RAINBOWS, BROWNS, AND BARBEQUE (Craig, Montana)

by John Idstrom on June 26, 2012

When it comes to keeping their lips sealed and general obfuscation, barbeque pit masters and anglers leap to the front of the line. Prying pertinent information from expert practitioners in these fields is an exercise in futility. I recently encountered this phenomenon while fishing with expert Missouri River guide Dan Kelly. When a fellow guide inquired as to what Kelly had used to help my fishing partner Don Hurley and me put an unconscionable number of fish into the boat in just two days of fishing, he cryptically replied, “A drag-free drift.”

Sad to say, but with these two endeavors in particular (cooking and fishing), my ability to keep a secret is pathetic.  Hey, I’m a storyteller, not a storykeeper. Dan will be disappointed in me, but I am about to spill two secrets in one blog, which is not exactly like killing two birds with one stone, but close. You get the idea.

Did we catch a few fish the other day? Why, yes we did. With Kelly at the oars, Hurley (www.donhurleyoutdoors.com) and I floated an eight-mile section of the upper Missouri between the base of Holter Dam and the dirt-road town of Craig,Montana (Big Thigh Country, as Dan calls it). Over the course of two floats on consecutive days, we hooked up with no fewer than 78 fish, an inconceivable number that still feels like a dream. The fish (rainbow and brown trout) looked something like this:

Or sometimes like this:

Due to a recent release of water from behind Holter, the water levels were not conducive to dry-fly fishing. So we made do with itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny nymphs. There are fussy anglers known as DFOs (“dry fly only”), but that would not be us. Granted, the term “fussy” does apply to me with too much frequency, but when it comes to trout, whether she bites on a fluff that rides on the surface or sinks to the bottom matters not. A bent rod is a bent rod. And baby, were we bent.

Of course, no stag fishing party is complete without ample male-oriented nourishment, and we managed to fill our limit in that regard as well. After a 10-hour drive from Puget-opolis, you hardly need something heavy in your belly, so on Day One I made one of Mr. Hurley’s favorite dishes, linguine vongole, prepared for two with about three pounds of manila clams imported from Penn Cove, Washington. A fistful of chopped Hempler’s bacon (www.hemplers.com), a full head of minced green garlic, Italian parsley, and ground black pepper completed this simple and strength-giving dish. Catching and releasing dozens of piggy Missouri River trout requires special powers, and this dish gives you the strength to do what needs to be done. The clam nectar was sopped up with a rustic baguette from Seattle’s Macrina Bakery and washed down with some vin ordinaire from Beaujolais. Contrarian that I am, I like a light red, even with clams.

Thirty-two fish between us the next day drained your humble correspondent and company to the point of exhaustion. I had unwisely skipped breakfast, feeling a bit pudged out from the previous night’s indulgence. By the time we pulled the boat under the Wolf Creek Bridge for a streamside lunch, my hands were shaking.

Fortunately, our excellent outfitters at The Trout Shop in Craig, Montana (www.thetroutshop.com) provided a midday lunch that could satisfy even a hungry man.

That night, we carved into several of Hurley’s special Dent, Minnesota grass-fed steaks, part of a whole beast he procures annually from his neighbor, an enlightened rancher who keeps his herd happy. The Hurley clan includes two teenage boys who happen to be champion athletes — not to mention carnivorous animals — so a whole beef makes perfect sense (the boys’ sister Meghan is an articulate and intelligent MFA candidate/English major with a civilized palate). The rib eyes were olive-oiled, well seasoned, seared over a red-hot grill, and then squeezed with lemon in the Florentine style. A simple arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette and jumbo baked russets completed the meal, which was made even more bearable with a Central Coast MacMurray Pinot Noir.  Yep, that would be Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons and Son of Flubber fame, a factoid which seemed to delight Hurley Senior. I bet MacMurray preferred to be remembered for Double Indemnity, but you never know.

Shoving off from shore the next morning, expectations were shallow. The weather had changed overnight, with scudding clouds and scattered showers giving way to breezy blue skies. Such changes often temporarily tighten the lips of finicky trout, not to mention that it is way too easy to use up your fishing karma.

An uncommonly slow start to the day confirmed our concerns. Still, it was a gorgeous day, despite breezes that made casting and mending a challenge. Worst-case scenario, we would have a pleasant float through some stunning bluff country with scenes like this around every river bend:

Well, we didn’t see much scenery because we ended up catching too many fish. By the time we beached the drift boat in Craig, Dan had clicked off 46 fish for the day — 46 fat, furious fish, some of whom apparently believe they can fly.  And do.

