For some of us, there is something strangely magical and, indeed, addictive about standing over a smoker to create what we hope will be edible art. I have fond memories of my first restaurant, where on Thursdays, we did serious barbecue. This, of course, involved getting outside at five in the morning to fire up the smoker, the meat having been carefully set to marinate in my barbecue sauce the night before. I knew that by six, my good friend Christopher would join me over the smoker, and we would have wonderful conversations fueled by the ingestion of a hallucinogenic combination of crisp early-morning air, dangerously strong coffee, and copious amounts of hickory smoke. For those of us with the love of smoke flavoring, there is nothing for it but to move beyond the limits of smoking meat and search for other foods which, eaten either solo or along with other dishes, extend the range of our eating pleasure. Here I will share with you some of my favorite discoveries and experiments in smoke-flavoring of foods, ranging from simple salt to more complex, combined products. For each of the following foods, unless otherwise mentioned, I tend to favor the use of hickory wood, and I smoke at a temperature of 200-225 degrees.
I strongly recommend using sea salt or Kosher salt here. Place the salt in a shallow aluminum pan, or inside a package of aluminum foil with several holes perforated in it. Smoke for 1 ½-2 hours. Store in a tightly sealed container. This is great for use almost anywhere you would use regular salt. Add it to cooked meat or veggies, combine it with other spices for a seasoned salt, or sprinkle over popcorn.
Many spices take well to the smoking process. Use basically the same procedure as above for smoking salt. Smoked paprika has gained some fame in the culinary world, but try smoking dried coriander, cumin or cayenne as well. Smoked curry powder also produces an interesting, rich taste, and is wonderful on grilled lamb.
Smoked Nuts and Seeds
Most of us have enjoyed smoked almonds, but for some reason, commercial companies have largely ignored the charms of using other nuts for smoke-flavored treats. Peanuts, filberts, cashews and pecans, among others, all make wonderful snacks when smoked. Also, seeds like pumpkin seeds, squash seeds and sunflower seeds taste wonderful out of the smoker. For these foods, soak them in a light brine for about an hour before smoking. Set on a shallow aluminum pan which is lightly oiled or sprayed with pan spray. Smoke for 1-1/2 hours, depending upon how strong a smoke flavor you prefer. Use a lower heat here, about 150 degrees. Smoked nuts are wonderful on their own or tossed into a salad. The smoked seeds likewise can be eaten by themselves, tossed into a salad, or used in the creation of a Mexican mole sauce.
Here is one instance where caution is needed, as it is possible to produce something with too strong a smoke flavor even for me. Additionally, care is needed to keep these richly-flavored mushrooms from drying out. These smoke best in a smoker unit where you can place them inside a pan of liquid, ideally a combination of oil and vinegar such as used for the marinade. Because the mushroom is very low in fat, I recommend marinating them in a blend of two parts olive oil to one part balsamic vinegar prior to smoking. When ready to smoke, place in a shallow aluminum pan or aluminum foil package perforated with several holes. Smoke for no more than one hour. Use a milder tasting wood. I like the sweetness of apple, cherry or grapewood here.
We’ve all become used to chipotles (smoked jalapenos), but why do we not see other chiles used for smoking? I’ve had great success smoking serranos, poblanos, infiernos and Santa Fe peppers. In fact, one of my favorite uses of these is combining all of them with softened butter to create a chile butter which is pure heaven on toasted or grilled bread. All of them can be eaten plain or cut up for use in salsas, and the smoked poblanos are wonderful stuffed and baked for your favorite version of chiles rellenos. Whatever chile you use, soak them in a light brine of vinegar and water for about an hour prior to smoking. Place in a shallow aluminum pan or aluminum package, like the Portabellas, and also, like the Portabellas, use a pan filled with liquid, preferably the same vinegar-water blend, and smoke for ½-2 hours. Because of the strong taste of the chiles, the use of hickory here is, to me, almost mandatory.
These are just a few of my favorite ideas. Feel free to experiment. Even bad smoked food isn’t bad, is it?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Mezoff is a Louisville-based chef who owned the highly-regarded Tastes Restaurant, as well as Big Mama Mezoff’s Sauces. He is afflicted with “hickorophilia dementia,” an intense addiction to hickory smoke, a malady curable only by the consumption of healthy quantities of barbecued meat and veggies.