One of the pleasures of having an herb garden is seeing it go up in smoke. Now I'm not talking about the advantages of slash-and-burn cultivation, I'm referring to imparting a hauntingly delicious smoky herbal flavor to charcoal grilled foods by throwing fresh herbs on the fire. And having an herb garden, even a small one, usually means having enough herbs to burn.
Just as hickory, applewood or grapevine cuttings impart a distinctive flavor to meats that are cooked or smoked over them, so do herbs. Thyme, sage, rosemary, dill, oregano and many others give a new meaning to seasoning when they are burned.
Basically all that is done is to throw fresh herbs -- stems, leaves and all -- by the handful or armful on the hot coals just before the food is placed on the grill and to cover the grill. Dried herbs cannot be used because they will go up in flames, not smoke. Even fresh herbs will flame when charred if they get too much air, and this will greatly reduce the volume of smoke generated. Flames can be kept down with a few squirts from a plant spritzer, or by limiting the air supply to the coals, the preferred method. For this reason, herbal smoking is best done on a barbecue with a cover and vents to control air intake. It can be done, however, on hibachis and other uncovered grills by placing a large sheet of aluminum foil over the top to confine the smoke.
The amount of herbs to be burned varies depending on the herb and the desired strength of the herbal-smoked flavor. Some herbs such as fresh coriander are quite strong, and a dozen or so leaves are sufficient; any more would overdo it. Others, like thyme, rosemary and oregano, are not as strong; a one-inch layer of these herbs spread over the coals two or three times during cooking will transform a boned and butterflied leg of lamb or grilled chicken, for example.
Herbal-smoked charcoal-broiled food, like any broiled food, should never be charred. It should come out golden brown, with a savory parched exterior trapping the meat's juices. Because barbecues lack thermostats, a lot of attention has to be given to foods on the grill to make sure they neither burn nor cook too slowly. Foods that are eaten rare, such as steak or lamb chops, can be cooked directly over very hot coals for a short time with the fresh herbs around the periphery of the fire. If the coals are much too hot, a pile of fresh herbs spread over them directly beneath the meat can quench some of the heat and will direct even more smoke to the meat. When cooking a roast, fish, turkey or pork, which need to cook through evenly, use a moderately hot fire spread with up to a one-inch layer of herbs.
Because heat regulation is difficult in charcoal grilling, a meat thermometer is indispensible for cooking roasts and turkeys. Also, the use of tongs is recommended for handling meat on the fire because a fork pierces the meat, allowing juices to escape.
All herbs are not equal when it comes to herbal smoking. Both in terms of which foods they go with and how prolific the plants are, some are better than others. Thyme, for example, can be used to smoke practically anything. In my garden it spreads like crazy and there is always more than enough to burn. My one sage bush, too, constantly needs cutting back, but I like sage smoke only with pork, some fish and in small amounts with beef. Dill, on the other hand, never did well in my yard, so I rarely use it and then mostly for fish, though it would also go with chicken. Oregano grows rapidly, and its smoke nicely complements chicken, lamb, pork and fish, especially bluefish.
Herbal smoking can be used with a variety of meat preparations from plain steaks and chops to marinated meats, brochettes and roasts. To me, it is one of the best ways of preparing fish. Here are several recipes developed for herbal smoke-grilling. SMOKED BARBEQUED PORK ROAST (4 servings) 1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds 1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds 1 1/2 teaspoons juniper berries 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 or 3 cloves of garlic 2 tablespoons olive oil 3 pounds boneless center loin pork roast Herbs for the fire: Small bunch each chervil, tarragon, fennel (optional) and 1 or 2 12-inch cuttings from juniper bush or cedar tree
With a mortar and pestle grind together the coriander, fennel, juniper and salt. When the seeds are ground to a coarse powder, add the garlic and olive oil and grind to a paste. Rub the paste on the meat and let stand in the refrigerator overnight.
Make a moderately hot fire. If you are using a covered smoker grill, once the coals are hot arrange herbs in a ring so there are none directly below the meat. Place half the herbs on the coals, put on the meat and cover. Regulate the fire so that the meat does not burn. After 20 minutes add the rest of the herbs to the fire. Cook until a meat thermometer registers 180 degrees. Let sit at least 10 minutes before slicing. This roast is very good cold or at room temperature and can be prepared hours before it is to be served. SAGE SMOKED SEA TROUT OR ROCKFISH (4 servings) 2 pounds sea trout or rockfish fillets Olive oil 1/2 bunch sage leaves (a bunch is about the size of a grocery store bunch of parsley) 6 to 8 thin round slices of lemon, plus wedges for garnish Herbs for the fire: lots of sage
Rub the fish skin with olive oil. Arrange the fillets, skin side down, on a platter. Chop the sage finely. Place 2 slices of lemon on each fillet, then spread the chopped sage over the fish so it is well covered. Gently press the sage onto the fish.
