- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

It’s difficult to say who are greater lovers of smoked and cured fish: New Yorkers or Parisians. In both groups, smoked fish is considered a delicacy. Yet people in the two cities have completely different ways of eating it.

In my childhood home, as in those of many Jewish families on the East Coast, lox with cream cheese and bagels was a top choice for weekend brunches. The lox-and-bagel brunch custom has since spread throughout the country. Instead of lox, sometimes we had my mother’s favorite, smoked whitefish.

When I lived in Paris, I found that the French are equally fond of smoked fish. At home and in restaurants, slices of saumon fume (smoked salmon) make a much-loved appetizer, especially for New Year’s celebrations. Yet Parisian purists never tuck the fish into a bagel spread with cream cheese. They serve thin salmon slices on a plate and eat them with a knife and fork, accompanied by lemon wedges, thin toast and sweet butter.

Smoked salmon and lox are not the same thing. Smoked salmon is cured first in brine or with a dry rub and then either cold- or hot-smoked. Fish smoked at a low temperature (cold smoked) retains the silky texture of uncooked fish, while hot-smoked fish has the consistency of moist baked fish. Lox and gravlax, the dill-flavored Scandinavian salmon, are not smoked but only cured in brine. The cold-smoked salmon favored by the French has a more subtle flavor than Jewish-style lox and is therefore served solo.

Smoked fish is a boon for people with hectic schedules because it requires no preparation. It’s also fabulous for creating simple, savory starters. Because smoked fish is not inexpensive, combining it with other ingredients helps you stretch it a little.

At La Varenne Cooking School in Paris, chef Fernand Chambrette taught me to make a pate from equal parts of smoked salmon, poached fresh salmon and butter. This quickly became a favorite at my cooking demonstrations.

Sometimes I want a faster, simpler appetizer that needs no cooking. I got an idea from two tasty salads — one of smoked salmon and one of whitefish — made by Acme Smoked Fish, a fourth-generation family-owned company whose founder began by selling smoked fish from a wagon in Brooklyn. Both salads are intensely flavored mixtures of two ingredients: smoked fish and mayonnaise.

To make an easy salad, I combine this formula with the one I learned from Mr. Chambrette. I blend smoked and cooked fish, as in his pate, and moisten it with mayonnaise. I add sour cream to cut the saltiness of the fish and to lighten. Rather than sour cream, I sometimes use labneh (Middle Eastern kefir cheese), which is similar in richness, or I add yogurt to produce an even lighter effect. Chopped scallion and a squeeze of lemon juice add a fresh touch.

Hot-smoked fish is preferable for these salads because its flaky texture makes it easy to blend with other ingredients. Besides, it tends to be less salty and smoky than the cold-smoked type.

Fish packages usually aren’t labeled cold- or hot-smoked, but you can tell how they were prepared by looking. Hot-smoked fish resembles cooked fish, while cold-smoked fish looks raw.

If you’re making these salads with cold-smoked fish or lox, be sure to taste the mixture and, if necessary, add more mayonnaise or sour cream to mellow the flavor.

Although curing and smoking act as preservatives, these fish still need to be handled with care. Here are some tips from Eric Calsow, president of Acme Smoked Fish, one of the largest processors of smoked fish in the United States.

• Don’t leave smoked fish at room temperature (on a buffet table, for example) for more than three hours.

• After you have opened vacuum-packed smoked fish, use it within seven days.

• Vacuum-packaged smoked fish can be frozen for up to one month. Thaw it in the refrigerator. For best texture, do not refreeze.

Salmon gives an appealing orange-pink hue to fish salads, but you can make them with other kinds of smoked fish, such as tuna or trout, or try some flavored seafoods, such as jalapeno- or pastrami-smoked salmon or barbecued cod, to create new variations. As hors d’oeuvres, these salads are attractive and delicious on thin cucumber slices, a classic partner for cold fish.

Double salmon salad

As a variation, substitute smoked whitefish for cooked salmon or use other smoked firm whitefish, such as halibut or cod.

For a tuna salad, substitute canned albacore tuna for canned salmon and pair it with smoked tuna. If you prefer an intensely smoky flavor, omit the cooked or canned fish and make the salad with hot smoked salmon.

4 ounces (about 1 cup) smoked salmon or lox, flaked or finely chopped

1 cup cooked salmon (poached, baked or broiled) or 3 to 4 ounces canned red salmon, flaked

1 scallion, green and white parts, finely chopped

3 to 4 tablespoons regular or low-fat mayonnaise

3 to 4 tablespoons sour cream, plain yogurt or labneh (kefir cheese)

1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Freshly ground pepper, salt

Cucumber slices, cocktail rye or pumpernickel bread, mini pita breads or salt-free or low-salt crackers

Combine smoked salmon or lox, cooked salmon or canned red salmon and scallion.

Stir in 3 tablespoons mayonnaise and 3 tablespoons sour cream, yogurt or labneh, along with 1 tablespoon lemon juice.

Season to taste with pepper and if necessary, add more mayonnaise and sour cream, yogurt or labneh and lemon juice. Add salt only if needed. Serve cold.

Spread or mound salad onto crisp, thin cucumber slices, thin slices of cocktail rye or pumpernickel bread, split mini pita breads or salt-free or low-salt crackers. Makes 6 to 8 servings as an hors d’oeuvre.


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