In all my grilling experiments, I’ve never tried plank cooking. This is a technique that involves cooking food directly on a wood plank that gently smokes the food as it cooks. This style of cooking has been around for more than a century. It is most commonly attributed to Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, who would catch as much running salmon as they could and attach the cleaned fish to wooden planks for smoking. Smoking the salmon would allow them to preserve the fish, which would sustain them during the harsh winter months, but it also imparts wonderful flavor. Cedar plank salmon has been popular in restaurants for about the last fifteen years and wood planks are now readily available at kitchen and grocery stores.
Last spring my mother-in-law gave me a package of cedar paper. These are thin sheets of cedar used to wrap around the food, slowly burning as the food cooks thus imparting the same smoky flavor as a cedar plank. Copper River salmon is just reaching the end of its season. I’ve been buying it on sale for the past few weeks and putting it in the freezer for future smoking. This weekend, I thought I’d give the cedar paper a try. I also found beautiful asparaus at the grocery store and so my menu was born.
The package of cedar paper has suggested recipes, especially for salmon, but I decided to try just a little seasoning and lemon so we could get the full benefit of the cedar flavor. The cedar paper is thin and it needs to be soaked in water before using. The instructions also indicated that adding bourbon, wine or brandy to the soaking liquid would add flavor to the final dish. I dribbled a little brandy in the water and dropped four sheets of cedar in to soak. While the cedar paper soaked, I cleaned the salmon, making sure to remove all the pin bones. The asparagus was somewhat thick, so I ran a vegetable peeler down the stalks to remove the tough skin, then broke off the ends. The cedar paper only needs about 10 minutes of soaking before it’s ready to use. For the salmon, I put salt, pepper, thinly sliced ginger and slices of lemon over the top before sealing the bundles with kitchen twine. For the asparagus, I smeared each sheet of paper with a dab of butter and added some salt and pepper. I bundled and tied everything up and was ready to go to the grill.
The bundles go right over the hottest part of the grill so the paper can start to smoke and add flavor to the food. As the paper began to burn, I turned the bundles over to cook everything evently. Cooking is a sensory practice where all your senses are required to get the best results. For me, seeing, smelling and touching the food is the best way to know when its done. But my salmon was hidden inside these little bundles, making it impossible for me to see or touch it. I have to admit, I felt a little disoriented not being able to see or touch the salmon, but when the paper was beginning to blacken, I figured the food had to be done.
Opening the bundles was kind of like a big unveiling. The salmon was delicious, but it didn’t really pick up much flavor from the cedar paper. And one of the best parts of cooking salmon is crispy skin. But since the skin was not exposed to the heat, it was flabby. The asparaus picked up much more flavor from the cedar than the salmon did. And because they were thick, they stayed a little crunchy. I could have eaten four pounds of that smokey asparagus. They were very tasty! And the brandy in the soaking water added no flavor whatsoever.
I still have four sheets of cedar paper left and I was thinking about using them for pork or beef tenderloin. And now I’m curious about using the full cedar planks for cooking salmon. Any tips would be helpful.