Spread sage about 1 inch thick over a moderately hot fire. Place the fish, skin side down, on the grill and cover. Cook until the fish flakes when poked with a fork (about 20 minutes). The flesh should be moist and juicy and the skin lightly browned. Scrape off most of the chopped sage. Serve with lemon wedges. CHIVE AND OREGANO GRILLED CHICKEN (4 servings) 1/3 cup finely chopped chives 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh oregano Juice of 1/2 lemon 3 1/2 pounds chicken, cut into 12 to 15 serving pieces Herbs for the fire: chives and oregano
Mix the chopped chives and oregano together with the lemon juice. Put the chicken pieces in a stainless steel, glass or glazed ceramic bowl and add the lemon-herb mixture, mixing so that each piece is well coated. Cover the bowl and marinate in the refrigerator 4 to 6 hours.
Make a hot fire. Spread roughly equal amounts of chives and oregano over the coals at least 1/4 inch thick. Put the chicken on the grill and cover. Check the chicken after 10 minutes and turn when nicely browned. Replace cover. Turn and cook until the chicken is golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. SMOKED BLUEFISH (6 servings) 1/2 cup fresh oregano, chopped 1/2 cup fresh thyme, chopped 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 cloves of garlic 4 tablespoons olive oil 3 pounds bluefish fillets Herbs for the fire: thyme and oregano
With mortar and pestle grind together the oregano, thyme and salt to make a paste. Then grind in the garlic. When it is well incorporated with the herbs, thin the paste with olive oil Rub this mixture over the fish and let it marinate in the refrigerator at least 1 hour.
Make a low to moderately hot fire. Spread fresh thyme and oregano, in roughly equal amounts, about 1/2 to 1 inch thick over the coals. Place the fish skin side down on the grill and cover. Check the fish after 15 minutes; do not turn over. Cook until the flesh flakes when poked with a fork. SMOKED BLUEFISH PATE 3 pounds bluefish fillets prepared as in preceding recipe but slightly undercooked (can be prepared the day before pate is made) 5 slices of white bread smoked and toasted with the bluefish fillets over the fire About 1/2 cup milk or cream 3 tablespoons butter 6 egg yolks 1 clove of garlic, crushed 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves Salt and pepper Lime wedges
Remove all bones from the fish and scrape off any herb stems clinging to it. Chop fish and set it aside. Remove the crusts from the bread and soak it in enough milk or cream to make it mushy. Put the mushy bread into the blender with 3 tablespoons butter, 6 egg yolks, the crushed garlic and the thyme leaves, and puree. Add as much of the bluefish as your blender can handle (it should be at least half the fish) and puree. If your blender would not handle all the bluefish, pour the puree and the remaining fish into a bowl and mix with an electric mixer until it is smooth. Taste to check the seasoning and add salt or pepper if necessary. Pour the mixture into a buttered terrine or loaf pan and cover it with foil. Place the baking pan in a pan of water (bain marie) so that the water comes about halfway up the outside of the pate pan. Bake at 350 degrees until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean (about 50 minutes). Cool. Serve chilled with lime wedges. The pate is even better if covered with an aspic based on a broth flavored with bluefish and mushrooms. This pate makes an outstanding first course or luncheon dish. FLORENTINE STEAK MY WAY (4 servings) 4 T-bone steaks 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick or allow 3/4 pound per person Coarsely grated black pepper Best quality "extra virgin" Italian olive oil (optional) Salt 4 lemon wedges Herbs for the fire: sage
Lightly sprinkle the steaks with the black pepper and press the pepper gently into the meat. Make a very hot fire. Spread the sage about 1/4 inch thick over the coals. Put the steaks on and cover the grill. When the steaks are nicely browned (about 5 to 7 minutes), turn them. Check them again in 4 minutes. They are medium-rare when the meat has firmed up and juice begins to appear on the top of the meat. The fire should be hot enough to sear the outside before the center of the steak is cooked beyond medium (unless you like steaks well done). To serve, sprinkle a few drops of olive oil and some salt on each steak and place a lemon wedge on each plate. Eat seasoned with freshly squeezed lemon juice