Chilled Tea-Smoked Salmon
This salmon is soft and tender, unctuously rich on the inside — like “buttaah ”— and the outside is a little bit sweet and a little bit salty and a whole lotta delicious. The tea gives it a gentle but noticeable taste that makes a little bit of cooking and a whole lot of waiting all worthwhile. If you have a smoker, by all means use it, but you can also make your grill into a smoker by following the simple instructions below.
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Prep time: 10 minutes
Marinating time: 8–10 hours
Cook time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
¾ cup plus 3 tablespoons dried whole tea leaves, Earl Grey, Darjeeling or Assam preferred
1¼ cups warm (not hot) water
1 cup honey
1 cup granulated sugar
¾ cup kosher salt
2 pounds salmon fillets with skin on, all pin bones removed (see Kitchen Tips)
6 cups applewood smoke chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes and drained (see Kitchen Tips)
1) In a large, flat pan that is at least 2 inches deep (a lasagna pan works well), combine 2 tablespoons of the tea, the warm water, honey, sugar and salt and stir well to combine completely. Slide the salmon in, submerging it completely, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 to 10 hours or overnight.
2) About an hour before you are ready to cook, position a rack on a rimmed baking sheet. Remove the salmon fillets from the refrigerator, and arrange on the prepared rack in a single layer. Discard the brine (see Kitchen Tips). Let stand, uncovered, in a dry spot (an air-conditioned area works best) for 1 hour, until the fish is dry to the touch while you prepare the smoke elements in your grill. Note that you can smoke the salmon as a whole filet, or if you want large slices or individual servings (about 4–5 ounces each for an appetizer or brunch), cut the salmon into individual serving pieces, and use a vegetable or fish tray made for the grill, so the fish will not fall through the grates.
3) Heat a grill with a smoker, a stovetop smoker,or a traditional grill to medium-low heat, or until the temperature shows smoke, about 125 degrees to 135 degrees. If you have a smoker insert for your grill, add the wood chips and remaining ½ cup tea leaves to the smoker portion. If you do not have a smoker insert, stack 3 deep, disposable aluminum pie tins one on top of the other and line the top one with heavy-duty aluminum foil, with 4 to 5 holes poked through from the foil to the bottom tin. Put the wood chips and tea in the foil and lightly wrap them up. If you are using a stovetop smoker, triple-line the bottom with foil and fill with the wood chips and tea according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
4) If you are using a grill, drizzle some peanut or canola oil over a paper towel or kitchen towel and gently rub the grates of the grill with it. (No need to do this with a stovetop smoker.)
5) Close the cover of the grill or stovetop smoker and when smoke begins to rise, lay the fish, skin side down, on the grill or smoker top sheet. Check to make sure the heat is very low. Cover again and allow to smoke for 55–65 minutes, until the fish becomes a darker pink, and does not feel completely raw in the middle. Remove from the grill, place on a clean platter (see Kitchen Tips) and let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Once chilled or lukewarm, the fish is ready to separate into shingles or pieces for serving, but can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. (It will not slice like lox; it is very soft and unctuous.)
1) To remove needle-like pin bones from a fillet of fish such as salmon, trout or arctic char, place the fillet on a work surface. Run your finger along the top (not the underbelly or the tail) and you will feel the tiny bones, no bigger than a pin. With tweezers or tongs, grasp one pin bone firmly and pull toward the head end of the fish; don’t pull toward the tail because the bones don’t face that way and they will snap in half. Gently but firmly pull out the bones one by one. If one does happen to snap, feel for the piece you left behind and with your finger and pull it out.
2) Soaking the wood chips might take less time, depending on your smoker manufacturer’s instructions or the smoker capacity of your grill.
3) Discard the marinade when you are ready to cook, as it may harbor dangerous food-borne bacteria. (Some recipes suggest that you can kill any bacteria by boiling it for 15 minutes but this is not true — and not safe.
4) Always use a fresh plate for fully cooked meat, poultry or fish cooked on the grill; never place it back on the plate that held it when it was raw, as the original plate holds uncooked juices that might cause food-borne illness.
Tami Ganeles-Weiser is a food anthropologist, recipe developer, writer and founder of TheWeiserKitchen.