Hot-smoked ocean trout with green salad
As the year draws to its inevitable close, my thoughts turn to Christmas. For me it will be a more muted celebration, as this year we suffered loss on so many levels that we would never have thought possible before 2020. It will be a chance for my sister to join my mother and me in the country – something that has been a scant pleasure this year – for a quiet mulling over of what has been. We will also voice our hopes for the year to come, perhaps with a little more trepidation than in the past. And I will be cooking easy food, firm family favourites that enhance the occasion, rather than become the occasion. A side of hot-smoked ocean trout will fit the bill nicely.
It would be wrong to say smoked food is universally loved, but I am very fond of this ancient form of preserving – I think it not only tastes delicious but also delights my sense of cooking adventure with the process.
There are now a wide variety of smokers available in barbecue stores, but for this exercise I use an old wok and a round cake rack. The wok gets trotted out to hot smoke fish, duck breasts and poultry on other occasions.
For all its rudimentary simplicity, smoking food is quite a technical and scientific process. Smoke is made up of more than 200 components that help preserve food. Some parts retard the oxidation of fat, others inhibit the growth of microbes that can cause food to go off. This form of preservation is broken into two main categories – hot smoking and cold smoking. Hot smoking cooks the fish, meat or vegetables, whereas cold smoking only imparts a smoked flavour, so the product can be cooked later or eaten raw.
Most fish and meat products are subjected to curing or brining before they are smoked. This process imparts seasoning and flavouring, but most importantly starts the preservation process. The salt draws out moisture and the sugar starts to “cook” the food. The step after curing is also incredibly important. Before it can be smoked, food needs to be dried out, often uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. This allows the food to develop a slightly tacky skin, the “pellicle”, which helps the smoke flavour penetrate.
But be warned, smoking is not for those who can’t tolerate a little filth. There is nothing clean about smoking – the combination of smoke and animal/fish fat is a bit messy and it can be challenging for your extractor fan. I would heartily suggest doing it outside if you have access to a gas ring, or you can use a covered barbecue in the same way I use a wok.
This is what I refer to as a foundation recipe or a basic technique. Once the fish is smoked, you can present it in whatever manner you choose. With a little pickled onion, capers and cream dressing with black bread. Or garnished with a fresh salad of cucumber, apples and lettuce (see below recipe). The trout can be eaten hot or cold and can be gently rewarmed in the oven. It’s also delicious flaked into an omelette on Boxing Day morning.
- 200g flaked salt
- 200g raw sugar
- 1 side ocean trout (about 1-1.2kg), skin on, pinboned
- ½ cup smoking shavings/sawdust
- 1 butter lettuce
- 1 baby endive lettuce
- 2 Lebanese cucumbers
- 100ml vinaigrette (25ml sherry vinegar, 25ml olive oil, 50ml grapeseed oil)
- 200ml crème fraîche
- 2 Granny Smith apples
- 1 stick celery
- salt and pepper
- 1 bunch chives, chopped
- Combine the salt and sugar. Take a long impervious container (glass, plastic, stainless steel), line it with half the salt mix and lie the fish flesh-side down. Pack the rest of the salt mix on top of the fillet. Cover and weight it (I use a house brick wrapped in foil). Refrigerate overnight.
- Remove the fish from the cure and rinse it under cold water. Pat dry and return to the refrigerator, uncovered, for at least three hours, to dry a little.
- Line your wok with foil, add the smoking shavings/sawdust. Place over high heat to heat the sawdust to combustion point. Position a rack in the wok and place the fish on the rack. Quickly set fire to your wood chips with a long match or lighter and immediately cover the wok snuggly with foil. Turn to a medium heat and cook for about 20 minutes or until the fish is just cooked through.
- Separate and wash and dry the lettuce leaves.
- Cut cucumbers into a small dice.
- Mix half the vinaigrette into the crème fraîche and set aside.
- Place the lettuce on a platter big enough to hold the side of fish. Scatter with the cucumber and dress with the remainder of the vinaigrette.
- Place the hot-smoked side of fish on the bed of lettuce.
- Julienne the apple and celery, mix with crème fraîche mixture, season with salt and pepper and arrange down the centre of the fish. Scatter with the chopped chives.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 12, 2020 as "Smokin’ hot".
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