It was in high school that I first began to cook. Sure, in middle school I dabbled with quesadillas and even the occasional triple-decker ham sandwich. But as my own adolescent machismo manifested itself in strange ways, I felt the desire to experiment with multi-step cooking projects: cinnamon rolls from scratch, homemade pizza, grilled chicken with rosemary, lemon, and garlic. I watched a fair share of the Food Network (just as I’m sure most red-blooded American boys did). It was an odd relationship I was having during the hours of 4-10pm EST. All those mascaraed heads, delivering every sentence (regardless of its import) with a chuckle, were often making food that I wanted to eat. Was it perverse to love that which I hated so very much?
There was, however, one Food Network host who seemed somehow different than the rest. She seemed not at all focused on what she was wearing. Her mind was instead considering how to make an unforgettable menu for a weekend at Martha’s Vineyard; or the most delectable apple crostada for her precious and hobbit-like husband, Jeffrey. And that seemed admirable to me. I am, of course, talking about Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa (whose feet I have never seen–though I imagine they are silky soft and well-manicured). My respect only deepened when I found that long before she had ever hosted a cooking show she was the nuclear policy analyst for the White House.
On one such episode, the contessa showed America how to cure salmon. This seemed alchemical to me, as I was sure that uncooked salmon would cause instant death. Then again, around that time, I was also sure that rare meat and uncooked eggs would do just the same. But as I assumed that this was not Ina’s first rodeo and that she was, indeed, still living and breathing and seeming generally serene, I figured it was safe enough to eat after all. The sad news, however, was that in those days my options in itty-bitty Lawrenceburg city did not offer fresh, high quality(much less wild-caught) salmon. In fact, the only fresh fish available would have been whatever you could snag on the end of your cane pole down at the salt river (perch, catfish, the occasional striped bass). But here we are, some 10 years later, and I’m finally curing my own salmon. I’m strange folk, as this is a special moment in my culinary life.
Ahem, the recipe:
1 lb wild-caught salmon (1-inch thick, skin-on, bones removed)
1 bunch of fresh dill
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cups kosher salt, coarse
1 tbp fennel seed
2 tbsp black peppercorns
Place the salmon skin-side down on a large piece of plastic wrap. Trim off any long stems from the dill and place it on top of the salmon. In a separate bowl, mix together the salt, sugar, peppercorns and fennel seed. Pour the mixture evenly over the dill. Wrap the salmon tightly and place it in a rimmed pan. This is important because as the salmon cures in your fridge, the sugar and salt will begin to draw out moisture from the fish, thereby replacing it with sweetness and savor.
Once wrapped and in the pan, place a flat plate or dish on top of the salmon and weigh it down with a few heavy cans. Place the dish into the fridge for 48 hrs. After 48 hrs, unwrap the fish, toss the dill, and rinse the fillet under cold water to remove excess salt and sugar.
When you’re ready to serve it, slice the fillet as thinly as possible, being sure to cut long slices. As for service, you could keep it classic and throw it on an everything bagel with a schmear, thin sliced red onion, capers, and more fresh dill. Or, you could get all fancy and serve it with grapefruit, super thin slices of fennel fronds, a splash of gin, and a drizzle of good olive oil.