Smokin'! That's what your next bar-b will be this summer if you take a cue from Jim Carrey, alias The Mask - that cinematic superhero that looks hot in neon green.
Just like Carrey's character, ho-hum bank clerk Stanley Ipkiss who morphed into his hidden, inner-fantastical self, you can pretty much perform a similarly electrifying - and easy - transformation with all that barbecued food we love. (Didn't just about everyone in my tribute to frontline service folks last week say that "barbecue" spelled "summer fun"?)
Maybe it's a relic lurking in our limbic systems; maybe it's because just about every Canadian kid pokes a wienie on the end of a stick and hangs it over a smoky fire at least once in a magical childhood summer. Whatever. We love smoky flavours that echo what seem like happier, simpler, more delicious times.
It wasn't until I spoke with Dave Birkenhead, who's a line cook at Whistler's eternally classic Southside Diner and who was also part of my service tribute last week, that I realized he had such a cool idea it merited its own article (and here Dave's pals probably thought he didn't make the cut, eh?). I thought that smoking your own salmon, or anything, was as unlikely as Stanley Ipkiss becoming a superhero. Apparently not.
"Smoke salmon halfway and then finish it on the barbecue? Oh yeah," says Dave, who has fished all his life and loves to sit out and barbecue after a fishing trip to Ucluelet or the Interior. He learned pretty much everything you'd ever want to know about fishing and smoking fish from his grandfather, Jack Begg, a great sports fisherman who owned the original Barclay Hotel and Begg's Meat Market in Port Alberni.
To start, your best bet for smoking is a winter spring salmon. "They're nice and meaty and have a good oil content so they won't dry out like a sockeye or Coho," says Dave.
If you really get into it, there's an entire art to smoking fish, and myriad ways to do it - hot smoked, cold smoked, sweet smoked, and more. Luckily, the Internet provides all kinds of forums with people who have been smokin' food for years.
Don't be intimidated; you'll get delicious results simply trying.
"I've never been able to come close to the quality of smoked fish that [my grandfather] would get," says Dave. "Really even flavour, good moisture content and tender all the way through." The secret is knowing your recipe, knowing your smoker and having patience.
So buy yourself a bag of wood chips at any hardware store - hickory and alder are popular - or cannibalize branches from pruned apple or cherry trees.
Big Chief smokers at Canadian Tire go for about a hundred bucks; automatic ones are hundreds more. Either way, basically you get a box with a shelving unit and an electric coil on the bottom that you put a pan of wood chips on to generate smoke.
Learning to judge when your salmon is smoked halfway before you put it on the bar-b, as Dave suggests, "is more of a visual thing than a timing thing." It depends on several variables, like how fatty your fish is, and how thick the piece is. A 3/4-inch salmon steak will need a couple of hours; a 30-pound spring will take half a day.
To finish your salmon steak to a perfect medium rare (most people tragically overcook fish), toss it on a hot grill just long enough to get grill marks on both sides.
If all this is sounds too onerous, you can get that wonderful smokin' flavour easily in your kitchen. It might get a bit smoky, but what the heck - you only live once.
Place your salmon steaks or filets in a slightly warm oven - less than 100 degrees. Put some wood chips in a pan on a hot stovetop burner. Once they start smoking, put your pan of wood chips in the oven, underneath the fish. Leave it smoke, then finish your salmon by turning up the oven or throwing them on the grill.
If you want to get authentic, says Dave, you brine your salmon before you start. Then you're on your way to that heavenly-smoked salmon worth its weight in gold - Indian candy.
Make a solution that's three parts brown sugar to one part coarse salt and just enough water to dissolve it, so it's liquid but still fairly thick. Soak your salmon in this solution for 12-16 hours, or longer. The length of time will determine how candied it is. If you want it really candied, keep it in the brine solution until the fish is almost translucent; then it's a four-hour smoke in your Big Chief.
You can also try Dave's famous smoked apple rosemary chicken. Get a whole frying chicken (about 3 to 5 pounds) and start by soaking it in a weak brine solution: Dissolve 1/4 cup of coarse salt and 3/4 cup of brown sugar in enough water to cover the chicken in a big pot.
Soak it 4 to 5 hours. Remove it and use a knife to poke small holes in the skin so you can stuff in small twigs of fresh rosemary and chunks of peeled garlic. It looks fine if you leave the rosemary sticking out a bit. Then stuff the chicken with a peeled Anjou pear and a tart, green apple to help keep the inside moist.
To cook it, ideally, you'll have one of those golf ball or dome-style charcoal barbecues that act like a convection oven. Or you can innovate.
"We just took an old gas hibachi, ripped all the guts out and recreated one with tinfoil around the whole hibachi to create a dome effect as best as we could," says Dave.
You can also use a gas or propane barbecue. Just add a pan of smokin' wood chips under the lid, much like our smoked salmon in the oven.
You don't need to grease your chicken or the grill - the brine helps toughen the skin and the fat keeps it from sticking
Cook your chicken for about four hours. Turn it every so often if you see hot sports, and keep your coals going by adding some.
"Really that's all there is to it," says Dave. Except for one final touch: fill a spray bottle with apple juice and a bit of cinnamon to occasionally spritz over your apple rosemary chicken to baste it. Smokin'!
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who doesn't have a smoker, yet.