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Smoked foods provoke simple response: ‘More!’

Meat, fish, vegetables, cheese, spices, even salt, signal pleasure to the brain

Haris Jusufbegovic, chef-owner of Sabur restaurant in Somerville, smokes eggplant and onions and makes a smoky eggplant and pepper dip. Haris Jusufbegovic, chef-owner of Sabur restaurant in Somerville, smokes eggplant and onions and makes a smoky eggplant and pepper dip. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Aaron Kagan
Globe Correspondent / February 16, 2011

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Though smoke in the kitchen usually announces disaster — preceded by a shrill noise from the detector — smoke flavors some of the world’s favorite foods. Smoking turns fresh fish into smoked salmon, chilies into chipotle, fatty pork into bacon. Smoky flavors go with cozy fires and the colder the weather, the better the food tastes.

All smoked foods have their origins in flame. But you need not light a single match to enjoy smoky flavors at home. Pre-smoked products such as ground chilies or chewy meats lend deep, rich aromas to home cooking, and they are often as easy to use as salt. In fact, smoked salt is one trick some chefs recommend to re-create campfire cooking in the kitchen. Chef Barry Maiden at Hungry Mother uses smoked sea salt in potato chowder, giving the illusion of bacon in an otherwise vegetarian dish.

“I don’t think I could have this restaurant be what it is without the smoker,’’ says Maiden, who uses a Cookshack brand smoker to transform his own fish, sausage, bacon, heirloom peppers, and fingerling potatoes. For Maiden, a Virginia native, smoke is reminiscent of his culinary heritage. “The smoked ham hock represents the South,’’ he says.

If you don’t own your own smoker, Maiden recommends a favorite ingredient, Spanish pimenton. The dark red powder, made from smoked peppers, adds a deep, woodsy note to recipes that call for regular paprika. If you’re looking for smoke and heat, use pimenton marked “hot’’ (as opposed to “sweet,’’ which in this case means mild). Spicier smoked peppers are also available. Chipotles are smoked jalapenos or other hot peppers that are sold dried, canned in adobo sauce, and sometimes powdered. Toss a dried chipotle into a batch of chili and its aroma will infuse the dish and your kitchen.

What you do not want is to drown food in a cloud of smoke. “It always adds an interesting element to the food, but it should never overwhelm,’’ says Maiden. It should be a little smoky, a little salty, a little sweet, with everything kept in check.’’

Other chefs show less restraint. “The smoke flavor triggers certain sensations in your brain that’s just like more, more, more,’’ says Haris Jusufbegovic, chef-owner of Sabur in Somerville, where Mediterranean food is on the menu. “Smoky wine, smoky spirits, you name it, it just tastes great,’’ he adds. Jusufbegovic smokes beef, eggplant, mushrooms, and mozzarella. He uses the cheese and mushrooms to stuff ravioli, serves the beef as sausage, and blends the eggplant with harissa, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and thyme as a spread. “You can really smoke just about anything,’’ he says. “Though salad I haven’t tried yet.’’

At East by Northeast, which serves Chinese-inspired small plates, chef Philip Tang smokes tofu to pair with homemade egg noodles. He tried poaching foods in the smoky Chinese black tea, lapsang souchong, with mixed results. Instead, Tang suggests looking in the meat section of your grocery store for smoky accents. “You find smoked ham hocks, smoked turkey wings, and turkey necks pretty regularly at supermarkets, and those are really nice for adding a little smoky flavor to a broth or a stock,’’ he says.

Another Southern chef also turns to pork products. “High quality bacon, especially slabs where you can get the ends that absorb so much of the smoke flavor,’’ recommends Charlie Redd of the South End restaurant Coda. He says grilled vegetables can add smokiness, which he characterizes as both sweet and bitter. “Cutting an onion in half along the equator and getting a serious char on there is a great way of getting smoky flavor,’’ says Redd, who prefers to grill over fruit woods such as apple or cherry. Indoors, use a hot skillet and a good fan. He composes dishes of grilled parsnips and carrots, whose high sugar content means they will blacken and caramelize.

“Or you can use liquid smoke,’’ says Redd. “But that’s the softball pitch.’’

Aaron Kagan can be reached at aaronwkagan@gmail.com.