Monday, August 18, 2014

Home-Cured Gravlax

There's always seemed to me that there are two camps of food: those worth endeavoring to make at home, and those better left to the pros. Don't get me wrong, there are certainly times I've delved into from-scratch territory and slaved over items, excellent versions of which could've easily (and, admittedly, more efficiently) been procured. I mean, there's certainly no dearth of excellent ice cream that can be bought in stores, but there are times when only homemade will do, when knowing you've made something yourself makes it taste that much better because you know what went into it, both ingredient- and labor-wise. But, come on, am I really going to sit around and make croissants when I know for certain I can get excellent ones made mercifully by somebody else? (I would have said the same of bagels a few months ago, but that was before I moved back to Chicago, and, you know, desperate times...)  Anyway, sometimes it's just not worth the hassle of procuring ingredients and toiling away for hours for something, particularly when it's just two of you to feed.

I always kind of assumed that gravlax was one of those other-people-should-take-care-of-this sort of things. I mean, silky, cured, delicious salmon had to be the sort of thing that required a ton of expertise and special equipment and shit, right? I figured gravlax was something found in great appetizing shops and fancy brunch places and couldn't possibly be something worth the effort to make at home.  But you know, I was wrong. Really fucking wrong. Gravlax turns out to be incredibly simple to make at home; there's about ten minutes of prep time and raw fish handling and some awkward fumbling with a side of salmon and plastic wrap at the outset, then then about 15-20 seconds of work twice a day for two or three days afterwards. That's. It. All that's needed afterwards is a very sharp knife and some people that really like to eat delicious things.

I found this process on Saveur. I hesitate to call it a recipe since there's so much that can be tweaked and tailored, but it truly is fast and easy and yields results that belie the simplicity in its preparation. Just don't throw it in the fridge before you head out of town for a long weekend or anything, since you do have to flip it twice a day, but otherwise, as long as you've got salmon, salt, sugar, some herbs and some saran wrap (and a bit of empty fridge real estate), you can have gravlax at the ready in three days.  And then you can have a super rad dinner or brunch party like an adult and be like, here's some home-cured gravlax and not be fucking lying because you actually really did cure that shit yourself.  So go on, be a badass; get curing.
Home-Cured Gravlax
Adapted from Saveur (original recipe here)
2 tbsp. peppercorns (white is preferable but any will do)
1 tbsp. fennel seeds
4 tsp. caraway seeds
2⁄3 cup kosher salt
1⁄3 cup sugar
2-lb. center-cut, skin-on salmon filet
1 - 1.5 cups dill sprigs, plus 1/2 cup chopped dill
1⁄4 cup vodka (optional)

Grind together the seeds and pepper until coarsely ground. Mix them in a medium-sized bowl with the sugar and salt until well-combined. Prepare a baking sheet by lining it with plastic wrap. Sprinkle half of the salt and sugar mixture over the plastic wrap. Place the salmon on top of the salt and sugar mixture on the plastic wrap, skin side down. Cover the fish with the rest of the salt mixture and the dill sprigs. Sprinkle the vodka evenly on top.

Fold the ends of the plastic wrap around the salmon and wrap the salmon tightly with additional plastic wrap. Use your fingers to make sure the salt and sugar mixture is pretty evenly covering both sides of the fish. Place the whole plastic-wrapped mess in the fridge on the baking sheet and refrigerate for 48-72 hours, flipping the package and using your fingers to redistribute the brine that accumulates in the package as the salt continues to pull water from the salmon.  When fully cured, the gravlax should be firm to the touch at its thickest part.

When cured, remove from the fridge and unwrap the package. Discard the spices, dill and brine that has accumulated.  Rinse the filet (well, that shit's salty) under cold running water; pat dry with paper towels.  You can cover a large place with the half cup of chopped dill and press the flesh side of the fish into it so that it is coated evenly; I forgot to do this but the gravlax was awesome nonetheless.

