New Traditions: Smoke
Hey, you with the wheat grass juice. Put ‘em up.
Two hundred years ago, eating a meal that was light on animal products, lower in fat, and heavy on the veggies was pretty standard. The reasons were simpler back then, though. They didn’t have much.
Actually, overloads of fat, cholesterol, meat and salt were historically unreachable for all but the very wealthy (think Henry the VIII with his haunch of mutton). For the rest of us, animal products were a really big deal. We preserved them, concentrated them down and stretched them as far as they would go across mountains of potatoes or rice or pasta. The katsuobushi of Japan, the duck confit of provincial France, the mold-frosted salumi of Italy -- all of them brought to their maximum height in flavor, then served in tiny amounts.
Even if we don’t get into the environmental defenses for this manner of eating, there is plenty of medical justification to recommend following your ancestors in their culinary footsteps.
Meat was precious. When a neighbor bagged a deer, or papa came home with a brace of rabbits, we would do everything we could (way, way before refrigeration, remember) to hang on to that stuff for as long as we possibly could. To simplify things, today we call that collected group of salting, smoking and other forms of meat preservation charcuterie.
So let’s talk about smoking, and tear it from the latex-covered hands of the fancy grocery stores. You can do this. Your great grandmother did.
Smoking preserves food for a few good reasons. First, it’s a form of drying. Lowering a food’s water content makes it harder for bacteria and other nasties to multiply. Second, smoke particles are sticky, resinous and acidic: a food covered in a sticky jacket of acid will not only taste good (if you like ham, bacon, smoked Havarti, etc.), but deter bacterial inoculation. Third, most cultures involve salt curing in their smoking preparations, offering still another layer of protection against germs.
So let’s smoke a fish.
This fish--a striped bass--happens to be raised on an inland farm in Texas. The inland farm does not pollute our waterways with its bi-products, and buying this fish keeps my money in my community and supports my people. All good stuff.
First, choose a pristine fish with firm flesh, dark red gills and full, clear eyes. The skin should be shiny and tight with an overall warm, living color. It should smell pleasantly like the sea, or sometimes like grass, or even watermelon, depending on the species of fish. (If it smells like fish in the slightest, throw it in the trash and insult your fishmonger in public.)
Wash the fish inside and out with cold water and pat it dry. Take kosher salt and any kind of sugar you like (I like dark brown), in a ratio of about 52 sugar to 48 salt. Make enough of this mixture to cover the fish evenly inside and out. If it’s a two-pound fish, you ought to get away with about two cups. Coat the fish on all sides (gills, mouth, every inch of skin, top, bottom, everything) with this mixture. Wrap in plastic wrap and write the time you packed it somewhere to remember. Throw it in the fridge.
Let the fish cure (yeah, that’s all “cured” means) like this for, oh, eight hours or so. The longer you cure something, the saltier it gets, and consequently the longer preservation you will get. But if you let it sit longer than 24 hours, you and your 2014 tongue are probably not going to enjoy it.
Wash off the cure in cold water and pat the fish dry. The curing also pulls some water out of the tissue, so the skin and the flesh directly below the skin will dry better and take the smoke better -- you need a dry surface for smoke to stick.
Now comes the fun part.
I hope you didn’t throw away your disposable turkey pan because it’s perfect for this.
Wet some wood chips (I’m using cherry here, but oak and hickory are also lovely) for about 30 minutes with regular water. Drain them, and put them on one side of your turkey pan. If you don’t have the perfect wire rack for your container (I don’t) throw some metal forks and stuff you don’t care about opposite the wood chips.
Carefully lay your fish as far from the wood chips as the pan will allow, with the nice fleshy part of the fish as far from the wood chips as possible, without letting the fish touch any flat surface (if it does, that touching part won’t get any smoke).
Place the turkey pan on the stove, with the burner just barely in range to heat the chips. Keep the heat as far from the fish as possible. Put the burner on full blast until you see delicate, wispy white smoke.
This kind of smoke … you can lean over the smoke and sniff, and it’s nice. It doesn’t make you cough. If it does, or if it singes your nostrils, the smoke’s too hot. It will hurt the flavor of the fish. Soft, gentle, delicate white smoke is what you want.
Cover the pan with tinfoil. If your tinfoil is too narrow, you can double-fold sheets of your foil until you’ve got the width you need (by the same method, you can also entirely cover your professor’s car with tinfoil, producing the effect of a very large brisket).
Slightly elevate the wood chip-side of the pan if possible, so the juices will run away from the fire, not toward. Smoke the fish on heat just barely high enough to sustain this gentle, white smoke at least until the flesh is cooked. You can insert a skewer into the flesh at the thickest point, and it should slide cleanly through the whole flesh, without any pudginess or squish. Time varies with the heat source. I have gas, and mine took about 40 minutes on a nice low heat.
You now have a lightly smoked fish that, kept under refrigeration, should hang around without noticeable loss of quality for at least a week--and frequently more. Just for ideas, here is a salad I made with the fish (used in small but intense portions) and some local vegetables. It also goes great on crostinis with white bean puree. And. Um. Beer.
If you want to smoke if further than that (making it dryer and stronger and more preserved, as people in the old days did), knock yourself out. it will eventually become something akin to jerky. When it is smoked absolutely stiff, and the water weight is entirely gone from it, you can put it in your saddle bag and go hunting walruses.