Where there's smoke, there's flavour
Smoking food is so hot right now.
And judging from the gorgeous lamb chop on my plate, which has been browned off in a frypan then put into a cabinet hot smoker, it's a revelation that smoking food isn't as common as salt and pepper. As well as the flavour of the meat - its glorious caramelised outside and soft tender inside - there's the intense flavours of the smoke that stays in the mouth well after the dishes have been done.
Our ancestors have been doing it for aeons. Whoever discovered fire, and discovered meat was much easier to eat and preserve if cooked on said fire, must have also discovered that the smoke flavouring the meat makes it incredibly delicious. As I bite into my chop, I'm reminded of barbecues, of the carefree nature of summer, and something primeval in me that loves the smell of fires, and the taste of it too.
Further down the line, smoking was a way of preserving food - combined with salting or brining. Says Ian Hornblow who teaches workshops in food smokery: "Curing and smoking are incredibly old techniques. Especially with cod, there's that story of cod and how it was the fish that discovered the world, because it gave seaman protein much further into their voyages."
Cold smoking and hot smoking are two ways to infuse food with that luscious smokey flavour.
Hornblow's cold smoking contraption is made from old sun-dried tomato jars and pieces of garden hose, and looks suspiciously like a bong. It works the same way; drawing smoke from the oak chips he puts into a valve, into a seperate jar where the food to be smoked is placed.
Cold smoking doesn't cook food but gives it flavour and cures it. You might cold smoke a cheese for instance, so it would retain its texture and structure but be infused with smokey flavour. Smoked salmon you buy in the supermarket in packages is cured with salt then cold-smoked. It's a slow process - you might leave the food being smoked overnight, or even days before it's ready.
Hot smoking involves a little more preparation, but it's worth the effort. Hornblow has a Brinkman cabinet smoker in which you can hot smoke vegetables, meat and fish. He fills a bowl at the bottom with briquettes and lights it with meths. When the embers are white, he adds another bowl with oak chips and his ‘secret' ingredient - coffee grounds.
"This gives it much more smoke and flavour as well. I like it because it just makes things taste much better."
He dampens them so they smoke rather than combust and pops that on a rack above the coals. Food goes on racks above this, and it cooks the food at a low temperature while smoking it.
Hornblow has a good supply of oak chips, but you can use different wood chips for different flavours; manuka (though not fresh manuka unless you like the flavour of tea tree oil), wood from fruit trees and nut trees like pecan. You can add different flavours by adding sugar, cinnamon quills, allsspice or anything woody into the wood chip mix.
Fish is really easy to smoke because it doesn't need much cooking. Hornblow takes some slices of salmon, douses them liberally with salt, and places them on a rack in the hot smoker with some rosemary leaves he's just pulled off their stems. He makes sure all the pieces are the same size so they cook at the same rate. The result is supberb - lightly cooked salmon with a rich smokey flavour. Topped with some of Hornblow's smoked sauce, they are quite simply divine.
Eggplant slices and pieces of artichokes packed in olive oil are given the same treatment. Twenty or so minutes later the eggplant is tender and the artichokes given a flavourful punch.
But the most divine way to use the smoker is for lamb. Racks are browned in a frypan, smoked for about 20 minutes, and oh la la, they are amazing.
Buying a smoker may seem like serious investment, but there is a really simple way to get the flavour without the palaver. Take a wok, line it with tinfoil and place dampened woodchips and whatever else you want to add flavour, into the bottom of the wok. Then get a rack and place on the top of the wok so the food isn't directly on top of the smoke. Put your desired vegetables or meats on the rack, cover the whole thing in tinfoil and voila, you have a mini smoker. Salmon cooked this way takes around 10-15 minutes on a medium heat.
Hornblow's ‘hoot' sauce is a favourite with his students, and he encourages them to make their own version. Roasted red peppers, sun dried tomatoes and chillis are smoked, along with garlic and ginger. The whole lot are blended to make a hot, flavourful sauce that can be blended with mayonnaise to tone it down a bit, or slathered on fish and meat for more of a smoke kick.