Tuesday, March 2, 2010 Updated: March 22, 6:11 PM ET
How to cure fatty fish
By Georgia Pellegrini ESPNOutdoors.com
For more food-related blogs from Georgia Pellegrini, check out her website www.GeorgiaPellegini.com.
This is the time of year when a lot of your proteins are in the freezer, since in many places, it is in-between seasons.
One of my favorite things to do in these months is cure meat and fish. Of course, if I can manage to do it before it hits the freezer, even better, but sometimes you've got to take what you can get.
Salt curing inhibits the growth of microorganisms by drawing water out of microbial cells through osmosis. Salt pork and salt beef were common staples for sailors on long journeys, and was the only widely available method of preserving food until the 19th century.
The term we often hear for cured salmon is "gravlax," a word that comes from Scandinavia. "Grav" means "grave," and "laks" means salmon. During the middle ages, the fisherman of that region salted and fermented their salmon in the sand above the high-tide line — a little grav for their laks.
Today we do it in a similar way, minus the actual sand. Salmon is buried in a mixture of salt and sugar and cured for a few days. The salt and sugar serve as a highly concentrated brine.
Cover the salmon completely with the sugar/salt mixture.
I don't know if you've seen the price of cured salmon recently, but if you were to buy a two-pound piece in the store, you'd spend about $50 dollars. Doing it at home will only cost you a few dollars, and last for weeks and weeks. Plus you get to impress people with your home curing skills.
So I cured a two-pound piece of salmon in my home kitchen recently and then smoked it on a simple stove-top smoker. This same method of curing can be used for any fatty fish, but salmon is the most common.
I used citrus in my cure because it adds a little intrigue. You could also use fennel seeds, star anise, dill, coriander seeds, or anything else that floats your boat.
I also used a stove-top smoker that cost $31 dollars on Amazon, proving that even if you don't have a backyard and an expensive smoker, you can still execute this perfectly. And, of course, if you want to impress your friends you could always say that you have a big outdoor smoke house that you built yourself — I won't tell.
Cut the salmon thin, making for a tasty treat.
Or if you want to keep it really simple, you don't have to smoke it at all. Once it is out of the cure, it is ready to slice thinly and serve. The smoke just adds an extra dimension.
If you do smoke it, use cherry, oak, or alder wood chips, or something in that vein. I used cherry, because that's the kind of mood I was in. Just avoid pine or anything in the conifer family.
Follow your smoker's instructions, but you will only smoke it for about 20 minutes at a low temperature, so you don't cook the fish. I've posted step-by-step photos for you.
Give it a try, and if you come up with your own version, submit it to The Kitchen for us all to try!
Citrus-cured smoked salmon
2 pounds salmon, boneless and skinless
4 cups Kosher salt
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon white peppercorns
1. With a grater, remove the zest of the citrus fruit.
2. Mix the grated zest and coriander with the salt and sugar in a non-reactive dish, like Pyrex. The more snugly it all fits in the dish with the salmon, the better.
3. In a hot, dry pan toast the white peppercorns, until they exude their aroma, about 3 minutes. Put them on the counter or a cutting board, and using another heavy bottomed pan crush the toasted peppercorns. You could also use a mortar and pestle. Then add the cracked peppercorns to the salt mixture.
4. Thoroughly mix all of these ingredients, then bury the salmon in this sandy mixture.
5. Cover the dish in plastic, place a weight on top, and store in the refrigerator for 48 hours to cure.
6. After two days, remove the salmon from cure, rinse with water and pat dry. You can slice it thinly and eat it this way, or let it sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours on a rack, so the surface becomes tacky and will absorb the smoke more readily. Then cold smoke it for 20 minutes.
Editor's note: Georgia's passion for good food began at an early age, on a boulder by the side of a creek as she caught her trout for breakfast. After Wellesley and Harvard -- and a brief stint on Wall Street -- she decided to leave the cubicle world behind and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City.
Upon graduating at the top of her class, she worked in two of America's best restaurants, Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, as well as in one of the premier destination restaurants in Provence, France, La Chassagnette. It was there that she decided it was time to really get at the heart of where our food comes from and head to the source -- Mother Nature. She bought a shotgun and set her sites on the cutting edge of culinary creativity intent on pushing the boundaries of American gastronomy, from field to stream to table.
Her new book, "Food Heroes: Tales of 16 food artisans preserving tradition" will be coming out this year. She currently roams the world, hunting, tasting good food and meeting the good people who make it. You can read more about her work at www.GeorgiaPellegrini.com.