"I think I'm going to smoke something this weekend!" I announced excitedly to my friends last week. There were raised brows and quizzical looks. As probably the most straight-laced person in the entire universe, someone who has never in her life been properly drunk, stayed up all night, got in trouble at school, inhaled a cigarette or toyed with the boundaries of the law, someone who would much rather have a quiet evening in with friends and go to bed at 10pm than attend a party or - heaven forbid - a club, someone who is, let's face it, boringly calm and neurotic and ripe for a career as a cat lady, their surprise at my suggestion of forthcoming tobacco/illegal substance consumption is perhaps unsurprising.
Their reaction to my clarification that by "smoke something" I of course meant "fire up my new stovetop smoker, a Christmas present from my mum, and imbue a piece of animal protein with the primal aroma of combustion", was, however, the total opposite. This sounds exactly the sort of thing I'd spend my Friday night doing.
And, readers, it was glorious. I've been longing for a smoker ever since reading Diana Henry's beautiful book Salt Sugar Smoke. She assured me I could make my own using a wok with a lid and a trivet, but I could never seem to find any large woks with lids, and Christmas was fast approaching. My beautiful home smoker, so shiny you could use it as a mirror, finally emerged from its box on Friday as I took the aromatic plunge into the world of home-smoking. Diana on Twitter suggested I start with salmon. Two beautiful thick salmon fillets were promptly purchased from the fishmonger (who chuckled at my declaration that I wanted to try smoking scallops soon, replying jocularly, "Better start saving up now then!"), cured briefly in salt and sugar, then marinated in a treacly, dark and pungent combination of honey, sugar, soy sauce, ginger and garlic.
Once you've got a home smoker, smoking food is ridiculously easy. You throw a small scattering of wood chips (I used alder wood for the salmon, as it's quite delicate) into the bottom, put the tray on top (lined with foil to minimise washing-up), put the wire rack on top of that, sit your food on the wire, put the lid on and turn the heat up on the hob (I have an induction hob, but it still worked perfectly). When wisps of smoke start to appear (this took all of ten seconds), you're good to go. Lid on, stand back, and revel in playing at artisan culinary craftsmanship. I smoked the salmon for twenty minutes, brushing more of that gorgeous marinade on halfway through, until it was opaque, glossy around the edges with the burnt-sienna hue of the marinade, impregnated with that seductive smoky tang. I made a simple salad of avocado, mango and green beans (based on one that Diana suggests serving alongside smoked chicken) with a ginger, rice vinegar and chilli dressing, perched the fat, burnished salmon fillets on top like a crown, and felt a thrill of elation that I'm sure rivals that to be obtained by the more legally dubious forms of smoking.
Yes, you can buy hot-smoked salmon in the supermarket. It comes vacuum-wrapped and, when you prise off the plastic covering, has a uniform, moist, oily texture and a cloying flavour. You will spend about a fiver on a very small amount, and find it squelches unpleasantly between your fingers as you flake it into a recipe. I'd never been unhappy with the bought stuff until I made my own. This was a complete revelation: the outside of the fillet was firm, almost crispy, beautifully imbued with the smoke and the sweet, aromatic marinade. The inside was tender, flaky, as moist and flavoursome as normal cooked salmon, with none of that cloying oiliness. You get a far better texture and much subtler flavour from doing it yourself - it was in no way overpoweringly smoky; instead, the smoky tinge just enhanced the other sweet-savoury tones of the marinade. I spent a fiver on two huge salmon fillets - much better value than buying it pre-prepared (yes, you have to buy wood chips for your smoker, but you use so little each time that these go a long way).
Smoked food is always richer than its unadulterated variant, so serve it with plenty of fresh, tangy ingredients to cut through that. Ripe mango works perfectly here, along with the lime, rice vinegar and ginger of the dressing. Buttery avocado is a beautiful soft foil for the strongly-flavoured salmon. Green beans add crunch, and chilli prevents the dish from cloying. Plus, it looks absolutely gorgeous on the plate.
You can keep your shisha, marijuana (I actually had to look up how to spell that - further proof of my sheltered existence) and tobacco...the high I got from smoking my own salmon far outstrips any I could gain from these, I reckon. Perhaps the next time someone offers me a cigarette at a party, I'll say 'No thanks, I'd rather smoke some salmon'.
(This will never happen because a) I don't go to parties and b) I don't want to ostracise the entirety of my social network).
Home-smoked soy, honey and five spice salmon with mango and avocado salad (serves 2):
[Based on Diana Henry's recipe in Salt Sugar Smoke]
For the salmon:
- 2 large, thick salmon fillets
- 25g salt
- 1 tbsp light brown sugar
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp honey
- 3 tsp light brown sugar
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- A 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, sliced
- 1/4 tsp five spice powder
- Black pepper
For the salad:
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar
- Juice of half a lime
- 2 tbsp rapeseed oil
- 1 ball of preserved ginger in syrup, finely chopped, plus 1.5 tbsp of the syrup
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1 chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp fish sauce
- 1 bunch of coriander, leaves only
- A few sprigs of fresh mint, leaves only
- 100g green beans
- 1 ripe mango, peeled and flesh sliced into strips
- 1 ripe avocado, sliced
Lay the salmon fillets on a plate. Mix the salt and sugar together then rub this all over the salmon. Leave for 20 minutes, then rinse off and pat the salmon dry with kitchen paper. Lay on a clean plate and put in the fridge for 2 hours.
Put the soy, honey, brown sugar, five spice, ginger and garlic in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer until reduced by a third, then leave to cool. Strain to remove the ginger. Make four small cuts in the sides of each salmon fillet with a sharp knife. Put the salmon in a non-reactive bowl or dish, then pour the marinade over, spooning it all over the fish. Refrigerate for 3 hours.
Prepare a smoker (I used alder wood chips), remove the salmon fillets from the marinade (reserve this), and smoke the salmon for 20 minutes, brushing on more of its marinade halfway through. Check to see if it's cooked through (it should be opaque throughout), then set aside while you prepare the salad.
For the salad, mix the first seven ingredients together to make the dressing. Boil the green beans until just tender, then drain and rinse under cold water. In a large bowl, mix the coriander, mint, mango and green beans, add two-thirds of the dressing and toss together to mix well. Add the avocado then toss again gently, being careful not to break it up.
Divide the salad between two plates. Place the salmon fillets on top, then pour over the remaining dressing. Serve immediately.