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.
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.
With this year’s short king salmon season in full swing, it’s been an all-hands-on-deck exercise in fishing, processing, brining and smoking salmon, vac sealing, curing ikura salmon caviar, fishing, smoking more salmon, fishing, etc, etc. Three smoker batches and two salmon-caviar-making sessions in, we are full steam ahead. We’ve been eating salmon every day for more than a week now, and nobody’s complaining. Oh, yeah, there’s also work, chores and summer sports camps in the mix as well. Did I mention fishing?
This is summer, when the longest days of the year fly by the fastest, and we try to make the most of every minute of daylight. And based on how much the kids love smoked salmon for school lunches, and how we ran out of it by February last year, it’s time to produce, process, package and preserve. And on that note, it’s time to go eat some of the smoked belly strips pictured above. I love summer.
And then, the serious work starts. Finally plowed through about four days worth of processing, but the kids pitched in and made the work both faster and more fun. It wasn’t long ago that kids “helping” made things slower, but I think the investment of time then is really paying off now. We started with butchering four kings and a silver into fillets, and then smoking-sized chunks. That’s part of the pile, above.
Skyla made two big bins of brine, and we filled ’em up. A little salt, a little brown sugar, and the magic happens.
18 hours of soak time, and the chunks went onto racks with a box fan blowing over them to dry. All this wet weather really raised the humidity, and it was tough drying, but after about four or five hours, the fish was good to go.
11 hours in the smoker, over a mix of alder and apple wood–all the while, our mouths watering–and our first batch of smoked salmon was ready. Even though it finished up at around 2:00am, I had to eat two big pieces on the spot. Oh, man! Refrigerated the rest overnight, then the kids and I went to town with the vac sealer, and stacked it in the freezer. Then we started up with the brine again for round two. A LOT of work, but definitely worth it.
After all that raw product I put up last week, here’s some pix of the pre-Christmas meal we cooked up with my Dad. He loves all kinds of wild food, so I packed the raw ingredients in a little cooler for our flight, then we put together a kind of Northwest surf-n-turf dinner. Appetizer above is a chunk of alder-smoked Willapa Bay coho from September.
Perhaps the best part of cooking and eating wild food is the stories and people that come to mind with each ingredient. That coho makes me think of the day Sweeney and I caught it, and how we limited by early afternoon and didn’t know what to do with ourselves for the rest of the day. The razor clams, here fried in a crisp, panko breading, bring back all the fun the kids and I had on the beach with the Sweeneys a few weeks ago.
The elk backstrap pictured here, marinated in olive oil, garlic and rosemary, then pan seared, reminds me of our good friend Kate Taylor (she’s the source) and all that went into her Montana elk hunt.
Finally, put it all together and it’s more than a great meal; it’s a plate full of stories and thoughts of friends, places and times. Delicious.