Some were sweet, some salty. Some had a hint of citrus and spices, some a bitter, woody aftertaste. Some smelled of campfires, still others of stagnant water.
Fourteen samples of smoked salmon challenged judges to choose a favorite Saturday at the second-annual Southern Oregon Smoked Salmon Festival. After three hours of tasting, considering and discussing the fish, nine judges — six restaurateurs and myself included — declared a winner. Hometown favorite Paul Tipton of Jacksonville took home the $1,000 prize and bragging rights for a year. Check out photos of the entries on my Facebook page.
The event’s repeat judges agreed that the caliber of fish had risen over last year’s competition. And unlike the inaugural year’s lineup, no salmon imitator was detected and disqualified.
Steelhead, in case there’s any confusion among the general public, is not a type of salmon. The sea-going trout behaves like salmon, though, running up rivers in summer and winter to spawn.
Lacking salmon’s rich, distinctive flavor, steelhead still is popular for smoking, along with smaller specimens of lake trout. The following process, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, takes a couple of days, although the actual preparation isn’t difficult.
1 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 shallots, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
Zest of 2 lemons
1 large (or 2 small) bay leaf, crushed
6 (1/2- to 3/4-pound) whole trout, cleaned
Wood shavings for smoking, preferably alder or applewood
In a large nonreactive container, combine 2 quarts water with the salt, sugar, shallots, garlic, lemon zest and bay leaf, stirring until salt and sugar dissolve to create a brine.
Add the trout to container, using a plate or weight to keep trout submerged. Place container in refrigerator for 6 hours.
Remove trout from brine and discard brine. Rinse and dry trout and place them on a rack over a rimmed sheet pan. Refrigerate trout, uncovered, overnight to dry surface.
The next day, prepare a hot smoker. Smoke trout over low heat (about 225 F) until firm and fully cooked, for about 1 hour. Trout will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 5 days.
Makes 6 to 12 servings.