Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pacific Northwest Gold

I can never get enough smoked salmon, a Pacific Northwest treat. So when my neighbor, Sean, surprised me with a beautiful salmon he caught in West Seattle, I decided to cure and smoke it. Sean has been smoking his bounty for years and he offered this treasure as a way of trying out some other cure recipes.  After discussing the different cures and wood smoke combinations Sean has used in the past, I set out to try my own version. By the way, Sean could easily sell his smoked salmon alongside the packaged brands.
After looking through some of my favorite cookbooks and studying up on flavor combinations, I came up with the following cure recipe. Two books I refer to continuously are The Flavor Bible and Culinary Artistry, both by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. These books are fantastic for those times when you return from your local farmers market with fresh vegetables but aren’t sure what you want to make. I have also found these books invaluable when cooking without recipes                                                          

Smoked Salmon Cure
Simply mix the following ingredients together in a mixing bowl:
            - 1 ¼ cups dark brown sugar
            - 1 cup kosher salt
            - 2 tbsp coarse ground black pepper
            - 2 tbsp dry dill
            - 1 teaspoon dry thyme
            - 4 bay leaves (ground fine in spice grinder)
            - 2 tbsp ground brown mustard seeds
            - 1 tbsp ground coriander
            - 1 tbsp ground cumin
            - Zest of 2 oranges
            - Zest of 1 lemon

I placed a large sheet of plastic wrap on top of a sheet of foil to wrap the fish in after applying the cure.  After placing 1/3 of the cure mixture on the plastic, I laid the first salmon fillet skin side down. I spread another 1/3 of the cure over the flesh side of the fillet. Next, I put the second fillet on top of the first (flesh side down). Then I covered the skin side of the second fillet with the remainder of the cure.  I wrapped the fish up tight in the plastic and foil and placed it on a half sheet pan covered with foil. (You need to cover the sheet pan with foil because a good amount of liquid works its way out of the wrapped fish as it cures.)  Finally, I placed a 9 x 13 baking dish with 2 soup cans to weigh the curing fish down. I turned the fish over every 12 hours to allow for even distribution of the curing process.  I cured this particular fish for 72 hours before taking it out and rinsing off the fillets with cold water and allowing them to dry for a few hours to form the pellicle - the layer formed on the surface of the cured fish that is tacky to the touch. This tacky surface allows the smoke to bond to the fish. 
Cured salmon with pellicle formed

I smoked the fish for about 7 hours using alder chips for the first 6 hours and cherry chips for the last hour in a 4-rack smoker, which I placed in my backyard. This particular smoker has an electric element at the bottom that you place a pan full of the wood chips on top of. The photo shows the smoker with the face plate removed. I smoked a couple of Sean’s fillets, too, since he seems to be catching more fish than he knows what to do with. 
4 rack electric smoker

The photo at the top shows the finished product with some items that create some nice flavor pairings for the smoked salmon. I served it with a simple seedless cucumber salad made with rice vinegar, dill, salt and pepper. I also included capers, crostini, Dijon mustard, and crème fraiche with dill.
I spent all day Saturday in anticipation of eating the smoked salmon, drinking cold beer, and watching the Red Sox versus Mariners game. Overall, the smoking required an extreme amount of patience. But it turned out to be a great day … even though the Red Sox lost.

How did these guys find Sean's secret fishing spot?

I want to thank Sean for giving me this beautiful fish and allowing me to use his smoker. I have a feeling I will have an updated fishing license and smoker of my own in the not too distant future. I also want to thank Sean's wife Ruth, for being just as excited as myself when it comes to trying out new recipes. We use each other as recipe guinea pigs when we are feeling creative. Ruth makes a French Onion Soup that simply makes you exhale that comfortably satisfied sigh. Last I want to thank my neighbor Carol, for sharing her love of food and hosting several barbecues over the years. Carol's pretty cool even though she's a Husker fan. I say this in jest, knowing full well that Husker fans are probably the most respectful college football fans in the country. Cheers!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spice shop discovery: Ras El Hanout

Ras El Delicious

There’s an entire section of Chef Tools’ warehouse devoted to spices, sugars and dried peppers – it’s like our own little spice shop. I was combing through this section recently and, among exotic sea salts and sugar decorations, I found a stash of Ras El Hanout

I didn’t know what it was when I saw it, which is probably why it was attractive to me. The jar advertises it as a “classic blend” of spices from Morocco.  Local Seattle spice company India Tree distributes it and it contains: all spice, black pepper, mace, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, rosebuds and cloves. 

I did a little research and found that this stuff is good on almost anything. There are recipes that describe adding it to coffee or tea, using it as a rub for meat or infusing it in rice or couscous. What’s more, the ingredients seem to expand and contract at the whims of the chef. 

Apparently, Ras El Hanout means “top of the shop” (or “head of the shop”) in Arabic, which means that it’s a blend of all the best spices from the spice shop.  Some recipes contain anise, saffron or simple salt. Whatever the blend, it smells delicious and there are literally hundreds of different recipes out there – at least on the Internet – for this stuff. 

Does anyone out there have any experience cooking with Ras El Hanout? I immediately pictured chickpeas stewing in a Ras El Hanout sauce in a tagine; then served over a bed of steaming rice pilaf. Anyway, from the top of Chef Tools’ little spice shop comes this wonderful little jar of culinary possibilities!