Gravlax – Smoked salmon without the smoke

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It’s Sockeye season on the West coast of BC, and 2014 is the peak return in a four year annual cycle for this tasty little salmon. The last peak in 2010 saw ten’s of millions of this species returning to their home waters to spawn, and while this year’s return is still underway the spawning population looks to be quite healthy.

It seems strange in the era of always-available fresh farmed salmon, but the sockeye run continues to be part of the “heritage” of coastal and central BC (and of course plays a huge role in the cultural heritage of first nations people). Neighbours regularly gift fish picked up from friends, off local fishing vessels, or even self caught. We swap recipes over drinks and talk about best preparations.

A standard fillet of salmon off a four pound fish can feed usually four adults, but there always seem to be more fish than the typical family can eat at a sitting. While freezing is an option, it’s a waste not to use this fresh fish when it’s available. Most families I know will simple cook the whole fillet and use the leftovers for sandwiches, but there are other ways of preserving the delicately flavoured fish.

Smoking is an option that’s long been practiced here on the coast and to a lesser extent in the interior. Smoking can be done any number of ways, but it usually combines brining and curing the fish before placing in a home smoker of some sort. The process can be labour intensive and take a long time to complete. You also need to have a source to properly add the smoked flavour–not always an option for many folks.

Another way to use the excess fish (and sometimes the whole fillet) that requires far less time and effort than smoking is Gravlax. Gravlax is a very common method of preparing salmon that has been practiced across Northern Europe and Scandinavia in various forms since the middle ages. Essentially it is a simple salt cure used to both extract moisture from the fish and enhance it’s flavour. Modern preparations such as the one below add sugar and herbs to balance the saltiness and impart subtle flavours to the dish. If you’ve got super fresh salmon on hand this is an excellent treat.

Sockeye Gravlax with Green Onion

  • Raw Sockeye Fillet*
  • White sugar
  • Pickling or Kosher Salt (coarse, non-iodized)
  • Thinly sliced green onion (white and green parts), Dillweed, or other herbs.

Method

  1. Debone, rinse, and pat dry a salmon fillet cut to desired size
  2. Place the fish skin side down on a clean piece of linen or a tea towel
  3. Lightly sprinkle all the exposed flesh with simple white table sugar
  4. Sprinkle a thin layer of salt over all the flesh, using less on thin sections of the fish and heavier amounts on the thicker areas
  5. Sprinkle a thin layer of sliced green onions over the entire piece of fish
  6. Wrap the linen or tea towel tightly around the fish and refrigerate, flesh side down on a suitable sized plate for 24 hours or more.
  7. Repeat steps 1-6 and refrigerate for a further 24 hours. You may need to change the linen or towel if there is an excessive amount of moisture drawn out of the fish.
  8. Remove linen or towel, rinse, pat dry with paper towel, slice thinly and serve alone, or on unsalted crackers or dense bread.

Notes:

Most sockeye caught on this coast has no nasty parasites and the salt will generally take care of any that might be there, but if you want to be on the safe side freezing the fish used for 24 hours prior to preparing will help eliminate any that might be hiding (as an FYI most Sashimi is served after freezing). I personally don’t freeze the fish as this tends to change the finished texture.

Thinner pieces of fish, i.e. the rear third of a standard salmon fillet, tend to cure in 48 hours or less. In our house this is usually the piece left over from a meal so it works out nicely. Thicker pieces may take an additional day to cure. The cure is “done” when the flesh reaches a firmness similar to pressing on the heel of your thumb. In order to get nice thin slices, it’s best to put the cured fillet in the freezer for 30 minutes before slicing and use a sharp thin bladed knife.

Some recipes recommend covering the fillet with a weighted plate while curing, but I don’t find it necessary, particularly with thinner pieces of fish.

Cheers,

Aaron

How to Chop an Onion – An Idiot’s Guide

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I know it sounds a little silly. We all know how to cut an onion right? Peel and chop. Pretty simple. But what if you need to have reasonably consistent pieces? Or you need to work quickly without losing a digit in the process?

I used to watch the old Mexican street vendors preparing salsas. Those women could make short work of an onion and produce perfectly minced pieces without even using a cutting board. I’ve tried to copy their method (which involved cross scoring the onion) in my kitchen, but I was never able to duplicate it with any degree of skill, so I came up with my own way. While it doesn’t have the elegance of those skillful street vendors, it does a passable job in fairly short order.

Method:

  • Cut the top and bottom of the onion and peel.

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  • Half the onion. If there is a core (sometimes found on larger onions) cut a little V-notch in each half to remove.

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  • Turn the onion on the side and make fan shaped cuts to the onion’s centre at the desired width of the finished piece size.

