Salmon on the barbie

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

I love to barbeque, and since I live in an apartment without a terrace, I have to make do with commandeering the barbeque duties at friends’ houses or on picnics. Monday I was sailing on a friend’s boat, and she asked me to bring the main course for a picnic afterwards; knowing that are were barbeques available at the sailing club, my mind started working overtime. Tuscan-flavoured Cornish hen, spatchcocked and marinated in olive oil, lemon and rosemary? Scallops and lemon chunks on skewers, sprinkled with thyme? I decided on cedar-planked salmon, a favourite of mine ever since I tasted it in Vancouver about 20 years ago.

My cedar planks are definitely non-standard. Most people either buy them at the grocery store (where they cost 10 times what they’re worth), or take a chance that the cedar that they’re buying at Home Depot isn’t treated with anything toxic. Mine, however, are lovingly cut with a chain saw by my father from the dead cedars on their property, so are really whole slices through the trunk rather than proper planks. Their cedars are mostly red heart-wood, which makes for a very beautiful cedar slice that smells amazing, even before it’s put on the fire.

I bought a fillet of wild Atlantic salmon, about one pound in weight: enough for three in case we ended up with a last-minute addition at dinner, but not too much that we couldn’t eat it all ourselves, if pressed. It was an inch or more thick at the thickest point, and still had the skin on one side. Before I left for the sailing club, I sprinkled the non-skin side with salt and pepper, drizzled over a bit of sesame oil, then spread on a very thin coating of Dijon mustard. I packed it into the cooler with a bottle of Argento Pinot Grigio (a cheap-and-cheerful “picnic wine” from Argentina), and added the cedar slice which I had soaked in water for an hour then sealed in a bag with a bit of water to stay saturated before heading off.

Four hours later, after the sailing, I fired up the barbeque. Once the grill was hot, I put the plank on to toast on one side, then flipped it over as soon as it started to smoke and turned the heat off on that side of the grill (to avoid salmon flambĂ©) but left the heat on the other side of the grill fairly high. I placed the salmon, skin side down, onto the plank, closed the lid and walked away for about 10 minutes, knowing that constant peeking just lets the heat out and significantly slows the cooking process. There is only one rule to cooking fish: don’t overcook it. If you think that it’s not quite done, take it off the heat and let it sit for a few minutes, it’ll be perfect. With the thickness of the salmon in this case, it took about 20 minutes to cook, and when I checked it, it was still quite underdone at the very centre. That’s fine, I like my salmon a bit on the sushi side, but by the time that it rested while we prepared the salads, it was almost completely cooked through — perfect!

There’s really nothing like the taste of cedar-planked salmon: the fish itself has a fairly bold taste, especially if you leave it slightly underdone, overlaid with a bit of smokiness from the charred plank and the distinctly pleasant taste of cedar. It’s incredibly moist because the cedar is saturated so releases steam during the cooking, yet dry to the touch on the outside because of the heat in the covered barbeque. The sesame oil enhanced the smokiness, and the Dijon balanced the rich oiliness of the fish.

We never had a third guest arrived, but the two of us managed to tuck away that pound of salmon without problem.

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