Spending the day standing in leg locks in a lurching boat, casting flies, and catching behemoth trout works up an appetite. Fortunately, I brought along a Flintstone-esque, three-pound-plus slab of baby back ribs and a small jar of homemade, soon-to-no-longer-be-secret ancho chili barbeque sauce. What remained of the Hempler’s bacon was diced, crisped, and added to a doctored-up can of Bush’s baked beans (sweet onion, dijon mustard, garlic, Tabasco), which provided a righteous accompaniment to the ribs.

As for the ribs, they were simply seasoned, seared on a 600-degree grill to get some serious caramelization going, and then turned way down to a “low and slow” temperature. I wait to add my sauce until the last 10 minutes of cooking, adding in two spaced schmears. Many of the pictures you see in the literature feature slathered ribs, sticky with sauce as though it had been glugged on from a gallon jug. Not my style.  Smear once lightly and let it glaze for five minutes. Repeat and eat. For me, it’s all about the pig. The meat should shine; the sauce is simply along for the ride.

Not that the sauce is unimportant. My feeling is that barbeque sauce is necessarily a DIY event. And why not? It’s easy as can be, fills the kitchen with heavenly scent, and can be made your own through ingredient adjustment. My go-to sauce was clipped from theSeattle Times Sunday Magazine some twenty years ago, the recipe card now spattered with ancho chile juice and molasses. It’s the house sauce from Tom Douglas’s Dahlia Lounge, dating back to the original location, when Chef D was neither rich nor famous (today he is both). That Douglas is a culinary genius cannot be argued, especially now that he has been honored with a James Beard Award as 2012 Restaurateur of the Year. I love this sauce for its balance and complexity. It hints of citrus and is by turns smoky, sweet, acidic, salty, and spicy. It’s not necessarily a flame-thrower, although if you want heat, it can be amped up with additional hot sauce to taste. It howls freshness, with no bitter preservative flavors. To my taste buds, no sauce from a shelf compares.

Here is a shot of the ribs we ate that night, inconspicuously supported by a bottle of Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel. We ate them with a roll of paper towels on the table.

Take two aging men, copious pork products, a large can of baked beans and . . . well, let’s just say we were both lucky to depart the next day in separate vehicles. Despite rain and 44-degree temps, I drove over Idaho’s Independence Pass with the sunroof open, for obvious reasons related to moderate gastric distress. But it was well worth it.

They say that loose lips sink ships, but then again, I’m a writer, not a fighter.  Have at it:

Dahlia Lounge Barbeque Sauce

2 oz. package of dried ancho chilies (accept no substitute)

½ cup onion, finely chopped (Walla Walla sweet, if in season)

1/3 cup tomato paste (half a small can)

32 oz. can whole plum tomatoes (drained)

2 Tbs. dijon mustard

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

2 Tbs. lemon juice

1 Tbs. lime juice

6 Tbs. molasses

½ cup brown sugar

1½ tsp. each: hot Spanish paprika (pimentón), salt, chili powder, and black pepper

¾ tsp. cayenne pepper

1–2 Tbs. Tabasco (depending on how spicy you like it)

2 Tbs. minced garlic (or one whole head minced green garlic)

6 Tbs. ketchup

Tear dried chilies in half and remove stems and seeds.  Cover chilies with boiling water and set aside 15 minutes.  Drain tomatoes and puree in food processor.  Sauté onions briefly in non-corrosive sauce pan. Add pureed tomatoes and remaining ingredients and set to low simmer.  Remove chilies from bowl.  Place in food processor with ¾ cup steeping liquid and puree until smooth.  Add chili mixture to other ingredients and simmer on low until thick, approximately 45 minutes.  For a smooth sauce, process in a blender, or leave chunky.  Sauce will keep six months refrigerated in a glass jar.   

Oh, and that fishing fly? Not much of a secret there – size 16 Firebug with a bead head.  Sorry, Dan.

Eat well.

* * * *

John Idstrom thinks and writes about food at http://www.meezenplace.com.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Linda Nichols June 26, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Looks like a wonderful trip. Not to mention the food. I may just have to try that sauce, if it’s as good as it sounds it will be a great addition to my recipe collection!

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