When Smoking Is A Good Thing
This weekend, my band, Time & Tide, played at the Bainbridge Island Farmer’s Market. As usual, we had a grand old time, and as usual, we brought home fresh produce, but this time, I also snagged some homemade smoked tomato pasta sauce. Wow! That reminded me that my Alma paprikas are about ready to harvest, since you can make sweet, mild, hot or sizzling paprika from the same plant by picking then they are white, yellow, orange or red. Paprikas are tasty fresh, but exceptional when smoked. Smoking gives ordinary food big umami flavor, making it a natural technique for vegetarians and vegans as well as omnivores.
If you use a smoker or smoke food on a covered grill, you already know what you’re doing. If you don’t, consider borrowing one before you invest, but I’m betting you will after you try smoking your own hot peppers, among other things (smoked tofu, anyone?). Why bother? Well, because pretty much anything, from peaches and carrots to hazelnuts to olives or olive oil, can be magically transformed by smoking. Oil? Really? Yup; after your main event is smoked and on the table, pour some high temp avocado or safflower oil (or a blended olive oil) into a roasting pan or deep baking dish and tuck it on the remaining coals for about 15 minutes. The result is flat out astounding and can be gainfully used in sauces, roux, vinaigrettes, mayonnaise, you name it.
Everyone knows about smoked peppers, from chipotles to paprika, but smoking is especially kind to blander fruits and vegetables, since like slow roasting, it awakens deep, lush flavors that are often hidden. Smoked carrots (skinny babies) or mushrooms (whole or stemmed), for instance, make outrageous appetizers or miraculous soups, and add depth and finish to stews. Smoked garlic (whole heads, unpeeled, no oil needed) is a revelation. Smoked corn on the cob (shucked first) is a treat that needs no butter or salt to boost the flavor. Smoked peaches, cherries tart or sweet, figs, or pears make a plain salad fabulous and are memorably zingy sides for fish or fowl. Smoked tomatoes can also be used in a million ways, adding tang to chili and taking tomato soup to a whole new level, but they may shine brightest in pasta sauces.
Those who don’t have access to outdoor cooking may want to try using oven smoking bags, foil packets with various kinds of wood chips enclosed that can be used in a regular oven. You can find hickory, alder, and mesquite versions at high end venues like Williams Sonoma and plenty of plain Jane places too. If you know folks who smoke their own fish or bacon, you might also swap some homegrown produce in exchange for smoking your share as well.
Some things, such as peppers, garlic heads, and small figs, can be smoked whole. However, most fruits and vegetables will gain the biggest flavor when they’re halved, so smoke can penetrate their interiors. Unless you have an old beater roasting pan (as I do), you might want to use a foil one, since the outside can get pretty nasty. If you’re using smoking bags in the oven, just line whatever baking dish you use with foil to keep them free of greasy smoke stains. In any case, place your goodies cut side up and smoke them over low heat (about 220-240 degrees F.).
Timing varies; sauce tomatoes, carrots, and firm pears or apples will benefit from 4-6 hours of smoking, while pitted tart cherries or olives are plenty smoky after an hour or less and chopped or smaller nuts only need 20-30 minutes. To figure out your own preferences, start tasting larger, moister things like peaches and tomatoes after a couple of hours to see how you prefer them. Smoking works best with ripe yet firm, meaty tomatoes like San Marzano or similar plum or sauce types, but not so well with tender, juicy slicers. Peppers, whether sweet or savory or spicy, can take less than an hour for fiery little bird peppers or 3-4 hours for larger Italian heirloom grilling peppers or thick-walled bells. My Alma paprikas need 2-3 hours to get dry enough to grind, and jalapenos want about 3 hours to become chipotles.
Smoked Tomato Pasta Sauce
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 big cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cups coarsely chopped smoked tomatoes
2 cups chopped ripe fresh tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
extra sprigs of basil for garnish
In a sauce pan, combine oil, onion, and salt over medium low heat and cook until tender (8-10 minutes). Add garlic and celery and cook for 5 minutes. Add smoked and fresh tomatoes, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in chopped basil and serve over hot pasta, garnished with basil sprigs. Serves 4-6.
Smoked Garlic, Radicchio And Walnut Sauce
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 large red onion, chopped
1 head smoked garlic, peeled and chopped
2 cups shredded radicchio
1/2 cup dry white wine such as a Pinot Grigio
1/4 cup chopped flat parsley
In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil and walnuts over medium high heat and cook, tossing often, until lightly golden. Transfer nuts to a plate, sprinkle with a little salt, set aside. Add onion to oil in pan and cook until soft (5-6 minutes). Add garlic and remaining salt and cook until pale golden (3-4 minutes). Add radicchio and cook, stirring often, until barely wilted (2-3 minutes). Add wine, bring to a simmer and serve over hot rice or pasta, topping each serving with walnuts and chopped parsley. Serves 2-3.