Recently I unexpectedly came into some salmon. This is a Good Thing, nearly as exciting as coming into money. For one thing, salmon tastes way better. For another, it actually can be used as a means of barter, nearly as good as monetary exchange, (although much more satisfying, as in: I'll trade you two pounds of Dall sheep for a King salmon fillet, or I'll trade you a jar of bear meat for a couple of silvers – you know, that kind of thing.)
How did this happen, you ask? Well, my boss wants to go fishing next week, but he's on call. I volunteered to take his on-call, and he volunteered to give me a fillet. But as it turns out, he didn't give me a fillet. He gave me a good-sized Playmate cooler FULL of fillets. Have I mentioned that I like my boss? And also anyone else who gives me free salmon. Just sayin'. I also got some rockfish in with the mix, but my boss assured me it's a bland and boring fish, and needs to be prepared in a way which adds flavor to it. Okay, I'm game. I love making crap up when it comes to cooking. The victims of my culinary excesses may not love it so much, but since I'm congenitally incapable of following a recipe as written, it's probably a good thing that I am perfectly willing to try any number of weird concoctions – and if they turn out to be complete crap, it's a further good thing that my dogs are willing to try even weirder ones.
So all of a sudden I've got salmon. Which is almost as good as having crab legs – which is great, except for how hard it is to wear pantyhose, since the spiny bits make it just about impossible to pull your pantyhose on without getting a run in them. That has nothing to do with smoking fish, of course –although anyone who has crab legs is, by definition, smokin' – but smoking fish is a whole other challenge. I tried to smoke a fish last year, actually. I got it lit, but I couldn't get it to draw.
Okay, lame-ass jokes aside, this is my inaugural fish--smoking year. I've lived in Alaska for 16 years, which means I've been pushing the limit. I'm pretty sure that if you haven't smoked or canned or otherwise preserved some subsistence-type food item within 15 years, they revoke your citizenship and boot you out of the state. I've skated under the wire by consuming many such items and also freezing a few – but freezing, though it is a means of food preservation, hardly counts. Freezing is sort of automatic up here, if you wait a little. It doesn't take any special talent. If you wait long enough in the season, all you have to do is chuck it outside and it freezes. No special talent required.
Still and all, it was only a matter of time before the fish-smoking police would have caught up with me, so – even as we speak – I'm sitting on my back deck, typing this and keeping an eye on my smoker – which is starting to smell pretty good, if you want to know the truth. I have a Border collie (yes, Finn, still feeling well) at my feet basking in the sun, and I'm being dive-bombed by dragonflies, but the mosquitoes are largely done for the year – at least at my house. And in any case, if the alder smoke wasn't enough to keep them at bay, there is always the Two-Foot Rule, to wit: Any mosquito that comes within two feet of me will be summarily killed without mercy. If they stay two or more feet away – well, live and let live. The bats and dragonflies need something to snack on, after all. I'm not greedy. Well, not about mosquitoes, anyway. On the other hand… did I mention the smoker is starting to smell pretty good? Like smoke and carmelizing brown sugar and salmony goodness.
Now here's the thing about salmon: It's my second-favorite fish - second only to halibut, which (if you don't know) is food of the Gods, ambrosia, mana in aquatic form. It would be one of the "Two G's" – good, and good for you – except that to call halibut "good" is to insult it with faint praise. It's more like "exquisite and good for you".
Salmon is, however, a very fine fish indeed. They're packed with antioxidants (all those lovely omega-3 fatty acids) and are an excellent source of high-quality and very tasty protein. Besides, it's pretty hard to make salmon in any way that isn't yummy. Bake it, broil it, poach it in wine, make it into chowder, smother it in herbs and grill it, cook it with sliced lemon and dill and garlic, slather it in sour cream, bury it in fish-packs or massage it with dry-rubs – practically anything goes, with salmon. It's a very robust fish, and a forgiving one as well, and the flavor allows you to pull off a myriad of gastronomic feats with aplomb. However, I confess that of the many delicious ways I've eaten salmon, it's possible that smoked salmon is my favorite. Especially the way I've had it up here.