Cutting the fish takes a bit of practice and the sharpest, narrow long-bladed knife you've got, slice the fish against the grain on the diagonal into super thin pieces. Serve however you'd like; we ate it mostly on bagels with some cream cheese and other traditional accompaniments, but it would also be excellent with potato pancakes or blinis and some sour cream, or some dark bread and mustard, or simply straight from knife to mouth. However you go about eating it, I'm pretty sure you'll be happy with your decision to cure some yourself.
Makes a lot

Friday, January 25, 2013

Kale Salad with Lemon Tahini Dressing

When I revisit a restaurant, I typically do a good job of not ordering something I’ve already had or, at the very least, not what I had the last time I was there.  But I think I may be physically incapable of sitting down at Northern Spy Food Co. in the East Village for brunch and not ordering the kale salad with baked eggs. 

Yeah, I know, big fucking deal, it’s just a kale salad, and kale salads are pretty fucking ubiquitous at this point, but Northern Spy’s is an exemplary expression of the form.  It’s a modest number, with just a few simple ingredients that work incredibly well together.  The kale is well tenderized but nowhere near limp, the hunks of squash are soft and yielding. The roasted almonds provide some crunch while the cheddar, with a great sharpness, keeps things interesting. Pecorino finely grated atop the whole mess adds some salinity, and once pricked, the yolks of those eggs coat everything in their radness.

The day after my last visit to the restaurant, I found myself craving that damned salad.  So instead of going back there like a loser, I made one for myself. And then I made it again the next day.  And I have eaten some variation of it nearly every day since.  What precisely I throw in there depends on what I have in my fridge, what I might have found at the farmer’s market that day and generally how lazy I am feeling.

Though I started out just making the salads as I ate them, it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d be doing myself a favor by just making one big-ass salad in the beginning of the week and portioning it out to eat as I pleased without having to bother with all the chopping each time.  That’s the lovely thing about kale, which I’ve expounded upon before: unlike other salad greens, kale won’t turn into a disgusting, soggy mess if it sits dressed in the fridge for a couple of days.  Its hardiness means that it actually benefits from that time, and keeping it raw preserves all those good dark leafy green things that made people assume that kale was gross for so long.

My most recent composition was quite similar to Northern Spy’s. I managed to actually turn on the oven on a weeknight and roasted up some parsnips and a sweet potato, and used the same Cabot clothbound cheddar that they use over on East 12th street. The similarities ended after the cheese and roasted root vegetables, though.  For one, I am not sure what they use to dress their salad over at Northern Spy; I am typically too busy enjoying the shit out of it to try and figure that out (maybe next time), and I didn’t have any non-Tamari almonds, so I toasted up some walnuts. And instead of baking the eggs, I opted to baste mine to ensure that as much of the yolk as possible was left free to run all over my salad.  Suffice it to say, I ate this salad four fucking times this week.

Winter Kale Salad with Lemon Tahini Dressing
Makes 4 Servings

I don't know why I'm calling this a winter salad.  I guess because there's root vegetables and walnuts and shit in there.  Anyway, I like lacinato (also known as dinosaur or black) kale for this salad. It’s tenderer than green kale, and I love the characteristic bumps in the leaves.  

When basting eggs, you can add either more fat (oil, lard, butter) to the pan, but I opt for water to keep it healthier. I prefer basting to sunny-side up, as I like the top of my eggs to be a little bit cooked, but want my yolks to be perfectly runny.  That said, cook your eggs however you please, but know that the runny yolk adds a great deal to the finished product.

1 head lacinato kale, washed, spun and thinly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 sweet potato, cut into ½” dice
1 large or two medium parsnips, cut into ½” dice
¼ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
4 ounces good-quality cheddar (I used Cabot clothbound), crumbled / chopped into small pieces
4 eggs
Pecorino Romano cheese, to taste

2 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
1 garlic clove, minced and smashed into a paste
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Toss the diced sweet potato and parsnip with a tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper, spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet, and roast in the oven for about 25 minutes, checking every little while to make sure they’re not burning and tossing them around as necessary.  Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

While the vegetables are in the oven, prep the kale.  Remove the leaves from the ribs (this can be easily done by pinching the base of the rib and moving your fingers up the rib, removing the leaves as you go).  Wash and dry the leaves (I do this in my salad spinner and then prep the salad in the bowl of the spinner so as not to dirty another dish). Stack the leaves, roll into tight cigars and slice into ½” ribbons.  Place the ribbons of kale in large bowl and add the tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt, massaging the oil into the greens with your hands to help tenderize them.  Set kale aside.

