Pete’s Charcutes: Salmon Gravlax

I’ve started to frame how I think about food as being most similar to flight patterns when you live near the airport.  For a few months here and there, maybe you’re in the flight pattern and you have to deal with it, then without notice it goes away and you barely recognize that the change has happened.  That’s generally how my interest in cooking food cycles.  This one has been in the thought pattern for awhile now.

Recently I haven’t been as intrigued by cooking offal at home.  I still enjoy eating it (I ate a pile of Burmese pig ears and organs at my desk, courtesy of Dupee, this week) and have a freezer full of it waiting for me.  But, I can’t think of anything to cook with it.  On the other hand, I am back into cured meats and their wealth of possibilities.  Gravlax has been on the brain since the delicious version I had at the Vergennes Laundry last winter.

Hell of a sandwich.  I alternated between loving that I brought Janet with me (because she was waving to people and laughing) and disliking it (cuz she ate all my gravlax)

Hell of a sandwich. I alternated between loving that I brought Janet with me (because she was waving to people and laughing) and disliking it (cuz she ate all my gravlax)

Not sure where I had eaten gravlax before that fateful day in VT, but previously I always thought of the cured salmon dish as a pickled, sweet and vinegary concoction.  It’s much more similar to smoked salmon with the same buttery texture, minus the dried outside, and with the light flavor of smoke replaced by dill.  After the Laundry, I was on board with gravlax and heard it was pretty easy to make at home.  And now, here we are.

After a little research, it started with a nice piece of wild caught salmon.

These white plastic cutting boards and I are going through a slow break up.  I recognized last week that I have put them through hell and they were showing the pain of that treatment, so its time to let them go and have a chance at a second life.  Hope their next owner like sticky cutting boards that never feel clean

These white plastic cutting boards and I are going through a slow break up.  I recognized last week that I have put them through hell and they were showing the pain of that treatment, so its time to let them go and have a chance at a second life.  I wish them the best and hope their next owner likes sticky cutting boards that never feel clean

When buying a large portion of salmon (this is about 2 pounds), you gotta go to Costco.  Sure you could throw caution to the wind and buy a $10/pound cut of farmed salmon, but your gravlax will likely end up tasting like liver pellets and mud.  Costco has the wild caught stuff for $13 a pound.

In order to make the filet relatively symmetrical, I trimmed off the belly meat strip and a bit of the end.

I strove for symmetry yet seemingly had no eye for it when taking this picture

I strove for symmetry yet seemingly had no eye for it when taking this picture

I saved the trimmings for the grillfest I was planning for later in the weekend and cut the filet into two roughly equal sized portions.

As I quickly learned, the beauty of gravlax is in its complete simplicity; the only other ingredients consistently recommended were sugar, salt, and dill. Although the recommended proportions of each varied widely.

For starters, I roughly chopped most of a store bought bunch of dill and threw away the stems.

One of Jack Ryan's favorite stories involved telling someone that they couldn't give a nun dill bread because it was made with dill dough.  Say it out loud and it will make more sense.  Now you get my sense of humor?

One of Jack Ryan’s favorite stories involved telling someone that they couldn’t give a nun dill bread because it was made with dill dough.  Say it out loud and it will be more clear.  Now you get my sense of humor?

To the dill I added 2/3s of a cup of kosher salt and 1/3 of a cup of white sugar.  This proportion was the subject of much debate (in my mind) since every recipe called for a completely different ratio with many recommending more sugar than salt.  With my memory of crappy sweet pickled salmon from my first gravlax experience, I elected for the greater salt amount.  Also, I zested half a lemon in as well since citrus was recommended in about half of the recipes I saw.  Stirred that up so that all ingredients were well distributed.

Could have used less of the salt/sugar since i left a lot in the bowl, but I definitely don't mind being wasteful with that stuff for some reason.  Yet I have a sprig of dill in my fridge that is way past its prime that I am hoping to find a hail mary use for

Could have used less of the salt/sugar since I left a lot in the bowl, but I definitely don’t mind being wasteful with that stuff for some reason.  On the other hand, I have a sprig of dill in my fridge that is way past its prime that I am hoping to find a Hail Mary use for so I don’t have to throw it out

I placed the two halves of the salmon filet on parchment and pressed/packed the dill curing mixture onto the meat until it was fully covered with a thick layer.

