Smokiness sharpens fish’s flavor

JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune

My grandfather, a bricklayer by trade, fashioned his own smokehouse under the stairwell of a small Chicago bungalow. He filled it with fresh hams, homemade bacon and garlicky sausage to smoke for the family. The steps just outside that brick room proved the perfect gossip spot for my cousins and me. We always left his house smelling faintly of hardwood smoke and garlic.

Little wonder then, that given the choice, I gravitate toward smoked meats, cheese and fish. The aroma always transports me. When I cook, I enjoy adding smoke to everything I can — even if it’s just the addition of smoked paprika or smoked chiles. This summer I’m using my grill to smoke fish — no masonry skills required.

Fish smoked on a hot grill retains its moistness beautifully. It’ll also be less smoky than foods cooked in a smoker with an offset firebox or the vertical bullet smokers that let you smoke at relatively low temperatures. Grill smoking doesn’t preserve the fish like cold smoking does; it’s meant to be enjoyed right away.

Wood equals smoke; choose chips that will impart a flavor you like. For fish, I prefer chips made from cherry or apple wood because they don’t overpower the delicate flavors. Wood chips can be purchased from hardware stores that stock grills and accessories or online. Soaking the wood chips in water for 20 or 30 minutes will help create maximum smoke when put over the glowing embers of the grill. For smoking on a gas grill, put the soaked and drained chips in the smoke chamber if the grill has one; alternatively, lay the chips on a double thickness of foil and set the packet directly over the heat source.

For this fast-smoking method, employ the indirect grilling method — that is, cook the food away from the heat source, not directly over it. This means the fish can be on the grill a little longer to absorb maximum smoke without burning or drying. If you have the option, position the lid of the grill with the vent directly over the fish to help pull smoke over the fish as much as possible.

Fish options I like for this smoking method include fattier, meatier varieties such as salmon, tuna, sea bass and black cod. Trout and Pacific halibut likewise taste great with a bit of smoke. In all cases, purchase nice thick fillets or steaks with the skin on when possible to help retain moistness.

A brief marinade in balsamic vinegar and Worcestershire sauce adds subtle sweetness, color and flavor; a few drops of natural liquid hickory smoke underscore the aroma. Brushing the fish before and after it’s cooked with melted smoky bacon fat makes me swoon.

I always smoke-grill extra fish to have on hand for a weekend omelet. Or, I break cold-smoked fish into large pieces to top a salad tossed with a creamy dressing. Smoked fish fillets transform into a yummy topping for crusty buttered toast. Or, stir smoked fish into softened cream cheese with chives and sun-dried tomato bits for delicious spread.

Serve smoked fish with a simple topping of diced ripe tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil and plenty of black pepper. Alternatively, top it with diced avocado and a drizzle of thinned creme fraiche and fresh chives.

For a side dish, I grill thin slices of summer squash and large mushroom caps over the hottest portion of the grill until golden. Smashed hash browns taste great with the grill-smoked fish or the omelets. Make it in advance and reheat it just as the fish comes off the grill.

Cherry Wood Smoke-grilled Fish

Try salmon, tuna, seabass and black cod here.

Prep: 15 minutes

Marinate: 30 minutes

Cook: 12 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

1 generous cup cherry wood chips

4 fish fillets, each about 11/2 inches thick and 8 to 10 ounces

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon each: salt, freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon natural liquid hickory smoke, optional

1 tablespoon melted bacon drippings, or more to taste, optional

Chopped ripe tomato and chives

Put wood chips into a bowl of water to cover and let soak at least 30 minutes.

Rinse fish; pat dry and place in a large zip-close plastic food bag. Mix the vinegar, Worcestershire, salt, pepper and liquid smoke, if using, in a small dish until the salt dissolves. Pour over the fish; close the bag and turn the bag to evenly distribute the marinade over all the surfaces of the fish. Refrigerate, 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a gas grill to high or prepare a charcoal grill and let burn until coals are covered with gray ash. Move the coals to one side of the grill or turn off some of the burners on the gas grill.

Drain the wood chips and place them on the hot coals. (Or, place on a double thickness of foil and place the packet over the heat source on the gas grill.) Put the grill grate in place and cover the grill to let the smoke develop and the grill grate heat up.

Remove the fish from the marinade and pat dry. If using, brush the fish with the bacon drippings. Place the fish on the grill away from the heat source. Cook, without turning, until the fish almost flakes easily with a fork, 13 to 15 minutes. (For thin fillets, cook 8 to 10 minutes.)

Brush with more bacon fat if desired, then remove fish with a thin metal spatula. Serve warm topped with tomatoes and chives. Or, refrigerate up to 3 days and serve cold or at room temperature.

Nutrition information per serving: 246 calories, 11 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 96 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 34 g protein, 100 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Smoked Fish Omelets

Store-bought smoked fish, such as trout or salmon, can be used in this omelet. Reduce the salt added to the eggs if the smoked fish is very salty. I like to serve this omelet with thick slices of country bread, brushed with olive oil and broiled until crispy.

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

6 large eggs

1/4 cup half-and-half

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

6 ounces smoked fish, such as halibut, whitefish, salmon, broken into large chunks

11/2 teaspoons drained capers, rinsed

2 tablespoons very finely sliced red onion, rinsed

2 slices tomato, diced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Olive oil

Mix eggs, half-and-half, salt and pepper in a pitcher until smooth. Set the fish, capers, onion, tomato and chives near the work surface.

Heat a small (7 inch) nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. Reduce the heat to medium and add enough oil to coat pan nicely. When the oil starts to be aromatic, pour in half of the egg mixture. Use a fork to gently pull the eggs that start to set into the center of the pan; tip the pan a little to allow the liquid eggs to run underneath. Keep moving the eggs in this manner until no liquid eggs remain. Let omelet cook, undisturbed, about 30 seconds, adjusting the heat as needed to prevent over-browning the eggs. Put half of the smoked fish over the eggs on one side of the skillet. Top with the capers. Loosen the edge of the omelet with a heatproof spatula, then carefully roll the omelet out onto a serving plate, enclosing the fish as you roll.

Sprinkle the onion, tomato and chives over all. Serve immediately. Repeat to make the second omelet.

Nutrition information per serving: 358 calories, 18 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 597 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 41 g protein, 970 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Smashed Hash Browns

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

11/2 pounds small potatoes, such as multi-color fingerlings

Coarse salt

3 to 4 tablespoons oil for high-heat cooking, such as safflower or sunflower oil

1 medium red onion, halved, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons butter, or more as desired

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped mixed fresh herbs such as a combination of sage, rosemary and thyme

Scrub potatoes clean. Put into a large saucepan and add cold water to cover by 1 inch. Add 1 teaspoon salt to the water. Heat to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, set the lid on slightly askew and cook until potatoes are fork-tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain well.

Heat 1 large (12-inch) or 2 medium heavy skillets, preferably seasoned cast iron, over medium-high heat until drops of water added to the pan(s) sizzle on contact.

Add 1/8-inch of oil to pan(s). Add the potatoes and onion (dividing if necessary). Working carefully so you don’t get burned, use a potato masher or a heavy mallet to smash the potatoes to an even 1/2-inch thickness. Reduce heat to medium and let potatoes crisp without turning, about 10 minutes. While they crisp, skewer the butter on a fork and move it around the inside of the skillet, letting it melt down into the potatoes.

Use a flexible spatula to flip the potatoes. Crisp the other side, adding more butter as desired, another 5 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt, lots of fresh pepper and the herbs. Mix well and serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 284 calories, 16 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 33 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 4 g protein, 13 mg sodium, 4 g fiber