Here at the 24/7 Fish Smoking Factory, we’ve been kicking it into high gear. Good fishing means lots of work, but thoughts of mouth-watering, hot-smoked king salmon keep us toiling. And my one, treasured souvenir from Japan, a 10-inch, hand-forged blade crafted from 64 layers of razor-sharp stainless steel and purchased from Masahisa in Tokyo, made quick work of the butchering. Love Japanese steel.
First, a quick round of filleting, followed by cutting into strips and chunks for brining. That’s the better part of five kings, waiting to hit the salt and brown sugar.
After an overnight brine, the chunks dry on smoker racks with a box fan blowing on high for about five hours.
Then into the smoker over a mix of alder and apple chips and it’s time to eat. And start the cycle all over again for the next batch. Oh, those salty, sweet, smoky, oily belly strips! Love this time of year.
Skyla has been wanting to dig razor clams all spring, but due to various other commitments–mostly volleyball and basketball–none of our free time matched up with the late-winter evening tides. But Sunday there was a reasonable mid-morning tide and both kids were stoked to go. Which meant up early to hit the road and a long drive to the coast. It rained most of the way there, but we hit the beach under bluebird skies.
The digging was incredible. We walked straight down from the car and hit pay dirt immediately, with clams showing all around us. We filled our limits in 20 minutes, without ever leaving a 30-square-foot patch of sand.
It seemed almost too good. We rinsed our gear, chased Halo around on the beach a bit, and piled back into the car for the haul home. And I kind of wished it had been at least a little more challenging to give us more time on the beach. But we weren’t complaining.
To cap off Halo’s best day ever so far (car-ride napping with family, beach, ocean, etc) we stopped for a burger on the way home and Weston treated her to some ice cream.
Then the real work started. With razor clams, finding and digging is the easy part. At home, we had sand and salt to clean off the gear, clothes, car and dog, and a serious clam-cleaning session. I couldn’t help but tally it all up in my mind: Drive for three hours, dig for 20 minutes, drive for 3 hours and clean for 3 hours. Later, when I related this to our friend Kate, wondering it it was all worth it, she came back with the perfect answer: “Memories for infinity.” Not to mention all the mouth-watering meals ahead.
Jed showed up to fish one morning and before we hit the road, he handed me a single, perfect matsutake mushroom. I stashed it in my pocket, and from time to time throughout the day, I’d catch whiffs of the unique scent–a mix of pine trees, cinnamon and something earthy and mushroom-y. Someone once described matsutakes as smelling like red hots in a dirty sweat sock, but I don’t get the sweat sock part. They just smell delicious to me. More than once, my mouth watered at the thought of it.
Fast forward to dinner prep. Bruce and Aaron had a stack of enormous moose steaks; Calvin and April ran out to the truck, dug through a cooler, and produced a deer backstrap; Yvon broke out a magnum of Chateau Musar Bruce had given him; Rick was outside burning logs into perfect barbecue coals. I washed some rice, added the hydrating water from dried shiitake mushrooms, a bit of rice vinegar, a pinch of salt. Then, with great anticipation, I cut into that gorgeous matsutake. Inside, something moved. It was alive with small, white maggots. I recoiled. What to do? Figured I should give the crew the option. I showed them the wriggling mushroom slices and said we can either add it to the rice as planned, or toss it out and just go with plain rice. Someone said, “The rice is going to boil, right?” Another said, “Hate to waste a good matsutake.” There was a moment of silence, then the crew voted “Go for it” without objection.
It was delicious. And part of one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in a long time. Great food, great friends, great spirits. And a few maggots just to keep things on the adventurous side.
…the tough make elk stew. On the theory that a little comfort food would go a long way toward soothing our souls, and with one last roast from the elk our friend Kate gave us last year sitting in the freezer, Weston and I went to work. We cut, floured and browned the elk, then tossed it into a big pot with a little water to slow cook to savory, tender awesomeness. After a couple hours, we added carrots, potatoes, onions, green beans, mushrooms–all chopped into generous bite-sized pieces by Weston–to the pot and let it simmer for another half hour. Simple, comforting, and mouth-wateringly good. (That’s the sous chef below, showing off his work.)
Kate’s in Montana now, chasing elk around once again. Here’s to her tipping over another one just as delicious as this one. We’re already looking forward to helping her eat it.
Even though fishing wasn’t exactly red hot on the Willapa, gradually, over the course of eight tides, we accumulated a pretty decent box of fish. And all of it had to be processed right away. In other words, I spent the better part of last week cutting, brining, smoking and packaging about sixty pounds of fish. First up was two full smoker loads of king salmon, brined with our usual 2/3 cup kosher salt and 1-1/2 cups dark brown sugar per nine cups of water, and plenty of alder smoke. The results, above.
For the silvers, I made “coho candy” with smaller strips of fish, more sugar in the brine, a brown-sugar glaze, some cracked black pepper, and apple-wood smoke. The idea here is convenient, easy-to-eat finger food for snacks or a little protein with breakfast.
Of course, there were also eggs. Big, prime, fall king eggs that burst in your mouth with fatty goodness. I screened out about a gallon of eggs and cured them with just a little soy sauce, rice wine and kosher salt. That’s the salmon eggs after screening and rinsing, just before seasoning. After a few days to cure in the fridge, the ikura (salmon caviar) went into a dozen small canning jars to be frozen for many great meals and snacks in the future. Over rice, on crackers, or simply by the spoonful, this stuff is unbelievable.
Finally, and with a sense of relief and satisfaction, Skyla and I made a kind of production line with the vac-sealer. This is what kids’ favorite school lunches look like just before going into the freezer, although I also admit that a sizeable portion has already disappeared. We’ve been eating smoked salmon at least once a day now for a week straight. I’m still not tired of it. Tired, for sure, but not tired of smoked salmon. In fact, I’m going to eat another chunk right now.