Saturday, June 30, 2012

Herb-Crusted Steelhead in a Skillet

Did you know? Trout and salmon are members of the same family, salmonidae. Salmon are anadromous; they hatch in freshwater and spend their adult life in salt water, returning to freshwater only to spawn.  Most trout remain in freshwater for their entire lives. And then there are steelhead, an anadromous rainbow trout that hatches in freshwater rivers, migrates to salt water and several years later returns to freshwater to spawn. While adult Pacific salmon spawn once and then die, a small percentage of steelhead can survive their run upstream to spawn, return to the ocean and subsequently return to freshwater and spawn again. Spunky creatures, aren't they.  

Salmon are renowned for rich, flavorful, firm red flesh, though their coloration can range from the white flesh of some kings (Chinook) to the fire-engine red coloration of sockeye. Trout flesh is white, delicate and moist. Sure enough, this week’s steelhead had white flesh, and at over 8 pounds I had a lot of fish to work with.

RL cleaned the fish and cut the fillets into manageable portions: 3 for the freezer and 1 to cook immediately. I’ve cooked a lot of salmon over the years, and more than a few small trout like Dolly Varden, but no steelhead, so I was challenged to find a new recipe or two. What a great excuse to spend some time paging through the many seafood cookbooks shelved onboard. Crusted with a savory topping and pan-fried in butter was the plan for our first steelhead meal. A good choice, this recipe was declared a keeper after the first few bites, but how could it fail with garlic, ginger, basil, and butter?

Skillet Steelhead with a Savory Rub
Based on a trout recipe in Hugh Carpenter's Fast Fish cookbook.
Serves 2

Savory Rub
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
2 green onions, minced
1 generous tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
pinch of salt

fillet of steelhead (or salmon, halibut, trout, etc.) with skin on, just large enough to fit into a heavy cast iron skillet without crowding
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (basil butter is a great option)
1 tablespoon of capers or green peppercorns (chopped if large)
Additional heaping tablespoon of butter or basil butter (optional)
lemon wedges

For the rub
Combine the rub ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. If you prepare this ahead of time, cover and hold in the refrigerator.

For the fish
Rub the meat side of the fillet(s) with the olive oil, and cover with the rub. Pat it on firmly.
Heat a heavy cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and butter to the pan; heat until the butter melts and begins to brown.
Add the coated fillet(s) to the pan, skin side up; cook for 2-3 minutes until the crust browns, being careful not to let it burn.
Carefully turn the fish over and cook until the flesh begins to flake when poked with a fork. Cooking time will depend on the thickness of the fillet, roughly 3 to 5 minutes on the second side.
Plate the fish with skin side down, though if you’re lucky the skin will remain in the pan when you lift the fish with a spatula. (Discard the skin if it stays in the skillet.)
Return the skillet to the heat, add the additional butter and swirl around until melted. Pour this over the fish and serve immediately with lemon wedges. (Use the lemon, it does make a difference!.)

Note: I’ll toss a tablespoon or two of lemon juice and zest into the pan with more basil butter at the end for a tangy, herby pan sauce.


  1. Why do you make such yummy things on the boat, my mouth is drooling reading this one. Laci

    1. This was delicious, although the freshness of the steelhead accounted for a big part of the yum factor.


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