Like any good Corn Belt Catholic, my earliest experience with fish was being forced to eat it on Fridays instead of the meaty stuff I’d much rather have had. Variations on the theme included freezer-burned fish sticks, badly cooked catfish, and canned tuna. I’ve been off the stuff to this very day. Even as an adult, I told myself that I was woefully geographically removed from marquee fish—your Atlantic cod, your opakapaka, your deadly fugu. That is until one trip to a mom-and-pop fish market as a not-yet-lapsed Catholic brought me face-to-face with the Platonic ideal of Third Coast seafood: smoked trout dip.
Hagen’s Fish Market on the far Northwest side of Chicago is the kind of place where the parking lot turns into a war zone for the entirety of Lent. It’s the definition of a neighborhood treasure: it will smoke your catch, sell you fresh shellfish, and the fridge of prepared seafood dips is incredible. I’ve seen cops double-park in front of old ladies to get their fix during the Easter season.
I fell hard for Hagen’s smoked trout dip, and my natural impulse is to try to recreate the foods I can’t get enough of. (I may or may not have purchased crackers at the market along with the dip so that I could shamefully inhale a bunch of dip in my parked car before making the drive home.) When starting this re-creation in earnest, I turned to my collection of spiral-bound church cookbooks because they hold the wisdom of ages… along with some regrettable stabs at taco dip. Shout out to St. Patrick’s parish in McHenry, Illinois, and various churches I have not been to for their contribution here. Guidance from above comes in many forms.
This being of church cookbook origin, store-bought smoked fish is completely acceptable here so long as it’s something you’d actually want to eat by itself in the first place. The caper brine is optional, but an absolutely killer way to dial up the flavor. I tried a version with actual capers, but it took away from the fish just a bit too much.
Your first thought may be, “Hey, this delicious underwater denizen does not need to be covered in dairy and strong seasonings to be enjoyed. Television Chef told me so!” And that’s right: trout is delicious on its own and as part of many wonderful non-potluck dishes. But here, now, yes, it certainly does need to be dip-ified. Try it and soon you’ll be sneaking down to the fridge at night to see what it tastes like on a chunk of leftover pita.
Smoked Trout Dip
To smoke your own trout, salt brine your fish for 20 minutes per inch of thickness. Use 16 grams, or about a tablespoon, of kosher salt per cup of water. Do your own thing with sugar if you like to add it. Smoke over mild wood, like alder, at 200 degrees Fahrenheit until the fish’s internal temperature reaches 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
- 1/2 pound magical smoky trout, store-bought or homemade
- 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
- 1/4 cup Mexican crema
- 2 Tbsp. lemon juice, about one lemon’s worth
- 1/2 tsp. jarred horseradish
- 1/4 tsp. fresh lemon zest
- Salt, to taste
- Black pepper, to taste
- Jarred caper brine, to taste
- Sweet paprika, to garnish
- Fresh chopped dill, to garnish
Gently flake the trout in a medium bowl with a fork until it’s just come apart. (You’ll be mixing it with other stuff, so no need to make pulverized cat food of it.)
Fold in the cream cheese, crema, lemon juice, horseradish, and zest. Season with salt and black pepper to taste, then finish with caper brine.
Place in your serving dish and garnish with a pop of paprika and a generous handful of dill. Serve with crackers, toast, flatbread, pizza-flavored Combos—whatever. I haven’t found a way to ruin this yet without actually microwaving it. (Don’t do this.)
Enjoy. This dip will now visit you in your dreams, too.