Friday, March 28, 2014

A house speciality: applewood smoked salmon with vodka

It’s my son Karel’s birthday tomorrow. I won’t tell you his age because it’s a bit scary – for all of us, but Happy Birthday, Karel!!

Naturally, we asked what he’d like for his birthday dinner. His answer was not unexpected: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with Caesar salad on the side. He also wants my mom’s lemon pie, but not with meringue. Karel is a whipped cream kind of guy.

He sort of shrugged when we asked about an appetizer, though. When we have a family meal, we like to sit around and chat first, so we generally do without a first course, opting to relax in the living room enjoying some sort of “nibbly” and a glass of wine before adjourning to the dining room for the main course.

For Karel, I’m making some of his garlic bread (a recipe we’ll share in the future because it’s a bit out of the ordinary and extra tasty). To be honest, Vicki and I, along with our other son, Jan, and his lady, Rena, although we might join Karel in a small piece bread, would prefer something a little different. Vicki and I settled on poached asparagus spears wrapped in a bit of smoked salmon with a dab of the special cream cheese (more like mascarpone) we buy from Chris’ Cheese Mongers at the St. Lawrence Market.

To be honest, though, part of our reason for this choice was merely an excuse to smoke some salmon. Now that we have a vacuum sealer and can freeze it without the worry of ice crystals forming in the meat, it’s something that is now going to be a staple item in the house, rather than an occasional treat.

Our fickle weather even cooperated. I’ve been trying to smoke salmon for several weeks now, but couldn’t seem to find a day where the weather was going to be warm enough to cold smoke. That sounds sort of silly, but last winter I smoked a chunk of salmon and it froze solid. Our A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker really gives off that little heat. It’s a good thing when the temperature is pushing 60° in the spring or fall, but not a good thing if it’s −10° – and it was down there quite a lot the past month!
With an eye on the long-range forecast, I decided to pick up some organic Irish salmon from Domenic’s, our preferred fish monger at the St. Lawrence Market, and get to work.

Ready for the top layer of cure, lemon and dill.
People always seem stunned when we tell them we smoke our own salmon, but let me assure you, as long as you have some sort of way to cold smoke (and we heartily recommend the A-Maze-N Smoker line – whether pellet or sawdust), producing great smoked salmon is simplicity itself. I know I say that a lot when talking about charcuterie, but it really is true. Subtract the time needed for curing, drying and smoking (where you do zero work), and all told you’re looking at no more than a half hour of actual work time.

Want to try our recipe? Read on. But ours is not the only way to go. There are lots of alternatives for flavorings out there on the internet. However, I do recommend our approach to curing the salmon for smoking because it works very well and will give superior results every time.

Applewood Smoked Salmon with Vodka
Will serve a crowd

2-3 pounds of really fresh salmon filet
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2-3 tsp freshly ground or cracked white pepper
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 large bunch of dill
4 oz vodka

  1. It’s critical to find the freshest and best salmon you can find. If it smells fishy, take a pass. Check to make sure all the pin bones have been removed. You’ll feel them immediately if you wipe your palm down the meat side of the filet from front to back. We keep a needlenose pliers in the kitchen drawer to pull these out whenever we filet a fish or buy a fish filet and discover some. You don’t want to run across one of these by accident when you’re eating!
  2. Rinse off the salmon on both sides and pat dry.
  3. Mix the salt, sugar and pepper together to make your dry cure. Place half of it in the bottom of a non-reactive dish (glass is best) that will just hold the filet. (You want to keep the salmon bathed in the liquid it will produce.)
  4. Place the filet skin side down on top of the dry cure, then put the remaining cure on the meat side of the filet, getting more on the thicker top portion and less on the bottom. Rub it in gently.
  5. Top with a layer of lemon slices, followed by the bunch of dill just torn up by hand.
  6. Cover with plastic wrap. Now place some folded foil over it, or if you’re lucky like us, a second glass dish that will nest on top of the salmon. Weight it with some food cans or maybe even a couple of bricks (what we use). You need around 6-8 pounds of weight to squeeze out the liquid that the salmon will throw off.
  7. Refrigerate for 24-30 hours. You’ll see longer in other recipes, but we find the shorter time gives you more succulent and buttery salmon. And it won’t be too salty!
  8. When the salmon is done curing, rinse it thoroughly and pat it dry. Throw away the liquid in your curing dish, wash and dry it. Now place the salmon back in and pour half the vodka over it. Cover it again with plastic wrap and return it to the fridge for an addition 6-12 hours.
  9. Next, remove the salmon from the dish, put it on a rack and let it dry uncovered in the fridge for 24 hours (or at least overnight) so the surface of the filet develops the “pellicule” (stickiness) that will help the smoke adhere to the meat’s surface.
  10. Fire up your smoker and when it’s going well, smoke the cured salmon for 4-8 hours. We generally prefer it smoked around 6 hours, but I’ll give you the latitude depending on how smoky you like your food. We’ve found that going past 8 hours is too much and throws off the balance of flavors.
  11. When the salmon comes out of the smoker, place it back in the glass dish, dribble the remaining vodka over the surface and let it sit for a few hours before slicing it thinly, on an angle, for serving.
  12. If you’re going to freeze it, I’d suggest slicing it into hunks and vacuum sealing it (really, the only way to keep it at its peak of flavor and texture). If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, ask your fish monger to do it for you. When you want to serve some, just thaw it completely before you slice it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lunchtime comfort for this seemingly endless winter – the Joys of Soup!

