Jen Causey
Active Time
1 HR
Total Time
1 HR
Yield
Serves : 8

Each summer, we escape the Texas heat to visit my parents in Minnesota. Most of that time is spent at their place “up north” on the shores of Leech Lake. The massive body of cold water is a mecca for walleye fisherman, but for me, it’s all about the cool nights and loon watching. In the evenings, we set out in my dad’s boat across the smooth, dark water in search of a quiet bay and, if we’re lucky, Minnesota’s state bird. The black-and-white-speckled birds descend from the sky, cast a wary red eye as they drift past, and—quicker than a sneeze—slip under water in search of prey. Loons have various calls, including an alarming tremolo that sounds like maniacal laughter, short hoots, and a wild yodel meant to guard their territory. The Holy Grail, however, is a long, hauntingly beautiful wail that drifts across the evening like a prayer.

In addition to hoodie weather, rousing cornhole tournaments, and time with my family, my other favorite lake tradition is lazy, smoked-fish brunches. In addition to Bloody Marys (lavishly garnished with pickled vegetables and a beef stick) and craft beers from Duluth, the star of the spread is smoked fish. Because I’m fussy about ingredients and the cooking process (fresh fish and a light hand with the smoke) I much prefer to smoke it at home. The fish couldn’t be easier to prepare: It’s brushed with olive oil and lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, and a pinch of heat. You don’t want to mask the fish’s delicate flavor with a carpet of spice rub here. I top the fish with sprigs of fresh dill or thyme and then smoke it over indirect heat for about 20 minutes. The ambient heat of the covered grill causes the herb sprigs to meld to the fish and perfume it with a lovely flavor.

When it comes to rounding out the board, you can be as simple or lavish as you wish. Lemon wedges, caperberries, cornichons, chopped red onion, sturdy seeded crackers, and sour cream flavored with a spoonful or two of prepared horseradish are essential in my book. Chopped hard-cooked eggs, radishes, cheeses (creamy and aged), and a crunchy cucumber salad (splashed with cider vinegar and olive oil) are other welcome additions. Ideally, the meal will stretch well into the afternoon, until the light begins to fade and the time is right for more loon song.

How to Make It

Step 1    

Measure out 2 sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil that are 6 inches longer than the fish, and place them on a rimless baking sheet. Place the fish, skin side down, on the foil with 3 inches of excess on either side; drizzle with oil to coat. Sprinkle fish with salt, pink pepper, and red pepper; top with dill sprigs. Let fish stand at room temperature while you prepare the grill, at least 10 minutes.

Step 2    

Prepare a charcoal grill for two-zone cooking and build a medium-high fire, or heat a gas grill to high. When the coals are glowing red and covered with a layer of fine gray ash, use tongs to remove the cooking grate. Place a drip pan filled with 1 inch of warm water on the side with no coals, and add 2 cups cherry wood chips. Return the cooking grate, and let it preheat to 300°F.

Step 3    

When the fire begins to produce a steady stream of smoke, place the fish on foil on grill grates over indirect heat. Close grill, vent the grill for smoking, and smoke until fish registers 140°F, about 20 minutes, rotating fish halfway through cooking (using excess foil as handles). When the fish is cooked (it will feel just firm to the touch and flake easily with a fork), carefully slide the foil and fish back onto the baking sheet; let it rest 10 minutes. Sprinkle with flaky salt, and serve with desired accoutrements.

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