One of my most pleasurable challenges in the kitchen has been to cook like a farmer in a city apartment, curing hams, aging cheese, making butter, and best of all, smoking food. Hungering for the flavor of wood smoke but having no fireplace, years ago I devised a way of smoking in an iron skillet.
The spectacular results belie its ease: it requires no special equipment and can be easily improvised.
The method is simple and can be applied to many foods. Wood chips— apple, cherry, alder, mesquite, pieces of grapevine —or curiously, dried ancho chiles are added to a hot cast iron skillet or a wok. The food is placed on a rack over the smoke. When the pan is covered, the food cooks in the intense heat and is flavored by the smoke. Since only a small amount of chips are used, there is not enough smoke to worry about: your kitchen simply takes on the pleasing smell of wood smoke. (I keep wood chips and grapevine on hand for pan smoking AND just scenting my house with wood smoke when I have the oven on. (You can buy them here)
Fresh herbs such as rosemary and thyme can used to impart an herbal smoke, particularly delicious to perfume rare-cooked meats such as duck and lamb. They must be soaked in water for 1/2 hour before grilling to keep them from burning too quickly.
You can use this basic technique to smoke tuna rare and thick slabs of peasant bread, which tastes like bread grilled over a fire… OR use it to give smoke flavor to already cooked foods, like broiled or seared steaks, lamb or chicken and vegetables such as onions and eggplant. The possibilities are endless.
Making a Makeshift Smoker/Preparing the Pan
Line a 10 or 11-inch cast iron skillet or wok with aluminum foil. Tear a 1 1/2-inch hole out of the center so that the wood or chili will lie directly on the metal bottom of the pan. The foil will keep dripping fat from burning on the bottom of the pan.
Line a heavy lid to fit the skillet or wok with aluminum foil to make cleanup easier.
Place a round wire cake rack with 1″ high feet in the skillet. To fabricate “feet” to elevate the rack, roll foil into 5 tight balls one inch in diameter and place them under the edges of the rack. If the rack is not wide enough to hold the fish, arrange skewers across it to “extend” its support.
Recipe: Pan Smoked Salmon
Cooking by the intense enclosed heat and smoke seems to release the fat that marbles the salmon flesh, basting it as it were from the inside and rendering it incredibly succulent with a smoky sweet flavor. It is wonderful hot or cold, served with cool Yogurt Sauce with Toasted Spices, Lime Peel and Basil.
The fish is first cured slightly with salt, sugar and pepper to draw out some liquid and firm up the flesh. The cure also seems to act as a wick for the smoke, drawing it into the salmon and attenuating any harshness.
2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon coarse (Kosher) salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 pounds salmon filet in one slab or four 5-ounce salmon filets
1 teaspoon olive or vegetable oil
Scant 1/2 tablespoon wood chips OR 1-by-1/4-inch chunk of wood OR 1 dried ancho chili pepper (break the chili into 2 pieces, discarding the seeds and stem. If dry and brittle, rather than rubbery and pliable, place in a bowl and pour boiling water over to cover. Let it soak 1 minute or less until pliable. Drain and pat dry.)
Combine the sugar, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Place the salmon fillet(s) on a plate and rub the mixture evenly into both sides. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour until ready to smoke.
Prepare the pan as directed above.
Over high heat, heat the skillet until very hot, about 5 minutes. Pat the salmon dry with paper towels and brush each side lightly with olive oil. Add the wood chips or the ancho chili pieces to the exposed center of the pan. When they begin to smoke, arrange the salmon on the rack and cover tightly. Reduce the heat to moderately low.
Smoke the salmon about 10 to 11 minutes, or until a two-pronged fork inserted into a steak meets with no resistance. Serve hot, warm or cold with Yogurt Sauce with Toasted Spices, Lime Peel and Basil.