Again, very simple process: press a bunch of stuff onto the salmon.  Definitely had the potential to get out of hand if I had continued to try to fit the entire bowl of dill/salt/sugar on there but I gave up with about a quarter left and decided not to try and fit more on

Again, very simple process: press a bunch of stuff onto the salmon.  Definitely had the potential to get out of hand if I had continued to try to fit the entire bowl of dill/salt/sugar on there but I gave up with about a quarter left and decided not to try and fit more on

Then, with all the grace of when you’ve put toppings on both sides of your sandwich bread, I indelicately slapped these two pieces together.  Then, the usual sandwich process of scooping up everything that fell out and attempting to press it in from the sides. Eventually I had a salmon sandwich.

I'll admit it, I trimmed the salmon end wrong.  It needed to be a mirror image of the other side and I cut the angle opposite.  Made for the one end being mismatched.  If I was a kid and this was the bread used for my grilled cheese I would have lost my effing mind and believe the sandwich to be inedible

I’ll admit it, I trimmed the salmon end wrong.  It needed to be a mirror image of the other side and I cut the angle opposite.  Made for the one end being mismatched.  If I was a kid and this was the bread used for my grilled cheese, I would have lost my effing mind and believed the sandwich to be inedible (though I would have eaten it eventually because grilled cheese is delicious)

Using the parchment, I wrapped the salmon up burrito-style, folding in the ends as I rolled so I would have a nice compact package.

Not m'best burrito rolling.  On a scale of Annas Taqueria to Chipotle in terms of quality of burrito rolling, I would give this a Qdoba, meaning it looked about as good as Chipotle, but was inexplicably sh*ttier

Not m’best burrito rolling.  On a quality scale of Annas Taqueria to Chipotle in terms of burrito rolling, I would give this a Qdoba.  Meaning it looked about as good as Chipotle, but was inexplicably sh*ttier

Every recipe I saw recommended some extensive plastic wrapping at this point to seal all air out.  Following a brief temper tantrum when I discovered we were out of plastic wrap, I realized that the Food Saver vacuum sealer would do as good a job and definitely have less risk of leakage.  So, I sealed it up and put it in the back of the fridge with a one pound weight (package of ground turkey meat) on top.

Over the next 36 hours I flipped the the package over about once every 8 hours and replaced the weight on top.  The goal was to avoid one side spending too much time sitting in the salty/sugary liquid that formed.  Around breakfast the second day, I removed the package from the fridge.

MMMmmmm, questionable yellow fish juice.  I would have been pretty ripped if this stuff had leaked all over my fridge as was the chief complaint with the plastic wrap method

MMMmmmm, questionable yellow fish juice.  I would have been pretty ripped if this stuff had leaked all over my fridge as was the chief complaint with the plastic wrap method

The meat felt much firmer than it did when it went into the bag and the size was noticeably smaller.  I cut into the package over the sink to minimize fish juice spills and pulled out the salmon sammie.

Much darker than when we started.  I rarely cook meals for the blog in the morning and couldn't believe that I got natural light everywhere in the kitchen at 9AM.  Who knew?!?!

Much darker than when we started.  I rarely cook meals for the blog in the morning and couldn’t believe that I got natural light everywhere in the kitchen at 9AM.  Who knew?!?!   Also, nice thumb there, Mr. Mutant Baby Thumbs

The pieces came easily apart and I lightly scraped off the dill, zest, and unabsorbed sugar/salt.  Then rinsed each piece lightly under cold water to remove any excess ingredients followed by patting each piece dry with paper towels.  Which left me with this.

These were significantly flatter and not nearly as thick as when the filet was whole.  No comment on how they weren't really the same size at all despite my attempt and what I claimed earlier

These were significantly flatter and not nearly as thick as when the filet was whole.  No comment on how they weren’t really the same size at all despite my earnest attempt and what I claimed earlier

Even with a little help (Conman to the rescue!), I knew I couldn’t consume both of these pieces in one day so I put one into a fresh food saver bag and sealed it up for the following weekend.  The other piece I got to work on with the sharpest, thinnest carving knife I had.

The goal was to cut the pieces as thin as possible, but also to slice on a heavy bias so that each piece had some decent surface area.  Took some practice, and the first couple cuts were subpar, but eventually I got the hang of it.

