Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Peppered Mackerel

Salmon seems to be everyone's favorite smoked fish, but I've always preferred mackerel. I first had it in Denmark, where I lived for nearly 3 years in my early 20's. Whenever I'd get homesick for Mom's food, I'd make a salad of smoked mackerel, chopped onions, chilies and cilantro with a squeeze of lime juice and eat it with rice. (By the way, this is also an excellent way to eat sardines or herring packed in oil.)

I used to feel intimidated by the idea of smoking food in an outdoor smoker, but it turns out to be quite manageable. I bought the Weber smoker a couple of years ago and have been quite happy with it. (P.S. I did NOT pay the list price! Find it on sale somewhere or buy it used.) My neighbor tried to discourage me from getting a "manual" smoker (his is electric) because he said it would be a hassle to maintain the right temperature, but I've not had a problem with that. Normally the smoker will stay within the 200 to 250F range for 2 to 3 hours without much supervision.

I've found the most difficult part of smoking is not letting the heat go to waste. Whether I'm smoking fish (which only takes 30 minutes) or ribs (which take 3 to 4 hours) I have to use the same minimum amount of charcoal. So if I'm doing something quick like fish, I also plan other things to smoke as well. The day I smoked the mackerel, I also smoked scallops and tasso ham (more on the scallops and tasso in later posts), but there was still enough heat if I'd wanted to smoke more.

They don't look so impressive before being smoked, do they?

Right, so you want to know about the mackerel. Very easy. Exact same brine and cure process as smoked salmon. I'll make it even easier for you by doing all the math and converting. You'll have enough for 2 to 3 medium-sized mackerel.

Make the brine by combining 5.5 oz kosher salt + 4.5 oz sugar + 5.75 cup water in a non-reactive pot (no aluminum). Heat to dissolve the solids, then cool completely in the fridge. Add the fish and brine for 1.5 to 2 hours. Rinse the fish with cold water, then pat dry. (Discard the brine.) Place the fish on a rack over a tray and set it uncovered in your fridge overnight. (WARNING: Raw mackerel does not smell like gardenias. In a small space like the fridge, the odor will be quite strong and you'll get a nice whiff every time you open the fridge. Put a small bowl of baking soda nearby to absorb some of the odor. Still, it's gonna stink.) You want the fish to cure and dry out, forming a tacky surface to allow the smoke to better adhere. The following day, gently press some fresh cracked black pepper onto the surface of the fish and smoke for 30 minutes between 200 to 225 F. (I like to hit it with a lot of smoke in the beginning since the smoking time is short.)

If you don't have access to an outdoor smoker, it's possible to smoke food indoors. At the restaurant where I worked, our house-smoked salmon was very popular. We used a stainless steel food pan with lid, a rack to place the salmon on, small wood chips and a stack of heavy plates to hold down the lid. The pan went right on top of two burners. (Of course, once the lid was opened, the kitchen filled with smoke.) Someone took that idea and packaged it up for the home cook. How convenient! It's reasonably priced too.

This is the simplest salad ever. Chopped onions, chilies, cilantro and a squirt of lime juice. A few drops of fish sauce if you're in the mood.

How should you serve smoked mackerel? I recommend the salad mentioned above served with sticky rice. Another option is to make a spread by crumbling the flesh and mixing in some mayo. Or how about rolled up in sushi? Or maybe you have some other ideas? Please share!

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