A few years ago, my sister and I joined our father on his annual pilgrimage to Alaska for the salmon runs. This was hysterical on several fronts, not only because we hadn’t taken a “family vacation” in 25 years or that he asked us more than a year in advance (gotta plan!) It was funny because when I was in junior high, he swore I’d never be allowed to go to Alaska with him. It was strictly “for the boys.” (Yes Dad, you did say that.) More than 2 decades later, I still hadn’t forgiven him for this omission. I’d conveniently forgotten the fact that I’m a horrid fisher, become as squirley as a 5-year old when required to sit still for extended periods of time and that he and I tend to argue quite a bit. Hence the lifetime ban. By the luck of the gods, he had obviously forgotten all this too and invited my sister and I along for some kind of adult family bonding session.
I think we all discovered a little bit about ourselves on that trip to the Kenai Peninsula. For me, I learned I really like to fish – as long as I’m catching – but more importantly, I look pretty hot in fishing waders. Not everyone can pull that look off you know.
On the river bank one particular day, I could tell ‘ol Dad was getting agitated. Apparently, we weren’t casting correctly. (As if we knew what a correct cast was – my objective was just to fling that bait OUT there into the middle of it all and I was really good at that.) We laughed him off and continued to fling bait willy nilly. But here’s the thing … after a few hours, the fish tally was: Girls – 9; Pops – 0. Apparantly, willy nilly works pretty well for some of us. I asked him if he needed some casting tips. This was not appreciated.
Well let me tell you, I guarantee that Mr. Man ate much better with us than when he fishes with his buddies. We made all sorts of things with our catch- we grilled, made potpies, tacos and I even made some gravlax (which he initially scoffed at then asked why I hadn’t made more.) After spying some cherry wood chips in the garage, I decided to try to hot smoking a few. Pops scoffed again (so very Dad-like) yet I persisted even though I had never done it before. I had a general idea and it worked perfectly (so there.) That night he picked the bones clean, not sharing a whole lot with the rest of us (also very Dad-like.) I smoked 2 more fish before the week was over and may have even said “I told you so” ever so loudly, 200 or so times (very me-like.) Despite the good-natured ribbing between us all, it was a pretty great trip.
Inspired back home, I wanted to incorporate a simple smoked salmon recipe into my cooking classes. One that’s tasty and easy to do at home (knowing that not everyone has the enormous barrel smoker I used in Alaska, nor do I.) Well hello stovetop smoker! What a nifty little piece of equipment this is. I picked up a beautiful wild caught Alaskan sockeye salmon (my favorite) and gave it a whirl incorporating some sweet spice with the smoke – brown sugar and warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. A sort of candied smoked salmon, if you will. For not really knowing what the hell I was doing and making my apartment smell like a pit-BBQ for days, it turned out fantastic. Pretty too – sockeyes are a deep startling red/orange and make the most beautiful smoked salmon (see pic at the top of the post – wow, huh?)
Some things to know. First, get yourself some really good WILD salmon. Please try to seek out wild caught fish if you can find it and afford it. Most farmed fish, salmon in particular, cause all kinds of environmental problems and should be avoided. Monterey Bay Aquarium is a great source on information pertaining to sustainable seafood– read what they have to say . Did you know it generally takes the equivalent of three pounds of wild salmon to raise one pound of farmed salmon? What the hell? And there are health advisories, PCB’s, red dye and antibiotics in farmed salmon– a ton of stuff I don’t want to ingest. Yeah, I know the wild/line caught fish is more expensive but here’s the thing … it’s MUCH better tasting and doesn’t contain all that junk. Isn’t that worth it?
Now for the smoking, there are a couple really basic techniques you need to know and they’re rather easy. The first is to coat the fish with a pre-rub to dry some of the moisture out and season the fish. Then you rinse this off and let it dry for 30 minutes or so to let the tacky “pellicle” form. This is the result of proteins drawn to the surface by the rub and this sticky layer attracts and holds the smokiness. Then you have another rub that you leave on the fish during smoking for more flavor.
The stovetop smoker is a piece of cake. Put a handful of woodchips – I opted for alderwood, very salmon friendly – in the bottom of the container, place the salmon on the rack, close it tight and turn the heat on medium and let ‘er rip for only 10 minutes. (if you have a thick filet, add 5 minutes. Mine was rather thin.) You can certainly use a charcoal grill (see directions in recipe below), a gas grill or even a wok. Think of the great things you can do! Tomatoes for a rocking gazpacho! Smokin’ Jerk Chicken! Even cheese! I’m going to have to give these all a try one of these days.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: 5 STARS. Especially if you caught the dang fish yourself. Can you imagine? Sitting down to a lovely Easter brunch, your guests compliment the smoked salmon and ask where you bought such a fabulous thing because they’ve never had something so marvelous. You casually toss back “Oh, that? That’s just a little something I made myself. Caught the fish myself too.” HA! You are the Great Provider of All Things Wonderful. You can do ANYTHING. So very empowering. You are woman, hear you roar.
ALDERWOOD SMOKED CANDIED SALMON
1 (3 ½-4 pound) salmon filet, skin on, preferably wild caught rather than farmed
for the dry rub:
½ cup light brown sugar
3 Tablespoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon five spice powder
for the finishing rub:
3 Tablespoons light brown sugar, packed
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon five spice powder
½ teaspoon granulated garlic (garlic powder)
- Prepare the salmon: Place the salmon skin side down in a glass baking dish.
- Combine all of the dry rub ingredients in a small bowl.
- Rub the top of the salmon with this mixture as evenly as possible.
- Cover and refrigerate 2-3 hours. Longer is better.
- Rinse the salmon under cold running water to remove all the salt and sugar and pat dry with paper towels.
- Place the filet skin side down on a clean platter or sheet pan and let dry until tacky, 30 minutes. This can be done in the refrigerator or on a kitchen counter in front of a fan.
- Combine the finishing rub ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
- To use a Stovetop Smoker: Place a handful of wood chips in the bottom of the smoking pan (no need to soak if the chips are fine ground and designed for the stovetop smoker.)
- Line the drip pan with foil.
- Spray the rack with cooking spray and place in the drip pan
- Place the salmon filet on the oiled smoking rack.
- Sprinkle on the finishing rub and spread evenly with your fingers to cover the whole filet.
- Place the drip pan with the salmon in the smoking pan.
- Close the smoker lid and turn the heat to medium.
- Smoke the fish for 10-15 minutes or until just cooked through.
- OR to smoke on a charcoal grill: In a charcoal grill, burn coals down until covered with gray ash.
- Soak wood chips in water for at least 30 minutes then drain well.
- Fold a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil in half to make a sling slightly larger than the salmon filet.
- Spray the foil with non-stick cooking spray and place the salmon skin-side down on foil.
- Sprinkle on the finishing rub, patting down and evening it out to cover the entire fish.
- Place an aluminum pie pan or tin in the grill and fill with cool tap water.
- Close the top and bottom vents, allowing the temperature to come to 325°F.
- Open the top vent fully and add the soaked wood chips directly to the hot coals.
- Put the salmon (in the foil) on the top cooking grate.
- Leave the bottom vents closed and smoke for about 15-20 minutes until cooked through.