By Ed Sikov
This week’s column is about how a single great hors d’oeuvre can elevate an easy dinner party into something truly special. The most common mistake hosts make is trying too hard. Unless you’re really sure of yourself and have at least a full day to prepare for your dinner party, don’t set yourself up for failure by overextending yourself. Your guests want to relax and have fun, not be wowed by your culinary expertise. So don’t be afraid to make a big bowl of spaghetti (and use bottled sauce if you have to), get two bags of salad mix and some bottled dressing, and heat up a frozen pie. Put your energy into a “wow” appetizer: homemade “smoked” salmon.
First things first: stick a bottle of Absolut in the freezer. That’s your cocktail. You’re not a bartender, and your home is not a bar. You do not have to stock everything on earth just in case somebody might want a (insert name of cocktail here). Icy vodka is classy, especially when you serve it with something as delicious as this easy-to-make salmon.
Your local supermarket should carry “fresh” salmon; I put “fresh” in quotes because the salmon has almost certainly been frozen between sea and store. You want salmon filets, not steaks, and you need a pound or a pound and a half. You won’t be cooking this salmon but rather preserving it, so take a particularly good look at it before you buy it. If possible, smell it, too. It should be moist but not greasy or dry looking, and it should smell faintly like the sea. If it has a strong fishy odor or just plain looks bad, forget it; buy some cheese and crackers and make this recipe another time.
Buy a box of kosher salt. No, you’re not converting to Judaism; you’re merely going to be using coarse salt, and kosher salt fits the bill. Make sure you have a cup of sugar at home; if you don’t, buy some sugar, too. Now proceed to the tea department and look for Lapsang Soochong, a Chinese tea with a distinctly smoky flavor. If you’re lucky, they’ll have it loose-leaved in a tin; if not, you’ll have to buy teabags and cut the bags open at home. Buy some unsalted butter or whipped cream cheese and some party rye, and pick up a bunch of dill if it looks good.
Two days before your dinner party, mix 1 cup of Lapsang Soochong tea leaves with 1 cup of coarse salt and 1 cup of sugar. Place 2 layers of plastic wrap crosswise in a Pyrex loaf pan (or other nonreactive square or rectangular deep dish), and layer the salt/sugar/tea mixture with the salmon filets until you run out of both. Fold the plastic wrap over the top, weigh the fish down with a stack of small plates, and put the whole thing in the refrigerator.
The day of the party, remove the fish from the fridge, and – in the sink, because it will drip – separate the fish from the now-wet salt/sugar/tea mixture. Using a knife, scrape off as much of the mixture from the filets as possible. Do not do this under running water! You’ll lose too much flavor that way. So what if some specks of tea leaves remain on the salmon? Then, starting at the thin end of each filet, carefully slice them on a sharp diagonal – almost horizontally, really – so that you have nice looking slices about half an inch wide. Put the butter or cream cheese out on the counter to come to room temperature – it’s spreadable that way. Put the fish back in the fridge.
Right before serving, spread some butter or cream cheese on the party rye, put a piece of salmon on each slice, top with a sprig of dill, et voila!