Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Smokin' fish

It must be my childhood spent by campfires, or the Russian traditional love for smoked food, or both. I just cannot pass a slice of smoked meat or sausage, I'm addicted to some smoked cheeses (braided mozzarella, oh yes!), and I would actually enjoy the smell on my fingers after cleaning a smoked fish.

So after my friends bought a simple electric smoker and started smoking trout in their backyard, I come to their place more often now. And, after a few successful cookouts, I wanted a toy of my own. And of course my had to be the real thing, charcoal. About the same price, twice the headache. That's my way.

Got it for about $40 in Home Depot, spent a whole afternoon assembling some 50 pieces of fine Chinese craftmanship that didn't really fit together - and now it works!

It's basically a metal cylinder on legs, and on the inside wall of the cylinder there are little shaky metal supports that hold the bowl for the charcoal on the bottom, the water bowl above it, and two grills for the food. If you remove the water bowl and put one of the grills right over the charcoals, it can be used for grilling. The thing is topped with a lid with a termometer that doesn't have numbers, but "low", "ideal" and "hot", so it's useless, need to replace it. The ventillation is provided by holes and gaps in the construction. Cheap and simple gadget, just the way it should be for this ancient cooking method.

I've already used my smoker to barbeque pork ribs and to smoke-roast beef.
Now it's time for fish.

I like to buy fish in Oriental markets, they have the best selection, including some exotic seafood, and it's usually much fresher than in your local supermarket. However, since I moved to Marin, getting fresh fish is not easy anymore. There is not a single Oriental market in the entire Marin county. There are bridges to cross, and traffic on the bridges, so if I plan to buy fish I have to remember to bring a cooler, and then go straight home, and fast.

This week it all came together nicely (lots of planning over the weekend), and I am the happy owner of a whole farmed salmon trout, a large sturgeon steak, and a couple of pounds of frozen sardines.

The sardines are not in season, but these ones defrosted so nicely (in the fridge, covered) that they almost looked alive!

There is no precise recipe for smoking fish, because all smokers are different, conditions affect the proccess a lot, and yes, we all have very different tastes when it comes to smoked fish.

What I did is this:

Brine the salmon trout and the sturgeon steak in the brine made of 8 cups of warm water, 3 Tbsp. kosher salt, 2 Tbsp. brown sugar, and a handful of Key limes, juice and rinds. Refrigerate for 4-5 hours. Remove from brine, rinse and dry with papper towels.

Defrost and clean the sardines. Rub them with a little kosher salt, leave for a few minutes, rinse and dry with paper towels.

Lite charcoal in the smoker. I used hardwood lump charcoal from Home Depot, about 1/4 of a bag. Pour approximately 2 Qt. of hot water in the water bowl, and try to set the bowl in the smoker without burning yourself with either fire or water. Brush the fish and the grills with oil (I used grapeseed oil), arrange fish on the grills, and place into the smoker. Close the lid.

Add a handful of applewood chips to the charcoal to create smoke. Add more chips every 30 minutes or so (when the smoke stops coming out).
If I were to trust the little termometer, my smoker never went higher than between "low" and "ideal". It was hot, however, and the big fishes registered the internal temperature of 140F after 3 hours. Sardines I took off the grill earlier, after 2 hours.

Sardines came out on the dry side but not overly dry, the flavor concentrated and blended with the smoke wonderfully. Eat them with your hands, right off the bone (little bones are edible), or fillet them and toss with a salad or pasta.

The sturgeon is firm but still very oily. Next time I'll smoke the flesh only, and save the skin and cartilage for an excellent soup. After smoking the trimmimgs had be discarded, the strong smoky flavor is great for the flesh, but it's probably too much for the soup.

Almost forgot: I tossed a whole head of garlic, with the top removed, on the grill for the last hour of cooking. This scent is heavenly. I am making salad dressing with it.

Here the cold sturgeon fellet is served with sorrel and other greens from the garden, and a market tomato. The tart flavor of sorrel is perfect with the oily fish. Dressed with just a splash of good olive oil.

Added slices of boiled egg as an afterthought, for color and texture.

The salmon trout was perfect (and is, I had to freeze half of it, it's big).

Served the smoked salmon trout filet on top of the salad of Boston lettuce, tomato and avocado, with smoked garlic dressing.

Smoked garlic salad dressing
makes about 1 cup

1 head of garlic, smoked as described above, peeled
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp brown sugar
salt, pepper to taste
1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine garlic, lemon juice, sugar, salt and pepper in a blender. Blend untill smooth. Add olive oil in small portions, blend in each portion. Adjust the seasoning and serve.

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