We have a smoker at home that is a little rickety with age, but still turns out some pretty good stuff. Of course, we don’t have access to the fresh fish there that we have here in Apalachicola, so we’ve never really put it through its paces. I’ve chiefly used it for smoked salmon (the only way I can stand to eat farmed salmon is smoked) and smoked cheese (Monterey Jack will stand up to the heat of the smoker without melting and it is wonderful smoked!) I wrote more about the ins and outs of smoking in this column.
Here in Apalach we have a bounty of fish but no smoker, so Jer went to the hardware store and bought a Brinkmann Gourmet smoker and Grill – a shiny red contraption that is much more stylin’ than the cardboard Little Chief back in Bloomington. But basically, they work the same. An electric coil keeps wood smoking with minimal heat so the food cooks slowly (you can smoke food on a regular grill, but it’s hard to control the heat and you want a SLOW cook so the smoke can permeate the food before it dries out.)
So, with a whole mullet and a good chunk of grouper in hand, I got online to find some fish smoking recipes. There is more involved than just throwing the fish into the smoker – it needs to soak in a flavored brine of some sort and then you dry it out so it develops a shiny hardened skin. A good basic resource is here.
I cobbled a brine recipe from several sources, and used 2 quarts water, ¾ cup kosher salt, 1 cup brown sugar, 2 bay leaves, ½ cup distilled vinegar, peppercorns. Soaked the fish for about an hour (and I think I would do longer next time) and then put it on a rack under a ceiling fan to dry for another hour. Then we popped it into the smoker and a little over 2 hours later, voila, smoked fish.
I like my fish a little smokier and a little drier, but for most people I imagine this was pretty near perfect. We celebrated by eating some right away, hot and flakey, on crackers with lemon. Yummm.
But smoked fish dip was my real goal. Seafood-2-Go here in Apalach makes a dynamite smoked grouper dip – rich and creamy with a jalapeño bite. Trouble is, it’s got about a bazillion fat calories and my addiction to it is one of the reasons I am trying to lose some weight right now. So I improvised. Flaked some smoked grouper into a bowl and added 3 tablespoons of light Helmans, some chopped red onion, and some chopped jalapeño, plus salt and pepper. It was very good, but maybe because the fish wasn’t smoky enough for me, it didn’t have the same addictive quality. Grouper is a funny fish to smoke in any case, because it isn’t very oily and it doesn’t get that rich smoked flavor. I wonder if they add liquid smoke over at Seafood-2-Go?
Anyway, the grouper dip was fine, but the smoked mullet dip was FABULOUS. There are a many, many recipes for this spread out there, but the one I used comes from a favorite cookbook: Gulf Coast Cooking by Virginia Elverson. This book covers the gulf coast, from Florida to New Orleans and Texas to the Yucatán with gorgeous photos and luscious recipes. Though I toyed with the recipe a bit, it was close enough to the book that it deserves credit. It’s simple to make once you have the smoked fish which, honestly, you don’t need to smoke yourself.
However you come by it, flake two cups of fish, skinned and boned, and combine with 4 tablespoons light Helman’s (Elverson used the full fat stuff), ½ cup chopped celery, ½ cup chopped red onion, ½ cup chopped red bell pepper, 1 small clove of garlic, chopped, 3 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, 1 heaping tablespoon of chopped pickled jalapeños, salt and pepper. Mix it all together and let it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours to meld the flavors while you go to the beach, then come home and eat it on crackers for dinner. WOW!