Smoked fish in Arkansas likely will never replace the state's signature cuisine item -- fried fish.
But smoked fish has a core of competent practitioners and a growing number of enthusiasts. Properly done, smoked catfish is a delicacy, a tasty treat for gatherings for family dinners and for office or shop pass-arounds.
It doesn't have to be catfish, but catfish is what we have in abundance in this state. Most any of our game fish does well in the smoking method, and smoked salmon has been a staple on the North American continent since long before white man arrived.
Find salmon fillets on sale at a supermarket, buy 'em, smoke 'em, and you've got fine eating.
Very small fish, like bream, tend to dry out too quickly in smokers unless they are watched closely.
Over-smoked fish fillets are unappetizing, coming close to the consistency and taste of a roof shingle. The idea is to keep the heat down and cook (smoke) just until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Take 'em out then. They are ready.
For guidance on smoking fish in general and Arkansas catfish in particular, let's turn to Keith Stephens of North Little Rock and Allen Carter of Benton.
Stephens and some companions compete in major barbecue contests, and he said just a few adjustments are needed for handling fish instead of beef, pork or chicken.
Stephens? lines the inside of his charcoal smoker with aluminum foil, sprays both sides of the catfish fillets with butter-flavored Pam, a cooking spray and sprinkles on spices.
The spices he prefers are either lemon pepper, readily available at spice sections of supermarkets, or his own "rub" of paprika, sugar, salt, pepper and just about anything else found in his spice rack. You can use your own judgment or preference for the amounts in the mix-it-yourself rub.
Like zippy smoked fish? Increase the pepper. Like a tinge of sweet to the taste? Increase the sugar.
When your charcoal is ready, put a handful of water-soaked hickory chips on top of the hot charcoal then put in the fish, close the top and let it smoke 30 to 45 minutes.
Stephens said, "Stick a fork into the middle of the fillet. If it is flaky, it is done."
He added, "You want to be careful with how much hickory you put in the smoker. You don't want the hickory smoke flavor to overwhelm the fish. Pecan (chips) is best. It is milder than hickory. Oak is OK, and any fruit wood like apple or cherry is good for smoking fish. Mesquite is like hickory in that it can give a heavy taste, overwhelming the fish."
Carter goes a marinade route with his smoked catfish, and he cuts the fish fillets into cubes.
"Here's my general recipe," he said:
* 6 pounds fillet cut in cubes
* 3 quarts water
* one-half cup salt
* one-half cup brown sugar
* two tablespoons Cajun spices (shrimp boil)
* juice of one lemon (squeeze the lemon and also add rind or you can use 4 tablespoons lemon juice concentrate.
"It is best to use large catfish and not the 'fatty' ones purchased at the market from fish farms. Wild-caught catfish are best. The big ones that would be tough fried are great smoked," he said.
Combine the ingredients, except the fish, heat to a boil. After it cools, add the fish and marinate overnight or up to 24 hours.? Smoke for three to four hours depending on how hot the smoker is and how thick the fish pieces are.
Carter said, "If I'm smoking something besides catfish, like striper, bass or paddlefish, I decrease the salt to 1/3 cup. If you want it hotter, add more Cajun spices or sprinkle some lemon pepper on the pieces after putting on the grill. Of course, if you're smoking more than six pounds of fish, increase the water so the fish is covered while marinating and increase the other ingredients as appropriate.
"I use the water pan-type smoker and have rigged it up to hold three levels of grills so I can do up to nine pounds at once. I also put a few pieces of dried hickory sticks on the coals at first and add some more if those burn up. The smoke actually comes out around the lid all the time."