Tempting Trout Benedict
Chef and hunter Jonathan Wilkins raises the bar on brunch.
By Michael Roberts Photos by Sara Blancett Reeves
"Man, I got skunked today," Jonathan Wilkins says with a laugh. Wilkins has just come in to check on the early lunch shift at the newly opened Arkansas Fresh Bakery Cafe in Bryant, but he's still dressed in camouflage from a morning duck hunt on the Saline River. Despite not putting any birds in the water, Wilkins is upbeat, and for good reason: The dining room is buzzing with compliments about the menu of high-end sandwiches and breakfast items that he designed, and the kitchen staff has begun to gel into a brigade to be proud of.
Before Wilkins teamed up with baker and chocolatier Ashton Woodward to open the Arkansas Fresh Cafe, he made his name as the chef at Little Rock's White Water Tavern, turning a space known more for whiskey drinks, cheap beer and loud music into a food destination. White Water meant long hours for its chef, and when Wilkins found himself sleeping at the bar some weekends, he knew that burnout was on its way.
"When I left White Water, I just stayed in the woods for about six months," he says. It was time spent doing more than just reflecting: Wilkins estimates that around 85 percent of the protein he eats in any given year comes from what he can hunt, fish or trap. "It's really the best deal ever–for the cost of a hunting license, the entire state can become your grocery store," he says before heading back into the kitchen to make sure things are still going smoothly.
Wilkins' top proteins are venison and squirrel, but he's also a fan of trout fishing in the cold waters of the White River. He expresses some dismay at friends who claim that there aren't many ways to make trout or squirrel taste good, and further disappointment that people who do eat them only ever seem to put them in the fryer. "These are good, quality sources of protein," he says. "And if I'm going to eat them, they're going to taste good." If the Wilkins-designed menu at Arkansas Fresh Bakery Cafe is any indication, he knows how to do that.
Smoked Trout Eggs Benedict
This recipe calls for using 2-3 "keeper size" rainbow trout. For me, that's not huge. I've never caught a big trout. A few smallish-sized trout make a nice meal for two people. Check the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission regulations book and make sure you are following the laws for the piece of water you are fishing. Regulations change a lot depending on location and species of trout. Gut trout and wash inside and out with cold water. Some salt helps to scrub the slime off. You can leave the head on or cut it off.
Smoked Trout Brine
- 1/2 gallon water
- 3/4 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
Get the water hot enough to dissolve the salt and sugar, then allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Submerge trout in the brine and refrigerate for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. After an hour or two, remove fish from brine and rinse with cold water. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and allow to sit on a rack in the fridge for a few hours. Smoke the trout at 200 degrees until the meat flakes off of the skin and the bone easily. Allow fish to cool, then flake all the meat into a bowl and hold for later.
Smoked Trout Croquette
(base of Benedict)
- flaked meat from 2-3 smoked trout
- diced green onion
- 1 large egg (beaten)
- lemon zest
- bread crumbs
- (Ritz crackers make good ones for this recipe)
- flour (a tablespoon or two)
- dash of Dijon mustard
- salt and pepper
Mash it all together. If you like more of a certain ingredient, toss it in. If it;s too crumbly, add another egg; too wet, add a little more flour or bread crumb. You're essentially making meatloaf patties. Form the patties three-quarters of an inch thick and 3-4 inches across. Cook the patties in a hot pan with enough olive oil to coat the bottom. It shouldnít take more than a few minutes per side.
Dill Sour Cream and Poached Egg
- 1 tablespoon of fresh dill
- black pepper (to taste)
- 1 cup sour cream
- poached egg
- 1/2 gallon water
- splash of white vinegar
Mix dill and pepper into sour cream. Set aside. Bring the water to a simmer, add the vinegar, wait 30-45 more seconds, then carefully crack the egg into the water. Soft-poach the egg. You're counting on the yolk to serve as a sauce, so don't overdo it. Make a base of wilted greens and place the croquette on top. The poached egg goes on top of the croquette. Add the sour cream on top of that. Grate a bit of hard salami on top for garnish or a few crumbles of crispy bacon.