Was it really the best fish I had ever tasted, or was it the setting and the company? Perhaps it was both.
We'd been in the hot sun all day photographing an oyster roast when we arrived for dinner at Ann and Mike Shaw's house at Brays Island Plantation near Beaufort, South Carolina. Moss was hanging from the huge oak trees, the sun was setting over the water-- a marvelous atmosphere for a meal.
The grill was hot, and so was the alder plank atop it, ready to take on a glistening cut of salmon. Mike drizzled olive oil over the fish, sprinkled it with Creole seasoning and fresh dill, and squeezed a plump lemon over it before placing it on the heated plank. The wood began to smolder, and--with the addition of the seasoned fish--the aroma filled the air. In just 15 minutes the salmon was cooked to perfection, smoky and tender.
Mike's dinner was superb, and I couldn't wait to try it in my own backyard. But would it translate? I hoped for the best.
The technique of cooking on planks is not new. Developed by Indians along the Pacific Northwest, cooking on cedar and alder has been a tradition for centuries. Chef Emmanuel Afentoulis of the Skamania Lodge Dining Room in Stevenson, Washington, prepares 35 to 40 pounds of salmon a day this way. He uses 1-inch-thick alder boards designed with holes drilled on the diagonal. The 3- to 5-pound salmon fillets are secured with soaked wooden skewers, then the planks are hung vertically around a cone-shaped, slow-burning fire pit where the whole salmon fillets roast slowly, basting in their own oil as they absorb the scents of the wood and the smoke.
At least three hours before grilling, Emmanuel coats each fillet with potlatch seasoning, a spice rub named after the ceremonial feast of the Indians of the Northwest coast. Made by pulverizing hot peppers and dry spices, this recipe has been used for years at the lodge, but Emmanuel adds his own touch to each batch. "One of our top sellers, Potlatch Salmon, is always on the menu. You might call it our signature dish," he says.
Harry Aldrich, who brought this ancient cooking method to the 21st century (at outdoorgourmet.com), sells cedar planks--his preference--and shares recipes with other plank lovers. "It's not just a piece of wood," says Harry. "It's a new twist on an old tradition."
"You open the grill, see the fire, and someone shouts, 'Oh, no! You've ruined the meal!' The plank may be on fire, but the fish is perfect and the dinner guests are wowed by the aroma and the presentation. It's not burning fish on a grill. It's fun, it's creative, it's gourmet, it's success."
Now it's your turn to be wowed. Hook your line to our recipes. They all received perfect scores in our test kitchens.
Frank Plank Talk
• Order planks online, or head to the nearest lumberyard or cabinet shop and have them cut to fit your grill. Buy untreated wood no thicker than 1 inch. Cedar and alder are popular choices, but mesquite, cherry, oak, peach, apple, and oak add their flavors. Avoid resinous woods, such as pine. Note that planks resembling cedar shingles have a tendency to crack, burn, and splinter, making them good for one-time use only--which, of course, makes cleanup easier. And you can use higher temperatures if the planks will be tossed.
• Ted Reader and Kathleen Sloan, coauthors of Sticks and Stones: The Art of Grilling on Plank, Vine and Stone, recommend soaking planks in water for at least one hour, preferably six hours or overnight.
• Chinook Planks manufactures two types of planks--one for use in the oven and the other for the outdoor grill. They come in alder and cedar. Their alder planks are designed for oven use; they have wells for catching drips and strengthening rods to keep the wood from splitting. Oven planks are a bit pricier than outdoor grill planks; however, they last longer (with an average life span of five years). These can be found in kitchen shops or ordered from 800/765-4408.