I’ve written elsewhere that I was a vegetarian for seven years. I don’t regret that period of meat-phobia, or inflammation of the compassion, or whatever it was, because it taught me how to cook. I learned an awful lot about pasta sauce, for example, and in particular a certain recipe I stole from the chefs at work involving roasted peppers, onions, eggplant, and poached garlic… but that’s for another day. I do regret certain opportunities I missed out on – the food that got away, so to speak. For instance, I traveled through France, Italy, and Greece without a bite of animal protein passing my lips. The specialties of Poland and the Czech Republic passed me by. I don’t recall caring much at the time, so I suppose I shouldn’t whine about it now.
My vegetarianism ended in November of 1997. I remember the event quite clearly. I was passing through the Pacific Northwest of America, the area that is now my home, and an Alaskan friend offered me a bite of smoked salmon sent in a care package from her father. She knew I was a vegetarian so she didn’t press the issue. She did, however, mention that the salmon had been smoked by the Gwich’in people of Arctic Village where her dad was stationed.
Eskimo-smoked salmon. What would you do?
People in the Northwest, and in Alaska in particular, have strong emotional ties to salmon. Every year the rivers are choked with the beasts, thrashing their way upstream in a few inches of water. Fishing for them is a joke. You hook one, and it will run out your line between the legs of one of the other score of fishermen standing in the river mouth with you. They say you used to be able to walk across a stream on the backs of the salmon. You could dip a frypan in a river and bring up a catch. That sort of thing. And for the native folks around here, smoked salmon was survival through the winter. We of European descent have that much in common with the coastal Indians. Were it not for dried fish, we never would have traveled the world (read Cod, by Mark Kurlansky. Then read Salt. Then, if you haven’t already, read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Oh, and The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. You’ll thank me).
Anyway, I ate the salmon.
I never saw much salmon in Australia. There is a tendency Downunder to name a completely different and unique plant or animal after its European counterpart. Any aromatic wood, for example, is cedar. And so on. If you order salmon, you may indeed be getting a relative of salmon, but it isn’t a slab of coho, that much is for certain. Plus it was bloody expensive.
Living as I do in the PNW, throw a jar of marshmallow paste in a supermarket and you’ll hit ten salmon. It’s still bloody expensive, but at least it’s there. Whole, steaks, and, of course, smoked. Smoked salmon is one of the world’s great foods. So here is a recipe for one of the great things you can do with it, and this recipe is by an Australian, Matt Moran, chef and owner of the fine dining restaurant ARIA, from his book When I Get Home, sent to me by my parents to make me homesick. I don’t know where he gets his salmon.
Smoked Salmon Rillettes
Rillettes are an old French dish where pork is cooked in fat and shredded to a paste, rather like confit without the aging process. It’s also similar to English potted meat. But it works beautifully with fish.
4 cups vegetable stock
½ lb salmon fillet
¼ lb smoked salmon, chopped fine
about 4 Tb crème fraiche (or sour cream)
½ bunch of dill, chopped
½ bunch of chives, chopped
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp horseradish
2 tsp capers
Bring the stock to a boil and season with salt. Place the salmon fillet in a bowl, then pour over enough boiling stock to cover. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and set it aside to poach for 30 minutes. Remove the salmon from the stock and remove any skin.
Place the remaining ingredients in a bowl and mix until they are all combined.
Flake the poached salmon and gently fold into the crème fraiche mixture. Season with salt and more cayenne pepper as desired. Spoon it into a jar and store in the fridge for up to four days.
Eat it on toast.
This dish is extremely similar to a kind of preserved salmon that was a gift to me from Virgil, my fry bread guide. He’d been visiting his relatives on the coast and took away a bunch of preserved salmon. He gave me a jar, and was annoyingly vague on the process of preserving it. “What kind of salmon is it?” I asked. He thought maybe coho or king but wasn’t sure. “How long will it keep?” I asked. He said, “that depends on how hungry you are.”