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A Few Snags on the Path to Catching Our Dinner

July 14, 2008

I learned the basics of line and tackle fishing from my late uncle Oscar Portuondo, first in Cuba and then in Miami, where my husband and I often joined him at his favorite fishing spots on the bay side of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park or the old Rickenbacker Causeway Bridge.

My uncle was a man of the tropical sea, but I know he would have found great joy in the sweet, cold-water bounty of the Delaware River Valley in Pennsylvania, where I own a small vacation home.

This beautiful land of forested mountains and rocky soils has never yielded the locally grown produce and artisan foodstuffs of my dreams, but I have come to appreciate its greatness as a fishing territory. Even when my catch is a meager collection of bluegills or rock bass, I luxuriate in the access to fish fresh out of the water.

Running freely for 410 miles, unimpeded by man-made waterworks from its birthplace near Hancock, N.Y., to the Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware River is an angler’s paradise. This is where American shad spawns after living to maturity in the ocean. It is also home to the hard-to-catch walleye and plentiful smallmouth bass and a welcoming habitat for delicious brook, brown and rainbow trout.

Trout are members of the salmon family. The brook trout, the state fish of its native Pennsylvania, is often orange-fleshed, with wormlike markings and colorful red spots. It thrives in clear, gravel-strewn streams.

The more abundant brown trout, with its darker color and large round spots, was introduced to Pennsylvania from Germany in the 19th century. Being more tolerant of cloudy waters, it has proven hardier than the native brook trout.

Also introduced to the Northeast in the 19th century, the rosy-fleshed rainbow trout is a Pacific native. It is the most elegant looking of the bunch, with a lovely pink stripe and tiny dark spots along its silver body.

Shared bounty from angler friends left me besotted by rainbow and brook trout, but we had never managed to catch our own on the fast-flowing creeks or stretch of the Delaware near our home. I decided to remedy the situation over the Fourth of July weekend by scheduling a half-day class with fly-fishing expert Joe Demalderis.

Excited by the prospect, my husband and I bought books on fly fishing, upgraded our fishing gear and invited friends for the anticipated trout feast. Unfortunately, we had overlooked a crucial piece of information on Capt. Demalderis’ website: Fishing on the section of river he plies is strictly catch-and-release.

I rescheduled our class for August, but I still had people to feed. Swallowing our pride, we headed for Paradise Trout Preserve in Cresco, Pa., and joined hundreds of others fishing for trout from a well-stocked pond. Everyone seemed to be having better luck than us until my husband switched bait and landed a fat rainbow trout.

Like gamblers emboldened by a first win, we were eager to fish on, but a heavy downpour ended our expedition. I had no choice but to buy already-dressed trout from the hatchery.

The fish looked great and could hardly have been fresher. I seasoned them lightly with a spicy green sauce, stuffed them with serrano ham and garlic slivers and fried them in a seasoned cornmeal crust.

To a hungry crowd, the trout was stupendous with a side of charred eggplant, corn on the cob, and a Parmigiano risotto. I knew better, though. Somewhere in the Delaware is the wild trout of our dreams, and one day we will catch and cook it.

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SERRANO HAM-STUFFED TROUT WITH SPICY SALSA VERDE

(Trucha Rellena de Jamon Serrano al Sarten con Salsa Verde)

A savory crust of seasoned cornmeal and a few slices of serrano ham in the cavity (in the style of Navarre, Spain) bring out the trout’s sweetness. I use the salsa not only as a condiment but to season the fish before coating. Any type of freshwater trout will work in this recipe. The fish is available at Whole Foods and Publix (ask the manager to order it if it’s not on display). A rose with red-fruit notes like Susana Balbo’s Crios Malbec or a fresh, peachy white like Lurton’s Pinot Gris from Mendoza, Argentina, would make a great match.

THE SALSA VERDE:

{ bunch fresh parsley

3 or 4 sprigs fresh cilantro

7 garlic cloves

1 jalapeno, seeded and deveined

{ teaspoon hot Spanish paprika (preferably Pimenton de la Vera)

\ teaspoon ground cumin

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

\ cup Spanish sherry vinegar

Salt to taste

THE TROUT:

4 whole trout (about 1 pound each), gutted and cleaned, preferably with head and tail on

Salt and freshly ground pepper

{ pound Serrano ham, cut in -\-inch slices

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

THE COATING:

1-\ cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal

\ cup all-purpose flour (preferably unbleached)

1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons hot Spanish paprika

\ teaspoon ground cumin

Salt to taste

TO FINISH:

Olive oil for frying

Prepare the salsa: Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and process into a smooth sauce. Pour into a bowl and set aside. Makes 1-{ cups.

Prepare the trout: Rinse the trout and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper and let rest for at least 5 minutes. Pour -{ cup of the salsa verde over the fish, rubbing it all over. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes. When ready to cook, tuck 2 or 3 ham slices in the fish’s cavity and top with garlic slices.

Prepare the coating: Measure all the ingredients into a pie plate or other wide, shallow dish. Stir with a fork to mix. Dredge the fish, pressing it with your hands to coat evenly with the coating.

Fry the trout: Heat abundant olive oil (about 2 cups) over medium heat in a large, heavy frying pan. Add the fish and fry until golden brown, about 5 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot with salsa verde. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving (does not include oil absorbed in frying): 976 calories (60 percent from fat), 65.1 g fat (10.4 g saturated, 43.8 g monounsaturated), 126.5 mg cholesterol, 48.4 g protein, 53.6 g carbohydrates, 2.5 g fiber, 907.1 mg sodium.

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(Culinary historian Maricel E. Presilla is the chef/co-owner of Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken, N.J. Her latest book is “The New Taste of Chocolate.” Contact her via her Web site, www.maricelpresilla.com.)

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