Don’t tell Cowie, but I love smoked salmon. I get it from my grandfather who grumpily protests like Father Jack when the meal starts without a few slithers of tulip pink, oily smoked fish, anointed with a drop of lemon and befriended by a slice or two of buttered brown bread. Sadly, we’re all banned from the joy of freshly ground pepper in his presence because it makes him sneeze.
So in the interests of experimentation and as a sneaky way of getting around the need for pepper, I decided to have a blast at hot smoking my own salmon over some tea leaves as the opening gambit to our Christmas day feast. Luckily Mum had picked up a quiveringly fresh side of salmon from the fishmonger, so my task was an exciting one. I decided to smoke half of it and make gravadlax with the other.
For someone who doesn’t smoke, I’ve done a fair amount of smoking. Albeit of the edible variety. Cowie gave me a smoker as a present a couple of years ago, so I’ve had a bit of practice. Our main successes have been with smoked trout and with tea smoked duck. Both dishes employ the hot smoking method which not only cooks the food in the heat, but also cures it with the mysteriously alchemic qualities of the wafty smoke. When done right you are left with moist flesh and the irresistible flavour of fire.
Whilst everyone was watching soporific Christmas Eve telly, I got busy with the salmon. First heavily season the fish on both sides and remove any pin bones. Some people suggest brining, but I found it works fine if you skip this step. Place the fish on a pyrex dish that will fit inside the dish that is going to act as your smoker. Then line your mother’s finest Le Creuset casserole dish with two layers of thick foil. Cover the foil in tea leaves. I used Orange Pekoe which I had brought back from India, but I suspect any old tea leaves will do. Then throw in a couple of spoonfuls of rice, a sprinkling of sugar and a blob of honey. This will get the smoke kicked off.
Next it’s time for some Blue Peter improvisation. Scrunch up three balls of foil and position them in the bottom of the pan to act as supports for the plate or pyrex bowl that your salmon is sitting on. You need the gap between the base of the pan and the pyrex dish to allow the smoke to billow.
Then place your smoking vessel on the hob and get the tea leaves smoking. Once the feathers of smoke are smoldering consistently place the pyrex dish on the three foil feet and whack on the lid. If it doesn’t fit perfectly then you’re in trouble. So have some kit handy to improvise.
Keep the heat high for the first 10 minutes and then turn the heat down and smoke for a further 15 minutes. This is all quite trial and error so you might want to have a peak after 20 minutes has elapsed and then take a call on how much further your want to take it. My preference is for the fish to still be moist and rare in the middle, but I imagine some would get squeamish about it.
One precaution you should take is to make sure you’ve closed all the doors leading out of your kitchen to the rest of the house and opened all the windows to mitigate against smoking the rest of the family out. When the big moment came to check on the salmon, I decided to take it outside into snow and was delighted to see that the smoke had worked its magic.
The flesh was translucently moist yet cooked. I let out an embarrassing fist pump in triumph, which was sadly witnessed by my sister, before popping it in the fridge and collapsed in front of the telly.
On Christmas Day, I simply whipped up a crème fraiche and lemon dressing and served it in rosy pink wedges with a small salad and a glass of top class Grüner Veltliner.
It was a wonderful start to our meal and one of the most satisfying things I’ve done this year. The highlight was the way the fish teased apart like the indented divisions in a posh dictionary and the support from the dazzlingly alive wine had us all purring as loudly as our rather talkative Siamese cat.
For a more in depth guide to hot and cold smoking get your hands on Hugh F-W's brilliant Fish book or have a butchers at this site.