By JeanMarie Brownson

Chicago Tribune

My grandfather, a bricklayer by trade, fashioned his own smokehouse under the stairwell of a small Chicago bungalow. He filled it with fresh hams, homemade bacon and garlicky sausage to smoke for the family.

The steps just outside that brick room proved the perfect gossip spot for my cousins and me. We always left his house smelling faintly of hardwood smoke and garlic.

Little wonder then, that given the choice, I gravitate toward smoked meats, cheese and fish. The aroma always transports me. When I cook, I enjoy adding smoke to everything I can — even if it’s just the addition of smoked paprika or smoked chiles. This summer I’m using my grill to smoke fish — no masonry skills required.

Fish smoked on a hot grill retains its moistness beautifully. It’ll also be less smoky than foods cooked in a smoker with an offset firebox or the vertical bullet smokers that let you smoke at relatively low temperatures. Grill smoking doesn’t preserve the fish like cold smoking does; it’s meant to be enjoyed right away.

Wood equals smoke; choose chips that will impart a flavor you like. For fish, I prefer chips made from cherry or apple wood because they don’t overpower the delicate flavors.

Wood chips can be purchased from hardware stores that stock grills and accessories or online. Soaking the wood chips in water for 20 or 30 minutes will help create maximum smoke when put over the glowing embers of the grill. For smoking on a gas grill, simply put the soaked and drained chips in the smoke chamber if the grill has one; alternatively, lay the chips on a double thickness of foil and set the packet directly over the heat source.

For this fast smoking method, employ the indirect grilling method — that is, cook the food away from the heat source, not directly over it. This means the fish can be on the grill a little longer to absorb maximum smoke without burning or drying. If you have the option, position the lid of the grill with the vent directly over the fish to help pull smoke over the fish as much as possible.

Fish options I like for this smoking method include fattier, meatier varieties such as salmon, tuna, sea bass and black cod. Trout and Pacific halibut likewise taste great with a bit of smoke. In all cases, purchase nice thick fillets or steaks with the skin on when possible to help retain moistness.

A brief marinade in balsamic vinegar and Worcestershire sauce adds subtle sweetness, color and flavor; a few drops of natural liquid hickory smoke underscore the aroma. Brushing the fish before and after it’s cooked with melted smoky bacon fat makes me swoon.

I always smoke-grill extra fish to have on hand for a weekend omelet. Or, I break cold smoked fish into large pieces to top a salad tossed with a creamy dressing. Smoked fish fillets transform into a yummy topping for crusty buttered toast. Or, stir smoked fish into softened cream cheese with chives and sun-dried tomato bits for delicious spread.

Serve smoked fish with a simple topping of diced ripe tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil and plenty of black pepper. Alternatively, top it with diced avocado and a drizzle of thinned creme fraiche and fresh chives.