Like a lot of once-were carnivores, I miss a few meaty things. Fried chicken. Beef fillet, very rare. Bacon, of course, and smoked pig in piquant sauces. Dealing with these longings is all about rendering them down to individual flavors and textures. When I longed for fried chicken, what I really wanted was anything fried — fried okra or fried green tomatoes. Juicy beef fillet was a desire for salt, in brothy form — a miso-based soup.
Cravings for smoky pork products were harder to satisfy. Smoked paprika and smoked sun-dried tomatoes are great ingredients, fairly new to our grocery store, but they provide background smoke, not smoke smoke. Our only local health food store carried blocks of smoked tofu, and I used it to make quiche and breakfast burritos. Then the store went out of business, replaced by a Zaxby's.
Frustrated, I took matters into my own hands and bought a small smoker. I'm afraid I've become something of an addict. The same way alcoholics look at cough syrup and see alcohol syrup, I look at food and see smoked food: peppers, garlic, tofu, tomatoes, corn, zucchini, okra, kale, eggplant, eggs and cold smoked cheeses. One day, as the fire died out, I had the bright idea of smoking a bowl of dog food, just briefly, to see if the dogs would be as seduced by the flavor of smoke as I had become. (They were. Seduced. When I carry the smoker from the shed they circle it like it's a smoked kibble Pez dispenser.)
So here are some smoking tips, from someone who knows:
- Before smoking blocks of super-firm tofu, press it, freeze it, thaw it, cut it in half lengthwise, and marinate it in soy sauce for a couple of hours. Smoke it for four hours, or until it's the firmness of ham. Hickory gives it just the right amount of flavor and color. Mesquite smokes it to a burnt hue, although the flavor is fine.
- Plum tomatoes are the easiest to smoke because they are fleshier than other varieties. Halve them and smoke them for four hours. Slip the skins off before using. If you want a drier tomato (more like a sun-dried tomato), slow-roast them in the oven first, and then smoke briefly.
- Large portobello mushroom caps should be heavily oiled before they are smoked, otherwise they get very dry.
- Roast and peel bell peppers before you smoke them.
- Don't hang your laundry anywhere near the smoker, unless you want to smell BBQ as things heat up during your morning walk.
Recently, my mom and dad went fishing and brought home five pounds of mullet fillets. For those unfamiliar with mullet, it's what some might call a trash fish. It's plentiful along the Gulf Coast. You see them running the bays and bayous in large schools, showoff jumping and landing with a splash. Anyone proficient with a net can scoop up a mess with one toss. Mullet has a strong, unique flavor and is typically fried or smoked. Roadside mullet smokers used to be common, but I haven't seen one in the Panhandle for many years. My dad remembers large cans of salted mullet that they soaked before cooking, the way you'd soak salt cod. That was before my time.
I commandeered most of the mullet fillets for my smoker, because nobody needs five pounds of mullet lying around unless you're running a booth at the Mullet Festival. I cut out the blood line (essential for fishy fish), dry-rubbed it with kosher salt, pepper and brown sugar, and smoked it for three hours. Since then, we've eaten smoked mullet with eggs and grits, smoked mullet tacos, smoked mullet bacalhau, smoked mullet hash, and smoked mullet straight, like a shot of vodka.
High on hickory smoke and bloated with salty fish, I needed to use up all of the smoked ingredients that were bursting from my refrigerator, so I threw a Halloween picnic for my daughter and her friends, who were visiting from college for the weekend. The menu featured everything smoky, including — yes! — the very last bit of smoked mullet.
Every mullet-loving Gulf Coast family has its own recipe for smoked mullet spread. Here's our version.
Smoked mullet spread
Makes about 3 cups
- 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 3 green onions, mostly tops, finely diced
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- Zest of one lemon
- Juice of half a lemon
- ½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
- ½ teaspoon Vietnamese garlic chili sauce or sriracha (or to taste) – we like lots.
- 2 cups finely diced smoked mullet (use the thick, meaty portions, not the hard-smoked ends)
- Combine the cream cheese, onion, mayo, Worcestershire, lemon zest, lemon juice, pepper and garlic chili sauce. Add the smoked mullet.
- Taste and add additional heat or lemon juice as needed for balance, and add mayonnaise as needed for consistency. You may or may not need to add salt, depending on the saltiness of the smoked mullet. Our smoked mullet is on the salty side because we prefer to use a dry rub rather than a brine.