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  • Cross cut the half against the grain, again at the desired width for the finished results. Use your fingers to keep the onion together as much as possible (not shown in the photo)

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  • Continue the cross cuts until complete.

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  • Break the pieces apart with your fingers to produce the finished product.

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The example pictured above is chopped coarsely, but much finer pieces are easily achievable using this method. It takes a little practice to perfect, but it’s worth the effort.

Aaron

Mirepoix Stock Base

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Mirepoix is the basis for so many stocks and sauces that it really deserves a bit of discussion.

At its most basic it simply represents a collection of finely cut vegetables sautéed in oil or butter. Traditionally the three main components are onions, carrots and celery, but other flavourful vegetables such as bell peppers, asparagus, garlic, mushrooms or zucchini can be added or substituted. Another addition that I like to include is fresh chopped parsley or chives. Your choice of components comes down to an intuitive understanding of what will go best with the finished dish.

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I try and keep the proportions of cut vegetables fairly even (maybe a little heavier on the onion) and scale up or down as required. The example shown above involves a single small onion, a medium to large carrot, a stalk of celery and a good hank of flat leaf parsley. Unless used in a dish where the finished vegetables will actually be eaten whole, the chopping doesn’t have to be particularly precise–just small enough to saute easily and quickly. The only vegetable that needs to be cut finely is the carrot–mostly because it takes the longest to cook and soften.

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Melt the required amount of butter in a non-stick or regular heavy bottomed saucepan over a medium heat. If the recipe calls for caramelizing or browning the vegetables a regular pan is best, because it can take the heat required and works better for deglazing. Olive oil can be used if you are concerned about saturated fats in your diet, but nothing beats the flavour of butter (in my humble opinion).

Add the vegetables to the butter and saute to soften. The length of time required will vary with the amount of heat applied, the quantity of vegetables and even the size of pan used so I can’t offer a definite guideline, but I would plan on at least 20 minutes or so–longer if you plan on browning the vegetables. On that note I would recommend sauteing the vegetables until almost done before increasing the heat a little to brown. This will prevent the butter from browning before the vegetables have finished cooking and will reduce the amount of water in the mirepoix. You’ll just have to experiment a little and find what works best for you (standard operating procedure in my kitchen).

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Next comes the wine. What’s traditional french cooking without the wine? As I note on my condiment page, a simple unoaked sauvignon blanc is my cooking white wine of choice. It has lots of fruit flavour and for the most part low tannin and acid. If you’ve ever had cream curdle with the addition of wine, you’ll understand why a low acid wine is best. I also like the subdued flavour profile of sauvignon blanc because it doesn’t overpower a dish–cooking wine should be a supporting character and not the star of the show.

Add the wine to the now cooked mirepoix for a little softening, a little flavour and to deglaze the brownings if any. Add enough to moisten the vegetables, but not drown them if you will be eating the finished vegetables in a dish, add more if it will form the base for a stock. Saute the vegetables and wine at least until the alcohol in the wine has evaporated, but before it begins to lose flavour. If using for a stock, I like to add a little water or bullion at this point. Alternatively, when you go to strain the vegetables in the next step, hot water can be used to rinse the finished mirepoix and extract more flavour. You can “finish” the mirepoix at this point with the addition of fresh chopped herbs, salt, pepper, etc. if desired.

Straining the mirepoix into a heatproof container is the final step in producing your base stock. I’m fortunate enough to have a traditional metal cone-shaped sauce strainer (another thrift store find courtesy of my wife), but if you don’t, fear not–simply line a fine sieve with a cheesecloth slightly larger than the sieve, add the vegetables and when mostly drained gather up the edges to create a ball and (when cool enough) squeeze as much liquid from the ball as possible.

Your mirepoix based stock is now good to go. It can be used as is in any number of dishes or as the base for other more elaborate sauces. For use in some sauces where colour is important, using neutral coloured vegetables such as parsnips and white mushrooms in place of the carrot and parsley is suggested–but I personally don’t bother too much with such considerations.

One last thing. I hinted above that the resulting mirepoix can be eaten rather than used as a stock base. While I won’t provide a recipe here, at some point in late summer or early fall when the Pacific salmon start to run, I will post a recipe for saumon au papillote that uses the soften vegetables as a key ingredient.

Aaron

Octodogs (aka takodogs)

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The infamous “Octodog,” or Takodog (literally octopus dogs) if you prefer an engrish version, is a staple in a lot of Japanese kids’ bento boxes. They are dead easy to make in the simplest form, but like most things Japanese you can go a little crazy using specialized cutters and adding touches such as black sesame seed eyes. I opt for the simple version as my kids are past the point when the extras mean anything to them.

