I'm cooking fish for dinner, so my first stop is the lumberyard. "I need some cedar shingles," I say. "How many do you want, lady?" "Two will do," I respond. "Two bundles gives you about 30 pounds. That should cover about 50 square feet of roof." "Not two bundles," I say. "Two shingles. I'm only cooking two pieces of fish."
The clerk gives me a long look, the kind usually reserved for someone being hustled into a straitjacket. "Come here," he finally says, pulling two shingles out of a bundle. "Put these under your coat." I already feel uncomfortable, my stilettos definitely out of step with the steel-toed boots around me. But stealing is not something I can get into. Even if it is sanctioned. "OK," he says, observing my discomfort. "I'll tell the guard I gave them to you."
Though I can't resort to thievery, I must have these shingles to re-create the planked salmon served at Pisacali restaurant in Ojai. It had arrived ablaze with flames licking at its shingle perch. Sweet cedar scented the fish and its accompanying vegetables with a complex, woodsy savor. It was the moistest fish I'd ever tasted.
"Salmon contains plenty of natural moisture," says Pisacali chef-proprietor Frank Miller. "But when you put it in a dry pan, the pan eventually wins, and the fish dries out. When you use a porous shingle instead, there is a cross-infusion of moisture and flavor. A thicker hardwood plank works, too, but you can't flame it. This is a very primitive method."
Planking--or shingling--originated in the Pacific Northwest, where Native Americans cooked salmon on cedar culled from the region's lush forests. Later, in the mid-1800s, chicken, steak, lamb, fish and vegetables walked the planks in Eliza Leslie and Fannie Farmer cookbooks.
"Almost the entire menu could be served on it," says Sylvia Lovegren, author of "Fashionable Food." In the '30s the technique gained popularity, she adds, "because many foods needed to be arranged in pepper rings, in pimento, tomato or onion cups; or in timbales, toast cases or patty [pastry] shells."
In contrast to these gussied-up extravaganzas, contemporary planked dishes couldn't be simpler to prepare: You slip the fish on a shingle and stick it in the oven. In Los Angeles, the most difficult part of this process seems to be finding small batches of Western red cedar shingles untreated with chemicals or fire retardants.
Cooks may want to take advantage of the many kindly retailers listed under "Lumber" and "Roofing Materials" in the Yellow Pages, who will supply you with a few shingles to try the technique before committing to a $50-$60 bundle. If nothing else, you can just go from one lumberyard to the next, but you'll have to put up with those smirks and quizzical glances. Though we're not supposed to play with fire or let smoke get in our eyes, I haven't found anything more fun to substitute for outdoor grilling during these winter months than flaming salmon on a cedar shingle.
Flaming Cedar-Planked Salmon
4 untreated cedar shingles, about 1/4-inch thick and 4 inches wide
4 (1-inch thick) salmon fillets or steaks, patted dry
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Salsa, vinaigrette, herb butter or lemon wedge (optional)
Saw, or score and break off thinner tapered bottom of shingle, if desired, so shingle is just slightly longer than piece of fish. Rinse shingles and submerge in pan of water for about 2 hours.
Place rack in middle of oven and preheat to 500 degrees. Line a baking tray with aluminum foil to catch any drips, and place on rack below middle rack. Drain shingles, brush with oil, and arrange side-by-side on middle rack. Bake about 15 minutes or until shingles begin to char. Brush top of salmon with oil and season with salt and pepper. Place salmon skin side down on shingles. Bake 9 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness until just cooked through.
Lay out 4 dinner plates. Arrange vegetables and any garnish on plate, leaving room for plank. Fill sink or bowl with water for used planks. One at a time, place shingle over a gas burner until it ignites, then transfer to plate with a long tongs. (If a gas burner is not available, ignite planks one at a time on oven shelf with a match, and transfer to plate.) Bring to table flaming. Blow out flames, remove salmon from plank with a spatula, and spoon any optional garnish or sauce over salmon. Place planks in water until soaked through to put out flames.
Jan Weimer's latest book is "Kitchen Redos, Revamps, Remodels + Replacements Without Murder, Suicide or Divorce."