Chicago is an amazing city to be in during the summer, and you know warm weather is rolling in when you see people jogging on the lakefront, advertisements for Blues Fest and the Taste of Chicago go up and the smell of grilling begins wafting through your open windows around dinner time.
One of my favorite summer meals is salmon grilled on a cedar plank. Grilling is one of the healthiest ways to cook food and in this recipe, the cedar infuses incredible flavor into the fish. On top of that, salmon is an excellent source of the essential Omega-3 fatty acids our bodies need.
There is a lot of debate over which type of salmon is the best: Alaskan or Atlantic? Wild or Farmed? I tend to lean toward Alaskan wild salmon (although this question is still highly debated!), and whenever possible, consider sustainability when buying fish. (A great resource to learn more about sustainable seafood is the Right Bite program from Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.)
There are two stars in this recipe, the salmon taking the lead role and the cedar plank playing an important supporting role. The technique of grilling on a cedar plank helps steam the fish, without causing it to burn, all while infusing a sweet and smoky cedar flavor into the fish. You can find cedar planks at lots of grocery stores now, but what we have always done is to just go to Home Depot and buy one long six or eight foot cedar plank and have it cut down into 22-inch individual planks (depending on the size of your grill). These planks are usually about one inch thick, which tend to hold up better than the kind you might find at the grocery store because they are thicker. They also end up being kinder on your wallet as the planks are one-time-use only.
Before you grill with a wood plank, you have to soak it in water for at least an hour. The plank will absorb the water which prevents it from catching fire (after all, it’s a piece of wood!) and the absorbed water will essentially steam the fish. An easy way to do this is to put the plank in a regular garbage bag and fill the bag with enough water to cover it completely. Tie the bag up and let it sit for an hour.
When we buy salmon, we usually put the filet in a Ziploc bag with some lemon or lime juice and zest. You can freeze the salmon like this or if you want to eat it that day, just let it marinate for about an hour. The acidity of the juice will help tenderize the salmon and the zest adds a bright flavor.
When you’re ready to grill, take the plank out of the bag and drizzle a bit of oil on the board. This is a great opportunity to make sure your filet is seasoned on the bottom side because once it goes on the grill, you won’t flip it over. You can sprinkle whatever seasonings you like right on the board; dill or Herbes de Provence are good options. Then lay your filet skin side down, if it still has its skin.
While your grill preheats to a medium to high heat, you can get creative with your fish!
Salmon is a fish that pairs well with slightly sweet flavors, and we usually tend to take that route. You don’t want to overpower the salmon with extra ingredients, but a little added sweetness really takes your fish to the next level. Our family favorite is putting a thin line of barbeque sauce down the length of the filet, but other great options are a sprinkle of brown sugar or a line of Cream of Balsamic vinegar. If you don’t want to take the sweet route, but still want a kick of flavor, sprinkle some cayenne pepper or curry powder on top.
Once you have decorated your filet, you want to put the plank on your grill, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes. It is normal for the plank to begin to char on the outer edges, and in fact you want this to happen because that is where the cedar flavor will come from.
The filet should be done in about 20 minutes but let the plank cool a bit before serving the salmon as it will be extremely hot.
You will know the salmon is done because it will easily flake with a fork. I love to eat my salmon on top of a salad, but it can definitely be a stand-alone dish.
The smell of cedar in my kitchen will always be an indicator that summer is coming, and after trying this recipe it might become one for you too!
Plus! Be sure to check out Mark Bishop's recipe for a kid-pleasing version of grilled cedar-plank salmon!