By Dana Zia
We live in such a fertile rich valley here that some of our wonders are easily overlooked, like the fact that we have one of the most abundant winter steelhead runs in the NW. Fisher people all know this fact, as steelhead are one of the most sought after game fish in the nation, but to the folks who don’t fish, they are under the radar.
First let’s define what steelhead are, they are a sea-run rainbow trout on steroids. (Or maybe I should say on seafood) They are commonly mistaken for being a salmon but they are a trout that goes to sea for 1-4 years, then comes back to spawn in the rivers that they were born in, just like a salmon. It is easy to see why there is so much confusion between the two. In fact, until 1988 they were considered a type of salmon, Salmo gairdneri, an altogether a different species from the rainbow trout. Then by genetic research, it was determined that steelhead are the same as rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss.
Steelhead also eat a similar diet to salmon while out to sea like juvenile fish, squid and amphipods (aka krill) so therefore their flesh can be the same intense orange color as salmon and taste very similarly. Though some steelhead who eat less krill will have remarkably light colored flesh and taste similar to a brook trout. (They also have similar healthy nutrients to salmon, being full of omega 3s, Vit D, B3 and B12) So even though steelhead are technically a trout, I treat them much like salmon when cooking them.
Our steelhead run in the Nehalem from around Thanksgiving till April. There are actually two runs, the hatchery run starts around Thanksgiving till about March and then the native steelhead run starts in January and goes till April or so. The natives are protected, and are only catch and release. They are a gorgeous large fish that can get up to 50 pounds, but are mostly around 12-15 pounds. The hatchery fish, which we can keep and eat, are smaller, weighing about 6-9 pounds.
If you have never had fresh NW winter run steelhead, and you love salmon, you are in for a delight! My husband is an avid fisherman and so keeps us well supplied in hatchery steelhead for our winter larder. If you do not have a fisher person to keep you in fish, you can buy them commercially. (In fact, there is a special running this week at Safeway!) If you see some, buy it! Just make sure and try to buy steelhead with oranger flesh, it has more flavor. (And of course test for freshness, always! I give fish the “sniff” test. If it smells fishy, then it is old. You want it to smell like the ocean, slightly salty and clean)
My husband and I have cooked steelhead in many ways (in fact he has a couple in the smoker right now) but our favorite way is to grill it after marinating it. Even though steel head is remarkably like salmon it does have a bit more delicate of a nature, so be careful not to overcook or over flavor. This recipe is one of our old standbys. It is excellent with any fish, but particularly steelhead and salmon. Enjoy this winter bounty that we are so lucky to have.
Rum glazed steelhead trout
This marinade is excellent for salmon too.
3 Tabls of brown sugar or maple syrup
3 Tabls of dark rum or pineapple juice
2 Tbls of organic low-sodium soy sauce
1 Tbls of grated fresh ginger (peels on)
The zest and juice of one lime
3 cloves of garlic, pressed
Splash of your favorite hot sauce (I used Sriracha)
1/4 tsp of black pepper
4 (6 oz) steelhead fillets or steaks
Garnish with sesame seeds (optional)
Combine the all the ingredients for the marinade in a medium bowl and whisk up till well combined. Nestle the steaks (or fillets) in the marinade and then cover, and tuck in the fridge for a half hour for super fresh fish or up to an hour if the fish is not as fresh. Turn a few times during the marinating.
Ok, now you have two ways to cook this fish, grill it or fry it, depending on the weather. (And I suppose your desire too) We prefer to grill it. Here are instructions for the two ways to do it;
Grilling; Spray your clean grill racks with high heat oil then turn on the grill to high to get things nice and hot. Put the steelhead steak on the grill (discard the marinade) and then turn it down to med-high heat and grill for 6-8 minutes on each side till you cut into one steak and see it still lightly pink in the center. (Don’t be bashful about cutting into one steak to check where your cooking time is) Take it off the grill at this point, it will cook the rest of the way if you let it rest for 10 mins.
Frying; heat a large iron or stainless steel skillet over medium high heat with 1 tablespoon of high heat cooking oil in it, like coconut or avocado, and add the fish and marinade to the pan. Cook fish 4-5 minutes on each side or until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Place one fillet or steak on each plate, drizzle each serving with the pan juices, sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve with salad and veggies.