So we hosted the Feast of the N Fishes for Christmas Eve, and yours truly was responsible for two of them (both smoked, of course): a salmon, and a catfish.

The salmon is pretty simple. So simple that the original only takes two paragraphs in the 1969 printing of the Sunset Barbecue Cookbook. Place your fillet on a “sheet of heavy foil cut to fit the fillet.” I spray canola oil on the foil to keep it from sticking, and place the skin side down. (If you’re lucky — and we were on Christmas Eve — the skin won’t stick to the foil). Then smoke the fillet around 250º F (Sunset recommends less than 275) for two hours. I use Oak.

That’s it. No brine, no rub, and seasoning only if you want while eating.

For the catfish, I started with Elizabeth Karmel’s Beer-Brined Smoked Catfish recipe found in Mike Mills’ Peace, Love, and Barbecue. I did tweak it a bit, though — for starters, Karmel’s brine is more dense.

The ingredients:

  • 2 pounds of catfish fillets
  • 1/3rd cup of kosher salt, ground
  • 3 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/3rd cup of hot water
  • 1 cold beer (specifically, a Pyramid Haywire Hefewezien)
  • 1 Tbsp ground black pepper (again, the Penzey’s 4-peppercorn blend)
  • 2 bay leaves

To assemble the brine: start with the hot water, and mix in the salt and sugar. Then whisk the beer until all the carbonation is removed (if you start earlier, you can pour the beer and let it stand for an hour to go flat). When done, add the beer, pepper, and bay leaves to the water.

Place the fillets in a baking dish, and pour in the brine. If the brine does not completely cover the fish, add water until it does. (Not hot water, as you don’t want to accidentally cook the fish.) Move the dish to your refrigerator and let it sit for at least four hours. (Overnight is OK.)

Remove the fish from the brine and place on heavy foil as per the salmon recipe. Then smoke (oak again) for an hour at 250º F.

So how good is this? Auntie Pasto’s parents gave me 3-and-a-half pounds of assorted rubs and 20 pounds of smoking wood for Christmas. That sounds like a hint delivered with a sledgehammer to me.