Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Portrait of a cook as magician

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2016 at 10:48 AM

click to enlarge Frank Saska, veteran fishing guide and outdoor cook with Gaston's Resort in Lakeview - MICHAEL ROBERTS
  • Michael Roberts
  • Frank Saska, veteran fishing guide and outdoor cook with Gaston's Resort in Lakeview

I had every intention of doing one of those "Best of 2015" posts, truly. But as always happens, other projects—namely, Run Arkansas, a new special edition of Arkansas Wild—proved to be quite a lot of work, although enjoyable. Then, of course, there were the holidays, then the sleeping that comes after the holidays and the gravy-induced self-loathing that comes after the sleeping—I'm sure you've all been there. Or maybe still there. In any case, it's January now and 2015 has gone out like Johnny Manziel's career with the Cleveland Browns: wearing a blonde wig and fake mustache in Vegas

So while I never got around to making a big production of all my favorite eats from last year, I do want to talk about the single best meal I had. Most years, picking a single favorite would be almost impossible, and 2015 certainly had its share of tasty moments and memorable meals. But there's one that sticks out to me, and it happened on the banks of the White River in north Arkansas.

Now, the whole thing came about by accident. One Friday afternoon, toward the end of the day, I got a call at my desk from our associate publisher. She had planned a big trip up to Gaston's Resort in Lakeview in order to get a story about Arkansas trout fishing and something called a "shore lunch," but the person slated to go had an unavoidable scheduling conflict. You know that feeling of destructive rage you get when the boss calls late on a Friday and informs you that you're working on the weekend? I've discovered that a great way to prevent that feeling from happening is to make the assignment include a fully loaded cabin and a Monday morning fishing trip with a guide who knows where the fish hang out. Employers, take note.

click to enlarge A soon-to-be-devoured rainbow trout on the White River - MICHAEL ROBERTS
  • Michael Roberts
  • A soon-to-be-devoured rainbow trout on the White River

Now let's make something abundantly clear: I am not a fisherman. My parents love fishing, and we went regularly when I was young, catching bass and bream on the Arkansas River near Gillette, getting skunked on DeGray and having lunch while floating near the first alligators I ever saw in the wild on Beard's Lake outside Ashdown. But that was back when the United States was still friends with Saddam Hussein and Pluto was a planet. But the ensuing decades would see me drop nary a hook into the water. 

I'll spare you the details of the fishing trip itself, mostly because I want you to read about it in Arkansas Wild's fishing edition, which will be out soon. Suffice it to say that despite a morning that started off cold and foggy, our guide, Frank Saska, had me pulling in rainbow trout by the time the winter sun turned the mist into a clear, bright day. And he did it with patience and humor, something that impressed me more every time I managed to get my line tangled up around my pole. I reckon if Frank can enable a city-living tenderfoot such as myself to put a mess of keepers in the live well, and do it while another boat holding a photographer circles around snapping pictures, he can teach anybody. It was an incredibly fun trip.

So what does this have to do with food? Or that chef as magician thing I have up there in the title? Well, that's what the "shore lunch" part this trip is all about. Once we caught enough trout for lunch, Frank motored us to a small pavilion just upstream from the main Gaston's resort. There were three pit-style charcoal grills out front, a long prep/serving table made from of an old boat and several sturdy picnic tables. Frank gutted, cleaned and filleted our catch quicker than I've ever seen it done and lit two of the grills with some hardwood charcoal. What happened next is the magic part.

Now, I've been in the finest restaurants this state has to offer, and I've made many a fine repast at the diners, dairy bars and taco wagons with which our state is blessed. But I've never had anything quite like the open-flame-prepared meal Frank Saska served up there on the river. Cast iron skillets were produced, bacon was fried (much of it eaten as an appetizer) and the resulting grease used as a base of flavoring for a huge pan of fried potatoes and onions and dish Frank called "River Beans." The main event, of course, was the trout, simply prepared by a quick dredge in yellow cornmeal and a visit to a piping hot skillet. And with no real temperature control, no fancy accouterments—and while maintaining a steady stream of jokes, wisecracks and stories about the river—that fishing guide produced the finest fish dinner I've had the privilege to eat.

The potatoes? Crisp on the outside with a tender, creamy center. And not just on a few of them—every dang tater in the bunch was perfect. The River Beans were sweet and tangy, and some of the bacon from earlier swam about in their depths much like our main course had been doing just a couple of hours prior. As for the fish, it had the sort of crust to it that folks dream about, and the fresh taste of the trout was as bright and clean as the midday sun. I've cooked rainbow trout myself, and I've always found them to be bony little beasts that are barely worth their excellent flavor. That was not an issue here, as each fillet served up came wondrously free of even the smallest bit of bone. And with every bite, all I could think of was the fact that our cook at done it all over coals in the space of an hour.

So keep your eye out for the next issue of Arkansas Wild—you can see more pictures from the trip and get the recipe to make those beans for yourself at home. Many thanks to the fine folks at Gaston's, who turned a weekend work assignment into something I'd do every day if I could. That's my best meal of 2015—what was yours?

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