This summer, NPR is getting crafty in the kitchen. As part of Weekend Edition's Do Try This At Home series, chefs are sharing their cleverest hacks and tips — taking expensive, exhausting or intimidating recipes and tweaking them to work in any home kitchen.
This week: We learn how to smoke fish without any specialized, pricey equipment.
Recipe developer Ivy Manning is something of a do-it-yourself queen. Her book Better From Scratch features recipes for homemade hot sauce, homemade marshmallows — even homemade bacon. She's also an evangelist for making your own crackers — which she swears are no harder than a batch of cookies. "I like tinkering and messing around until I get it right," Manning admits. "And in most cases, I'm absolutely amazed at a how much better my homemade stuff tastes than the store-bought."
And she swears these home hacks aren't just for those with hours upon hours of free time or professional-grade equipment. "Really, you don't need huge devices. Mostly a rolling pin and chef's knife is all you really need to make almost anything at home," Manning says. So, of course, when it comes to making smoked fish, she looks no further than her own kitchen.
The Hard Way
Smoked fish — an age-old preservation that uses the smoke of an indirect fire to lightly cook, flavor, and preserve the meat — is often left to the professionals. It requires special fuel, temperature control, and, well, smoke. It's not the sort of thing most civilians take into their own hands (and certainly not their own kitchens).
The tools of a smoker are twofold: the fuel that's producing the smoke, and the vessel used to contain it. For the fuel, the standard material is wood chips — usually some nice, smoky aromatics, like alder, mesquite or applewood. The vessel can be anything from a frighteningly expensive specialized smoker, an outdoor grill outfitted with a pan of water to manage the heat, or the classic smokehouse down by the river. But for Manning, the "smoker" is just a pan, some foil, and a quick raid of the pantry.
First, a disclaimer: This smoking method may be delicious, but it will not preserve the fish. It still needs to be refrigerated to prevent health risks.
This method starts with a wok — you can use any kitchen pan that's large enough for your fish fillets, but the slope of the wok is particularly helpful. Whatever you choose, just make sure it doesn't have a nonstick coating, which might degrade in the cooking. Then coat everything with a full covering of foil — so that you end up smoking the fish, not the pan.
For the fuel, instead of wood chips, you can just use regular old white rice and some green tea — even straight from the tea bag. Manning notes you could also throw in some orange peel, or rosemary sprigs, or cinnamon sticks, or any other woody spices. Using something from your pantry isn't just easier and cheaper than buying hardwood at the store — it's also really good.
"Actually, for the delicateness of fish, I find that the rice and the tea actually works better," Manning notes. "It's a little lighter, and it's a little more herbal. Green tea has a green flavor to it — almost as if you threw a fistful of herbs on a fire."
Recipe: Tea-Smoked Trout
Adapted from Ivy Manning's book Better From Scratch
1 whole trout, cleaned and head removed (about a scant pound), or two fillets
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup uncooked white rice (Jasmine or another aromatic rice is particularly nice — don't use instant rice, which will char)
1 teaspoon loose-leaf green tea
If you're starting with a whole trout, cut the fish in half lengthwise down the center to make two fillets, leaving the spine and bones attached. Rub the fleshy side of the fish with 1 tablespoon of the sugar and the salt and pepper. Set aside for 10 minutes.
While the fish is curing, take a large carbon-steel wok (NOT nonstick), or another pot that's large enough to hold a metal cooling rack. Line the wok with a sheet of aluminum foil long enough to extend beyond the rim by at least 4 inches (10 cm). Cut a second sheet of foil the same length, and place it at a 90-degree angle to the first sheet.
Mix together the rice and tea in the bottom of the wok, form into a pile, and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. If you favor a lighter smoke flavor, cut a small disk of foil and place it over the rice mixture to form a barrier between the fish and the smoking material, to prevent the fish from tasting overly smoked.
Take your metal cooling rack, and lightly oil or spray with cooking spray. Place the rack in your wok, so that it's about two inches above the bottom. If it sits too low, wad up some more foil to raise it up. Place the fish fillets on the rack.
Turn on an exhaust fan and open a window. Cover the wok with a domed lid, and place it over medium heat. When the rice mixture begins to send up a few wisps of smoke (after about 4 minutes), cover the wok, and fold the foil flaps up over the edges of the lid to seal in the smoke.
Reduce the heat to low, and smoke the fish for 15 minutes. Uncover (being careful of the escaping steam), and cut into the thickest part of a fillet with a paring knife. The fish should be moist but no longer translucent. If the fish is not done, re-cover and continue to smoke for a few minutes more: The fish should be opaque, flaky and moist.
When the fish has smoked through, transfer it to a plate, and let cool slightly. Carefully lift the spine and bones from the fillets and discard. Serve the trout warm, or refrigerate uncovered until cool. The trout will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Smoked fish is perfect for eating warm from the smoker, but it also rounds out a number of meals. Manning recommends using it for a fish eggs Benedict, or flaking it into a salad. But her favorite treatment is to lay it out as part of a smorgasbord — or, as Manning calls it, a hunt-and-peck — with some pickled onions, creme fraiche, and crackers — homemade, of course.