Try planking … all the kids are doing it

Planking? Not the weird fad that consists of kids lying face-down in a public place or other location, I mean cedar planking. As in cooking on a cedar plank, indoors or out. It’s a classy and modern yet ancient and earthy way to make tasty food taste even better.

Oooh, it smells like fall around here. The weather took a sharp turn towards the weird in good old San Diego after Labor Day weekend, and the smell of the slightly rainy and humid feel makes me think of forests in the Pacific Northwest that are brimming with fragrant woods. Indigenous people have been cooking their meals on woods like cedar for generations. I received an awesome gift of some fresh Alaskan salmon, so I figured this was the perfect time to try some planking on my M7P outdoor cooking system.

I did a little research beforehand, looking at the tips from the manufacturer (I used “TrueFire” planks but there are a few different places to get cedar specifically prepared for grilling and cooking) and asking some fellow foodies in the know. The main recommendations I got were to soak, soak, soak the planks. The ones I bought suggested 20 minutes to 4 hours of soaking, but pretty much everyone else I talked to suggested more like 6 hours and even overnight. Since this blog is about my experiments, I determined that I would … well, experiment … and discover which recipes and methods work best.

Experiment No. 1:

Herbed Alaskan Salmon with fresh vegetables

I made this recipe on a cedar plank that had been soaking in water for about 4-5 hours, and I cooked it over charcoal. Obviously you can adapt this recipe and soak the plank in other liquid, like fruit juice or wine (but stay clear of spirits because they will make your plank of cedar into a plank of fire).

  • 2 fillets Alaskan salmon
  • 1 lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  • Fresh herbs (I used rosemary and thyme)

Carefully place the salmon on the planks (you may need one plank per fillet if the planks are small or the fish is big) and season the salmon with the salt, pepper, and herbs, and sprinkle fresh juice from the lemon on top. Add fresh vegetables (I used asparagus, but stick to something like broccoli that would steam quickly and easily) and cover with foil. Carefully place the plank on a preheated grill and cook for about 25-30 minutes.

The vegetables covering the salmon also help to keep the heat inside.

What I Learned from Experiment No. 1:

  • Cedar is weak. Within 10 minutes at not-very-high heat, the plank has started to buckle in on itself and the juices are starting to run off. The solution: put the plank on a broiler pan or some other equally sturdy and hole-y flat surface.
  • Temperature control is key. Keep the fire at about 200 degrees and keep the lid on as much as possible while cooking. The wet cedar is also steaming the salmon and vegetables, and it helps to keep the salmon protected by a pile of asparagus or other veggie. It’s also recommended that you keep a squirt bottle handy in case of a flare-up. 
    A broiler pan is perfect to keep the cedar plank from buckling.

Experiment No. 2:

Baked Alaskan Salmon with Grapefruit/ Vanilla Quick Marmalade

I got some lovely fresh vanilla beans and thought the additional sweetness and citrus flavor would be great on the salmon. This version is also baked in the oven on top of a plank soaked in orange juice, but it can be cooked on a grill also if you like.

  • 1 whole grapefruit (if not organic, scrub the outside very well)
  • 1/2 fresh vanilla bean, scraped
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 fillets Alaskan salmon
  • salt and pepper
  • Fresh vegetables (I used carrot sticks and bok choy this time)

To make the marmalade, slice the grapefruit very thinly, peel and all, into a nonreactive pot (to make the marmalade less bitter, omit the peel but keep the pith). Add vanilla and sugar, boil on high for about 10 minutes and then reduce to a simmer for about 30 minutes or until the mixture has gelled (watch carefully, because when it’s done, you have about 10 seconds to remove it from the heat before it burns). While still warm, spoon on top of salmon fillets that are already on soaked cedar planks.

I kept the cedar as wet as possible (literally in an inch of orange juice in the baking dish) and also covered the salmon with sturdy vegetables to keep the moisture and heat inside while baking.

