“Home made bagels,” I said gleefully, describing my Easter brunch menu to a friend, “with tons of different toppings: fresh nettle pesto, cheeses, lox, red onions and cream cheese.”
“Lox?” he asked.
“Oh, basically smoked salmon,” I replied, hurriedly changing the subject. The truth was, I had only a vague idea of the answer. A self-respecting foodie, however, does not admit to such elementary ignorance.
Sure enough, upon research I discovered that lox is cured rather than smoked salmon. Perhaps my hazy command of the facts is forgivable, as it turns out that the categories of smoked and cured fish are far from simple. Reading further I found myself immersed in a perplexing world of cold smoking and hot smoking, salt cures and brines, some with sugar or oil or both. There were recipes calling for herbs and spices, others drowning the fish in booze. Some methods required both curing and smoking. It was all rather overwhelming.
Then I hit upon a familiar item: ‘gravlax.’ It is a delicacy I’ve devoured on several occasions, but never stopped long enough to wonder how it’s made. Yet here was a recipe right before my eyes. It came from an article by the indomitable Mark Bittman, long time food columnist for the New York Times. The article was entitled “Gravlax without fear.” Was there anything to fear? The prospect of a new and potentially dangerous culinary adventure was too hard to resist. I headed for the fishmongers.
Gravlax, I learned, is a Scandinavian version of lox consisting of raw salmon cured with a mixture of salt, sugar, pepper, dill and perhaps a little aquavit for good measure (those tiddly Swedes). Traditionally, it is served atop a wafer of crisp bread or boiled potatoes and accompanied by a mustard dill sauce. According Bittman, this northern fare is needlessly embellished and sold for outrageous prices in New York restaurants. It has earned the status of posh nosh when in reality it is child’s play to prepare.
Home curing has been on my Grand List for a long time. (This languishing list consists of a bizarre variety of items including, among others: learn to fish, go to Argentina, buy a farm in the Alpujarras, get a real job – you see why it languishes?)
The Bittman was right; gravlax is ludicrously easy to prepare. Salt draws moisture out of the fish while the herbs or spices subtly flavor it. The basics are as follows: Cover a fillet of salmon with a mixture of two parts salt to one part sugar and then with a layer or chopped dill and peppercorns. Wrap it all up and toss it in the fridge for two days. Et voila! You can leave it plain or improvise with flamboyant spice or citrus cures. I’ve chosen Tom Valenti’s version with less salt and a long cure (to be honest I mainly chose it for the booze factor; I cannot resist an excuse to get a salmon drunk). However, Bittman lists several equally enticing variations.
As I pressed salt into the fillet of salmon, I wondered at the persistent appeal of do-it-yourself cooking. Why do I love making bread and pickling beets? Why do I get so much satisfaction out of home-made marmalade and frankly pathetic pork pies? And I am not alone. There has been a lot of talk lately about the growing interest in old-fashioned skills such as home canning and baking. The consensus is that this trend is a response to the recession, to general insecurity and a tightening of belts. But I find this argument unlikely. Anyone who has tackled home canning, for instance, knows that by the time you buy a canning kettle, enough fruit, the all important set of sparkling new lids (essential to guard against botulism), you have spent enough money to keep yourself in tinned pears for a lifetime.
Furthermore, even I, zealous as I am to master the art of curing, don’t really believe that it would come in useful in an emergency. The chance of finding yourself in a situation deprived or all food save for a perfectly filleted salmon and a bag of salt seems rather unlikely, even if you have inherited a theatrical imagination (When oil prices began shooting up in the early 2000’s, my mother had to be dissuaded from her determination to buy a cart so that we might drive the pony to town for grocery shopping.)
My theory is that our current interest in these half forgotten skills stems from more than mere neurosis. There is something magnificent about opening a jar of marmalade that you have stirred or watching bread rise that you have kneaded. Perhaps it is a childlike awe in the power of human hands. In an age in which many of us spend our days working with the intangible and abstract, or in rote mechanized movement, there is an undeniable beauty in the pure physicality of kneading dough to the perfect pitch or the keen eye in boiling jam to setting point. These acts distill the rawness of life; like salt to a salmon, they cure.