The next step, of course, was to go out and catch some fish. And wasn’t it ironic that, even though every summer my kids and I catch all this mackerel we don’t need because no one except my nine-year-old daughter Helen and I like it, this summer we couldn’t catch more than a handful. I even went so far as to hire a professional fishing guide, who did a great job of helping us land hearty stripers but only came up with five puny mackerel. Eventually, I resorted to buying them from anybody who had some.
Once we had enough fish, I filleted and brined them in two different batches—one with just salt, sugar, and water, and the other with rum, salt, maple syrup, ginger, and cloves—for about an hour. The brining, I’d learned, accomplishes a number of things: It gives the fish more, or at least different, flavor and helps preserve them by drawing out moisture and introducing salt. It even creates a really cool glaze, called the pellicle, on the mackerel, once the fish is taken out of the brine and dried. If you don’t see the sticky glaze, then you haven’t brined and dried the fish correctly.
Next, I smoked them on oven racks in the space-age smokehouse at 150 degrees. Four hours later, they were done—cured with pure applewood smoke. Helen and I thought they were delicious, but I invited my skeptical fishing buddy Russell over just to be sure. He’d at least love the ginger-scented ones. Yet all he said was, “I really don’t like oily fish.”
Undaunted, I whipped up a batch of mackerel pâté (very simple: equal parts cream cheese and sour cream, a couple tablespoons white wine, teaspoon of chipotle, tablespoon capers, quarter cup green onions, and as much smoked mackerel as you have) that was demolished at a friend’s party despite her warning everybody: “Watch out! Hodding’s trying to trick you into eating mackerel!” I do think it was a huge success, even if an inebriated fellow in a sailor’s cap ate half of it.
I still wasn’t Satisfied, though, for two reasons. There was no way Lisa was going to let me keep my eye-catching smoker in the yard, and I hadn’t won over Russell, my biggest critic. To my surprise, taking care of both Lisa and Russell required the same tactic: patience. I had been so fired up to get my smoking going and prove the world wrong in its judgment of mackerel that I hadn’t taken the time to consider aesthetics or the subtleties of technique.
First, what would win Lisa over? I browsed old cookbooks, a book on small buildings and shelters, back-to-the-land pamphlets, and numerous websites for smokehouse plans, unswayed by arguments for anything from cardboard to brick for various reasons. Then I saw it: a wooden smokehouse. I knew from Ray Bradbury that paper didn’t burn until Fahrenheit 451, so surely wood was safe. If I were doing things correctly, my oven’s temperature would never be over 200 degrees for more than a few minutes. I finally settled on a shiplapped wooden structure sided with one-inch-thick light-pine boards—five feet tall, three feet wide, and three feet deep. Framed with two-by-fours, it would be solid enough to withstand our severe Maine winters but portable enough to be moved out of sight when Lisa was sick of it. Perfect. It was so simple, I built it in one morning.
And in order to convince Russell that mackerel tasted good, I simply needed to work on slower, cooler smoking—something I’d been too afraid of in the beginning. The thing I’d had the hardest time conceptualizing was that the fish wasn’t being cooked by heat. It was, in fact, being molecularly transformed by salt and smoke—sort of the way my newfangled toilet seat restructures stinky molecules into nonstinky ones with its deodorizer. The more cool, fruity smoke that wafted over and through the fish, the better it would taste. Too high a temperature caused the fish to dry out, and anything besides fruitwood—hickory, say—was too strong, making it taste like Texas brisket. For my most successful batch, I ended up smoking the fish for six hours at no more than 120 degrees. Our family’s single heirloom apple tree suffered a bit from excessive trimming, but the end result—both sweetly smoky and moist—was what I had hoped for. Just what you want on top of a cream-cheese-smeared bagel.
The moment of truth? Russell ate the entire thing without a single sound bite.