What I Learned from Experiment No. 2:

  • Cedar takes the flavor you give it. Soaking the plank in orange juice adds a ton of fresh and delicious flavor to the delicate salmon.
  • Cedar is delicious. There is no need to pile on overpowering flavors to compete with the delicate flavor of the salmon. Although the grapefruit is a little overpowering in this recipe, salmon and most other fish work very well with citrus and this is no exception.
  • Baking the cedar plank while it’s immersed in liquid means you don’t need to be constantly vigilant about the cedar possibly flaring up, so it’s more convenient in that sense. However the cedar flavor is definitely more pronounced when the plank is grilled.

Of course, there’s no reason your cedar-plank-cooking experience must be limited to vegetables and delicate fish. For my next attempt, I went full turophile.

Just the perfect level of gooeyness.

Experiment No. 3:

Planked Brie

I love cheese like Paula Deen loves butter. I soaked this cedar plank in white wine to enhance the awesome.

  • Bottle of white wine (I used a simple Turning Point Chardonnay, but use whatever you like)
  • Wheel of Brie cheese
  • For serving: a jar of your favorite spicy jelly and some crusty bread or crackers (I used my favorite roasted cherry/pepper jam. Thank goodness I had an extra jar! It’s delicious and smoky and is an excellent addition to the creamy brie).

Soak the plank in the white wine for at least 4 hours (to really get the wine flavor into that plank, soak it for 6 or more). Carefully slice the top off of the brie package and place on the plank, then carefully place on a grill.  Cover and let cook over the hot coals for about 20 minutes, until the cheese is gooey and bubbly. For serving, add the spicy jelly on top and serve with sliced apples and pears and crackers or bread.

Try it with a spicy and fruity jam or preserve.

What I Learned from Experiment No. 3:

  • Cheese is awesome. Well … I may have known that before. 
  • White wine doesn’t add as much flavor as I thought it would. The wine adds a delicate scent and flavor but the cedar is pretty delicate and fragrant as well. One day I plan to try planking some chicken and cheese with a good hoppy beer.
  • If you are cooking on coals, cook as the coals are starting to cool off. If you have a propane or very hot grill that has been cooking all day and is still very hot, make sure you keep an eye on the brie because you have about enough time as it takes to slice an apple or two and open a pack of crackers before the cheese overflows all over the plank. If the grill is cooling off when you place the brie on it, you have a beer or two before it’s soft enough to serve. But still keep an eye on it.

    It also helps to "tent" some foil over the plank, like so.

  • Brie is like jam in that when it’s done, you have about 45 seconds between “done” and “burnt beyond recognition and unusable as food.” Watch it carefully or you’ll waste the cheese and the cedar plank.

Altogether, I am very happy with the results of my cooking on cedar planks. It adds a delicate and smooth yet very distinct flavor to several different dishes. Obviously things like delicate salmon or gooey brie is best for a medium like cedar, but I look forward to planking chicken, ribs and even desserts. Stay tuned.

Maybe it’s because it’s Canadian? Eh?

I’ve always been a huge fan of carrot cake. It’s by far my favorite non-chocolate dessert. So when I stumbled upon a recipe for Carrot Cake Jam, I knew it must be love. And it was. It was all the best things about cooking. It was fun and simple to make, it was very pleasing to the eyes …

However, strangely (to me anyway), the recipe left out raisins. The second time I made this, I added raisins, as well as a little extra nutmeg and cinnamon.  If you eat it, slightly warmed — not heated, but just to take the chill off, on a bagel with cream cheese, it’s like a recreation of the carrot cake itself. Mmmm….

Adventures in marmalade

My family is Scottish and as such I feel it is somehow in my blood to enjoy and be good at making and cooking with marmalade. But after sampling a few different marmalades and making my own (courtesy of the Barefoot Contessa here) I discovered the unthinkable. I really don’t care for traditional marmalade. It’s too bitter and you can’t make a peanut butter sandwich with it. It’s lovely, and it’s easy to make, but I had my doubts.

