A smoker or grill and a handful of wet wood chips will infuse your favorite seafood with a wonderfully woodsy aroma and flavor.

By Julie Gunter

Whether you use a water smoker or a charcoal or gas grill, thesetips will help you get satisfying results.

If using a charcoal grill: Pile coals on each side of grill,leaving center empty. Place a drip pan between coals. Prepare fireand let it burn 15 to 20 minutes. Place soaked wood chips on hotcoals. Arrange fish on rack over drip pan to smoke for timeindicated in recipe.

If using a gas grill: Light grill on one side. Wrap soakedwood chips in heavy duty foil, and punch several holes in foil.Place foil-wrapped chips directly on hot coals. Preheat grill 15 to20 minutes. Arrange fish on rack opposite hot coals. Cover andsmoke for time indicated in recipe.

Fully cooked smoked seafood should be firm to the touch, but nottough. Fillets should flake with a fork. And each bite should besuperb.

Consider these other tips:

* Just about any seafood can be smoked, but this is one culinarycase where fat works in your favor. Smoke penetrates high-fat fishmore evenly and completely than lean fish, and fish types high infat maintain better texture than lean ones, which tend to dry out.Prime picks include catfish, mackerel, mullet, salmon, shark,striped bass, swordfish, trout, sardines, tuna, andshellfish--including shrimp, lobster, crabs, clams, oysters,mussels, and scallops.

* Smoke the freshest fish available. Even the richest smokyessence can't save a poor piece of fish.

* Herbs, spices, salt, and sugar all contribute to the taste,but it's the wood that gives smoked seafood its signatureflavor.

* Alder, apple, beech, birch, cherry, grapevines, hickory,maple, mesquite, and oak have their own characteristics. Hickoryand mesquite impart the strongest smoked flavor; alder is the woodof choice when smoking salmon. Some devout fish smokers blend woods[Keep in mind that smoking can be a savory experiment] find whatpleases your palate.

* Soaking wood chips in water ensures that they'll smoke slowlyand impart their fragrance to fish before burning down to ashes. Ashort soak is usually sufficient, because most fish cook quickly.Soak chips 30 minutes, chunks 1 to 24 hours. If you're after anabundance of smoke flavor, be sure the wood is waterlogged. A lotof wood isn't necessary to gain good flavor. Two handfuls of chipsor three or four chunks should be plenty, but experiment by usingmore wood for a stronger smoke flavor or less for milderresults.

* Start your fire and let coals burn down until they're coveredwith gray ash. Cover coals with soaked chips, and set smoker ventsto produce a smooth, even draft. Add herbs, citrus peel, or spicesto the fire for more complex flavor.

* Get creative when it comes to filling a smoker's water pan.Why not add beer, wine, cola, fruit juice, or a marinade? Theliquid bestows even more flavor to the fish as it steams andsmokes.

* For best results, smoke only one type of fish at a time anduse pieces that are the same size and weight.

* Butterfly small fish and spread them open for smoking. Cutlarger fish into fillets or steaks. Smoke oysters on the halfshell, and leave shrimp in the shell.

* Smoker racks should be lightly oiled to prevent fish fromsticking. If only one rack is needed, use the upper level. Arrangefish on rack, skin side down, with enough room between pieces forair to circulate.

* Resist the temptation to lift the lid to check fish before theminimum recommended cooking time. If the lid is lifted, heat andmoisture escape and 15 minutes should be added to the cooktime.

Chips off the Old Block

You can find a variety of wood chips at your local supermarketor gourmet grocer, or order them from the following sources:

* Call 800/241-8981 or visit www.grillovers.com for JackDaniel's Barrel Chips, hickory or mesquite chips or chunks,Southern cherry chunks, and maple chunks.

* Call 800/535-1711 or visit luhrjensen.comfor hickory, apple, mesquite, alder, or cherry Chips 'n Chunks.Luhr Jensen Chips 'n Chunks are precision ground for an even,consistent burn. Soak these shavings in water 30 minutes beforesmoking.

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