Dece contrast shot showing how much darker the pieces looked before they were sliced thin.  They looked like salmon jerky in their whole form but sliced up tender and buttery

Dece contrast shot showing how much darker the pieces looked before they were sliced thin.  They looked like salmon jerky in their whole form but sliced up tender and buttery

Once I had a bunch of pieces sliced, I quickly tacked on another round of temper tantruming when I realized I didn’t have the perfect bagel that I was looking to eat this on.  Nothing less than a Bagels-4-You everything would have done the trick at that moment.

I reluctantly accepted my fate and went with a little wheat toast, cream cheese and capers.

There were multiple open faced sandwiches made that morning, this one just happens to be the smallest and makes me look the least gluttonous

There were multiple open faced sandwiches made that morning, this one just happens to be the smallest and makes me look the least gluttonous

The texture of the fish was very soft and, to use it again, buttery.  I don’t say this often but it really did melt in your mouth.  The fishy flavor normally found in lox was very mild and less pronounced than the dill and citrus from the cure.  I think the traditional way to serve this would have been with some aquavit or mustard or creme fraiche or maybe all of them, but nothing beats cream cheese and capers for me.

I would absolutely make this again and can’t wait to. I much preferred it to the inconsistent smoke flavor found in most packaged smoked salmon in stores.  Really really tasty.

Pete’s Charcutes is no longer the most seldom used category on the site!  Uncle Timmy?  You ready to talk about your stupid recipes for jerks?

Weird Crap I Cook: Salmon Heads (Grilled Salmon Wings)

A couple weeks ago, with weekend temperatures forecasted to be unseasonably warm, we decided to have a tailgating party for Sunday football.  Basically, instead of sitting indoors watching football we’d all wear jerseys and hang outside grilling food, drinking beers, and listening to games on the radio.  I will take credit for the awesome idea, mainly because the actual people who thought of it don’t have blogs to refute the claim.

With plans to grill, I decided to make a dish that I had been thinking about ever since I saw salmon heads in the seafood case for a buck a pound: salmon wings.

Big old sack of fish heads in exchange for 6 of my (recently) hard earned dollars

My idea for salmon wings was removing and cooking the collar of the salmon, kind of similar to the Hamachi Kama (yellowfin collar) I made this summer.  Unlike the yellowfin collar, the salmon collars are too small to eat with chopsticks so you would have to bend them and pull the meat out with your teeth like a chicken wing.  Hence, salmon wings.

I know salmon heads sound gross, but look at all of that nice looking meat around the collar!

After quickly rinsing the heads in the sink and moving Janet’s jumparoo out of splatter range, I got to work butchering the heads.

Now, here’s where things get a little weird (weirder); the entire time I was cutting the heads I was singing to myself “fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads, fish heads fish heads, eat them up yum”.  I have no idea where I have heard this song, why the lyrics were stuck in my head, and generally what the following video starring Bill Paxton is all about. But I know I am nervous about my sanity.

Not sure how we move on from here, but let’s go with pretending the previous paragraph never happened, OK?

The prep was actually a lot easier than I expected; the bone and cartilage connecting the collar to the head was a lot thinner than the tuna head and easier to cut through.  The gills, which were the easiest part of the tuna head, were the toughest part to remove due to the size of the heads.

This was the first one I butchered, and it got easier/cleaner as I went along. Don't think that means I wasn't in danger of losing my fingers at least 20 times in the half hour it took to fully butcher and trim the pile of heads

Instead of disposing of the rest of the head, I saw the potential in the meat remaining along the top and decided to cut out the gills and reserve the heads for later use.

All clean, even washed behind the ears. Again, this is still round one of 5. After this shot I didn't take another picture 'till everything was done, primarily due to the bloody messiness

Eventually I ended up with a cutting board of decently(-ish) butchered salmon collars.

Unlike the tuna head, I left the fins on this one. They seemed like they would be tough to remove without destroying some meat and figured the fin would make them easier to hold once cooked

The bowl of heads went back in the fridge for later use and, after a final rinse, the collars went into a marinade of sesame oil, soy sauce, siracha, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, and a little five spice.

Anybody still a little creeped out by Bill Paxton? What a career: start with that bizarre video, shift to memorably funny roles in Weird Science and Aliens, and mostly finish his career potential as a polygamist on a show I never understood the appeal of

After a couple hours in the marinade, the salmon wings went onto the upper rack of the grill skin down to allow some of the fat to render over lower heat for ten minutes.  From there they headed onto the main rack of the grill for five minutes on each side, leaving me with this.