There are lots of people in AK who smoke salmon so good it will make you weep. Your knees will go weak as all your blood rushes to your tastebuds. Angel choirs will sing. You may have a religious experience. You will be reluctant to swallow, to let that flavor escape from your tongue, so you will be tempted to communicate for several hours by means of gestures and grunts so as to be able to keep that delectable flavor in your mouth juuuust a little longer.
Now, I'm not saying my maiden voyage into the smoky waters of cured fish will be anything quite so special… but I will say I relentlessly quizzed several of my fish-smoking pals for tips. There are some common themes – for instance, the fish I like best is always done with a brown-sugar brine. However, techniques and spices vary. I went with a dray-pack method, in which the salt and sugar and spices are mixed together dry, and the prepared (filleted, sliced and towel-dried) fish is layered with the dry-pack and kept cold overnight. By morning, the dry-pack has sucked moisture out of the fish, which is much firmer, and is now marinating in a thick molassesy brine, heavily sludged with undissolved sugar and salt. I've elected to use alder wood for my smoke. In an hour or so I'll need to check to see if I need to put more wood in the smoker, but the "busy" part of the program is over. And now I'm hanging out, watching the squirrels and the birds, admiring my six-foot-high fireweed (flowered out only about halfway up the spike, if even that much, so according to legend, there's plenty of summer yet ahead) and generally keeping an eye on things. So far it's been relatively simple, thanks to the generously-shared knowledge of my Alaskan peeps.
I've noticed, however, that there are certain things that people fail to mention about smoking fish.
- For one thing, you will get sticky. Very, very sticky. I've discovered that having a pack of Wet Ones on hand is a good idea. If not for that, I would still be trying to unglue my fingers from the paper towels.
- On that subject, you're going to use up at least half a roll. Maybe more.
- Your dogs will try to help you with this project. Don't let them.
- Even if you don't let them, avoiding smoking a little Border collie hair in with the fish is a bit of a challenge.
- Pam is your friend. I mean the cooking spray, not the vampire.
- After you have finished cutting fish into brine-sized pieces, packing it into the brine (or the dry-pack mixture) and washing and drying your hands the approximately 27 times it will take to get rid of all the sticky, you will discover that somehow, many small circles of plastic, about the size produced by a regular three-hole paper punch, have mysteriously appeared, adhered tightly to your skin. This is not plastic. These are random leftover fish scales which have cleverly eluded the best efforts of soap and water. Despite appearances, you are not stuck with them until the end of time. You can eventually peel them off your skin. Don't give up. They make wire-bristle brushes for grills, you know. Just sayin'.
- If you want to keep inquisitive insects, lint and random dog hairs off your fish while it is drying after the brine (so that it forms a useful little skin called a pellicle, which helps keep it moist during the smoking process), a few yards of ultra-cheap tulle from the local fabric store are worth the $3 investment.
- Fish scraps will occur – bits and pieces of skin or fragments of flesh that come apart during the preparation. Another word for these scraps is "dog food". Or so I am assured by every dog in my house.
I'll let you know how it turns out. It's really not that much work, once you figure out the little handy tricks. And if I don't actually poison myself… well, I did mention that smoked salmon is my favorite, right? I can vacuum-pack it and have smoked salmon aaaaaaall winter long. Just so long as I manage to have periodic amnesia and forget there is smoked salmon in the freezer, because otherwise I'll just eat it all in a week.
In the meantime: Smoking fish. In Alaska, it's not just a good idea. It's the law.
Update: Having eaten several pieces of fish thus prepared, I have not suffered ptomaine poisoning, botulism, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, coma or death. Grimaces of disgust were completely absent, and if I didn't precisely hear angel choirs singing, there was at least definite loud humming. These observations make me think it's mostly safe to eat. There is one small problem, though, since it is evidently kind of addictive. I probably need to adjust my brine. Less cocaine and more Monkey-Butt powder, probably. Okay, I'm kidding. There's no cocaine in it.