Cooking salmon on a grill is a great idea, but often, it sticks and does its level best to fall apart, and sometimes, the great tragedy of having half a hunk of delicious fish fall between the grates into the fire to be sacrificed to The Gods of Lost Dinners.
However, if you use an untreated wooden plank, such as cedar, that has been soaked in water for a few hours on top of your grill, then set the salmon filet on top of that, not only does the fish neither stick to the grill nor fall into the fire, it is saturated with the flavor and scent of cedar smoke.
And let me tell you, THAT’s something to yearn for.
But then, I yearn for salmon all the time. It’s one of my favorite foods. In fact, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, my greatest aspiration is to be reborn as a grizzly bear in Alaska.
The worry of being shot by a big game hunter, or worse, by Sarah Palin, would be completely offset by being able to wade into rushing cold water and catch my own salmon during the salmon run. Just think of being able to gorge on all of the sushi-grade raw salmon you could eat, while getting to play in cold, clear water at the same time.
Sure, you have to deal with the other bears, but there’s enough fish for everyone, and even the scuffles are as much in play as in earnest. It all sounds great to me.
And then, for dessert, there are wild blackberries.
Ah—that would be the life.
So, anyway, I love salmon, though I didn’t always think it was the best thing in the world. When I was a kid, my only exposure to salmon was in the form of salmon cakes made from the pink stuff from a can. Mom’s cats loved it when she made those, but not me–the smell of them made me queasy, and I could only choke down one cake and that was under duress. On salmon cake nights, I usually ate a lot of parsley potatoes and canned corn, which seemed to be the usual side dishes.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager and tasted properly cooked fresh salmon filet at a Red Lobster in Columbus, Ohio, that I realized that salmon was the best thing that ever swam, even better than rainbow trout or lake perch, my two former favorite fish ever.
(Now that you know that my first taste of real salmon came from Red Lobster, I hope you won’t hold it against me.)
Anyway, now that we know my history when it comes to the best fish in the world, let’s talk about this recipe, shall we?
I decided that Japanese flavors would go really well with cedar smoke. I don’t know why I decided that; perhaps it’s because the Japanese use cedar in building some of their soaking tubs (another thing I love almost as much as salmon–a tub that I can soak up to my neck in without having to lay down and scrunch my knees up and still have them sticking up like two pale islands, cold and sad) and my brain paired cedar and water and salmon together in some bizarre word association game.
So, I made a glaze for the salmon from white (shiro) miso, which is a mild fermented soybean paste, mirin, a low-alcohol sweet rice wine, soy sauce toasted sesame oil, local honey and mild chili pepper flakes. The milder, less salty shiro miso is a great source of umami flavor–that savory taste that comes from naturally occurring glutamates, while the mirin and honey add sweetness. More umami kick as well as some salt comes from the soy sauce, while the sesame oil adds a nutty, fragrant top note. The chili is subtle, and very mild, since I used Aleppo pepper flakes, and could be left out altogether.
The only flavor note missing is something sour. This was provided by a lemon slice placed on top of each filet, which was then “glued” down to the fish with the thick, slightly sticky glaze.
If I’d had a bottle of yuzu juice handy, I’d have used that, but lacking that, lemons would have to do, and they performed admirably. Their fresh flavor brightened everything with a sparkling pure tingle as an endnote flavor.
Putting everything together was remarkably simple. I just had to soak the plank for three hours in warm water to prepare it for the grill. The salmon filet I simply cut into three portions, and whisked the glaze together. When the coals were ready (we used hardwood charcoal) and set up for direct grilling, we simply put the plank on the grill, closed it up and let it preheat and begin to smoke. Then, right before the filets were to go onto the plank, I placed the lemon slices on top of them and then brushed the fish and lemons thoroughly with the glaze. Then, carefully using a pair of tongs, we placed the fish on the plank, closed the lid and let it cook for six minutes.
We lifted the lid, gave the filets another brush of glaze and closed the grill up and cooked them for another seven minutes, until they were just done. I had bought the back half of a salmon side so the tail piece was thin and so was the most well done, though it was not dried out at all. That was Kat’s piece. The middle piece was done perfectly, flaky and moist–that was Zak’s piece.
Mine was the thicker piece from the middle of the fish–and was done perfectly to my liking–just a tiny bit “underdone” so that while it flakes, the flesh isn’t completely opaque–there is a tiny bit of roseate translucency to it, and the fish was juicy and sweet. Just the way I like it.
It turns out that grilling salmon filets on a cedar plank is a perfectly simple operation, and it is one that is well worth repeating. I can’t wait to see what kind of glaze I can come up with next time, though I am even more impatient to eat the salmon itself again, and to heck with the glaze! (Hrm. Maybe I should use blackberries and then have an ursine main course and dessert combined!)
Miso-Honey Glazed Salmon Cooked on a Cedar Plank
1 cedar plank
1 slab of fresh skin on salmon filet (for three portions, I used 1/2 of a salmon side)
1 scant tablespoon shiro miso (Miso Master brand is my favorite)
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons mirin
1 teaspoon Japanese style soy sauce (I used Bourbon Barrel Foods soy sauce)
pinch of mild chili flakes (optional)
3 half-round slices of lemon 1/4″ thick
juice from 1 lemon wedge
a few diagonally cut slices of scallion top for garnish
Soak the cedar plank in warm water for three hours.
Cut the fish into three portions–one Mamma bear sized, one Pappa bear sized (I will have you know that the Mamma bear size at our house is bigger than the Pappa bear size–just saying) and one Baby bear sized.
Whisk together all of the glaze ingredients, from the miso to the chili flakes, until it comes together into a thick, delectable-smelling amber brown liquid.
Prepare your charcoal and when it is ready, set your grill up for direct grilling, which basically means, spread your coals out in an even layer underneath the entire grill.
Place the plank carefully on the grill. Zak used tongs to do this. I suggest you do the same. Close the grill and allow the plank to preheat, watching for smoke to rise out of the vent in a steady stream. This tells you that the plank is ready to go.
Place the lemon slices on top of the filets and brush generously with the glaze. Using tongs, carefully place the filets on the plank, without allowing them to touch each other.
Close the grill lid and allow the salmon to cook undisturbed for six minutes.
Open the lid and brush on more glaze. Close the lid and let it cook for six to nine more minutes, depending on how well done you want your salmon to be. I suggest six more minutes if you want your thickest piece to be nice and moist and juicy and unctuous like mine was.
Open the lid once more and carefully transfer the salmon to a serving platter. The skin may stick in places and tear, but if you are gentle and patient, your filets will come off the cedar nicely shaped and pretty.
Set the salmon aside (I know its hard, but do it anyway. If I could manage it, so can you) and using a different set of tongs, remove the plank from the fire and set on a metal table or some other heat-proof surface to cool. If there are fish skin bits clinging to it, don’t try to remove them now. Wait until the wood cools and brush it off then. If the plank isn’t too burnt, you can use it again, probably several more times, even.
Squeeze the juice of one lemon wedge over all three filets and sprinkle with the finely sliced scallion top, then serve forth.
Serves one Mamma bear, one Pappa bear and one Baby bear and no Goldilockses.
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