A steady and abiding rain falls over the streets of Ketchikan, Alaska; a hard mist, as the locals call it. Gray clouds smother into the tall, green, mountainsides rising at the edge of town. My lovely bride and her mother take up position in the stern of a fishing charter, one of twenty, advancing out to sea. Stalwart sailors they were, and hardened anglers, listening to the rain tap over their up-turned hoods. The guttural rumble of the outboard engine merges onto the acoustic palate, along with the lapping of chill waters against the hull, and the distant bustle of the Ketchikan shores. Whales breached the choppy surface, spouted forth a few times, and submerged again; their mighty tails slapping the water with utter authority, and great majesty. A Bald Eagle drops suddenly from the heavens with an acute splash off the starboard, snatching a salmon for to feed her family. My bride is onto a salmon too, go figure, rod hooping violently, its tip tugging downwards towards the darkened abyss. A few minutes span on bobbing waves and rocking ship, reeling and peeling, and she too procures a salmon for the family; several of them, in point of fact. And despite her bouts with motion sickness, she had the mental faculty to have them put on dry ice, and airmailed hence forth to the door step of her working husband back home. And that, by and far, made his day.
It is a few weeks later now, I tarry pit-side, in good form, whilst a bleak and steady mist dapples over the pond, like a thousand pin pricks cast from on high. It is that hard-mist sort-of rain again; tho one that is livable, by Ketchikan standards at least, and doesn’t force a soul indoors, necessarily, to stare glumly out the window. Besides, I liked the rain. And I think the silver salmon in the smoker did too. Or would have. Sort of reminiscent, you might say, from whence what soggy straights they came. If you are going to smoke a fish from Ketchikan, after all, it is only right I guess, that you do it in the rain. It’s always raining in Ketchikan they say. And I believe them.
An October breeze rustles amid the water-side grasses, long and wet, and bending in the seasonal eddies. A gray over-cast parades over-head and the light smoke of apple and peach wood curls serenely from the WSM. No finer weather, let be said, than this, this barometric symphony of low pressure and constant mist, for the pleasures of the pit are only heightened. The aromas pop, as if in olfactory 3D. The joy of rain drops pattering over a hot lid. And the contentment patron to rising wood smoke on such a cold, and dreary day. Glory!
One of the finer spoils in the smokey arts is that of fish. And few fish seem better suited for the task than salmon. Thus, and with some fanfare, it was with the greatest delight when a box of them arrived on my doorstep. Good tidings from Alaska, and a smokey destiny according to my pit. Now the first order of business, before anything else, is to brine the fish for 24 hours. We used a wet brine this time around, one that has proven effective in the past. And it’s real simple to make.
Basic Brine Recipe
2 Quarts water
1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1 Cup Kosher Salt
1/2 Cup Lemon Juice
1/2 Cup Soy Sauce
1 Teaspoon Black Pepper
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
*In an old gallon ice cream bucket, mix this all up thoroughly and allow your fillets to mingle in the solution for 24 hours.
Before you go and light the pit, and after the proper brine period, go ahead and dutifully rinse thy fillets under cold water and lay them out on a rack to air dry a bit. Mind your BBQ instincts, and linger here. I know, your young, and eager, and restless, and you want nothing more than to plop thy protein upon a smokey grate and commence with the task at hand. But don’t. Your patience kindled from years at the pit will serve you well here, if you let it. What it is you’re waiting for, you see, is the pellicle, and such can take a while. I know, you’re wondering what in the heck is a pellicle. Well, a pellicle is an outer coating of proteins that form on the surface of brined fish left to air dry, and is tacky, or sticky to the touch. Many a seasoned fish smoker covets the pellicle, for it is that very stickiness which also proves most abiding for smoke. For smoke adheres feverishly to it, like moths to fly paper, or novice skiers to snow fencing. So wait for the pellicle if you can. Some folks even use an electric fan here, to hurry things along. And you can too, I suppose, if you’re in a hurry. But if you’ve learned anything at all from this blog, you won’t be in such a tomfoolery mind-set anyways.
After the pellicle has formed, and is sticky to the touch, sally forth and ignite thy smoker. For this smoke, were looking to run it at about 150 degrees for 3 or maybe 4 hours. This was accomplished in the big 22 1/2 inch Weber Smoker Mountain by a single chimney of lit charcoal dumped directly in the middle of the fire bowl, along with 2 gallons of cold water in the water pan. It may have helped also, that a lovely, cool drizzle fell from the heavens this day, keeping the pit cooler. At any rate, do your best to get around 150 degrees. A little higher is fine. The salmon won’t care.
Whence you have established a stable pit, smoke gently puffing, spray a little PAM or some such thing over your grate, and lay your betrothed salmon hunks in orderly fashion over it. Many of the Alaskan locals like to smoke their salmon with alder wood, but we didn’t have any such flavor on hand. What we did have however, was apple wood, and let it be said, because it is true, that works just fine too. Let it smoke in accord, until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Its pretty much that easy. In the mean time, there is loitering to be done.
It was with the highest and most sincere pleasure I placed the heavy enameled lid on the smoker, and henceforth got along with the very important business of being a pit keeper. Namely, I went to the refrigerator and drew myself a manly beverage there. Seeing the rain wasn’t about to let up this day, albeit a light rain, I jockeyed for the man chair anyways, residing seductively in the living room. Some times we Brethren of the Brisket need to pamper ourselves. Yes we do. Toe-pits up, left foot crossed over right, I admired how the rain drops fell this day, on and off, outside the glass patio door. The symphony in mist, and the homey curls of apple wood smoke. My eyes grew weary, heavy from the day. I listed slightly in my man chair, ensconced in warmth and dryness; two glories made only sweeter on such a cold and decidedly wet day. My eyes fell shut, and my thoughts drifted out to sea. Leisure had asserted itself. A perfect day, as days go, to smoke a salmon. And I suppose to consider for a moment, for the moment’s sake, the rain which fell in Ketchikan. Amen.
Apple Smoked Salmon. Man! So next time you’re faced with a rainy day, and maybe feeling a little fish hungry, do the only sensible thing and light the pit. For any day is a good day where the wood smoke also rises.