“Salmon and poverty go together,” wrote Dickens. Imagine the writer’s surprise if he could see 20th-Century fish prices. Still, salmon is a tempting morsel at any price and in any form, whether poached and anointed with hollandaise sauce or served chilled with cucumbers and dill sauce. But for my money, the best way to enjoy this ocean aristocrat is smoked.
But which smoked salmon? There are dozens of types from which to choose. The French dote on saumon fume : uncooked, lightly smoked salmon that’s subtly flavored and as soft as silk. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest smoke their Chinook salmon until it’s as durable as shoe leather. And what would Sunday brunch be without lox, bagels and cream cheese?
Smoking has been used since Neolithic times as a way to preserve meats and seafood. The salt kills bacteria by dehydrating the fish, while the smoke repels insects. Smoked fish is to fresh fish what milk is to cheese: a leap to immortality (or at least a longer shelf-life) that immeasurably improves the food.
There are three basic kinds of smoked salmon: European-style (cold smoked), deli-style (heavily salted) and kippered (baked). Within each style there is a myriad of variations, depending on how and where the fish is caught and how it is cured and smoked.
There are two ways of curing salmon: dry-curing and wet-curing. The best Scotch, Irish and Norwegian salmons are dry-cured--rubbed with a dry mixture of salt, brown sugar and spices, the precise formula for which is a jealously guarded secret. (The great country hams, like prosciutto, are also cured in this fashion.) The cure can last from several hours to several days. The fish shrinks as it dehydrates, which adds to its expense.
Deli-style salmons are wet-cured, that is, soaked in a brine solution. To make lox (Lachs is the German word for salmon), the fish is cured in a 100% brine solution for about 90 days.
Around the turn of the century, barrels of lox would be shipped from Alaska to New York, where the vendors were supposed to soak the fish in water to remove the excess salt. In time, people acquired a taste for the unrinsed product, which is why lox is so salty. True lox is not smoked--it acquires its flavor exclusively from the brine.
Nova (short for Nova Scotia) is cured in a light brine for five to 10 days, then lightly smoked. As our collective fondness for salt has diminished, nova has come to supplant true lox at most deli counters.
The smoking is done over smoldering hardwoods such as cherry, maple or hickory. There are two primary methods: cold-smoking and hot-smoking. In the former, the smoke source is located away from the smoke house (usually in a fire pit connected to the smokehouse by tunnel). As a result, the fish smokes without actually being cooked. Cold-smoking produces fish with the velvety texture of a rose petal. Scotch, Norwegian and Irish salmons are all cold-smoked, as is American nova.
In hot-smoking, “If there are 100 smokehouses, there are 100 different kinds of smoked salmon,” says Rod Mitchell, president of Cascavia, a Camden, Maine-based seafood distributor. Mitchell suggests buying smoked salmon from a store with a good turnover or from a reputable mail-order house. If you’d rather produce delectable smoked salmon at home, the process involves three steps: curing, drying and smoking.
Curing should be done in glass, stoneware, stainless-steel or some other non-corrosive material. After curing, the fish is placed on a rack and allowed to dry until a light skin, or “pellicle,” forms. Without this skin, the smoke will not adhere properly to the fish.
Today’s cooks have at their disposal a variety of fuels for smoking: hickory chips, mesquite, apple, cherry, maple, vine trimmings and even corn cobs. The only wood not suitable for smoking are the resinous soft woods, such as pine.
Salmon is generally smoked in halves or “sides.” Each side has three parts: the tail, the back and the belly. The tail section is the driest part of the fish, so when possible request a center cut. The belly contains the most fat, which is why connoisseurs are willing to pay a premium for belly lox or nova. Bargain hunters can request lox or nova bits, which, although too stringy to eat plain, are delicious in spreads and pates.
The most impressive way to serve smoked salmon is to carve it yourself to order. You’ll need a long cutting board and a slender razor-sharp knife. Place the fish, skin side down, on the cutting board. Holding the knife almost parallel to the board, cut off the transverse bones in the belly. Next, cut off fin sections from the back and any sinewy bits in the tail.
Holding a knife at a 20-degree angle to the board, gently cut the salmon into broad, thin slices. As the knife approaches the bottom, turn the blade parallel to the cutting board. Transfer the slices with a carving fork to a platter or plates. The moister the salmon (especially cold-smoked salmon), the thinner you will be able to slice it.
If slicing your own seems too intimidating, many stores sell a pre-sliced side of salmon. Kippered and hot-smoked salmon should be sliced across the grain. According to Mitchell, smoked salmon should be allowed to come to room temperature before serving. “It’s just like cheese: If it’s too cold, you don’t get the full flavor.”
And the proper accompaniments for smoked salmon? The classical garnish consists of lemon, capers and toast points. Other accoutrements could include sour cream, minced onions and chopped or sieved hard-cooked egg.
Lox and nova are traditionally served on bagels with cream cheese, sliced tomatoes and green onions. You can make an unusual sauce for smoked salmon by adding salt, pepper, freshly chopped dill and a spoonful of prepared horseradish to whipped, unsweetened cream. For the ultimate treat, try rolling paper-thin slices of smoked salmon around spoonfuls of salmon caviar.
Here is a delectable cure for people who want to try to smoke their own fish. Makes enough brine for 2 pounds salmon.
BROWN SUGAR CURE
1 quart water
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
4 strips lemon zest
10 whole cloves
10 allspice berries
10 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 pounds fresh salmon fillets or steaks
Combine water, kosher salt, brown sugar, lemon zest, cloves, allspice, peppercorns and bay leaves in glass or ceramic bowl. Mix well. If using salmon fillets, marinate 2 hours. If using thick steaks, cure 3 hours. Drain fish, then blot with paper towel. Let dry on rack 1 hour, or until pellicle forms. Smoke fish following manufacturer’s instructions and let cool before serving.
Penne are finger-length pasta tubes, 1/4 inch in diameter. The term literally means quill in Italian--an apt description for the diagonally cut ends. This pasta dish makes a delightful appetizer or light entree.
AND SMOKED SALMON
6 ounces smoked salmon
1 pound thin asparagus
Boiling salted water
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup butter, diced
1 pound penne or other tube-shaped pasta
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons chopped parsley or chives
Cut smoked salmon into 1/4-inch slivers. Snap fibrous ends off asparagus and wash stalks. Cut asparagus on the diagonal into pieces length of penne and cook in rapidly boiling salted water 1 to 2 minutes, or until tender-crisp. Refresh under cold water and drain.
Combine whipping cream and smoked salmon in heavy saucepan over medium heat. Boil to reduce by half, stirring occasionally. Whisk in butter, piece by piece.
Just before serving, cook penne in lightly salted water 4 minutes, or until al dente. Add asparagus. Drain pasta and place in large serving bowl.
Stir in salmon-cream mixture. Toss in half the cheese. Sprinkle with parsley and serve at once. Serve remaining cheese on side. Makes 4 to 6 appetizer servings, or 3 to 4 main-course servings.