Just a few weeks ago, the air quality in Puget Sound was the worst in the world. Wildfires raced and roared through forests on every side; no matter which way the wind blew, we breathed the breath of dying trees. Although the air has cleared in many areas, fires still rage throughout the West. The National Interagency Fire Center lists the national level of preparedness at 4 out of 5 right now as thousands of wildfire fighters risk their lives every day and night. The good news is that the size and severity of these fires have moved several states to rethink destructive 20th century forestry practices.
It will take time for better forest management to take effect, but here in Washington State, the DNR has begun to implement a 20 year program to thin out hazardous timber overgrowth on National Forest land. “Wildfire doesn’t care about who owns the forestland; neither can our restoration efforts,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. The goal is to increase forest health and reduce damage to nearby communities. However much we may all applaud this constructive approach, such measures are not popular with visitors, since they often involve thinning and clearing trees and removing lots of underbrush, leaving our dense, gorgeous old forests looking unnaturally empty.
Better Out Than In
What looks destructive is an attempt to redress short sighted 20th century practices that left forests dangerously vulnerable to huge, hot fires. The worst problems were caused by over grazing (often on public lands), suppression of initially small fires that threatened cattle range or homes, and selective removal of larger trees. While younger trees tend to burn quickly, towering old growth trees have thick trunks and high canopies that typically resist burning in smaller fires. Before the West was settled, smaller fires typically burned grasses and low growing shrubs, while larger trees survived. Overgrazing removes most grasses, so underbrush fires start later and burn hotter, doing far more damage.
Fortunately for all of us, the Center For Biological Diversity has been working with Western state governments to develop safer, more effective fire policies. Here are their three main goals: “First, fire policy must provide wildland-urban interface communities with protection from the threat of forest fire. Second, it must be geared at reducing the severity of unnatural forest fires and reintroducing fire as a natural component of the ecosystem. Third, forests should be put on a trajectory toward recovery through the reintroduction and enhancement of a range of natural forest ecosystem processes. The Center’s highest priorities include protecting lives and houses in the communities that are currently at risk from forest fires. At the same time, it is critical to protect areas of special concern, such as municipal watersheds and reservoirs and habitat for sensitive species.” Yes, thank you!!!
As the local air quality improved, my neighbor began doing some smoking of his own. I kinda freaked out at first, but fortunately it didn’t contaminate the air; instead, it turned garden produce into extraordinary kitchen treasures. For the first round, Jim focused on peppers, starting with paprikas. Since he likes a variety of flavors, he harvests at each color stage, from white, yellow, and orange to deep red. He uses different woods for each color, starting with pear, then moving to cherry, apple, and alder. The results range from sweet to mild, hot, or downright attention grabbing.
Other peppers can be treated similarly, from Sweet Heat and Italian Sweet to hotties such as Fireball and Red Hot Cherry. For best keeping quality, smoke smaller peppers whole. For kitchen use, just put one or more kinds in a little grinder (I use a re-purposed coffee grinder) and reduce them to fine bits. My buddy Rick says smoked peppers hold their heat and flavor best when stored whole and ground a little at a time. I took his advice, so my little hoard is kept in tightly sealed glass jars in the freezer until needed.
Almost Anything Is Smokable
Peppers aren’t the only game in town, however. Jim agreed to smoke some ripe tomatoes for me, as well as eggplants, green beans and kale. Why not? Smoked eggplant makes fabulous baba ganouj, while smoked tomatoes make the simplest pasta sauce marvelous, with exceptional depth of flavor. Green beans…well, hmm. I thought they might make great snacks but not so much. They’re good in soups and chile, though. Smoked kale is similarly disappointing; oven roasted kale chips are far tastier with way better texture. Smoked corn on the cob is delicious, needing only a little sprinkle of garlic salt to make it magical. Smoked carrots and mushrooms are best in stews, soups, or casseroles, where a small piece can add a lively bass note; potato leek soup with smoked mushrooms becomes mysteriously rich and chicken casserole with smoked carrots gains depth and nuance.
A few years ago I started smoking fruit, from peaches and cherries to figs and pears. All turned out pretty good, though peaches and cherries are the most popular. I’m definitely sold on smoking whole, unpeeled heads of garlic as well as flaked sea salt. Really? Yup; once bitten by the bug, you may find yourself smoking everything in the kitchen. Tofu? Oh yes. Goat cheese? Yup. Roasted, then smoked, nuts and seeds are irresistible, as are olives. (Pickles not so much, though.) After playing around with many types of oil, I now stick with smoking avocado oil, which takes high temperatures in stride. Use it for basting fish or poultry, in mayonnaise, roux, or salad dressing and prepare to be amazed.
Folks who use a smoker or smoke food on a covered grill already know what you’re doing. Those without outdoor cooking options can use oven smoking bags, foil packets with various wood chips (I’ve seen alder, hickory, or mesquite) work in a regular oven. 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. Smaller things such as peppers, garlic heads, and small figs, are best smoked whole, while larger fruits and vegetables absorb more flavor when they’re halved. I use an ancient, battered roasting pan or an equally gnarly rimmed baking sheet, but I’d suggest using heavy foil pans rather than good ones, since oily smoke is a bear to remove. To use smoking bags in the oven, line your baking dish with foil to keep them unstained. Either way, place halved food cut side up and smoke over low heat (about 220-240 degrees F.).
Timing varies; sauce tomatoes, carrots, and firm pears, plums, 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. Check larger, moister things like peaches and tomatoes after a couple of hours for taste and texture. 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. Tiny hot peppers need less than an hour, while thick walled types may take 3-4 hours. Most paprikas need 2-3 hours to get dry enough to grind, and jalapenos want about 3 hours to become chipotles. Smoke oil in small baking dishes and salt on rimmed baking sheets in a shallow layer, and taste often.
Spunky Pasta Sauce With Smoked Tomatoes
2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
1 cup chopped red or sweet onion
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 big cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cups coarsely chopped smoked tomatoes
2 cups chopped ripe fresh tomatoes
1 tablespoon capers
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup coarsely grated Asiago or any hard cheese
In a sauce pan, combine oil, onion, salt, garlic, and pepper flakes over medium low heat and cook until tender (8-10 minutes). Add celery, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Add smoked and fresh tomatoes, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in capers and chopped basil and serve over hot pasta, garnished with cheese. Serves 4-6.