Califonia Bountiful

A quality catch

July/August 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Trout raised in mountain spring water proves a winning pick

Chef Reilly Meehan shows off his award-winning trout ceviche, featuring fish from Mt. Lassen Trout. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

When the temperature rises, our cravings often aim to settle the score, and we reach for ingredients as invigorating as a mountain breeze. Hearty braises and comforting carb-fests: out. Light, bright, refreshing flavors: in.

For many chefs, diners and home cooks, fish often fits that bill; it's a light yet satisfying protein to build a summer meal around, and it cooks quickly indoors or on the grill, keeping kitchens cooler.

For chef and California native Reilly Meehan, summer is the perfect time to showcase fish, especially California farm-raised trout.

"I always try to stick to seasonal products and I absolutely love summer flavors with trout," Meehan said. "A bit of acidity from fresh tomatoes, a touch of sweetness from fresh, yellow corn and a hint of smokiness from bacon never fail."

A surprising combination of savory, sweet and tart come together in Meehan's trout ceviche recipe. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Trophy fish

You can find trout in heavy rotation on Meehan's menus this time of year: pan-seared with a quick Meyer lemon-butter sauce; stuffed with herbs and shaved fennel and grilled whole; or sliced thinly and served raw with a melon-mint ceviche.

"The fattiness and the mellow flavor of the trout really lends well for many different applications, which is why I use it so much," Meehan said.

Meehan's roots in seasonally inspired California cuisine run deep. He started pitching in during summer vacations at his father's restaurant in Santa Cruz at the age of 12, splitting time between the kitchen and procuring ingredients from local producers.

That early emphasis on local ingredients has served him well in his own culinary endeavors, which have included a nine-year stint at San Francisco's The Bohemian Club. In 2019, Meehan was named The U.S.A.'s Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation after preparing his trout ceviche dish for competition, featuring fish from the family-run farm Mt. Lassen Trout.

Co-owned by father-daughter team Phil Mackey and Katie Mackey Harris, Mt. Lassen Trout specializes in farm-raised rainbow trout and steelhead for the food and recreation markets. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

The secret's in the water

In picturesque, remote Northern California locations, cold water flowing from the base of Mt. Lassen serves as the starting point for raising rainbow trout and steelhead for the seafood and recreational fishing markets.

"Our trout are raised in pure, mountain spring water and fed a natural diet," said Phil Mackey, co-owner of Red Bluff-based Mt. Lassen Trout, in business since 1949. "It's an extremely fresh product. Our goal is to produce the highest-quality fish in the marketplace."

Interested in learning about aquaculture, or seafood farming, Mackey joined Mt. Lassen Trout in the early 1970s and gradually assumed ownership from his previous employer. Today, he operates hatcheries in Tehama, Shasta and Plumas counties with his daughter, Katie Mackey Harris, who is president and general manager.

Although much of the farm's trout is purchased for stocking recreational fishing lakes, its rainbow trout and steelhead are sought by the seafood market and sold at restaurants and boutique retail stores.

When it comes to farm-raised trout, spring water is a key ingredient.

"Without it, we cannot do what we do," Mackey said, adding that the farm returns water to the system for further use. "The better water quality we have, the better our fish do."

Trout are spawned from Mt. Lassen Trout's own broodstock. Newly hatched sac-fry, shown here, will grow into larger fish. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

The science of success

The farm's rainbow trout and steelhead grow in a high-velocity water environment that mimics the flow of a natural river habitat. As a result, Mackey said, the fish grow stronger and more muscular, which translates into a high-quality protein source for the table that stays at optimal freshness longer. Production is also enhanced with the additional aeration in the spring water, which remains close to 55 degrees.

Raising trout begins with quality parent fish, Mackey said. Trout are spawned from Mt. Lassen Trout's own broodstock, which he said result from 60 years of selectively breeding the best trout available to produce eggs. Hatchery employees carefully harvest and fertilize eggs by hand, and parent fish are returned to a broodstock pond.

Eggs are incubated for about 30 days until they hatch, after which they move through different pond environments and feeding regimens tailored to their needs at each life stage. Rainbow trout and steelhead raised for the food market grow for about 13 months, until they reach 1 to 2 pounds. Fish that are purchased for stocking ponds can grow a few years, until they are 3 pounds or more.

"The trout that we stock are providing wholesome, outdoor recreational experiences," Mackey said. "It's heartwarming to get a picture from somebody that says, 'Look at this fish that my granddaughter caught.'"

Mt. Lassen Trout also partners in conservation projects, including raising endangered, winter-run Chinook salmon to benefit the Sacramento River watershed, Harris said.

Operations Manager Clint Hendricks provides feed tailored to a fish's needs at each life stage. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

A healthy choice

Trout has a delicate, mild flavor and contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. It's a highly nutritious source of protein, Harris said, and farms such as hers play a part in making sure people have ongoing access to its food value while preserving wild fish populations.

Choosing farm-raised fish from California, where farming regulations are some of the strictest in the world, rather than imported farmed fish, can be a recipe not only for a healthier meal, but a healthier planet, Harris said.

"Being California-grown, we adhere to strict environmental requirements and our fish offer a smaller carbon footprint," she said.

Aquaculture has "come leaps and bounds" in terms of efficiently producing nutritious feed, Harris added, which she said enhances the appeal of farmed fish to environmentally conscious shoppers.

Fresh spring water in the foothills of Mt. Lassen is a key to raising quality trout. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Staying connected

Within hours of harvest, Mt. Lassen Trout supplies fresh trout to upscale restaurants and markets where chefs and customers appreciate the quality of the fish and the farm's sustainable approach.

Mt. Lassen Trout was initially hurt by closures of restaurants and recreation facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Harris said seafood sales have slowly picked up. Mt. Lassen Trout has also expanded to include Mt. Lassen Seafood Processors, so it can process, pack and ship trout directly to consumers, restaurants and distributors.

Chefs such as Meehan appreciate the direct connection to the farmer.

"One of the main reasons I went with Mt. Lassen and a farm-raised product was the consistency," Meehan said. "(They) went above and beyond to ensure I had the best quality product possible, and it was a pleasure working with them."

For Mackey, helping people discover and enjoy the high quality of California farm-raised fish is part of what makes the journey satisfying.

"I'm one of the luckiest people in the world to have worked at something my entire adult life—aquaculture—and I'm still excited about doing it," he said. "I'm 50 years into it now, and I still get excited about going to work most every day."

Christine Souza

Clint Hendricks displays a U.S. farm-raised rainbow trout, noted as a sustainably produced fish. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Farmed in U.S. is best

As people become more interested in food safety and the origin of their food, fish is no exception.

"People need to know where their fish is from," said Katie Mackey Harris of Mt. Lassen Trout, which raises trout near Red Bluff.

More than 90% of seafood consumed in the country is imported from outside of the United States. Imported farmed seafood does not always meet the same high safety and environmental standards as required of farms in the U.S., said Harris, also president of the United States Trout Farmers Association.

For example, U.S.-farmed rainbow trout is listed among the "Best Choices" for sustainably produced seafood on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch website, while trout farmed in Colombia is listed as "Avoid."

U.S. guidelines that protect the safety of seafood require that seafood sold at retail be labeled as wild or farm-raised and include the country of origin. Harris recommends grocery shoppers look for seafood identified as "U.S. farm-raised," whether fresh or frozen.


Mt. Lassen trout ceviche with melon and mint

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