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‘Junk’ Fish Make Food Of The Gods, Part 1
Ryan Gilligan, Managing Editor, North American Fisherman Magazine
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Ever since I blogged about my Winter 2011 whitefish trip a couple weeks ago (
“Don’t Call It A Bloodbath"
), my stomach’s been growling.
I wanted smoked fish.
The growling turned into some kind of horrible screeching when I remembered I’d soon be leaving for my annual week-long pilgrimage to the deer woods, where I’d hunt with my family.
We have a good deer camp. And anyone who’s ever been blessed enough to be part of a respectable deer camp knows that sodium-drenched snacks are as much a part of the experience as shells and good boots—the fuel of card games, campfire lies and the thirst for a frosty post-hunt High Life or three.
So, not long after penning that blog, I rummaged through my chest freezer, desperate for a fix. I found it…and then some. Ten butterflied redhorse suckers I caught this spring glared back at me though ice and Zip Loc, begging for the smoker.
And a bonus—when I dug them out, it revealed two forgotten 5-poundish pike I’d kept this summer for a singular, delicious purpose.
So, in the coming days, I simultaneously embarked on two of the tastiest fish preparation processes known to man—with two of the most maligned species around.
Here is the result:
Pickled Pike And Smoked Suckers!
Here’s how I did it:
For the smoking, I can’t claim any points for innovation. I just follow the simple recipe that came with my
Luhr Jensen Big Chief Smoker
. You combine a quart of water with a half-cup of canning salt and a half-cup of sugar, letting the latter two dissolve, creating the brine.
Put the butterflied fish (if you don’t know how to butterfly, here’s a
good video demonstration
) in a stoneware bowl and pour the brine over them. Let them soak in the fridge overnight.
When you take them out the next morning, rinse the fish off in cold water and set them out flesh-side-up. Pat them dry then let them sit out for an hour while you let the smoker heat up.
Then, set them in the smoker (again, skin-side-down), one fish per rack, and load the pan full of
alder wood chips
. Leave them in there for as long as it takes the flesh to stiffen up and turn the color of dark caramel, adding wood chips as needed along the way (you’ll usually burn through about four pans worth). The necessary time varies quite a bit based on the size of the fish outside air temperature, as thicker fish and colder days take longer, but it’s usually in the neighborhood of eight hours.
Take them out, let them cool down and then vacuum pack each fish individually. Put them in the freezer and guard them with your life.
Give the process a try the next time you catch a mess of disrespected, under-utilized fish like suckers, and tell me what you think. Or better yet, let me know your best smoked fish recipe!
Next week, I’ll share my recipe for those pickled northern pike. I promise they’ll leave you addicted.
Monday, November 07, 2011 5:17 PM
While I admittedly don't know anything about smoking suckers I have to wonder about the brine you soak them in. I do smoke quite a bit of salmon and I was taught to use a mix of one part coarse kosher salt to two and a half parts dark brown sugar. I put this mix on dry and and place all in the refrigerator for twelve to eighteen hours. This makes a "soup" of the water that is drawn out. I was told that you want to draw moisture out of the fish and the salt/sugar mix into the fish. The whole idea of drying/smoking fish is to remove the moisture that causes it to spoil. I then smoke until the fish just begins to flake, usually no more than 45 minutes or so. I think I have a shorter smoking time because I start with drier fish.
Tuesday, November 08, 2011 2:23 PM
I do not anything about "suckers" , but I will admit the recipe sounds mighty tasty. I once smoked a carp similarly and it surprised me how good it was.
Thursday, November 10, 2011 8:48 AM
You bring up an important point with your comment that the idea of smoking is to prevent spoilage by removing moisture (not adding it through a watery brine).
If you’re thinking of smoking in this historic sense, then you're absolutely right, and I should have mentioned that in this blog. The recipe I've always followed in the Luhr Jensen cookbook makes it clear that it and all other recipes in the book are NOT intended to create truly smoke-cured foods that will keep indefinitely without refrigeration.
Rather, they create "smoke-flavored" foods. Fish can be eaten as-is after the smoking process, while other meats (namely pork, poultry and red meat) need to be "finished" in an oven/grill to raise their internal temperature to a level that makes them safe for consumption.
Regardless, none of the recipes in that book will let you play mountain man and store the resulting goodies at room temperature without them spoiling and/or getting you very sick, very quickly.
But that's OK. I'm not Daniel Boone. I have a fridge.
I’m especially OK with this because to TRULY smoke-cure fish or other meats, you’d have to add so much salt, and smoke it for so long that the food would be so dry, hard and salty that you wouldn’t even want to eat it.
In that same vein, I once actually did use a curing process like yours. Rather soak the fish in my usual salt/sugar brine, I covered them in kosher salt and let them sit in it overnight. As you described, this had resulted in a soup of liquid that the salt had pulled out of the fish by the time I removed the fillets the next morning.
The finished product, however, tasted like a salt shaker. Sure it might have kept longer without refrigeration, but I’d much rather eat my perishable brined fish.
Thursday, November 10, 2011 2:13 PM
Mine needs a refrigerator also, and I have one too. The dark brown sugar helps the fish from tasting "like a salt shaker". I did not mean to sound like I was maligning your recipe but was suggesting you could reduce your smoking time. I am lazy and if I can cut back the time I have to tend the smoker I will. Thank you for your comments, I may have to try your recipe sometime.
Friday, November 11, 2011 9:32 AM
No, I didn't think you were bad-mouthing my recipe, nor did I mean anything bad against yours. I just wanted to clarify something that I should have spelled out in my original blog: That the recipe isn't intended to create non-perishable food.
I sure don't want anyone getting sick :)
And I can certainly see how the addition of brown sugar to your recipe would add a necessary hint of sweetness to offset all that salt.
I'll give that a try the next time I find myself with more salmon than I can fit on the grill :)
Interestingly, though, the one time I used dry salt vs. a water-based brine, the fish actually took longer to finish. That confused me because, like you said, I'd assumed it would take less time because so much water had already been pulled out of the fish while it sat in the kosher salt.
Oh well, I guess there's always something to learn when it comes to smoking fish!
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