Planked Salmon with Juniper Rub and Berry Glaze

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True or false? Planking (grilling on cedar or alder planks) originated in the Pacific Northwest. For extra points, name the decade: the fifties? or the nineties? The answers aren’t quite as obvious as you may think. It’s true that the Indians of the Pacific Northwest traditionally cooked whole salmon (split open through the belly) on cedar stakes in front of a roaring fire (they did this back when Lewis and Clark visited and they still do). But planking is equally well documented on the East Coast, where coastal Connecticut Indians nailed shad fillets to oak boards to roast in front of a bonfire.

As to the date of its first popularization, you were right if you named the fifties. The 1850s, that is, when an American food writer named Eliza Leslie included a recipe for planked shad cooked before a fire in her New Cookery Book, published in 1857.

Richard Hetzler, executive chef of the Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., prefers the traditional live fire approach. His rub has the fresh piney scent of juniper berries; his glaze uses berries Native Americans would have gathered wild and sweetened with another Indian invention, maple syrup. Mitsitam is an upscale cafeteria with cook stations themed broadly by regional Native American cuisine. In the Pacific Northwest station you will find a wood-burning fire pit where planked wild salmon sizzles. The result is America’s favorite fish, perfumed with cedar and juniper and glazed with sweet-sour berries. It’s crusty on the outside and moist inside, and thanks to the plank, it never sticks to the grill grate.

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Ingredients

For the Berry Glaze

  • 2 cups mixed fresh berries (I like a blend of wild blueberries, marionberries, gooseberries, and raspberries)
  • ¼ cup maple syrup, or more to taste

For the Juniper Rub

  • 1 teaspoon juniper berries
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns (not native to the Americas, but exceedingly tasty with salmon)
  • 2 teaspoons Coarse salt (kosher or sea)
  • 1 piece salmon fillet (1½ to 2 pounds), preferably wild

You’ll also Need

  • A cedar grilling plank (12 to 14 by 6 to 7 inches), soaked in water to cover for 1 hour, then drained (see Note); squirt gun

Method

Advance Preparation

None, but the berry glaze can be prepared several hours ahead.

  1. Make the berry glaze: Put the berries and maple syrup in a heavy saucepan and add 2 tablespoons of water. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat until the berries begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Uncover the pan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook the mixture down to a thick puree, about 10 minutes, stirring often with a wooden spoon. Add a little more water if needed to keep the glaze liquid; do not let it burn. Taste for sweetness, adding more maple syrup as necessary.
  2. Make the juniper rub: Place the juniper berries and peppercorns in a spice mill or coffee grinder and grind to a fine powder. Add the salt, running the motor in short bursts.
  3. Run your fingers over the salmon fillets, feeling for bones. Remove any you find with needle-nose pliers or tweezers.
  4. Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat it to medium-high.
  5. Just before cooking, very generously season the salmon on both sides with the juniper rub. Arrange the salmon skin side down on the plank. Spoon half of the berry glaze over the fish. Place the plank in the center of the grate, away from the heat, and cover the grill. Grill the salmon until the top is sizzling and golden brown and the fish is cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes. When done, the salmon will break into firm flakes when pressed with a finger. The plank may become singed at the edges, but it shouldn’t catch fire. If it does, extinguish the flames with a squirt gun.
  6. Transfer the fish on the plank to a platter and serve it right off the plank, spooning the remaining berry glaze on top.

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