Basic BBQ (Grilled) Salmon

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A neighbour asked me the other day, “How do you do your BBQ salmon?” I laughed and said I did the same thing that everybody does. But I do have a few “secrets” which really help enhance the flavour of BBQ’d salmon (or any fatty fish for that matter).

Now before anyone in the East accuses me of confusing the difference between barbecuing and grilling–I wouldn’t dare confuse the low temperature smoke cooking done to make that mouth watering pulled pork, with simply throwing a chunk of steak on the grill (though there’s an art to that too). It’s just that on the coast we call grilling barbecuing.

So the trick to making a good piece of salmon into a great piece of salmon, is… salt. Pretty basic. Prior to grilling the salmon and prior to any other seasonings or marinades, I take the prepared piece of fish (fillet, steak, etc) and liberally sprinkle the exposed flesh with coarse pickling, kosher or other non-iodized salt then wrap it in a piece of clean linen or very clean dish towel and let it sit for 15-25 minutes depending on thickness. After this I rinse off the salt and pat dry with paper towel before continuing with adding marinades, spices, mirepoix or any other wonderful flavouring.

The salt does a couple of things. First it kills any lingering surface bacteria and removes any light “fishiness” that might cling to the meat, and secondly it takes moisture out of the flesh and subtly changes the texture. Why are these good things? Well the first one is pretty obvious, but in addition to freshening the fish it will also increase the shelf life of the fish by a few days–handy if you’re prepping fish for tomorrow’s dinner. The benefit of the second one is less obvious until you realize that if you remove moisture from anything it will naturally want to draw moisture back into itself, so if you replace the removed moisture with a marinade or a spice mixture it will draw that flavour back into the flesh–and that’s a win.

Aside from the salt cure, I follow some pretty basic guidelines for grilling:

  • First, fresh fish. It sounds simple, but most people don’t realize that when a fish smells strongly “fishy” it’s already gone. I’ll do a post later on how to buy good fish, but for now just remember that no smell is good smell
  • Second, skin on. If you’re using a marinade with sugar added, nothing is more heart wrenching (as a cook) than leaving chunks of caramelized fish clinging to the grill top. If you grill with the skin on you can always run a knife between the skin and the flesh and leave the skin on the grill for later cleaning. If you only have skin off fish then cook it on a sheet of well oiled aluminum foil (it will still stick, but not as badly and clean up is a snap).
  • Third, always test the thinnest part of the fish for doneness. If you check the thicker portion for doneness you will always end up with a rubbery tail section. Keep in mind that fish will continue to cook even after it’s left the grill.
  • Fourth, always oil the grill when hot. Doing so means less sticking. I got this tip from America’s Test Kitchen and it works. I use an oil soaked paper towel rubbed over the hot grill with tongs.
  • Finally, always a very hot grill. You can’t reasonably control the cooking time for a piece of fish by grilling it over low heat, also you don’t get that caramelized goodness from low temperature cooking.

Follow these basics and as long as you watch your cooking fish like a hawk, you’ll get good results every time.

Aaron

Gravlax – Smoked salmon without the smoke

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It’s Sockeye season on the West coast of BC, and 2014 is the peak return in a four year annual cycle for this tasty little salmon. The last peak in 2010 saw ten’s of millions of this species returning to their home waters to spawn, and while this year’s return is still underway the spawning population looks to be quite healthy.

It seems strange in the era of always-available fresh farmed salmon, but the sockeye run continues to be part of the “heritage” of coastal and central BC (and of course plays a huge role in the cultural heritage of first nations people). Neighbours regularly gift fish picked up from friends, off local fishing vessels, or even self caught. We swap recipes over drinks and talk about best preparations.

A standard fillet of salmon off a four pound fish can feed usually four adults, but there always seem to be more fish than the typical family can eat at a sitting. While freezing is an option, it’s a waste not to use this fresh fish when it’s available. Most families I know will simple cook the whole fillet and use the leftovers for sandwiches, but there are other ways of preserving the delicately flavoured fish.

Smoking is an option that’s long been practiced here on the coast and to a lesser extent in the interior. Smoking can be done any number of ways, but it usually combines brining and curing the fish before placing in a home smoker of some sort. The process can be labour intensive and take a long time to complete. You also need to have a source to properly add the smoked flavour–not always an option for many folks.