We have a special guest blogger with us this week: my darling (and talented) wife, Vicki, who is also an excellent cook in her own right. We often combine efforts while making meals, but I generally get completely out of her way when soup is on the menu. She has a special talent when it comes to making delicious, warming soups and many of her recipes are original. This is one of them, and I can guarantee you’ll enjoy this minestrone if you essay forth. So take it away, Vicki! (The photo to the right was taken on our first night in Rome during a writing research trip in June 2011.)

I usually don’t complain about the weather, mostly because it’s pointless – there’s nothing you can do about it! But this winter (evidently the coldest in over 20 years) has turned me into a miserable grumbler, even when it’s sunny. As a result, I’ve been baking bread every week, and making lots of soup. I find both of these activities very calming, the same way I feel about gardening. My total focus is on the task at hand, and random thoughts almost never flit into my mind.

Minestrone with our homemade pesto.
Today I would like to share with you my newest labour of love: minestrone. My previous experience with minestrone consisted of opening a can, heating it up, and thinking how dreadfully mediocre it was. Therefore I seldom ate it, and shied away from it in restaurants as well.

As you may know from Rick’s previous postings, I am studying Italian. I have a fantastic teacher, Sabrina, and I really love the language, culture, and cuisine (la cucina), as well as the beautiful countryside and, of course, the Italian people.

At a recent lesson, I brought in a translation I had done of a recipe from Sale e Pepe, an Italian cooking magazine. Since the recipe required stock or broth (brodo), I asked what was the difference between brodo, minestra and zuppa, especially the last two. Well, that is not easily answered! La zuppa often contains pieces of meat (or fish) cooked in the broth, and la minestra usually contains cut up pieces of vegetable cooked in the broth, and often some sort of starch, either pasta, rice or grain depending on the region. Plus there is minestra chiara (clear) and minestra legata (thickened). There are so many recipes that it seems pretty well impossible to give a definitive answer. The reason I decided to try to make minestrone was because I had a ‘light bulb’ moment after that lesson. In Italian, when you see ‘one’ on the end of the word it often means large. So minestrone is a large minestra!

In the pot simmering.
Here is my version which, although it has potatoes, does not contain a starch like rice or pasta. You could, of course, add this. I’m going to try it the next time. It’s not a quick recipe unless you’re really fast at cutting up vegetables, but it does cook quickly once everything is ready. It is so packed with veggies that it almost looks like a stew!

I like to have all my ingredients ready before I start cooking so that I can relax and not worry about the dish getting overdone because I’m still chopping vegetables while things are cooking. You can also make this a completely vegetarian recipe by leaving out the pancetta and using only vegetable stock. You could use zucchini and or summer (yellow) squash instead of winter squash. I had some left over sugar snap peas which I put in this time and they tasted really good. And of course I also used some of Rick’s delicious home-cured pancetta. Enjoy!

