By the fillet or in a dip, smoked fish is in easy reach.
I suspect the first smoked fish appeared in the diets of early Floridians as the result of a hot cooking fire gone cold. Likely, a late afternoon thunderstorm interrupted a Calusa chef’s attempt at roasting some mullet and the buttonwood-fueled fire was covered with an umbrella of palmetto fronds. That effort at keeping the fire alive did just that, but starved it of oxygen and created billows of smoke instead of heat. As fish flesh isn’t that dense, just the duration of a short squall provided enough time to create a new menu item, one that’s maintained its popularity until this day—smoked fish. Here’s the basic story on how to make the best smoked fish.
Many species of Florida fish lend themselves to smoking. While dried fish (cod, in particular) are popular in many cultures, there’s a distinct difference between dried and smoked fish. Oily fish seem to smoke best as the oil keeps the meat from drying out during the process. Mullet are probably the state’s most popular smoked fish, followed by members of the mackerel family. Other choices include swordfish, wahoo and cobia. Smoked fish should be moist and most important, still taste like fish.
There is a multitude of fish-smoking devices available. The trick to successful fish smoking is to keep the smoker smoking and to keep the fish away from the heat. I was once advised to “keep the smoker just hot enough to keep the flies off the meat.” If you want to grill or roast your fish, put it over the fire; otherwise use indirect heat to create smoke. I suspect there are hundreds of smoking devices on the market and sometimes the simple ones are the best. A kettle-style cooker works fine, as does a custom built dual-axle smoker wagon. I’ve used everything from plywood crates to abandoned refrigerators to smoke some pretty good fish.
The bottom line for smoking is simplicity, but there are a few basic “rules” that you might consider. One, choose your wood carefully. Dense, hard buttonwood, a mangrove look-alike, was once popular for smoking wood, but it’s scarce and I discourage using it. In fact, many local ordinances forbid harvesting it. Hickory can be used, but I prefer mesquite. Both are readily available as chunks, and an overnight soak in a bucket of water is all you need to keep them from not flaming up. No matter your choice, start some charcoal briquettes away from your smoker and add them just a few at a time to keep the wood smoking. Second, don’t over-do the seasonings. I like my smoked fish to taste like fish, not like “Junior-Bob’s Smokehouse Seasoning.” A light coat of vegetable oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper will do. Let the smoke do the rest. And finally, don’t over-cook your fish. You don’t want it rare, but you do want it moist, and there’s no rule that says you can’t peel a piece off a fillet for a taste test!
Why smoke your own fish? I smoke mine because I want it fresh, and there’s nothing better than fish that’s hot off the smoker. I don’t want it cold or warmed-up, and in many cases my smoked fish never gets too far from the smoker before it’s quickly consumed by eager diners.
Consider holding your next summertime party around the finale of a fish-smoking session, serving Helen’s Famous Smoked Fish Dip as an appetizer and a couple of fillets of smoked fish as the main course. Just add Key lime pie and some cold beverages for rave reviews!
Helen’s Famous Smoked Fish Dip
2 cups smoked fish meat
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup chopped scallions
¼ cup chopped celery
¼ cup chopped Gherkin pickles or pickle relish
1 tbsp. Tabasco sauce
Juice of a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix the ingredients with a fork, taking care not to create a paste. Chunky is good. And Helen (my Mom) always insisted that her smoked fish dip only be served with genuine Wheat Thins crackers.
This is Tommy Thompson’s Sportsman’s Kitchen column in the June, 2012 issue of Florida Sportsman.