Smoke is magical; difficult to control; fickle with a hint of danger. No matter how well built your smoking apparatus or precise your temperature measurements, no two fires, even in the confines of the same backyard grill, are ever the same. You either love the process, or hate it.
I am a live-fire freak. So I went all out for this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge. I smoked salmon and trout, I made another batch of bacon, I made Canadian bacon – I even smoked a couple of pheasant breasts. Not to mention the almonds, and the cheese.
It’s been a hard month. Nothing extraordinary, just a lot of ups and downs, compressed over a fairly short time span, and punctuated by what I now recognize as a bad case of homesickness. Which is weird for me – I normally relish all the little discoveries that come with living in a new place. The lesson is never to move in the wintertime.
Playing with fire, (along with a few days nice enough to get out and appreciate Boise’s extraordinary high-desert terrain, and a quick weekend trip to Seattle), really helped lift me out of the doldrums. I’m thinking I may need to build a smokehouse someday – the same way people with SAD use special lamps for therapy.
I do all my smoking in our grill without any special add-ons. I soak chunks of hickory for a couple of days, and then start the fire in a chimney with a few pieces of dry fuel. I let the fire burn down for at least a half an hour; add my wet wood and whatever I am smoking, on a rack off to one side as far from the fire as I can get it. And then I keep a sharp eye on the temperature, adding wet more wood –a few chunks at a time, and sometimes extra water right over the coals. The longest I’ve yet kept one of these fires going is about six hours.
Everything that spent time near my fires came right out of the pages of the official Charcutepalooza bible – Charcuterie. I can’t say often enough how much I’m getting out of that book. Smoked fish, Canadian bacon, pheasant ham – it’s all been a snap.
It’s is an amazing thing to eat the salmon you smoked yourself on a bagel with cream cheese and capers. I’m not sure I could be more proud if I’d caught the fish myself. This weekend, I’m going to try smoking Alaskan Halibut.
Two highlights of the month were pheasant ham, and Canadian bacon. Both were standouts in improvised eggs benedict – made with homemade English muffins, (a post-worthy subject on their own) and pepper relish in place of Hollandaise sauce.
And the pheasant elevated our last round of roasted winter vegetables and faro.
But my favorite meal from my month of intensive smoking isn’t one I made myself. I provided the Canadian bacon, and my friend Rob provided the kitchen, the labor, and the new twist on a recipe he and I have both been making for more than twenty years. (Feel old now, Rob?) Spaghetti with Canadian bacon and Onions was a hit – not only with us, but most importantly with his daughters, my nieces by friendship, Julia and Sarah. I’m pretty sure they ate up the pasta because they trust Dad not to slip in anything that rates high on their ick list – while my cooking is still highly suspect.
That face made my day. While the girls are more adventurous eaters than many kids, they tend to be a little suspicious of anything I make. Normally my creations are greeted with a polite “no thank-you” bite. But thanks to Charcutepalooza and home-smoked Canadian bacon, that may be changing.
Next time I see them, I’m planning to try out homemade sausage - it is only a coincidence that sausage is the official Charcutepalooza challenge for May. Of course, I may have to leave the chilies out. It’s so worth it. Besides, I can always make one batch for the kids and another for the adults. And I’m pretty sure I’ll have to smoke it too.