In my post earlier this week, I talked about the challenges and possibilities of a home-cooked meal. It prompted some wonderful conversations that made me realize I didn’t clearly address the other half of this whole issue: the importance of how we share that meal with family, friends, and community. Conveniently this dovetails nicely with one of my all-time favorite recipes.
I, we, can talk all day long about how to make homemade meals possible given all the challenges and roadblocks in our society, making fresh food accessible, everything I said on Monday. But, I think, equally important is how we share food with the people around us.
If you’ve been to any one of my mom’s summer parties in the past, oh, 15 years, you probably recognize this. It’s a party stand-by, incredible payoff for minimal effort. Salmon is brined with salt and brown sugar, spiced with ginger, allspice, and bay. It’s coated with honey, freckled with peppercorns, and smoked with applewood for a perfect combination of sweet, salty, rich, spicy, spiced, and smoky. It’s heaven.
As good as this salmon tastes (and if I haven’t made it clear, oh my god it is good), it’s memorable because of the people I associate it with. The family friends my mom got the recipe from, friends who also shared cookie day with us for more than two decades. My best friend and I sneaking a more than ample chunk to share at my mom’s house-warming and catching up on a rare summer day when we were both in town from our respective new cities (I know we are true and life-long friends because her first question when I mention a party at my mom’s is “Will the salmon be there?” She has her priorities straight). I remember it at big family parties on the bay and casual weekend barbecues, my high school graduation party, my sisters’ 18th birthdays.
I know this as a dish to share with friends and family when warm weather comes, which is why it was the very first thing I knew I had to make for my own house-warming party in July (and a great excuse to test my new grill). Wrapped in its own little foil plate, it’s casual and low-fuss to serve and can even be made a few days in advance. But again, it’s what it represents with the people it brings together–circles of friends new and old sharing food and drinks and music on a warm, sunny, summer day.
My parents both showed me the importance of taking time to make a good home-cooked meal, they showed me how to cook. More than the food on the table, though, they showed me that it’s how and with whom that food is shared that matters; it’s about taking time and effort to acknowledge others. It was sitting at the dinner table with my dad and sisters talking about school, laughing about my teacher who wouldn’t let me wear an Ohio State Buckeyes sweatshirt because she thought the buckeye looked like pot. It was naming the best thing that happened during the day around the table with my mom.
Even on the affectionately named Hell Nights, when coordinating work schedules and activities for three kids meant dinner was picked up or eaten out, we still found a way to make the meal matter. I credit those Hell Night Chinese restaurant dinners with teaching me the math skills to calculate a tip. And that paper umbrellas and Shirley Temples are underrated.
Yes, the quality of the food on the plate is important and I stand by everything I said Monday. But what I really, truly hope is that we continue to value the connections made over a shared meal. Those connections are deep and they are vital in the most literal sense of the word; they give life as truly as the food we eat. The food doesn’t need to be elaborate (or even homemade), the occasion doesn’t need to be special; all that’s required is genuine interest in the person across the table.
(For another really thoughtful observation on this discussion, read Erica’s post at Northwest Edible Life, which inspired my original post.)
Smoked Salmon with Honey and Peppercorns
I can’t say I have much experience with smoking because, well, I don’t (yet!), but what’s great about this salmon is that it’s somewhat of a gateway recipe. No special supplies other than some wood chips, no special equipment or dedicated smoker setup to mess with, only an hour or so on the grill. (Fair warning, once you realize how easy it is, you may start thinking “Hmm, I wonder how many more steps would be involved in smoking my own bacon?” Not many, it turns out.)
The recipe is originally from Sunset magazine in 1992, though I halved it here for a more manageable amount. If you want to serve it to more than 4 people, I definitely suggest doubling it (leftovers, you must have leftovers). This can be made on a regular charcoal grill–that’s what my mom has used for as long as she’s been making this recipe– or even on a gas grill, if you can get the temperature low enough. The salmon can be served immediately or made up to three days in advance.
1 1/2 pound salmon filet, skin on, about 1 inch thick
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon crushed allspice
1 dried bay leaf
3/4 cup water
3 tablespoons mixed peppercorns (ideally green, white, and pink; regular black peppercorns are too strong)
2 teaspoons honey
2 handfuls of apple wood chips for smoking (cherry or other sweet fruit woods also work)
Digital probe thermometer (not required but helpful)
In a small saucepan, combine sugar, salt, ginger, allspice, bay leaf, and water. Cook over medium heat just until sugar and salt dissolve, set aside to cool. Check salmon for any bones and place in a plastic zip-top bag, pour sugar and salt liquid over salmon, seal the bag tightly, and refrigerate at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.
Prepare the grill by filling a small foil drip pan with a few handfuls of charcoal on one side of the grill and light the charcoal (I use hardwood lump charcoal and 1/2 of a wax lighter cube) with top and bottom vents open about half way. Set your grates up for indirect cooking (with my grill, this means a ceramic plate under the grill grate and the grate set in its highest position). Set the probe thermometer on the grate and close the lid. When the probe reads around 180-190 degrees, close both vents until they’re open about 1/4 inch.
Soak wood chips in 2 cups of hot water for at least 15 minutes. Soak peppercorns in 1/2 cup hot water for 15 minutes.
Remove salmon from brine and rinse very well; discard brine. Pat the salmon dry and place, skin-side down, on a piece of foil. Drizzle honey over salmon and rub it over the fish (it will not want to stick to the fish, but do your best). Drain peppercorns and sprinkle evenly over the salmon, pressing lightly so they stick. Roll up the edges of the foil so they follow the outline of the fish.
Drain the woodchips. At the grill, remove the thermometer and grates and sprinkle a large handful of woodchips over the lit charcoal, set aside remainder. Reset grates and place the thermometer probe in the center of the grate; place salmon on the side of the grill opposite the charcoal, and close the lid. After a few minutes, you should start seeing a thin wisp of smoke coming from the top grill vent.
Maintain the grill temperature around 160 degrees; it will have dropped slightly after opening the grill to add the woodchips and salmon but should come back up in about 15 minutes. If the smoke stops completely at any point, open the grill and add another small handful of chips. Smoke salmon for about 40 minutes, then open the lid and insert the thermometer probe into the thickest part of the fish; close the lid. Continue smoking until the salmon is 145 degrees, about 20 to 30 more minutes.
Salmon can be served warm (honestly, it’s hard not to eat it immediately) or refrigerated. Serve with bread and crackers, cream cheese, and red onions as an appetizer or add to a salad, rice, or pasta for a main course.