The first time I remember tasting smoked fish was on a backpacking trip through Scotland in the mid-'80s, when I vowed to savor the signature dishes of every country I visited. Museums were great, cathedrals were grand, but I was really only killing time between meals.
At that time, Scotland was pretty tough sledding, with its over-salted oatmeal, overcooked meat and over-salted and overcooked everything else, along with weird pub food that many Los Angeles jailhouse inmates would probably reject. Then one day, I was walking along the quay on the Isle of Skye, communing with the exquisite gloom of the North Sea. I wandered into a shop displaying in its glass cases an array of smoked fish. The shopkeeper rolled up a fillet of finnan haddie, or smoked haddock, in brown paper. Outside, I unwrapped and ate it with my fingers. The taste and texture were astonishing, even exotic. I had discovered a new treat.
Smoked fish is more of a leap for some than for others, who may regard it as an example of Scandinavian perversity (along with "Swedish magazines" and rumors of open marriage). Why, I don't know. It's not as if Native Americans, or the Europeans who followed, hadn't been preserving fish with smoke for centuries.
A few years ago, I tried to impress a date by bringing a whole smoked fish to a Hollywood Bowl picnic. She took one look at the bronze-colored, mummified morsel with its preserved head and tail and shrieked, "Make it go away!" I'll concede that in its more visceral forms, smoked fish can be a little over the top, visually and otherwise. Take, for example, the Swedish delicacy, Surstroemning, which I've never had and don't plan to try. According to my Danish friend Soren, Surstroemning is "herring that's heavily salted, smoked to death, tossed into a bucket and buried in the backyard for a year or so." He adds, "It smells so bad, most Danish apartment complexes have rules against bringing it into the building."
In its milder incarnations--filleted, skinned and not buried--smoked fish can be a winner with even the gastronomically timid. It's versatile, and whether it's salmon served on the proverbial bagel with cream cheese, or used to punctuate green salads or pasta dishes, smoked fish can add a grace note to almost anything. Salmon, of course, is the most available, but I'm particularly fond of trout, which makes a nice crostini when the toasted bread is slathered with creamed horseradish and stacked with a thin slice of cucumber and a slice of fish.
Chowhound that I was during my tour of the British Isles, I still missed out on the classic dish called kedgeree, a rice-and-fish concoction originally from India, then anglicized in the 18th century and still served in England for breakfast. Kedgeree was brought to my attention by a friend who'd grown up in England. Traditionally served with trout, I put my own salmon and jalapeno spin on it, and found it to be a wonderful, unusual and low-maintenance brunch dish for entertaining friends.
Smoked Salmon Kedgeree
2 cups long-grain white rice
4 cups water
3 tablespoons shrimp bouillon
1-2 jalapenos, finely chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/4 cup oil
4 eggs, hard-boiled and chopped
1/4 cup Canola oil
1/2 cup frozen green peas
1/2 cup yellow corn
8-10 ounces smoked salmon, shredded
1/4 cup flat-leafed parsley, chopped
Add shrimp bouillon to cooking water for rice. Cook rice until al dente. While rice is cooking, in a skillet saute onion and jalapeno in oil until onions are caramelized. When rice has set, transfer to skillet and saute until coated in infused oil. Remove from heat. Add salmon, chopped eggs, corn and peas and toss until warmed. Garnish with parsley.
Martin Booe last wrote for the Entertaining section about tapas.