Another way to use the excess fish (and sometimes the whole fillet) that requires far less time and effort than smoking is Gravlax. Gravlax is a very common method of preparing salmon that has been practiced across Northern Europe and Scandinavia in various forms since the middle ages. Essentially it is a simple salt cure used to both extract moisture from the fish and enhance it’s flavour. Modern preparations such as the one below add sugar and herbs to balance the saltiness and impart subtle flavours to the dish. If you’ve got super fresh salmon on hand this is an excellent treat.

Sockeye Gravlax with Green Onion

  • Raw Sockeye Fillet*
  • White sugar
  • Pickling or Kosher Salt (coarse, non-iodized)
  • Thinly sliced green onion (white and green parts), Dillweed, or other herbs.

Method

  1. Debone, rinse, and pat dry a salmon fillet cut to desired size
  2. Place the fish skin side down on a clean piece of linen or a tea towel
  3. Lightly sprinkle all the exposed flesh with simple white table sugar
  4. Sprinkle a thin layer of salt over all the flesh, using less on thin sections of the fish and heavier amounts on the thicker areas
  5. Sprinkle a thin layer of sliced green onions over the entire piece of fish
  6. Wrap the linen or tea towel tightly around the fish and refrigerate, flesh side down on a suitable sized plate for 24 hours or more.
  7. Repeat steps 1-6 and refrigerate for a further 24 hours. You may need to change the linen or towel if there is an excessive amount of moisture drawn out of the fish.
  8. Remove linen or towel, rinse, pat dry with paper towel, slice thinly and serve alone, or on unsalted crackers or dense bread.

Notes:

Most sockeye caught on this coast has no nasty parasites and the salt will generally take care of any that might be there, but if you want to be on the safe side freezing the fish used for 24 hours prior to preparing will help eliminate any that might be hiding (as an FYI most Sashimi is served after freezing). I personally don’t freeze the fish as this tends to change the finished texture.

Thinner pieces of fish, i.e. the rear third of a standard salmon fillet, tend to cure in 48 hours or less. In our house this is usually the piece left over from a meal so it works out nicely. Thicker pieces may take an additional day to cure. The cure is “done” when the flesh reaches a firmness similar to pressing on the heel of your thumb. In order to get nice thin slices, it’s best to put the cured fillet in the freezer for 30 minutes before slicing and use a sharp thin bladed knife.

Some recipes recommend covering the fillet with a weighted plate while curing, but I don’t find it necessary, particularly with thinner pieces of fish.

Cheers,

Aaron

Tamarind Fish Curry (or how to keep your fish from falling apart)

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Have you ever tried adding a softer fish pieces to a curry or thick stew? Usually you end up with finely broken pieces of fish swimming around in the sauce. Annoyed by it? Me too.

Unless you are extremely careful when adding and stirring, fatty cuts of salmon, cod, soles and other whitefish have an unfortunate habit of not staying together when added to sauces–and even with care the chances of the fish pieces staying intact are poor at best.

I encountered this when I first started making fish curries–in particularly an otherwise excellent Salmon Curry by author Das Sreedharan. In it he instructs the reader to add cubed salmon to the finished curry until cooked then to stir in coconut milk to finish. I tried to make this dish several times, only to be met with tiny bits of fish spread evenly through the curry instead of the rich savoury salmon chunks shown in his accompanying illustration.

If nothing else I can be a bit stubborn, so I modified the dish with a simple trick and the result was fantastic–so much so that my family won’t have it any other way. The trick, which I’ve applied to other delicate dishes, is to shallow fry the fish pieces (after marinating and a light dusting of chana flour) before adding them to the finished curry. The fish chunks come out moist and just burst with flavour in the mouth. Along the way I’ve tweaked the curry a bit to create a very memorable if somewhat different dish from what Sreedharan originally created.