The sugar burned a bit but it added some good flavor. Also, the ends of those fins had the texture of potato chips and were kinda tasty

After a few minutes to let them cool off, they were ready to sample.  I found the easiest way to eat them was to pull apart from the fin and one end then dive into the meat that was exposed.

I was nervous the skin would get in the way but it peeled off easily when the wings were pulled apart

The first bite, right by the fin joint, had a lot of meat on it.  The meat hadn’t taken on much of the marinade but was very rich and the texture was tender and moist.  Aside from that area, there was bone on both sides that had a thin layer of meat on it that was heavily flavored by the marinade and grill.

Sad that there's nothing left on there. The graininess of the last two images is because they were accidentally done as video and I needed to pull stills from that. Watching a video of myself eating made me wonder why I still have friends. If you want a quick weight loss tip, eat your meals with me while I am eating mine and I guarantee you will lose your appetite

A bunch of people tried these and the reviews were all positive.  Great flavor, unique, and fun to eat.  I’d definitely make salmon wings again.

When I got home from the tailgating a few hours later, I remembered that I had a giant bowl of fish heads waiting for me in the fridge.

As I said before, there was a fair amount of meat left on those heads despite already taking off the best part

Given the amount of soup I make on a weekly basis, I figured these would be put to best use by making some fish stock with them.  So, they headed under the broiler with onions, carrots, celery and garlic to get a little char on them.

That pizza stone has been supposed to come out of the oven for weeks, but I continually start preheating the oven before noticing it and then leave it in during cooking to keep the heat steady. Vicious cycle dudes

After everything had a little color, it all went into a stock pot covered completely with water to boil for a few hours.

I scrubbed the kitchen after the initial head butchering to get the fishy smell out, then came back home to make a stock that would permeate every fiber of clothing not safely stored with fish smells

Once the liquid had reduced and the flavors appeared to be right (read: I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed) I pulled all of the solids out using a slotted spoon to prepare the broth for straining.

The amount of gelatin in the broth was reduced by a few trips through some cheese cloth but, regardless, I was stunned by it. This looked scarier than the head cheese boil

Overall I ended up with about 4 quarts of fish broth which I will be sure to use in a future post or two.  All in all, a very successful day of cooking.

Soups and bolognese will be included in one of my next posts, not sure in what order.

Foraging for Food: Stuff My Friends Hunt

As I’ve reiterated multiple times on this blog, I am far from a real man.  I possess neither the intestinal fortitude or necessary aim to hunt, I’ve had a Rihanna song stuck in my head for a week, and I occasionally have nightmares that the chickens I slaughtered have come back from the dead and found me.  So, I rely on my friends and family to keep me in a steady supply of game meats for my cooking.  This posts highlights two of those friends and the meal I made with the spoils of their labor.

First up is Bill Busch Sr., the father of my friend and occasional blog character, Buschy.  Bill is a former exec at UPS, the all-time penalty minutes leader in Fort Erie Meteors history, and, in my opinion, missed his calling as a champion peanut eater.  Since retiring a few years ago, Bill has been doing a lot of what every dude dreams of doing when he retires; golfing and fishing.  And I mean serious fishing.

Bill Busch Sr, AKA The Salmon Seeker. I once watched this guy take down an entire sack of peanuts at a Red Sox game in less than a half inning. Also, that's a real nickname he would like to be known as, so write that down

That fish is from an epic salmon fishing trip in Alaska he recently took with a few friends.  The trip sounded friggin’ amazing and made me really look forward to retirement (only 7,000 more days of work to go!!!).  The best part is that he sent me one of the most beautiful pieces of fish I have ever seen, from a chinook salmon, via Buschy a few weeks ago.

Back in the continuous 48, I’ve got one of my food heroes living a short 3 and a half hours from Boston in Ripton, VT.  Bill Sargent is the brother of Kristi’s aunt Sue and, in an unrelated note, this is the exact moment that I realized I was writing about two guys named Bill and how this could be an issue.  From here on out, VT Bill is Billy.  Anyhoo, Billy is a consistently successful deer hunter.

