Your house may become a revolving door at this time of the year with guests coming and going. Some guests may be more announced than others. Cheese and crackers are great to have on hand, but having something a little more personal can make the experience memorable.
Cured salmon may sound scary to tackle; but try a small mixture of the cure, a weight and a couple of days in the fridge. You then have a delicious cured salmon. Fresh salmon is the easiest to cure because the texture stays together as it slices.
Once the salmon cures, it will hold in your refrigerator for three weeks and be available for a multitude of uses. Cured or smoked salmon alone is a delicious treat. It can also be used on potato pancakes with crème fraîche, cream cheese and bagels, or as a replacement for ham in Eggs Benedict.
As for most cured things, salt is the main component, along with sugar to balance and aromatics to flavor. The thickness of the salmon will dictate how long the cure stays on the salmon. A general rule of thumb is about 3 to 4 ounces of salt per pound of salmon. Just multiply as needed.
The sugar helps balance about half the amount of salt. The amount of sugar to use is a little more flexible, depending on the desired outcome of the salmon. You can achieve an end result that’s a little sweeter or saltier, as desired.
Aromatics are another choice. The common choices are somewhere between a turkey brine and a pumpkin pie! Allspice, fennel, cloves, mace, bay leaves and peppercorns are just a few items that help make a great cure.
1½ to 2 pound section of fresh salmon, pin bones removed
1 cup kosher salt
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon TCM (pink salt or curing salt No. 1)
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon allspice berries
4 bay leaves
½ teaspoon whole cloves
½ teaspoon mace
Pernod or other anise liquor to taste (optional)
Plastic wrap as needed
To make sure that all of the pin bones are removed from the salmon, run your finger from the head toward the tail along a line about an inch from the top of the fillet. If you find any bones, pull them out with needle-nose pliers. Grasp the end of the bone firmly and pull toward the head.
Mix the salt, sugars, and TCM together in a bowl. If you wish, you may measure the seeds whole (it will be close to the same amount) then toast them lightly in a dry sauté pan without any oil over medium heat until they become fragrant (1 to 2 minutes). Grind the whole spices in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle until they become powder. Add mace and mix thoroughly.
Find a container that will fit the salmon snugly and place one strip of plastic wrap down the center, tight to the edges. The plastic should not touch the entire bottom, with ample amount hanging over the edge to fold over at the end. Place another strip of plastic wrap down each edge overlapping in the center. Place about half the cure on the plastic wrap and place the salmon skin side down on top of the cure. Drizzle Pernod on top of the salmon, then sprinkle the rest of the cure on top of the salmon, putting more on the thickest parts. Fold the top and bottom of the plastic wrap, and then the sides, tightly onto the salmon.
Place a flat container on top of the fish and weigh down with cans or bricks. Place in the refrigerator for 48 to 72 hours, until the flesh of the salmon is firm to the touch. It should have slight resistance but not be dry. Remove fish from the plastic wrap and rinse off the cure.
If desired, allow the salmon to sit uncovered in the refrigerator for 4 to 48 hours to form a pellicle (tacky outer skin) and cold smoke (directions follow). Slice thinly on a bias and used as desired.
If using a smoker, turn the smoker on to smoke with no heat. Get the wood of your preference to the smoldering point and place the salmon into the smoker for 10 to 30 minutes. If your smoker gives off an excessive amount of heat from the smoldering wood, it may help to add a bowl of ice above the wood to keep the temperature below 100 degrees.
If using a traditional grill, start a small fire on the edge of the grill with either charcoal or wood. Add some wood to the fire and let it start to ignite. Once it has started to burn, close all the vents, cover with the lid and smother the fire. Once smoke is bellowing out of the cracks of the smoker, place the salmon on the opposite edge of the grill from the fire for 10 to 15 minutes.
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.