It’s probably safe to say that humankind’s love of preserved and/or smoked foods of one sort or another is ubiquitous. Every culture has at least a handful of beloved dishes that fall into the category of salty, funky, deliciousness. One ingredient that always seems to do especially well in the salted and smoked arena is fish. More specifically fatty (or oily fleshed) fish.
There’s a magical kind of chemistry going on when fish, salt, and smoke are thrown together, and fortunately for us, we then get to devour the finished product. While I was shopping the other day, I was all of a sudden face to face with some beautiful looking lake trout fillets (this is the Midwest, after all), and I immediately began to fantasize about how nice it would be to take them home, soak them in a brine, and then hot-smoke them to juicy, flaky perfection.
For those of you unfamiliar with the process, a brine is basically a large amount of salt (and oftentimes sugar) dissolved in specific measure of water, sometimes flavored with pickling-like spices or other aromatics. Spoilage prone foods are then submerged in the mixture for a specific amount of time before being smoked or otherwise cooked. It’s original intentions had to do with prolonging the safely edible life of potentially hazardous foods, but these days we use brining more for the simple reasons of adding flavor, juiciness, and proper seasoning to relatively lean and/or bland foods.
Here’s a specific example of the process to help clear up any possible misunderstandings: remember the lake trout I mentioned earlier? Well, when I got it home, I immediately whisked together 1 cup of kosher salt, 1 cup of brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of dill, 2 bay leaves, 2 cloves of sliced garlic, and 4 cups of cold water. Once the salt and sugar dissolved, I added a couple of handfuls of ice cubes, and then slid the lake trout fillets into the brine. I let the fish soak for about two hours, and then removed it to a wire rack set over a sheet pan. Then, stick it in the fridge for a couple of hours to form a sticky surface (a pellicle) that smoke will easily adhere to.
You should now be soaking a couple of handfuls of your favorite hardwood chips in water. Light a small charcoal fire in your grill, and when the coals are ready, mound them all into one small area. Add the soaked wood chips on top of the coals, put the grate in place, and lay the fish on the grate (skin side down) as far away from the heat source as possible. Place the cover on the grill, and hot smoke for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the heat of the fire and the thickness of the fish. It’s pretty much done when the fish looks shiny-golden brown and coated with smoky goodness.
Let the fish cool (resist the temptation), and eat it however you see fit. It’s great on a bagel with cream cheese, capers, cucumbers, and onions. Or, mix it with mayonnaise, mustard, pickle relish, celery, etc. and use it for sandwiches in place of boring old tuna salad. Unbelievably delicious.