This pic is 6+ years old. I think if I ever got a deer I would likely hire a professional photographer to come out and document the event. However, when you average a deer per bow and rifle season, you require less photos to prove your manliness

Beyond generously giving me a few pounds of homemade venison sausage meat and some steaks, Billy also knows more about food than I could ever hope to.  He’s worked in dining services at Middlebury college for 30+ years and is currently the head of purchasing.  If I mention an ingredient I am looking for ideas on how to cook, he will generally have 10 ideas for me in under 30 seconds.  You can thank him for my eventual attempt at pork hock osso bucco.

Quick aside: my father in-law Ken deserves a post of his own after bringing down a 4-pointer during bow season this year and saving me the liver and heart.  However, our newest blog villain Kristi forgot to bring the organs home to me and they were subsequently thrown out.  Janet reacts more maturely to being tired and hungry than my reaction to discovering Kristi forgot the offal.

Now that we are through the well deserved acknowledgments, here’s that incredible piece of salmon and the venison sausage.

You can't tell, but due to the crazy thickness of the salmon fillet, that piece is over a pound

After thawing both for 24 hours, I was ready to start cooking.  My plan was to roast the salmon and serve it with a venison hash.  First step was dicing a peeled sweet potato.

Not a big sweet potato fan, so as usual I mixed in a little regular potato as well; about half a peeled russet potato

Once the sweet potato, russet potato, and a white onion were chopped and ready to go, I started browning the venison sausage.

The difference between this and ground venison is that Billy ground in fat and spices with the extremely lean venison meat. He let me know that the fat came from bacon, but as far as spices, my only guesses are sage and lots of salt & black pepper

After this browned for a bit, I turned up the heat and dumped in the potatoes, onions, a little garlic and a tablespoon of butter to add some richness.

Once I saw that the proportions were correctly guessed, I knew this would come out well

The hash needed to sit for awhile and get some caramelization on the veggies, so I started working on the salmon.

The thickest piece of salmon I have ever seen. By far. As I marveled at this it was easy to picture the Salmon Seeker shooting me a wink with an unlit cigar in his mouth

My plan was to sear the salmon skin-down in a cast iron pan for a few minutes then add a glaze of maple syrup, soy sauce, garlic and pepper before finishing it under the broiler.

This cast iron pan needed a serious scrubbing. Hence, there will be a serious re-seasoning effort this week to get it back to its' old non-sticking glory

Annnnnd under the broiler. I get incredibly nervous whenever I am broiling something due to the high risk of charring the food. Usually this is when Kristi and anyone else present chooses to engage me in important discussions

While the salmon broiled, I gave the hash a good stirring to check on the tenderness of the potatoes and stirred in a splash of maple syrup to add a little extra sweetness.

I took a taste of this and knew that even with only three people eating (Kristi, Con and I) this large volume of hash would go with no issues

With the hash ready to go I pulled the salmon out of the oven and we were good to go.  Well, not actually.  As it turns out, cooking a two inch thick piece of salmon is a little different than the normal fillets I am used to.  The inside was quite raw.  Had to transfer to a broiling pan and bake for another 5 minutes or so.

Should have left it broiling close to the heat for an extra five minutes, but got all tweaked about destroying the cast iron pan with the burnt sugars. Not sure how I would do it next time, likely on a disposable cedar plank

Along with some pan seared Brussel sprouts seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, you had a nice looking plate of food.

The Brussels definitely took the hardest hit from the extra five minutes the salmon needed. Lost that brilliant green color, though the texture was still pretty dece

The salmon, though slightly overcooked by this DB (AKA The Salmon Spoiler), was flavorful, tender and tasted more like salmon than anything I’ve ever purchased in a grocery store.  The sweet and garlicky glaze was a nice compliment to the flavor.  If anything, the quality of the salmon saved the meal, since a lesser cut would have been incredibly unpleasant cooked the same amount.

The hash on the other hand was freaking ridiculous.  Very rich with just the right amount of sweetness and potato texture to contrast with the salty, minerally flavors from the venison sausage.  It was addictive; Conor snuck into the kitchen to polish off half of the leftovers an hour later and Kristi had the final couple spoonfuls with breakfast. Kinda crazy, I made two pounds of hash!

Big thanks to Bill and Billy for giving me delicious food that I love experimenting with.  I can’t wait for Bill’s next fishing trip and to use that other pound of Billy’s venison sausage in a new way.

‘Till next week, thanks for the reading and the patience in between posting.  Follow me on twitter (@PeterisADB) or subscribe via the link on the right to get alerts when I put up new posts.