Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Tale About Smoking

Smoking fish, that is.

My dad had a smoker that got used a handful of times during my childhood. I have vivid memories of seeing it chugging away in the back yard, covered by that old quilted blanket, but I don't remember ever liking anything produced from its smoky belly. Dried out hams and turkeys, I think. My poor father - generally an exceptional cook, but always the experimenter. One too many failed smoking projects and he lost all support from his family to attempt again. We wanted a dinner we could eat, after all.

Here in Alaska, smoking fish is a perfected science. It provides an easy way to preserve fish or use up those not-quite-grillable pieces. Last week a friend had some lingcod belly pieces left over from a deep sea fishing expedition. We smoked them up in some coconut rum-ginger-lime brine with hickory chips, which gave it a very smoky, vaguely sweet taste. This week it was some fish I found buried in the back of the Common's freezer. Now that everyone is gone except me, all property reverts to the last man standing.

With my not-so-grillable salmon rescued from the freezer coils, I made a brine of coriander, black pepper, dill, yellow mustard, celery (all in seed form), crushed bay leaf, and fresh garlic. These I heated in some water to release the aromas, then added to a salt, lemon, brown sugar and water marinade.

The salvaged fish went into the brine, and was forgotten for a while. In the meantime we ate a feast:
Lingcod steaks grilled with lemon peel
Home-grown oyster mushrooms sauteed with soybeans and garlic
Caramelized dill carrots
Brown rice with tomato and parmesan
Homemade wheat bread
Red wine (of course)
and for dessert, my absolute favorite, Flan

Ok, now that you're drooling, back to the fish. After brining for 3 hours, we laid the pieces out on the smoker rack (my pitiful salmon scraps only filling one shelf - compared to Rachel's lingcod which needed two batches to fit it all). Then the serious business starts: smoking.

I used alder chips for a more mild smoke flavor (and because the bag said it was the best for fish) and Dominic's hot smoker. The coil in the bottom of the smoker (a metal box about 3x2x1 ft) heats up a pan of wood chips sitting on top of it. The chips slowly smolder and fill the box with heat and smoke. Every 45 minutes to an hour, the blackened chips must be tossed over the deck railing and the pan refilled with fresh ones. We started smoking at 10:30. I was up all night.

Ok, that's a lie. The hot smoke works relatively quickly, and by 2:30 I was done resetting my alarm and snuggled down on Dominic's couch to sleep the rest of the night. The salmon sat outside on the deck in the unplugged smoker until morning, inviting all sorts of creatures to investigate and steal it. Fortunately it was still there in the morning.

And delicious! I'm so proud of my little fish babies. Now I just have to figure out what to do with it, since I can't take it with me...


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