"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.