Menu

  • Tamarind fish curry
  • Basmati rice
  • Spiced peanuts
  • Garlic green beans
  • Fresh cut strawberries
  • Milk for the kids, Malbec for the adults

Recipe: Tamarind Fish Curry

Marinade and Fish:

  • 1-2 Tbs Light cooking oil (Canola)
  • 1 tsp Cummin seed, ground
  • 1/2 tsp tumeric, ground
  • 1/2 tsp Hot Indian paprika or ground chilies
  • 2 tsp Amchur powder
  • 1/2 tsp Sea salt (optional)
  • 2-3 tsp Palm or white vinegar
  • 3/4-1 lb Salmon, lingcod or other whitefish cut into 1″ cubes (see method/notes)
  • Cooking oil for frying

Flour:

  • 1/4 c Chana (chickpea) flour, or bleached wheat flour (the latter is not GF of course)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Curry:

  • 1-2 Tbs Light cooking oil (Canola)
  • 10 Kari (curry) leaves
  • Pinch Fenugreek seeds, whole
  • 2 tsp Black or brown mustard seeds, whole
  • 1 Med Onion, Finely diced
  • 4-5 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 1″ pc Ginger root, minced
  • 1-3 Tbs Sambal oelek or 2-3 small fresh red chilies minced
  • 2 tsp Cumin seed, ground
  • 3 tsp Amchur powder
  • 1/2 tsp Tumeric, ground
  • 1/2 tsp Chilies or Indian paprika, ground
  • 3/4-1 c Tamarind liquid (see method/notes)
  • 1 12oz can Stewed or diced tomatoes, or 2 whole tomatoes diced
  • 1-4 tsp Palm or brown sugar to taste
  • Salt to taste

Method

    Part 1: Fish

  1. Prepare the fish with an optional 15 minute salt cure (see notes)
  2. Cut fish into approximately 1″ cubes and set aside
  3. Whisk together remaining marinade ingredients in a medium bowl
  4. Add the cubed fish to the marinade and stir lightly to coat
  5. Transfer fish and marinade into a plastic bag, remove air and seal
  6. Let fish marinate for at least 20 minutes. While the fish marinates prepare vegetables and other ingredients for the curry
  7. Setting the fish aside, combine the chana flour, salt and pepper in a shallow soup bowl or similar container
  8. Remove fish cubes from bag, wipe off excess marinade, roll in flour mixture to lightly coat
  9. In a wok or medium saucepan add cooking oil for shallow frying–approximately 1/4″ deep, and heat over a medium-high element
  10. When oil is hot, carefully add the fish cubes (about 6 at a time) and fry on all sides until golden brown
  11. Transfer cooked fish pieces on to a plate layered with paper towel to absorb excess oil and place in a warm oven (approximately 175 F)
  12. Repeat process until all the fish pieces are cooked
  13. ——–
    Part 2: Curry

  14. Add 1-2 Tbs oil to a wok or deep bottom saucepan and heat over a medium-high element
  15. When the oil is hot, add kari leaves, mustard seeds and fenugreek and cook for about 30 seconds until the leaves and mustard seeds stop spitting
  16. Lower the heat to medium and add the onions, sauteing until soft or lightly brown (about 10-20 minutes)
  17. Add garlic, ginger and sambal and stir for a minute or two
  18. Add remaining dry spices and stir for another minute
  19. Add tamarind liquid and tomatoes and stir until well combined
  20. Reduce heat and let simmer until the tomatoes are well softened and the flavours have combined (about 20 to 30 minutes) adding water as required to prevent the dish from drying out
  21. Taste and add sugar as required to balance the sourness of the tamarind
  22. After the curry is finished add the fish pieces, stirring gently to combine and heat
  23. Serve the dish in a suitably sized bowl

Notes: It took a while to write this one up because of the steps involved, but it’s really less work than it would seem. Salt curing the fish before cooking is an optional step, but one that changes the texture and firms the fish up. I’ll write more about this in a separate post, but essentially it involves lightly covering the fish pieces with kosher or pickling salt, wrapping them in absorbent paper towel or cloth for about 15 minutes, then rinsing the salt off under cold running water. It adds very little salt to the finished dish, but changes the texture and allows the fish soak up any marinade it’s placed in. The tamarind liquid is made by placing 2-3 Tbs of tamarind pulp in a cup of boiling water. Leave it to soften for 5 to 10 minutes before breaking it up with either fingers or a fork, then strain the water and pulp through a fine sieve pushing as much pulp as possible through the sieve. You’ll end up with slightly less volume than you started with, but the result is a delicious sour-sweet liquid called for in many South and Southeast Asian dishes.

Serves 4-6

Aaron