Recipe: Octodogs

  • 1 Gluten free hot dog

Method:

  1. Cut hot dog into three equal sections
  2. Using a sharp paring knife make three 1/2″ slits in a pie shape at each exposed hot dog end
  3. Boil cut pieces in a small pot (better) of water for a minute, or microwave (faster) on high for about 40 seconds
  4. Transfer cooked hot dogs to a piece of paper towel to drain, dry and cool
  5. Use as required

Notes: It really doesn’t any easier. It’s almost embarrassing to provide a recipe, but I had to look it it up when I first started.

As an aside, I was first shown a version of these by a friend during a fishing trip. He made deeper slits on either end of a whole hot dog (about a third of the length deep), skewered them in the middle, roasted them over an open fire until the legs curled, and called them squid-dogs. They tasted really good and made a great campfire treat for the kids.

Aaron

Birthday Bento

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Okay, the last bento post for a while… I promise.

This is the bento box I ordered from Japan as a birthday gift for my wife. Since I do the cooking for the family I suppose this is as much a gift for me as for her, but they say you should always give something you wish to receive (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).

Before getting into the contents, I should write a bit about the box itself. I first came across it a month ago while surfing for information on bentos and just fell in love with it. Unlike the classic multi-tiered bento boxes with their loose fitting lids, this one is actually made for carting a lunch to work. It’s a two tiered unit with a sliding inner tray on the top tier. The top tier also comes with a snug fitting clear clear plastic lid (not shown) to keep moist dishes from drying out. The finishing touch is an elasticized band to keep the unit together when carrying. The graphic lettering on the box says “nokorimono desuga” or “I’m afraid it’s just leftovers”–gotta love Japanese humour.

First impressions… It’s a very sexy lunch box. The two tiers, sliding section and snap lid are very functional. The only downside is that it’s not dishwasher or microwave safe. The box can be purchased from Bento&Co in Japan and currently retails for $19.56 CDN or $19.50 US.

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On to the ingredients. Fitting with the lettering on the box it contains mostly leftovers with a few extra ingredients for it’s inaugural flight.

Birthday Bento

  • Cal-rose extra fancy short grain rice
  • Fried tofu and prawn in sauce
  • Edamame, boiled and salted
  • 1/2 Campari tomato
  • Tomagoyaki rolls (sweetened egg sushi)
  • Tamari and sushiza in little fish bottles

In addition to the box contents I added two clementines, an apple and a small container of yogurt. As far as bento lunches go this one is a little over the top, but it needed to be in order to accent the birthday theme of the meal. I made the tomagoyaki the night before, while the tofu and prawns are really leftovers.

Itadakimasu! (Bon appetit!)

Aaron

Moules et Frites (Mussels and Fries)

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My wife and I have a special place reserved in our hearts for Moules et Frites–it was the first restaurant meal we shared at the long since closed Santo’s Bistro in Vancouver. For me they also bring back fond memories of my time as a student in Montreal, where cheap mussels were a staple at home and in the bars that lined Saint Laurent Boulevard.

We serve mussels on special occasions and this time it was for my wife’s birthday. Cooking mussels can be as simple as steaming them until they open and serving them with a little garlic butter, but we like to go the extra distance.

Menu

  • Mussels in Cream Sauce
  • French fries
  • Balsamic glazed snow peas
  • Sliced mango
  • Crusty baguette for dipping
  • Milk for the kids, Lillet and soda for the adults

Recipe: Mussels in Cream Sauce

  • 2 lbs Wild or cultured Mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
  • 4 tbs Butter, salted or unsalted
  • 1 c Mirepoix (finely diced onions, carrot, celery, peppers, parsley, etc.)
  • 1 c White wine
  • 1/4 c Red or orange bell peppers, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 c Baby asparagus tips
  • 4 cloves Minced garlic
  • 1 Tbs Flat leafed parsley
  • 1/2 c Whipping cream (or to taste)
  • Fresh ground black pepper to finish

Method

  1. In a medium sauce pan melt 3 Tbs butter and saute the mirepoix to soften
  2. Add white wine and five mussels in the shell and bring to a high simmer
  3. Remove the mussel meat when the shells open and return the shells to the pan, reserving the meat
  4. Simmer the stock covered for a few minutes, uncover, add a cup of water and bring to a boil
  5. Remove the pan from the heat and strain into a heat proof bowl squeezing as much liquid as possible from the cooked mirepoix
  6. You should be left with approximately 1 1/2 c of stock, if not add a little water or wine to extend
  7. In a deep saucepan large enough to hold the finished dish, melt 1 Tbs of butter and lightly saute the garlic, and remaining vegetables for one to two minutes
  8. Add the stock and whipping cream to the pan, stir to combine and bring to a low boil
  9. Add the mussels and stir to combine
  10. Cover and cook until the mussels open
  11. Remove from heat immediately and add reserved parsley, mussel meat and pepper
  12. Transfer to a decorative bowl and serve hot