Make the dressing.  Combine the tahini, lemon juice and garlic.  While whisking the mixture, slowly add in the olive oil.  Thin the dressing out with water, adding it one tablespoon at a time to ensure you don’t thin it out too much.  Add salt and pepper and adjust seasoning and oil levels to taste.

Once the sweet potato and parsnip have cooled, add them to the kale, along with the cheddar and chopped walnuts.  Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to combine (using your hands may be easiest, so don’t be afraid to get them a little dirty).  Divide the salad among four plates.

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat.  Coat the bottom of the skillet with non-stick spray, oil or butter.  Crack the eggs into the pan and allow the whites to set a bit.  Add a good glug of water and put a lid on the pan to help cook the tops of the eggs.  Once the yolks are cooked to your desired doneness, remove the eggs, blot the bottom with paper towels and place one egg atop each of the four salads. 

Finish the salad with a healthy shower of grated pecorino, a drizzle of good olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.  Now go enjoy the shit out of it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Portland, ME: The Portland Lobster Company

lobster roll with fries and cole slaw

I was in Portland earlier this month for a wedding, and knew that if I left without getting my paws on some lobster, I'd have failed.  Though lobster rolls are not my number one all-time favorite way to ingest the sweet, delicious flesh of the spiny crustacean, it’s certainly among the tidiest and most accessible, and I’ve found my lobster roll consumption steadily increasing each of the past few years.  Since Maine essentially equals lobster, I expected any lobster roll I ate there to automatically rise to the top of my personal best-ever list, which is of course entirely mental and not really organized at all. 

After taking recommendations from a local, we made our way to the Portland Lobster Company, which sits prominently on Commerce Street, Portland’s main tourist drag.  I’m sure there are more rustic, true lobster shack-type places to get a lobster roll fix, but you really couldn’t beat the setting here.  We sat perched at a counter-height table, looking out over the water, and the weather couldn’t have been better.  So of course I snapped that shit for Instagram (@shelbsandcheese - follow me!) so people knew how fucking rad my Saturday was.    

At Portland Lobster Company, you place your order with a very friendly cashier, who then hands you a plastic lobster that will buzz and light up when your food is ready, just as they do at Bostwick’s when your table is ready.  If you order your drink with the cashier, you need to show your receipt to the bartender who will pour you your drink, though you are of course free to simply order from the bar as well.  We all went with the lobster roll, and I had a glass of white to ease myself out of my Friday night.  Robbie also ordered onion rings, which were coated in a very thick and very tasty batter before being dunked in the deep fryer, from which it emerged with a shatteringly crisp shell.  Though nothing even close to an onion ring connoisseur (in fact, I usually hate the things), these were pretty good representatives of the form.  You could even take a bite without pulling out the whole damned onion.

onion rings
It took a while for that lobster roll to make its way to our table, but once it did, I was all over it.  I've found there are two basic tenets when it comes to lobster rolls: the mayo-laden cold lobster roll, and the butter-slicked warm lobster roll.  I tend to prefer the latter.  Nothing against mayo, but I just paid sixteen fucking dollars for a lobster sandwich, and I’d like to taste the damned lobster.  And I also like the meat to be a bit warm, since I think the texture is better that way. Of course, regardless of the style, a split-top, heavily buttered and griddled bun is a necessity, since it makes even the shittiest of lobster rolls worth eating.  But this, this my friends, was not the shittiest of lobster rolls.  The bun was super buttery and griddled to a golden brown, and the obviously fresh and incredibly sweet lobster claw and tail meat spilled over the top.  The two teeny bits of butter I found in my roll spoke to the preparation – the lobster meat must have been tossed with chunks of the stuff after being plucked from its shell, allowing the butter to (mostly) melt around it evenly.   Whatever they did, it worked.  The simplicity allowed the quality of the product to shine, just as it should when you’re sitting on a dock in Maine.  

180 Commercial Street  
Portland, ME 04101
(207) 775-2112