The final day of trout season in central Vermont was bitterly cold. Winooski River water droplets running off of the line quickly froze to the eyelets of my rod, forming little doughnuts of ice that had to be broken off every 10 minutes or so. My gloves were still sitting on the mudroom bench at home, leaving the tender skin on my knuckles red and cracked. It would have been a pretty miserable morning but the browns were biting. It wasn’t long before I had three keeper trout ready for the smoker.
I have a tendency for overly romantic ideas when developing recipes and I had been itching to try my latest out. When a beaver chews down a tree, it often leaves chips of wood behind at the base of the stump. Each one of these chips represents one bite that the beaver took in its process of chewing down the tree. A few weeks prior to catching these trout, I was examining a speckled alder stump along the riverbank. I noticed that the “beaver chips” were nearly identical in size to apple wood or hickory chips you could buy at the store. It just so happens that alder wood is the type of wood that is traditionally used when smoking salmon and trout in Alaska. Soft violin music began playing in my mind as I thought of the possibility of using alder wood chips provided by a beaver who swam in the same waters as the trout I was about to smoke.
A one quart Ziploc bag full of alder wood chips were easily collected from around the stump. I could have grabbed more but a steady rain picked up and this was already more than enough for my project. I did grab a 12 inch section of log left behind by my beavery benefactor. This log would be shaved down into an appropriate serving platter for final smoked product.
The man cub helped measure out 4 cups of warm water, 3/8 cup of honey, 1/8 cup of brown sugar, and a 1/4 cup of kosher salt. We warmed the mixture on the stove while stirring just enough to dissolve all of the ingredients. The mixture was then allowed to cool before pouring it into a one gallon Ziploc bag along with the three gutted brown trout. The trout were then left in the brine until the next evening, about 24 hours.
I haven’t built a smoker of my own yet, but have been able to rig up my Weber charcoal grill to do the job with decent success. By starting up some lump charcoal and piling it onto a folded aluminium foil sheet placed on one side of the grill (under the grate), and then placing the trout on a similarly folded sheet of foil with the walls formed by the folds facing each other, we were able to get an indirect heat. The alder wood chips from the beaver chew were placed on top of the coals. Smoke from the chips wafted over the aluminum foil wall, to the top of the grill lid, and then floated down to caress the trout. Every 30 minutes or so, I went out replenished the chips and adding a few more pieces of charcoal as needed. I also flipped the trout halfway through (about an hour and a half in) to ensure an even smoke. After spending 3 hours enveloped in a smoky embrace, the trout had been thoroughly impregnated with the swampy sweet smoke of the alder chips.
The end result was some of the best smoked trout that I have ever tasted. I’ve smoked trout with maple before with decent results but there was something about the alder wood that hit all of the right notes. It was light and sweet. Just smoky enough to taste the wood while still allowing the flavor of the trout to stand out. Perhaps it was just the nature of the alder wood smoke that struck such a perfect balance, though I would like to think it was the trace amounts of beaver saliva.