I tried another batch, this time instead of navel oranges using fresh and local mandarin oranges (although they were very seedy and required lots of seed removal), as well as a large can of crushed pineapple. While still generally unusable for a sandwich, it works on toast, and is also insanely good as a base for a meat marinade. Here’s a nice steak marinated in a vinagrette with the orange/pineapple marmalade on the grill. The smell is fabulous.

Call me mint jelly, cause I’m on the lamb!

 

The lamb was tender and perfect … but I can’t take the credit. It was all Paula Deen’s recipe. However, it went fabulously with a jar of homemade mint jelly. This is a super-easy jelly recipe, basically boiling mint and sugar together with a few drops of green food coloring and pectin. The fresh mint in the marinade and the sweet juiciness of the lamb are heavenly …

Pepper Jelly, aka the first time EVER that something was not spicy enough.

One of the perils of a good jam, jelly or preserve is that you really can’t taste it without burning your face. By the time you can sample and possibly make any change to the taste, it’s already cooled and in cute little jars.

Jam Lesson #5:

Quit being such a p**sy and go for the spice.

Since I have never made (or really eaten, to my knowledge) any kind of pepper jelly, I figured I would follow the easiest recipe (calling for a red bell pepper, a green bell pepper, and 6 jalapenos with the seeds and ribs removed). It looked like it was going to be pretty mild, but I was unprepare for how sweet it was.

Anyway, it makes a lovely jelly, it is awesome spread on a tortilla before the hot carnitas and cotija cheese is added, and it was great mixed with soy sauce as a spring roll dip. I plan to make a spicier version … perhaps more than a couple of versions, I’d like to have a variety in my pantry, from wimpy to pants-on-fire.

And then there was … bacon. Bacon jam.

I felt triumphant. I had gone from being a jam virgin to making three relatively successful jams that people seemed to enjoy eating and hadn’t lost their eyesight or anything. I had some empty jars left over and was wondering what to attempt next when I came home to check my mail, just to find that Martha Stewart had dedicated a large section of the December 2010 issue of “Everyday Food” magazine.

Page 100. Slow-cooker bacon jam. What.

Martha, why do you mock me? I will make that bacon jam. Show you.

Jam lesson #4:

But it’s not jam.

Ok, I’ve had enough of your attitude. Just because it doesn’t have pectin and mounds of sugar? Just because it’s slow-cooked instead of forced to the rolling angry boil?

Well, I am no expert. It might not technically be jam. But people love to eat it and people love to get it as a gift, neatly wrapped in a pretty piece of fabric.

This was by far the most popular jam I made in 2o10 … even though I suppose it’s technically more of a tapenade or dip. Here goes: render a massive amount of bacon – the recipe says  1 1/2 lbs but I doubled it to three and may have (ahem) used a little extra – in a big pot. When it starts to smell like victory, add chopped onions, garlic, chives, and assorted things you like to use.  I added some extra herbs. Then add a cup of strong coffee, maple syrup, cider vinegar and some brown sugar. Put it all in your slow cooker, on high, with the lid off. Your kitchen will smell amazing.

Smells like victory

 

After the mixture starts to thicken and get bubbly and a little darker, it’s ready. I learned after two batches of this awesomeness that although bacon fat is … well, kind of the idea, it is a little bit greasy for some. If you’re giving it as a gift, skim off some of the fat, if for nothing else then because it doesn’t look pretty through the glass jar.

This stuff is delicious on any sandwich. I also tried some with hot sauce and cream cheese as a tasty dip for tortilla chips. It is amazing.

Pretty bacon jam

Why not share?

Of course, it wasn’t an accident that the magazines are putting ideas like homemade jams and jellies in our heads around the holidays. From Halloween til New Year’s, people everywhere – like me – are looking for ways to wow their friends and acquaintances with the deliciousness coming forth from your kitchen. Something that can be done on a budget? Even better. Something that can be decorated artfully and delivered personally? Lovely.

Pom-Pear Jam