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Where There's Smoke, There's Flavor

It probably never occurred to Native Americans hundreds of years ago to grill figs wrapped in Prosciutto (with a balsamic glaze). Or lamb fajitas. Or pork tenderloin with mango salsa.

These are, however, some of the contemporary recipes that use the traditional American Indian technique of planking.

Long before European settlers came ashore, Indian tribes throughout the country were roasting fish on aromatic planks of wood -- salmon in the Pacific Northwest, shad on the East Coast, whitefish in the Central Plains. They would split the fish, secure it skin-side down to a wood plank and place the plank vertically, facing the fire but outside the fire ring, to slowly cook.

Planking has been in and out of fashion in the centuries since then. Planked steak, for example, was "one of the more spectacular dishes produced in this country until World War II," writes James Beard. Planked salmon with a white sauce was a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The classic is salmon cooked over an outdoor fire on a cedar plank. The American Indian technique has been adapted for use in a backyard barbecue, so you don't have to bring in river stones to surround a campfire.

It is an incredibly easy way to impress guests. The wooden plank is soaked in water and toasted on the grill. The fish is placed on top of the plank, and the grill covered. The fish doesn't even have to be turned. The result is meat that absorbs a smoky, sweetness from the wood and stays extremely moist.

Planked fish and other foods can be roasted in the oven, but it is on the grill where the magic happens. And the whole neighborhood will thank you for the aromatic night air.

Planked salmon has been a regular menu item in the Pacific Northwest for years, and its popularity has now spread to the lower states.

Many kitchenware and grilling stores carry cooking planks in a variety of woods -- cedar, alder, maple, hickory, oak, mesquite and apple. While each wood has its own distinct flavor, cedar is the most commonly used.

Planks are 1/2- to 1 inch thick, 12 to 14 inches long and about 6 inches wide. They also are available on the Internet. You can make your own plank with wood from a lumberyard, but it must be untreated wood. Avoid any resinous woods such as pine and birch.

Contemporary planking has gone far beyond the fish and game cooked by Native Americans. There are a number of cookbooks on how to cook anything on a plank, from appetizers to desserts. Plums wrapped in Prosciutto, all kinds of pizza, vegetable side dishes and even dessert can be cooked on a wooden plank. Imagine a banana split made with smoky, caramelized bananas.

Planked fish can be as simple or as complicated as you like. There are prepared rubs and long lists of ingredients. Just keep in mind that the wood is the primary spice, just as it has been for centuries.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.
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