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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Salmon Pastrami

This is desert island food for me.  As in, if I were stuck on a desert island and could only have one thing to eat, this would seriously be it.  The recipe is adapted from the cookbook from the world-famous, but currently-defunct, NYC restaurant Tavern on the Green.

This is technically a kind of ceviche, as the salmon is cured by the acid from the vegetable-lime juice mixture.  The "pastrami" part of it is the peppery crust you build on top with layers of molasses and coarsely crushed spices.  It's a process that takes days to finish, but is so worth it.  You can freeze it at just about any point once the curing is done: you can freeze the cured, uncrusted fish and apply the spice crust later, you can apply the spices and freeze it whole, or you can freeze it sliced.

Which piece to use
You'll need a fairly large piece of salmon (fussing with pre-cut "fillets" makes slicing it later a pain in the patoot).  You can do a whole side of salmon, but that does make a LOT of pastrami.  If you want to use a smaller piece, I suggest cutting (or have the guy at the fish counter do this) the piece outlined on the picture at right.  The "tail" piece behind it is too thin to slice nicely, and the rest of the fillet ahead of it tends to be wider than a standard knife, which makes carving the finished pastrami difficult. 

It's also best to use fish that's not been previously frozen.  Fish, like fruit, is very delicate at the cellular level and a freeze-thaw cycle makes the flesh mushy.  When you carve the finished pastrami, the firmer it is the better. 
How to slice finished pastrami
It's hard to write instructions for proper slicing of the finished pastrami (at least for me it is).  You want to slice thin slices on the diagonal, kind of like cutting a beef brisket, without cutting through the salmon skin.  Use a knife that's at least 2" wider than the fish.  Hold the knife parallel to the front edge of the fish and angle it diagonally in the vertical plane (like a forward slash if you're looking at it from the side, and you're right-handed).  Saw the knife gently toward the skin following the diagonal line, and then lift at the last millimeter to cut the flesh away from the skin. This -->     picture illustrates the angle of the cut pretty well.

And then there's serving the finished pastrami.  You can put a single slice on a cracker with a pinch of sour cream for an appetizer, or serve it rolled in a flatbread with capers, blanched onions and sour cream (my favorite) or put it on rye toast for a faux Reuben.  You can put a little or a lot of work into preparing the extras for a salmon pastrami sandwich, so I'll have a separate post regarding my preferred condiments.

And now...the recipe:

Salmon Pastrami
Makes 10-16 sandwich servings, or many more appetizer servings

1-1 1/2 lb. salmon fillet

For curing mixture:
1/2 tsp whole coriander
1/2 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 medium carrot, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup parsley, coarsely chopped
3 tbsp dry dillweed (or 1/2 cup fresh dill, coarsely chopped)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped chives
1/2 tbsp dry mustard powder
1/2 tsp red pepper flake
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 tbsp salt
2 tsp sugar
juice of 1 lime

For spice crust:
1/4 cup molasses
pinch cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tbsp black peppercorns
1 1/2 tbsp whole coriander

To serve:
flatbreads, tortillas or crackers
caramelized onions
blanched red onions
caramelized capers
sour cream or crême fraîche

Crack the coriander seeds in a food processor.  Add onion, carrot, parsley, dill, and chives to the food processor and pulse until a paste forms.  In a medium bowl, stir together mustard, spices, salt, sugar and lime juice.  Add vegetable and stir to combine thoroughly.

Put a 2-foot long (or longer) piece of plastic wrap on a cutting board.  Spread half the curing mixture on the plastic wrap to cover an area approximately the same size as the fish.  You can have some holes in the coverage.  Put the salmon on top of the mixture, and spread the remaining mixture on top of the salmon.  Fold the long sides over the salmon, then fold the short sides over. 

Put another piece of plastic wrap over the top of the package, "catching" the folded edges of the first layer in the center of the new layer.  Turn the package over and fold plastic wrap edges in.  Put the package on a baking sheet or in a baking pan and refrigerate for 2 to 5 days, turning 2 or 3 times a day (you don't have to be anal about this part, just flip it when you remember to do it). 

To finish, pound peppercorns and coriander in a ziptop bag with a mallet, or in a mortar and pestle to coarsely crush.  Scrape the curing mixture off the fish and rinse it briefly under cold water.  Pat dry.  Lay the fish flesh-side up on a workboard.  Heat the molasses and cayenne pepper in a microwave-safe dish for about 15 seconds, taking care not to let it simmer (it will start to harden like toffee if it boils...I screw up so you don't have to).
Mise-en-place for crusting the pastrami

Brush some of the molasses over the fish, then sprinkle with 1/3 of the spice mixture.  Allow to "dry" for a minute, then repeat procedure twice more.  If you're finding that the molasses is getting too thick to brush, return it to the microwave very briefly, a few seconds, to loosen it up. 

To store, cover loosely with plastic wrap in the fridge or wrap tightly and freeze.  Serve slices in flatbread rolls or on crackers with desired condiments. Pin It

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