the sunday project
with Karen Ralph
SMOKED STEELHEAD TROUT (OR ANY FISH)
I hadn’t gone to Surplus Herby’s in Vernon, B.C., to buy discounted jars of BBQ sauce or choose from the impressive selection of fishing rods, lures, camping gear and hunting knives. I was on a mission to find an inexpensive, good quality fish and meat smoker. My father-in-law, an avid outdoorsman and bird-dog trainer, said that I should check out Herby’s, it would have what I was looking for. He was right. Sandwiched between jars of pickles and stacks of scented candles, the Big Chief and Little Chief front-loading electric smokers gleamed under the florescent light. The Big Chief was only $75 and included all of this: five easy-slide chrome-plated grills, electric cord, drip pan and wood chip pan, a bag of Smokehouse alder wood chips, a recipe booklet and complete operating instructions. The smoker – 24-1/2”H x 18”W x 12”D – smokes up to 50 pounds of meat or fish. The construction is durable embossed aluminum that’s lightweight, easy to transport and easy to store. It plugs into a standard household outlet. This was exactly what I’d been looking for and if I‘d had any doubts, a couple of Herby regulars, examining fishing rods, nodded approvingly at my choice and suggested throwing the recipe book away. My father-in-law gave me five lake trout that he had caught and froze in milk cartons, as well as his brine recipe. I was set.
the ultimate in refined living
As soon as as we got home, I thawed out a couple of the smaller fish and brined them for 24 hours in a mix of kosher salt, brown sugar, lemon juice and crushed garlic. The next day, I rinsed the brine off, patted them dry and put them in the fridge so that a film called the pellicle could form on the flesh surface. I soaked three cups of the wood chips in water for about 20 minutes, drained them and put them into the wood chip pan. Then I plugged in the smoker, put the pan on the element, checked for the pellicle, put the fish on the grill and slid the door shut. Following the recipe book, it said to smoke the fish for six hours. It seemed excessive, but I kept adding chips. Six hours later we had an inedible, over-smoked, burnt fish – a waste of food and time.
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Luckily there were three more fish and, learning from my mistakes, I threw out the recipe book and the next batch was fine. Two pans of wood chips and two hours of smoking resulted in the perfect smoked fish. Since then, I’ve experimented with brines, using Sauternes (a sweet white wine made with noble rot-affected sémillon grapes from Bordeaux) for sweetness and vibrant lift, beet juice for colouring, various spices and herbs and maple syrup or honey glazes. After you’ve successfully made your own candysmoked salmon, there is no going back. The Big Chief isn’t just for fish, you can smoke meat, cheese, vegetables and I’ve even tried smoking salt, but fish is what I return to time and time again. Earth’s Finest wood chips are excellent and can be found at Canadian Tire and anywhere that sells barbecues.
Smoked Steelhead Trout, (or fish of your choice) Steelhead trout filets: Brines will vary but this is my tried and true: 1 c. kosher salt 1 c. brown sugar 2 cloves smashed garlic 1 thumb ginger, grated juice of one lemon
You can adjust ingredient amounts according to the size of your fish and add fresh herbs, spices or more lemon if desired. Smoking wood chips – maple, alder or applewood are very good for fish. Hickory and mesquite are better for red meat. Use a glass container for brining. Combine all ingredients and rub them into the fish completely coating it. This brine is excellent on salmon, Arctic char, pickerel, trout, golden trout, steelhead trout and oysters. Put the container of brining fish – flesh down – in the fridge, and leave for about 24 hours. Remove from fridge, rinse off brine, pat dry and put fish back in fridge, flesh side up, for about an hour so the pellicle – a thin film of protein membranes on the skin’s surface – will form. The pellicle helps the smoke stick to the flesh, giving a good smokey flavour. While the pellicle is forming, heat the smoker to about 225°F, soak your chips in water for the last 20 minutes, drain off the water, place wet chips in wood chip pan and put it on the element. Place your fish on the grill, flesh side up if you don’t want grill marks, down if they don’t bother you, and slide the door shut. Check on the smoking process about once an hour, adding more wet chips if needed. When the fish have reached the desired level of dryness and smokiness, remove them from the smoker and let cool. They can now be frozen for later use or kept in the fridge and eaten within a week. The Big Chief can be ordered online for far more than I paid at Surplus Herby’s, so this could be your excuse for a road trip to Vernon. It’s also available locally at Canadian Tire and Walmart stores. Remember to use the Big Chief in a well ventilated area, on a hard, non-flammable surface because I know for a fact that it will scorch your wood deck. Happy smoking!