Hank Pennington

Fall feasts

September is houseguest season for us. Friends and family time their visits to coincide with the arrival of silver salmon while a few halibut are still on hand near shore.

Daily routines are largely driven by weather, with nice days split between salmon in rivers and halibut offshore. The scattering of bad weather days can mean a houseful of hungry people restless for action.

The happy gatherings coast along on a steady stream of great meals leavened with laughter and conversation. Meals have to appear quickly on schedule, and they have to be notable, plentiful and easy to prepare.

For me the real cooking starts early in the summer as I experiment with new preparations and refine old favorites in anticipation of serving meals with an extra leaf or two in the dining room table. It’s sure lots easier for me to feed a crowd if I have a solid plan.

This year has been busier than ever. Folks come through the door each evening tired and hungry, and life is lots smoother if meals can appear promptly with a minimum of fuss.

I’ve learned to rely on large pots, but also dishes that can be prepared ahead or at least assembled quickly. Of course that translates into casseroles, soups and chowders. It also helps to have plenty of appetizers to calm the restless as the fragrances of cooking fill the house.

I’ll get to a couple of our most popular new recipes in a moment, but I want to ply you with our guests’ favorite snack while you wait for the main course.

Our snack array has been dominated by smoked salmon this fall. Guests love it, to the point that I’ve been smoking a lot of their own salmon prior to freezing and travel to their south.

In the past smoking fish was a labor of love for me, both time consuming and a nuisance to tend with lots of folks stirring through the house. I never considered offering to smoke enough salmon for them to take home.

All that changed last fall when I broke down and bought a Bradley smoker, one of several brands available now with excellent controls for smoke duration, cook temperatures, and most significantly, cooking times. You can literally push a few buttons and turn out perfectly smoked salmon without the frequent changes of chip pans and uncertain cook times.

You load the Bradley oven with cured salmon, load the magazine with wood smoking biscuits, press the smoke timer and walk away. At the preset time the smoke turns off and you turn on the cooker to a specific temperature and time, then walk away again.

Depending on the recipe you’re using, that’s it.

Our Bradley is a four-tray version that will smoke two silver salmon at a time, but there are models with more trays to hold even more fish.

Brining, whether wet or dry, is a critical step with any smoker. We prefer a wet brine because it offers more flexibility. Thanks to a local friend who catches lots of king salmon and has perfected his smoking techniques, we now use a very easy one.

His recipe is two pounds of dark brown sugar and a cup of salt in a gallon of water with a 12 to 24 hours soak in the refrigerator. While we like that just fine for kings, we’ve found it a little too sweet and salty for silver salmon. I’ve cut it to a pound of sugar and half a cup of salt in a gallon of water.

In the process of adjusting flavors, I’ve discovered that the milder brine allows us to hold the fish for longer periods as needed before smoking.

If I brine only 12 hours, I move the silvers directly from the brine to the smoker with no rinse. If I hold it 24 to 48 hours, I rinse the fish well before placing in the smoker. If logistics mean I have to hold it longer than 48 hours, I soak it for 15 minutes in cold water before moving it into the smoker.

Easy. Flexible. Effective and delicious. Perfect for a house full of company and days filled with activity.

We also like less smoke than many people, and the Bradley makes it easy to accomplish and regulate. I’ve found the perfect combo for us in three hours of smoke with alder, or two hours with hickory when we want a stronger smoke flavor without going overboard. For our tastes apple can become bitter if you smoke more than three hours, and in fact we smoke only two hours with it.

The combination of light sugar and salt along with gentle smoking has been an eye opener for our guests. You can actually taste the fish along with the other flavors.

Of course, we lay it out with condiments each evening for snacks. But it also goes well in shore lunches. Crumble it over salads or feature it in omelets. If you have leftover salmon after a big feast, crumble the smoked salmon into the plain salmon when making salmon patties with the leftovers.

I hark from the Southwest and many of my dishes are a fusion of Southwestern and Kodiak fares.

I won’t go into the recipe for our favorite green chili enchilada casserole, because you can find plenty of variations on the web. But for decades it has been the highlight of our visitors’ stays.

It’s perfect, too, for this cook who also likes to fish. I assemble the casserole in the morning and refrigerate it, then pop it into the oven first thing when we return after a busy day. By the time everyone has shed fishing clothes and processed their fish, dinner is ready.

The fusion part comes in my addition to the recipe this year. Nestled between the layers of tortillas, sauce and cheese I include a half-inch layer of halibut. I couldn’t have guessed how well halibut goes with green chili and Mexican spices!

I need to pass along the recipe for our latest discovery because it’s unusual. While it stands on its own, it’s made even better with the addition of halibut as one of the layers in the casserole.

It’s Mexican eggplant. I know, there’s that scary “e” word in the title, but bear with me. Many of our houseguests swear they hate eggplant, but they practically fall out of their chairs with delight at the first flavorful bite.

In a saucepan, simmer for 10 minutes 15 ounces of tomato sauce, two cans mild green chilis, ½ cup chopped onions, ½ teaspoon cumin, ½ teaspoon garlic salt and a 6-ounce can of sliced black olives. Cut two large unpealed eggplants into half-inch slices and spread on a cookie sheet, then bake 20 minutes at 400 degrees until soft. In a casserole lay down a layer of eggplant, then sauce, then a half-inch layer of halibut, more sauce, and a final layer of eggplant topped with the remainder of the sauce. Top it generously with grated Colby or medium cheddar cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, or place it in the refrigerator for later cooking. When cold from the refrigerator, increase cook time to 30-35 minutes at 350 degrees.

If your guests receive it as enthusiastically as ours, you’ll need to double the recipe to have any hope of leftovers.

September is certainly silver salmon month. But that also translates into houseguests and large meals. With a little forethought and planning you can ease the cooking burden while also sending your guests home with new ways to enjoy their hard-earned catch.

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