Notes: The cooking process essentially involves 2 steps: making a stock and cooking the mussels. If you wish to use a mild fish stock or a low sodium chicken stock you can skip to step six above, but you should add a half cup of sliced onions along with the peppers and asparagus tips before adding the stock and whipping cream. I’m a bit torn between using unsalted butter or salted butter in this dish. The result is naturally quite salty due to the liquid released from the shells when they open. If you prefer less salt then definitely use unsalted butter in the rest of the cooking process. The mirepoix is a thing of personal preference, but it almost always should include carrots and onions. Normally I would include celery, but I had none on hand.

Serves 4-6 depending on appetite.

Aaron

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Dinner on the patio

Thai Style Fish Stock

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It’s funny how a trip to the grocery store can change a meal plan.

After taking some chunky halibut fillets out of the freezer on Friday evening, I had decided to go with something relatively simple for Saturday–herb crusted pan seared halibut with a light cream sauce–but a trip into the bowels of Vancouver’s old China town, changed things up pretty quick. I rarely make the trip into down town Vancouver,  but my daughter had some work to pick up at the artist supply shop on the edge of China town and I decided to come along.

My first stop was South Seas Market, 265 East Hastings, to replenish my stock of lime leaves. This market stocks almost every Thai product that the aspiring foodie could desire. While there, I couldn’t resist picking up some fresh galangal root, Thai holy basil, a few mukrut (kaffir) limes, a couple of large containers of sambal oelek, and of course a large bag of lime leaves.

Next stop was the venerable Sunrise Grocery on Powel and Gore. Sunrise Grocery has been supplying the immediate area’s inhabitants and restaurants with cheap fresh local and imported ingredients for well over 50 years. I stocked up on incredibly inexpensive huge bags of bok choy, small orange and red bell peppers, pineapples, mangos, strawberries, and of course tofu (produced by the store’s owners under their Sunrise brand). In fact I went a bit overboard in my shopping spree and ended up dividing the spoils with my friends and neighbours.

Once home I realized that my original menu was out the door. I couldn’t bear to leave these fresh ingredients for a single day. Having made a Thai yellow curry only a few days before I opted for a clear Thai fish soup accompanied by a pineapple/pepper sweet and sour and Thai scented rice. Scanning my books and online sources for soup recipes, I found that almost all called for the inclusion of Asian chicken stock–unfortunately absent from my pantry. Faced with a crucial missing ingredient, I opted to wing it (happens a lot, I’m afraid).

Recipe: Thai Style Fish Stock:

  • 1 Medium Spanish or Red onion, diced
  • 1 Tbs Canola oil (or other flavourless light oil)
  • 4 Cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1″ Piece of ginger, minced
  • 1-1 1/2″ Piece fresh galangal root, grated
  • Fish bones for stock
  • 1 Tbs Fish sauce
  • Water to cover ingredients
  • 1 tsp brown or palm sugar
  • 4 Lime leaves, torn
  • 1 tsp Cumin seed
  • 2 tsp Coriander seed
  • 1 tsp Shrimp paste (optional)
  • 1-4 Red Thai chillies, chopped or 1 Tbs sambal oeleck
  • Salt to taste

Method:

  1. In a wok over add oil and saute onions until lightly browned medium-high heat
  2. Add garlic and stirfry until very lightly browned
  3. Add cumin and coriander seed and ginger and stirfry for a minute or two
  4. Add galangal root, chilies (or sambal oeleck), and shrimp paste and stirfry for another minute or two
  5. Add fish sauce to deglaze the pan
  6. Add fish bones and continue to stirfry for another minute or two
  7. Add torn lime leaves and sugar
  8. Add water to cover all the ingredients and bring to a slow simmer for 20 minutes (do not boil)
  9. Add salt and/or fish sauce to adjust the salt level
  10. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a heat proof container

Notes: Please be aware that this is the recipe for a stock and not a soup as such. It serves as a base for soups sauces or curries. I didn’t use lemon grass (one thing I forgot on my shopping trip) but you could add a stalk or two of the chopped and lightly crushed lemon grass along with the galangal in step 4. I used a salmon head for the bones, but any fish bone sections will do. Do not boil the bones, as the stock will become cloudy and a little thickened. If you are making soup you will need to add a little acid (lime juice or palm vinegar) to balance the sweet and salty stock before serving.
Aaron