by Pam Vukelic
We recently had the wonderful experience of eating fresh-caught King Salmon and halibut in Anchorage. It was made all the more special because we were enjoying it in the company of our son, Reed, his wife, Mollie, and our grandson Connor, in their dining room. And, it was still more special because the cedar planks on which they grilled the fish had come from a cedar tree Reed cut down in Kentucky, Mollie’s home state. I don’t know that it can get any better than that!
Plank cooking is a popular way to grill fish. The flavor emanating from the cedar and smoke greatly enhances the delicate fish flavor. It is also a healthy method of cooking with no added fat; it cooks slowly on a covered grill with less opportunity to over-cook the fish; and it requires no attention except to check for doneness. Because no turning is required, you eliminate the risk of breaking up the fish or having it fall through the grates.
But, in case you don’t live near a cedar tree that needs to be taken down, there are other options that will give you some of the same benefits.
Wooden wraps are very thin sheets of wood flexible enough to wrap around your food items. They are available in a variety of woods (e.g., cedar, alder, hickory, maple, cherry, and apple). Small ones, about 4” square, are good for appetizers and the larger ones, usually about 8” square, are ideal for main dishes. As with the planks, the wraps need to be soaked in water, apple juice, wine, or beer before use. They are then rolled around your food “with the grain of the wood” to prevent splitting. To secure the cylinder, use kitchen twine that also has been soaked in water. Trim any long ends as they may start on fire. Soaked scallion greens can also be used for tying. Silicon bands would be still another option.
Many of the benefits of plank cooking are inherent in wooden wrap cooking. The subtle smoky flavor enhances most any food and the end result is moist and tender. Little attention is needed during cooking and when the whole roll is placed on the plate for serving it makes a beautiful presentation. People concerned with the potential waste of using a plank of wood only once or twice appreciate that the wraps consist of much less wood. However, they are limited to one-time use.
Although I have not seen the wooden wraps available locally, there are numerous choices available online at sites such as Amazon and Williams-Sonoma. The larger ones typically cost about one dollar each.
Other wrap options include banana leaves, foil packets, corn husks, and banana peels. Banana leaves can be picked up at many Asian markets and will keep in the freezer if you can’t use them right away.
Banana leaves can be used as wraps for sweet or savory foods. They provide a hint of sweetness. Pull a few strips off the edge of the rectangular leaves to use to tie the bundles together. Soaking the leaves before use makes them much more pliable and manageable. They make a very good wrap for fish, but chicken works well, too. Wrapping cooked rice in the leaves and then steaming it results in a solid mass that can be sliced, once cooled, and serves as excellent picnic fare. Check the internet for a recipe for Lontong if you’d like to try it!
We’ve cooked in foil packets on the grill as long as I can remember. Sliced potatoes with chives and butter are a family favorite, but ground beef or chicken breast can be added, along with other vegetables to provide flavor (e.g., onions, carrots, peppers). Foil packets that are three or four layers thick can be nestled right into the coals for quicker cooking. The key is to be sure the packets are sealed tightly so the flavor and the moisture stay inside. The steam escaping when you open the packets can burn so consider wearing cotton garden gloves.
Nothing could be easier than preparing corn on the cob on the grill in its husk. Remove the silk, soak the cobs in water for a while, if you wish (although I have skipped this step), and place directly on the grates of your grill. Allow the husks to char nicely and your corn will be ready to eat. You can, if you wish, pull back the husks before cooking, slather on a little flavored butter (lime and cilantro, maybe), then reseal the husks as well as you can.
For dessert, cut bananas with the peel still on in half lengthwise. Brush cut sides with oil (lightly) and place cut side down on a pre-heated grill. Once grill marks appear, turn over and insert chunks of dark chocolate. Continue to heat until chocolate begins to melt. Serve with ice cream and toasted sliced almonds.
But wait! It can get better! Being in Anchorage when Connor’s brother, Eivin, was born moved all the good Alaskan fish to second place.
Pam Vukelic is an online FACS (Family and Consumer Sciences) instructor for the Missouri River Educational Consortium.