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Cured Salmon Smørrebrød


What a luxurious working-day lunch. It’s casual and uncomplicated to make — an open-faced sandwich — but on top of this bread lies slices of home-cured wild-caught red Alaska salmon surrounded by jewels from the garden. Funny to think that cured salmon (not smoked, but similar in texture and taste, sans smokiness) was once a common luncheon meat for the working man before it became a delicacy. It’s produced through a quick and easy process of rubbing salt, sugar and other seasonings into the fish, and letting it draw out moisture over a couple days. So, fishermen of Scandinavia, or Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, would use this method to make their fresh catches keep longer over time. Overfishing led to the rarity of this fish and now most salmon is farmed (and, to the connoisseur, tastes nothing like its wild brethren). Now, wild-caught salmon from the only sustainable fishery left in the world, Alaska, commands more than tenderloin on the market. So how did I get my hands on this stuff, and why am I sharing it with everyone for lunch? I caught wind of a wild-caught Alaskan salmon CSA, and signed up as soon as I could.

Now my freezer is loaded with twelve pounds of ruby-colored whole salmon fillets. Unlike most CSAs, this one had one mega pick-up day for the season, when you carried it all home. All the salmon fillets were flash-frozen and vacuum-sealed after being caught by the family-operated Iliamna Fish Company in Alaska, and brought to Brooklyn, to distribute to share members at The Brooklyn Kitchen last Friday. Trust me, I had been waiting all summer for that day. I almost didn’t believe it was true — a wild salmon fairy, selling direct to customer, was coming to Brooklyn? Huh? So when I walked into the store and saw the salmon pick-up area, and that it was indeed real, I wanted to thank the people there for doing this CSA. Instead, they thanked ME profusely for signing up. “We had a lot of fun catching them!” Christopher Nicolson said. He and his wife, Emily, are the Brooklyn-based arm of Iliamna, and they spend a good chunk of summer catching this fish in Alaska. Their friends kept demanding more fish to bring back to them, and hence, the idea for the CSA-like pay-ahead concept was born. And they did seem to have had lots of fun on the boat. In an email to all share members sent a month ago, they included a summary of their trip, shedding light on the rituals of fishing season. An excerpt from that note:

Day 6: A few fish. More green tea.
Day 7: A few more fish. Lots of Black Sabbath.

Day 8: No fish. Glum faces.
Day 9: A wall of fish, like a scene from The Ten Commandments. All feeling in right forefinger is lost. Fun.

When not fishing, Christopher and Emily don’t stray far from food in Brooklyn. They make wine in Red Hook! (Right down the street from Sixpoint, in fact.) I’m working on seeing whether they can do another round of fishing to bring back more salmon for me — and those who missed out on this. At $198 for the 12-lb share (which amounts to 7-8 whole fillets) it was still a splurge, but compared to market prices for this kind of fish, it’s pretty hard to beat.

IMG_6365a frozen whole fillet

The salmon was better than I’d hoped. It’s red sockeye salmon, and it’s distinctive for its large size and deep crimson flesh. I’d heard of the highly prized Copper River red salmon, from a neighboring area, and had seen pictures of it online. The color of the Iliamna fish looks just as intense, and though I couldn’t taste the fish in the photos, the quality and taste of this salmon is just outstanding. That Friday night of the pick-up, I marinated two hearty slabs of a fillet in soy sauce and sesame oil and served them simply seared, along with cold cucumber salad and jasmine rice. I didn’t want to blog about it or take photos and just savor the moment. The way the fish flaked apart and stayed crimson on the slightly uncooked center had been perfect. The crispy silver skin, with its coating of sea salt, was probably the best part. Altogether it was, in Shane’s opinion, the best meal I’d ever made. (Of course, I’m regretting not taking photos.) At the end of the meal, I let my dogs lick the juices on the plates, and turned to the remaining two-thirds or so of the same thawed fillet. I decided to cure it.

IMG_6327a citrus zest and salt-sugar cure two days in

For my first stab at this, I turned to an expert, Trine Hahnemann of The Scandinavian Cookbook. Not only do I trust the Scandinavian to cure salmon over anyone else, but I love Trine. I had the rare opportunity of assisting her in the kitchen for a traditional Danish smorrebrod brunch at Jimmy’s No. 43 a few months ago, and had her on my radio show the next day to talk about Scandinavian food, sustainability, and all sorts of things. She explained that smorrebrod is basically an open-faced sandwich piled with any number of toppings, such as meatballs, cured and smoked fish like salmon and herring, and vegetable salads. It can be as simple or as elaborate as you like; its has roots as a fisherman’s lunch of bread and butter with optional toppings.

She also offered a recipe for “citrus-cured salmon” in this cookbook, and you can’t miss its vivid image on the cover. I followed the recipe for it with my leftover slab, given some conversions, and let it chill out in the refrigerator for about 62 hours. By lunchtime on Monday, it looked ready to serve. Once cured, the salmon had turned even deeper red, and its texture was firm and pleasantly gelatinous. When I initially poured all the salt and sugar over the raw fish, I’d thought it was such an enormous amount. The fish gets really buried underneath it all (the “grav” in gravlax means to bury, or a grave, but this referred to fishermen burying it in sand to ferment, a step now usually left out). But after just a day, it all gets sucked up into the flesh, and turns into a wet brine instead. You have to get rid of this and pat the fish dry before serving the cured salmon, but I’m told that this marinade can be used as a base for sauces. Something I’ll have to remember next time before draining it.

IMG_6336rinsed from the cure and ready to eat

What did I serve my smorrebrod with, in addition to cured fish? Stuff that I picked from the garden: cherry tomatoes, arugula, French radishes and chives. I created a sort of smorgasbord of these ingredients at the lunch table at the brewery, and let everyone fashion their own open-faced sandwich from what was available. Along with the vegetables, I put out a container of scallion cream cheese found in the fridge, to smear on the bread (this is New York, after all). But since I’m not really a fan of the stuff, I left my piece without. You can really taste the citrus peel absorbed in that fish, and the light toppings didn’t distract from it too much. I used a smaller portion of fish than the recipe in the book calls for, and so a smaller amount of salt and sugar for the cure. But I used just as much citrus zest as the original, just because I thought it’d be fun.

IMG_6340baby arugula + salmon goes together great!

Now, if she sees this, the first thing Trine is going to note about this photo is that the bread is totally not right. A square slab of dense, pungent sourdough rye is the traditional base for a smorrebrod, and bread is perhaps the most important part of all. She includes a recipe for this in The Scandinavian Cookbook, but instead I used some leftover (and totally wrong) golden raisin walnut whole wheat bread I picked up from Baker’s Bounty at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket on Saturday. Again, next time. Although the raisins kind of brought out the citrus.

Best part about this cured salmon is that now that it’s done, it can be kept in the refrigerator for weeks, to slice up and use in sandwiches and all sorts of lunches from here on. I’m thinking a cured salmon omelet is in order for next lunch.

Citrus-Cured Salmon
(adapted from The Scandinavian Cookbook)

Because the sugar and salt was weighed in grams in the book, I went through a confusing process of conversion for this that I can now no longer remember. But it worked, and this is the simplified (in cups) solution.

1 lb piece of salmon fillet (preferably wild-caught Alaskan red)
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup sugar
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange

Feel the salmon for any pin bones and carefully remove with tweezers. Coat the fleshy side (not the skin) with the zest. Combine the salt and sugar in a bowl and pour over the fillet. Cover in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for 2 1/2-3 days. Drain juices and rinse off the cure. Pat dry with paper towels. Enjoy. Can be kept covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

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