasquals.com; 983-9340)
Cooks at Pasqual’s smoke fresh trout every day over alderwood, and the hash is available every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. At dinner, try the Smoked Trout Salad with Horseradish Dressing.
For the Tomatillo Salsa
- 12 large tomatillos, husked and rinsed 2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed and cut in half 1/2 small white onion, peeled and coarsely chopped 1 clove garlic, peeled Leaves from 24 sprigs cilantro 2 cups spinach leaves 1 chile de árbol, stemmed and seeded 1 teaspoons kosher salt
- Put all ingredients into a blender and pulse until liquefied. Adjust seasoning as needed. Transfer to a bowl.
For the Hash Brown Potato Cakes
- 2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled
- 5 ounces grated Gruyère cheese, about 1 generous cup
- 1/3 cup finely minced fresh chives
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Fill a very large pot with enough water to cover the potatoes. Bring water to a boil, then carefully add the potatoes. Cook for 20 minutes over bubbling water. They are done when a fork just slightly slips in the potato—do not overcook or the potatoes will crumble and will not make good, long hash shapes.
- Drain the potatoes and let cool completely—as long as 3 or 4 hours. Or cook a day ahead and refrigerate.
- Use a box grater to shred the potatoes into a large bowl and add the chives, cheese, and seasonings. Use your hands to gently toss them together.
- Heat a 7-inch nonstick sauté pan and add a quarter of the butter, tipping the pan to cover the surface.
- Add a quarter of the potato mixture and pat down to form a pancake. Cook for 4–5 minutes until golden. Flip the pancake over and cook another 3–4 minutes. Slip the pancake onto an ovenproof plate and place in an oven preheated to 200° to keep warm.
- Repeat until all 4 pancakes are made. Place a sheet of parchment paper between cakes if you are going to stack them in the warming oven.
For the Eggs and Trout
- 8 large organic eggs for poaching
- 1 pound smoked trout, torn into 1-by-2-inch pieces
- 1 handful finely chopped cilantro, parsley, or chives for garnish
- Poach the eggs in enough water to cover. Cook until they are opaque but still runny inside.
- While the eggs cook, quickly and gently heat the trout in the nonstick skillet over medium heat just to heat through.
- Place the poached eggs on the warm potato pancakes. Gently dab the top of the eggs to remove any cooking water so that the salsa will not slide off when spooned over the eggs.
- Surround with the warmed trout. Put a generous tablespoonful of salsa across each egg. Garnish with finely chopped cilantro, parsley, or chives. Serve with more tomatillo salsa on the side.
Truchas Yerba Buena
By Frederick Muller at El Meze Restaurant (1017 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, El Prado; elmeze.com; 575-751-3337)
Two epicurean river rats I know from Embudo turned me on to this dish. Muller’s focus is on la comida de las sierras—mountain cuisine. Here, he says, he took a traditional Taos Pueblo idea and gave it a Spanish/Moorish spin with the preserved lemon and smoked paprika.
- 1/2 preserved lemon 2 cups fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped 2 teaspoons minced garlic 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 1/2 cup olive oil 8 trout, whole, deboned, about 8–10 ounces each Cilantro sauce and Moroccan butter (recipes follow)
- Cut away the flesh from the preserved lemon and finely dice the rind only. Place in a large stainless-steel bowl and add mint, garlic, red pepper, salt, pepper, and olive oil. Combine thoroughly. 2. Rinse trout under cold running water. Place one trout into the mixing bowl and coat. Place approximately 2 tablespoons of herb mixture into trout cavity. Close trout. Repeat process with all trout. 3. Fire up grill. When very hot, place trout at a 30° angle on grill. Cook for 3 minutes, then reposition (same side; don’t flip it yet) at 60° angle, which will create hatch marks and crisp up the skin. Cook for another 3 minutes and then flip and cook for 6 minutes or more. To make sure trout is done, open up the cavity; meat should be white, moist, and firm to the touch. When done, top each piece of fish with 1 tablespoon of Moroccan butter on and leave on grill for 1 more minute to slightly melt. 4. Remove from grill and drizzle cilantro sauce over the top. Serve with a watercress or arugula salad.
Makes 2 cups
- 1/2 rounded teaspoon minced garlic
- 3 large bunches cilantro, stems removed and roughly chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cups olive oil
- In a food processor, add garlic, cilantro, salt red pepper flakes, and pepper.
- Blend until finely minced. Add olive oil. Pulse only once—you do not want to puree. Place in airtight container. Stir before using. If it becomes too thick, thin it with more olive oil.
Fifteen-ingredient butter? Trust us, this is also great on steaks. Makes 1 pound
- 1 pound unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 bunch curly parsley, stems removed
- 1 cup mint leaves
- 1/2 bunch cilantro, stems removed
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon mild Chimayó chile powder
- 1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- Zest of 1/2 lemon
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- Chop parsley, mint, and cilantro until minced. Place softened butter in a bowl. Add garlic, spices, lemon zest, lemon juice, parsley, mint, and cilantro. Beat with a hand mixer until well blended. Place in airtight container and refrigerate.