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Combating winter chill with smoking food

Smoking Hot

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Beat the winter chill by re-igniting an old trend of smoking food.

Winter is here, the signs are everywhere: a nip in the air, the bare branches, the appearance of Nagpur oranges in the market. And in the garden, the smell of smoke from dried twigs and leaves swept into piles for burning and left to smolder slowly through the dusk. It's this warm fragrance - the smoky distillation of tree sap, charred wood, leaf ash - that I want to recreate in my kitchen, sweetened further with slow-burning spices and caramelized sugar. And so, last weekend, I retrieved my smoking pan from the cupboard where it's been hibernating for a year. In my kitchen calendar, the day the smoker emerges marks the onset of cold weather cooking.

Smoking is one of the oldest methods of preserving food. Eons ago, humans discovered that fresh meat and fish could be preserved by curing them with salt then hanging them over just-burning fires for days on end. This process of cold-smoking (so-called because of the low-intensity heat) has changed little in its basic principles over the years. Whether it's the sophisticated pink slivers of smoked Norwegian salmon that you're enjoying in a cocktail canapê, or thick slices of Tibetan smoked pork - sikam - wrapped in soft steamed bread, both have been produced pretty much as they would have been centuries ago.

What I'm doing at home, though, is hot smoking. It's a short process aimed not at preserving foods, but gently cooking them in a cloud of aromatic smoke that permeates the flesh to a point of tender succulence, impregnating it with that unique flavor which at once identifies the food as smoked.

Smoking food is such a pleasurable and simple activity, and the end-products so elegant and flavorful, that I'm always surprised more people aren't home-smoking. Like the heavenly smell of bread baking or a slow-simmering meat stew burbling away on the stove, the rich scent of smoking in a warm kitchen on a cold day is deeply satisfying. Modern kitchen chimneys and exhaust fans make fears of being enveloped in a suffocating fug unfounded. Nor do you need fancy equipment. All you require is a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a tightly-fitted lid, an oven rack that fits in the pan (I got mine cut to size by my obliging car mechanic), and aluminum foil to cover the pan base. The smoking fuel goes on the foil (making for easy disposal when done), the rack is wedged above, the food placed on it, the lid closed, the pan put on a low-flame hob, and really, that's it. You can buy smoking pans abroad. But having used my mother's, I found it offered no advantage over my put-together smoker.

Where we are limited - at least in metros - is in choice of smoking fuel. In the West, it's possible to buy wood chips of different kinds, each exuding a distinct fragrance when burnt that will both cook and cloak the food. I use murki - jaggerycoated puffed rice (khoi). The stuff burns slowly and the jaggery-infused smoke tints the flesh a pale caramel, simultaneously flavoring it with a hint of burnt sweetness. If you can't get murki, use a bed of plain khoi strewn with chunks of jaggery. Tea leaves, I discovered, provide color but do nothing for flavor. Charcoal gives a lovely deep smokiness, but the food yearned for the subtle sweetness of jaggery. I've finally settled on a mix of two-part murki and one-part tea leaves. If I'm doing poultry or meat with an Asian twists, I add whole cinnamon, clove and star-anise.

It's a bit of trial and error to see what foods smoke well and the timings for each. I've found oily fish like Mackerel - a whole side, or large fillets - respond beautifully to smoking. So does breast fillet of chicken and, good quality plump duck. Amongst vegetables, eggplant and pumpkin are good candidates for the smoker.

An important step in preparing any food for smoking is to rub the pieces with salt and allow them to stand for a bit before washing off and patting dry. The saline rub draws out excess moisture enabling the smoky flavors to penetrate more effectively. Salt, pepper, a pinch of powdered mustard, a squeeze of lime and a crumbling of gur is sufficient seasoning for fish when it goes into the smoker. Smoke skin-side down and it's done when the flesh is firm and flaking (about 20 minutes).
Spritz with lemon juice, sprinkle some chilli flakes and serve pieces of Smoked Mackerel on buttered brown bread;blend with sour cream, fold in green peppercorns and you've got delicious p�tê. If you're up for the exhausting post-smoking de-boning session, then you can even prepare your own Smoked Hilsa following exactly the steps for Mackerel.

Treat poultry as you would fish, but give 30-40 minutes for cooking. Smoked chicken breast is ideal for sandwiches and salads. For an Asian touch, introduce grated ginger, and ground star anise to the seasoning and throw in whole cinnamon, cloves, star-anise and bay leaves in the fuel. Heighten the colour of smoked duck or chicken by brushing on a thin sheen of light soy and honey, and searing briefly on a high flame for a couple of minutes on both sides.
Years ago, I watched Tibetan smoked pork being prepared in the cavernous kitchen of a home in Gangtok. Long, thick strips of pork were rubbed with a mix of salt, garlic and Chinese 5-spice then hung from ceiling hooks over a low-burning wood stove. This cold-smoking would go on for weeks, but we were able to sample an earlier batch of readied Sikam.

The taste of that impossibly tender meat imbued with the scent of cherry wood and spices was incredible. It's impossible to recreate this in the hot-smoking method of modern kitchens. But I've managed good results with smoking pork chops which I marinated overnight in garlic, honey, soy and Chinese five spice, covered in salt for 30 minutes followed by a brief wash and patting drying before smoking for an hour. The watchpoint was to ensure a thick bed of murki to last the lengthy smoking time.

SMOKED MACKEREL


Cover side of largeish Mackerel, skin intact, with flaked sea salt for 15 minutes. Rinse, pat dry, smear with crumbled jaggery, freshly-ground pepper, pinch of mustard powder, lemon juice. Prepare smoker: cover pan base with double layer of foil, spread murki (or khoi and jaggery pieces) mixed with tea leaves on foil. Wedge well-oiled rack above foil. Place fish (skin side down) on rack, put lid on pan. place on low-flame. Turn on exhaust fan/chimney, open windows. After 15- 20 minutes check fish with sharp knife. Done when flaky. Carefully move fish on to a plate and allow to cool. Gently peel away skin. Remove bones on the sides, slice in wedges and use as desired.

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