I thought it was just me.
I love smoked fish but have sometimes been confused about how it’s described in shops and on menus. Lox, Nova and gravlax … oh, my! People often toss the names around like they’re flinging fish at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. But there are differences. And I’m not the only one who’s ever been confused about them.
What’s a smoked-fish lover to do? Best to get acquainted with them in time to add them to Easter buffets and tables on Sunday and to the dishes you serve year-round. Especially since there are so many good choices — salmon, whitefish, trout, haddock, bluefish and mackerel — that are widely available.
Two longstanding Ann Arbor fishmongers — T.R. Durham, owner of Durham’s Tracklements Custom Smoked Provisions, and Mike Monahan of Monahan’s Seafood Market — take us through some of the choices.
Cold-smoked fish is cured with a salt and/or sugar rub, brined in liquid or sometimes injected with brine. The smoking is done at a low temperature (below 90 degrees), typically over a hardwood mix and sometimes peat. Its delicate, silky-smooth texture is ideal for thin slicing. Sometimes, cold-smoking is done twice to produce a firmer texture.
Highland lox-style. Traditional lox was made only with salt-brined salmon, not smoked, and was exceptionally salty. Highland lox-style salmon — simply called lox — harks back to UK traditional methods. It’s dry cured with a salt/brown sugar rub and then lightly cold smoked.
Gravlax. Prepared with a Scandinavian-style cure with dill, allspice, juniper and coriander. Longer-cured (48 to 74 hours versus the usual 24 to 48) to fully infuse the flavor of the spices, it’s then cold-smoked very lightly to make sure that flavor’s not obscured.
Nova. Usually made from larger, fatty fish, especially salmon. Nova belly is super-fatty and luscious. Lightly salted and brine-cured, this cold-smoked salmon gets its name from Nova Scotia, where it was developed in the 1920s.
Hot smoked fish is cured with various brines and smoked at a higher temperature (above 120 degrees). The fatty fish used for this method — salmon, whitefish, bluefish, mackerel, arctic char and sable (aka black cod) hold up to the higher heat and retain some of their flavorful melt-in-your mouth fattiness and appealing mouthfeel. Excellent choices include kippered salmon, which is prepared with a traditional salt/sugar brine cure, and finnan haddie, haddock cured and smoked with green wood, turf or peat.
“A lot of recipes just say, ‘smoked salmon,’” Durham notes. “Sometimes either would work, but sometimes only one or the other will do.”
Chowders. Use hot-smoked salmon sparingly in soups, as it may be too oily for some tastes. A honey-mirin glazed, salty-sweet hot-smoked salmon works well. Even better, use hot-smoked whitefish or haddock (finnan haddie).
Salads. Peppery, slightly acidic arugula and watercress go exceptionally well with smoked trout, mackerel and salmon.
Sides. Blend miso-mirin, honey or tamari-marinated hot-smoked salmon and ginger into rice or bean dishes.
Pastas. Toss thin slices of cold-smoked salmon with tortellini or add oomph to pasta puttanesca with smoked mackerel.
Sandwiches/pasta salads. Swap out flaked hot-smoked whitefish, trout or salmon for tuna in your sandwiches.
Spreads. Infuse cream-cheese or creme fraiche with hot-smoked bluefish and white fish or hot- or cold-smoked salmon.
Sauced entrees. “Smoked fish is fun to work with because it stands up to a lot of flavor, and you can dress it up with sauces,” Monahan says. “For example, smoked mackerel with tellicherry peppercorn sauce is a great combination because the fish holds up to that pepper flavor.”
“Smoked fish is a perishable product that needs to be refrigerated,” Monahan says.
Always check the use-by date on the package. Refrigerated, “it will keep for up to three weeks in its original packaging and three months frozen,” Durham says.
“If you’re having a party and leave it out for several hours, you reduce its shelf life.” Monaham adds.
The bottom line?
Regional differences may still muddy the waters when it comes to smoked-fish names.
Recently, I told a New Jersey native that I’ve been craving Nova. She drew a blank. “Oh,” it’s like lox … only different,” I explained.
Yield: 4 servings
1¼ cups Idaho potatoes cut into ½-inch cubes
½ cup purple onion, coarsely chopped
5 tablespoons roasted red peppers or Spanish piquillo pimientos, cut into ¼-inch square pieces
2 tablespoons capers
¾ to 1 pound hot-smoked honey salmon, chopped or flaked
2½ tablespoons white balsamic or champagne vinegar
To taste salt
To taste coarsely ground black pepper
Fry the potatoes over medium-heat (around 300 degrees) for 1 minute in enough canola oil to cover them. Drain on paper towels, then fry again in same oil at medium-high (around 360 degrees) for another minute or until golden-brown. Drain again on paper towels.
Heat a large heavy-duty pan or skillet over medium-high heat, add enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Saute the onion until transparent, add the roasted red pepper and capers and toss around in the pan for 1 minute, or until the onion just starts to turn brown. Add the salmon, potatoes, vinegar, salt and pepper and gently but constantly flip until heated through. Add a little more olive oil if the hash doesn’t look moist enough.
Serve topped with poached eggs or on toast.
Recipe: Monahan’s Seafood Market.
Yield: 4 appetizer portions
Olive oil or vegetable oil
Cornmeal, as needed
Pizza dough for 1 12-inch to 14-inch pizza
1 cup chevre, softened and crumbled
1 cup scallions, julienned with ½ the green part included
1/3 pound cold-smoked salmon, sliced thinly into strips or julienned
½ cup fresh basil, oregano, dill or thyme (use 1 herb only)
To taste freshly ground black pepper
Lemon wedges, as needed
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees 30 minutes before you’re ready to bake the pizza.
Lightly oil the pizza pan and dust it lightly with cornmeal. Roll out the pizza dough on a lightly floured surface and transfer it to the pizza pan, pressing on it lightly until it conforms to the shape of the pan. Brush the surface of the dough lightly with olive oil, then crumble half the chevre over it evenly. Scatter half the scallions over the chevre and place the pizza in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until the crust just begins to brown. Remove the pizza from the oven and cover the surface evenly with the salmon. Top with the remaining chevre and scallions and sprinkle with whichever herb you’re using. Lightly drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with the freshly ground pepper. Return the pizza to the oven for no more than 3 to 4 additional minutes. The chevre should just begin to melt, and the crust should be golden-brown. (If you like a crisper crust, extend the initial baking time for a few minutes. Don’t let the salmon remain in the oven any longer than it takes for the chevre to soften.)
Serve immediately with lemon wedges and more black pepper.
Source: “The Smoked Seafood Cookbook,” by T.R. Durham.
I thought it was just me.