Vittoria’s Minestrone
Serves 6

4 oz (113 gms) pancetta, 1/2-inch (1 cm) dice
2 Tbs olive oil
3 Tbs garlic, minced
1 cup leeks, white only, cut in half lengthwise, then in 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) slices
1 cup onions, chopped
1 cup celery, 1/2 in (1cm) dice
1 cup carrot, 1/2 in (1cm) dice
3 cups vegetable stock
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup tomatoes, skinned and chopped (canned if you like)
2 fresh bay leaves
1 cup red-skin potato, 1/2 in (1cm) dice
1 cup French or regular green beans, cut in 1 in (2.5 cm) pieces
1 cup winter squash, like buttercup or butternut, but not acorn 1/2 in (1cm) dice
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups Savoy cabbage, shredded
1 Tbs fresh thyme (if you are not using pesto for a garnish)
3 Tbs fresh parsley, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
pesto and/or grated parmigiano cheese, crostini for garnish


  • Warm the olive oil in a large pot. Add the pancetta and cook at a low heat for about 8-10 minutes until the fat is rendered. Remove the pancetta from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  • Add the minced garlic to the fat, sauté for 30-40 seconds, then add the leeks, onions, celery and carrots. Increase the heat to medium, sprinkle with a bit of salt and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently so that the vegetables cook evenly.
  • Pour in the stock, add the tomatoes, potatoes and bay leaves. Bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add the green beans, squash and kidney beans. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the cabbage, parsley, thyme and cooked pancetta. Simmer for about 3-5 minutes until the cabbage is cooked.
  • Correct the seasoning, but remember to go easy on the salt if you are adding pesto and/or cheese until you have stirred them into the soup and tasted it. Serve the soup in a heated bowl.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

“What we've been up to” or “To what we've been up”

I never know how to write that grammatically. Obviously, the first attempt makes a lot more sense, but the second follows the rules of grammar.

Wait a minute! This blog is supposed to be about food, making it, consuming it, and talking about it. What’s with the English lesson, Blechta?

Sorry, I’ve spent the past week going over the edit to my novel, Roses for a Diva, that’s coming this November, so it’s excusable to be stressed out about grammar, syntax (as opposed to sin tax), punctuation and the like.

Vicki (& R2D2) fed up with winter!
It’s also the main reason I don’t have a post ready for today. I have a number of them sketched out, and my darling wife is busy in her studio right at this moment, working on a post about the minestrone recipe she’s been working on the past month. It’s been so cold and snowy here in Toronto, most days see us digging in on a bowl of homemade soup. I occasionally make soup, but it’s one of her kitchen specialties, so most of the broths and potages gracing our table have been her doing.

That doesn’t mean I’ve been idle. Right at this moment just outside our back door, there are two slabs of cured pork belly being cold smoked over applewood, midway into becoming six pounds of maple-cured, double-smoked bacon (mostly for my son Karel). I would have fired up the cold smoker (should one really say they’re firing up a cold smoker?) two days ago, but the temperature has been so low, the meat would have frozen while the smoke was doing its thing. Today, it’s just a tad below freezing (-4C°) so the bit of heat given off by our A-Maze-N pellet smoker seems to be keeping things fluid. If I’m feeling really industrious this evening, I’ll also do the hot smoke, again over applewood. If not, it will have to get done tomorrow.

Meanwhile, in the oven there are two duck legs being turned into confit. If I hadn’t got behind in other things, that would have been this week’s topic. Our recipe is a bit in flux since I’m trying to cut down the salt in our diet. The beauty of making confit (besides the eating of it) is the flexibility of what you can do with it. Like many charcuterie recipes, the herbs and spices you choose is wide open. In the past, we’ve stuck to flavors more on the herbal side, but this time I’m trying out a bit of spice. So out with the thyme and in with the cloves. Just a touch, mind you, but it already smells glorious – and that was before it went into the duck fat for its long, slow transformation in a 280F° oven. Its ultimate goal will be as the star of my yearly foray into cassoulet-making, something that will hopefully make its appearance on our table in very early April.

And then there’s tonight’s dinner: meat loaf with mushroom gravy. Our hot veg will be roasted root vegetables (carrots, onions and parsnips) since the oven will have to be on anyway. I’m on the fence about whether to bake potatoes or mash them.

So you see, we’ve been very busy in the kitchen – even if we haven’t been writing about it!