Thanksgiving is for gatherings of friends and family. Traditions vary from one to the next, but they all come down to a grand meal commemorating the long ago feast between European settlers and locals.
Somehow over the years, a turkey has elbowed its way to the place of honor at the center of today’s feast table.
There’s no mention of turkeys in contemporary accounts of that first Thanksgiving feast even though the meal was dominated by wild meats. Yet today’s rendition of Thanksgiving features turkeys right down to kids’ cartoons and school plays.
I’ve always been curious how that happened. If the fishing industry could figure that out, what could be possible with the treats off our own shores?
A Thanksgiving salmon perhaps?
Well, yeah. As a matter of fact!
In keeping with the spirit of the original feast, our family has always leaned toward wild meats and local foods. Sure, we take advantage of the holiday sales and put a turkey in the freezer for later use, but the center of our table is reserved for local meats.
Wild foods take up lots of other table space as well.
Our favorite main course is a venison hindquarter cooked whole to a pink medium rare. Sliced thick and served with potatoes, carrots and onions from our garden, it can hold its own in the face of the fiercest gobble from any factory-reared turkey.
If you’ve never tried cooking a whole venison hindquarter, it’s high time you do so. It might not displace the turkey on your holiday table right away, but I’m betting with time and experience roast venison will move near the top of your special occasion meals.
The secret is in the “pink medium rare.”
Venison cooked pink rather than brown is as mild and sweet as beef with none of the “gamey” taste so many people associate with venison. I can’t explain the chemistry behind it, but the moment the pink becomes brown the flavor changes distinctly and not necessarily for the better.
Whether cooking in the oven or on a grill, a good meat thermometer is your best friend for assuring succulent pink. Use the thermometer religiously to adjust your cook time and temperature to make it happen.
It’s hard to recommend cook times due to the varying size of hindquarters.
But the procedure leading up to the table is pretty standardized if you guard against overcooking.
If forced by weather to cook indoors I preheat the oven to 425 degrees, brown the hindquarter on the stovetop, then put it uncovered in the oven for 30 minutes. Then I turn the oven down to 375 and turn the roast. Turn it every 20 minutes or so until the meat thermometer brags medium rare. Pull it from the oven, tent it loosely with foil and allow to rest about 15 minutes before serving.
We greatly prefer to roast our hindquarters on the barbecue. It’s actually easier than in the oven due to the size of the hindquarter.
I start the hindquarter over a uniform bed of coals, browning all sides. Then I lift off the meat and the grill so I can spread the coals to either side of the grate and begin to finish cooking with indirect heat with turns every 20 minutes or so.
Once the magic thermometer is edging medium rare, I reach through the grate with a poker and spread the coals back toward the center. Then I give it about 5 minutes on all sides to brown them a little more. Remove it from the heat and tent it for 15 minutes or so before serving.
If a whole hindquarter sounds a little too adventurous, here’s a great option for smaller gatherings.
Leave your back straps whole or merely cut in half and cook those on the grill before slicing at the table for serving. I like them medium rare, but I don’t use a meat thermometer. I just press on them with the corner of a spatula or the side of a meat fork. The moment they go from soft to slightly firm and springy, they should be pink in the middle.
Salmon is one of our favorite feasts, but for presentation at feasts we prefer to cook whole fillets or even whole fish. As with the venison back straps, when they’re just firm to the touch, they’re done.
Cook them too long and they’re dry, but stop them the instant they turn from soft to firm and they’ll be moist and succulent.
In truth, my favorite way to prepare whole salmon fillets is poaching. But I do it with certain precautions for better results.
I have a dedicated poaching pan with a rack in it, but you could do the same with any covered pan, provided you put a grate or something similar in the bottom to allow lifting out the whole fillet once it’s done.
My secret for great poached salmon is to go gently on the poaching liquid. Don’t cover the fillet with that stuff!
Put your fillet on the rack, then top it with your choice of herbs and seasoning.
Lower it into the pan, then add just enough liquid to reach part way up the sides of the fillet without topping it, just so the herbs and spices stay in place.
My favorite liquid is half white wine and half chicken broth. Put the pan on medium heat and leave uncovered until the liquid is just starting to boil, then lower the heat and cover the pan so the fish steams as it picks up the flavor of the broth and seasonings.
As with other fish preparation methods, press on the thickest part of the fillet with the corner of a spatula to determine when it’s done. The moment it transitions from soft to firm, lift it out of the broth and serve.
Things get real interesting when you move wild game and fish from the center of the table to the sides. The array of possibilities is endless, even if you succumb to the lure of a turkey for the place of honor.
The most popular side dishes on our dinner table as well as on the snack table feature smoked salmon in some fashion.
But not just any smoked salmon!
Lots of folks like heavily brined and smoked salmon for snacking all by itself. That’s fine for solo performances, but when you start combining smoked salmon with other ingredients, the smoke and salt can easily dominate all other flavors.
While you can use dry salt and/or sugar to cure your salmon before smoking, I find that a little hard to regulate. I prefer using a brine.
My favorite combo is a pound of dark brown sugar and a cup of salt in a gallon of water. An overnight soak up to about 12 hours leaves a distinct flavor without dominating the fish flavor or requiring lots of smoke.
Cook and taste a small piece of fish to try it yourself, and if you feel it’s not enough simply leave it in the brine longer. Or for future batches you might want to increase the amount of salt or sugar for shorter soak times.
The real trick comes in the smoker. I don’t rinse off the brine, rather I simply wipe off the excess and allow the surface of the fillets to dry on the smoker racks. Then I slide the racks into the smoker.
I’m real critical about how long to smoke fish. I want a mild smoke flavor and a nice golden color that accent the flavor of the salmon without masking it.
In an automatic smoker like the Bradley, I smoke for no more than two hours before continuing the cook. In truth I like one hour for silvers and reds or two hours for kings.
In a Little Chief or Big Chief, I use only a single pan of chips. To help prolong the smoke from that I soak the chips first. Then I allow the salmon to continue cooking or “kippering” until done.
Any of these smoking methods won’t give you an immediate strong smoke flavor. But move the salmon into the refrigerator overnight, and the smoke flavor “blossoms” through the fish and intensifies.
I’ve run out of space before telling you all the possible ways to use smoked salmon in side dishes, but think in terms of spreads, dips, salads, cold crepes and even salsas.
Just be sure to save room for turkey! Um … venison! Um … salmon!