Aaron McCloud’s grandmother used to call him “Bones.” Even today, he’s not sure why.
Maybe as a child he was long and lean like he is now. Or maybe it’s because she knew he would be working with meat and fish and herbs and, on occasion, bones, as a chef.
McCloud, the 35-year-old executive chef of Washington, D.C.’s Cedar restaurant, came to the business in a decidedly unconventional way. A talented violinist as a young teen, he got a job playing in neighborhood restaurants. And quickly found himself more interested in fiddling with the pots and pans than with his strings.
He worked his way through the ranks of fine dining restaurants up and down the East Coast and today is a well-known chef in the area. But he hasn’t forgotten his grandmother, who died about a year ago at the age of 100. Or the grandfather he never knew. In fact, he’s reminded of them every time he makes smoked trout or salmon or even smoked tomato gel.
That’s because his smoker – called “Old Bessie” by kitchen staff — belonged to his grandfather, who died a year before he was born. A long-ago purchase from Sears, Roebuck & Co., McCloud estimates it’s about 60 years old. But it’s gotten its best workout from McCloud. Throughout the years and several jobs, he’s ignored items such as the $10,000 smoker he had at Maryland’s upscale Inn at Perry Cabin and has done everything in Old Bessie. Her blackened insides and gently warped walls tell the story of food and family.
“Food is a feeling,” he says, “it conjures up memory. And family is a big part of our memories.”
– Text by Michele Kayal
– AFR video by Daniel McCollum
This simple, summertime dish makes a great appetizer in the back yard or at an elegant dinner party. Chef Aaron McCloud of Washington, D.C.'s Cedar restaurant, who shared this recipe with AFR, smokes the fish in his grandpa’s smoker, called "Old Bessie." McCloud says his mom and grandma would do it with Lake Michigan whitefish, but in the Mid-Atlantic Shenandoah trout works best. McCloud serves this elegant dish with salmon roe, Belgian endive, pickled red onions and peach vinaigrette. Note, this recipe requires 3 days of prep time.
- 2 tablespoons citrus vodka
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 4 fillets, fresh rainbow trout, skin on
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon white sugar
- 1 tablespoon good-quality honey
- Sprigs thyme
- 1 ripe white peach
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 teaspoon whole-grain mustard
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup grapeseed oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ¼ small red onion, sliced very thin
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon white sugar
- 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- 2 heads Belgian endive
- 1/8 cup micro arugula or some other garnish
- 4 mild radishes, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon salmon roe*
To cure the trout: In a small bowl, mix the vodka and lime juice. Check fillets for bones, then toss in the vodka-lime juice mixture.
In another small bowl, mix the salt and sugar. Pour about 1/3 of the mixture into the bottom of a flat casserole. Place 2 fillets skin side down in the salt-sugar. Brush with honey. Sprinkle about 1/3 of the salt-sugar mixture over the fillets. Top each fillet with 2 sprigs of thyme. Place two remaining fillets skin side up on top of the ones in the casserole. Cover with remaining salt-sugar mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and place a smaller casserole on top to press softly down on the fish. Place in the refrigerator and let cure for 3 days.
Just after preparing the fish, make the base for the peach vinaigrette: Peel and slice the peach. Puree in a high power blender. Add the cider vinegar and blend thoroughly. Cover and store in the refrigerator.
When the trout is fully cured, remove from the casserole and shake off excess salt and sugar. Place in a cold smoker with applewood, sage and corn husks prepared to smoke. Let smoke for at least 30 minutes or until trout picks up a little bit of color.
A couple of hours before smoking the trout, pickle the red onion. To pickle: toss sliced onion with salt, sugar and lime juice. Let sit for 2-3 hours.
While the trout smokes, pour the peach-cider vinegar into a blender and add the shallot and mustard. With the motor running, slowly add the oil into the blender. Season with salt and pepper.
Brush the endive with olive oil, salt and pepper. Put them on a hot grill for about 30 seconds, or just long enough to pick up some flavor, but not to cook. Remove from grill and break leaves apart. Toss with the peach vinaigrette and place on plate in a spiral fashion. Break trout up into two inch chunks. Place on top of endive. Garnish with the pickled onions, sliced radishes and micro arugula.
Place two dollops of salmon roe on either side of the salad. Drizzle the plate with the remaining vinaigrette.
*Salmon roe is available at high-end supermarkets and at fish stores