We have a quest, we Americans. We want more flavor, more fun, more "jazz" in our meals. But we want less of the bad stuff fat, sodium, hassle.
Backyard smokers could be one of the answers. They're one of the fasting growing categories in outdoor cookery, according to the Barbecue Industry Association, a trade group in Naperville, Ill. You can find them everywhere, even in drugstores. Economically priced units can be found on sale for under $30. Many even easily convert for use as a minibrazier for portable picnicking.
With a little practice, you can use them to cook most anything, from the standard meat, poultry and fish (especially tangy sausage, chewy ribs, nut-scented turkey or flavorful kebabs) to unusual treats such as smoked tomatoes for soup, peppers for sauces or salsas, even fruit for an offbeat addition to dessert.
What smokers don't necessarily do is save time. But the results are worth waiting for. Especially if you factor in the dividend of well-planned make-aheads to heap onto fresh salads and tuck ** into sandwiches.
Long, slow roasting in a covered smoking unit results in golden-brown doneness. And depending upon the flavorings you add various hardwoods or fruitwoods stacked on the glowing coals, flavored liquids in the water pan, or marinades, rubs or seasonings applied directly to the food you can produce a range of deep, rich flavors.
Although major health organizations such as the American Cancer Society caution against overconsumption of smoked products, as an occasional treat they're a unique and fairly innocent indulgence.
Indeed, a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman indicates that properly smoked foods cooked by the indirect-heat method actually are of less concern to health officials than meats grilled directly over glowing coals. The reaction of spattering meat fats burning and releasing carcinogenic carbon back onto foods is the greater risk.
But you can cut any risk even further by "cold smoking," a process by which little charcoal is used to set smoking woods smoldering. They release just enough fragrance to scent seafood, scallops of meat or chicken parts that you'll use later in other dishes.
Try it. Backyard smokers are a new-fangled approach to an Old World style of cookery an entirely different "seasoning in a can."
"The Best Covered and Kettle Grills Cookbook Ever" by Melanie Barnard (HarperCollins, $16.95) is just what the doctor ordered assuming the doctor is working with a Weber or other covered grill, or smoker. This handy, lay-flat, ring-bound book contains plenty of useful information on working with such devices, as well as good-sounding and easy-to-follow recipes for barbecuing and smoking.
Here is a recipe from the book:
"This is not like commercial smoked salmon but rather a moist, smoky version of grilled salmon," Barnard writes. "It is perfect for a main course, especially when topped with a dab of dill butter."
(Makes 4 to 6 servings)
1/2 cup coarse sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 quarts water
1 1/2 pounds unskinned salmon fillets
4 to 6 handsful hickory or mesquite wood chips
Cook's notes: The longer you allow the fish to remain in the brine, the deeper the salty flavor. After 12 hours of brining you may want to remove the salmon from the liquid, rinse and dry it, then refrigerate the salmon for up to 24 hours before smoking as follows.
Preliminaries: In a large, nonaluminum dish or bowl, stir the salt and sugar into the water until dissolved. Add the fish and submerge in the brine. Cover and refrigerate 12 to 24 hours.
Procedure: Prepare the smoker according to manufacturer's directions. Soak the wood chips in cold water for at least 30 minutes, then add them to the smoker. Remove the fish from the brine, rinse under cold running water, and pat dry.
Smoke the fish, skin side down, about 1 1/2 hours, until cooked through but not dry. (If a drier, more potently flavored salmon is preferred, leave in the smoker 1 hour longer.)
Presentation: Serve warm as a first course, or chilled as an appetizer.
Mesquite Smoked Brisket is one of the most flavorful ways I've uncovered to imbue a tasty cut of beef with the deep, smoky flavor of old-fashioned Southern cooking.
The dish is the creation of New Orleans blues diva Marva Wright, who contributed it to a jazzy fund-raising booklet "Cookin' Up The Blues" (Tabasco pepper sauce bottlers McIllheny Co., 1994; details follow). Beef brisket is marinated overnight in a zesty mixture of red wine vinegar, pineapple juice and mustard that's sweetened with brown sugar and molasses and spiced with hot pepper sauce, Worcestershire and seasonings. The meat is then slowly grilled by the indirect heat method in a covered kettle grill.