When you’re curing salmon for a man who makes witblits for fun, you know you have to chuck in something fairly potent. I’m not sure that curing the fish actually IN witblits, a liquor of a proof so high that it may or not be on either this or that side of the law to do so (I may or may not be hedging my bets here), is entirely a good idea (or not, as may or may not be the case). In any event, what we do know, unequivocally, is that it is not illegal to include tequila in a salmon cure, and it is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that I might drink to that.
I had volunteered to make the starter for a joint dinner for our old and dear friend Blaise, who was visiting from Bangkok. Blaise is a veteran Asia Hand for whom the world is his well-seasoned oyster, copiously washed down with wine and good spirits. The best possible guest at your table, he will regale any gathering with jovial repartee and a generous ear, and recall every morsel tasted and every tale told even a decade later.
Carol was doing lamb shanks for the main course, and my God they were enormous. Beautifully slow-cooked, succulent as a well-marinated Asia Hand, they were just the thing to tuck into while the party and the stories rolled on into the night. They were not a main course that required a starter of much substance at all, so I was quite glad that I had elected to do one so light.
The lamb shanks took something like five hours to cook. If you think that’s a lot, consider this: the salmon wallowed in its moist, fruity liquor for three whole days in my fridge.
This was the first time I had cured salmon, but I will most certainly do it again. I had heard often that “it’s so easy”and indeed it is. Just as long as you have enough curing agents in there so that the fish – and it is fish, after all, which can go bad so easily and so quickly – doesn’t make you ill.
I wasn’t taking any chances. Acid (citrus) is a curing agent. Alcohol is a curing agent. Sugar is a curing agent. And salt is a curing agent. And in they all want, along with fresh fennel leaves plucked from my garden.
This may seem to be a raw dish, but curing in this way is, in an odd way, a cooking process, as any trace of the creature’s raw blood is obliterated in the process, and the flesh is as much cooked as if it had been poached or baked. Like sterilisation – immersing a tainted utensil in boiling water so that any and all bacteria on it immediately bite the eternal dust – it’s a process quite different from merely cutting up raw fish and putting it on a plate with some wasabi, a few curls of pickled ginger and a little bowl of soy.
If you’re among the myriad legions who have climbed on the sushi trendwagon, take a step in a slightly new direction and investigate cured fish, a method of preparation which (among others) comes to us from the Scandinavian gravadlax tradition.
Gravadlax, essentially, is the curing of raw salmon in vodka with salt and sugar. There are many variations. Ceviche, meanwhile, is a similar process but involving citrus. So my recipe sits somewhere between these two traditions, as I used both citrus and alcohol, with the addition of sugar and salt.
And there’s nothing to stop you being inventive. You could use gin, vermouth, triple sec, rum; lemon, lime, orange or naartjie. You could use juice or zest, or both. I would recommend going lightly with the salt, and also not having too heavy a hand with the sugar. It’s not a dessert, Daisy. As for serving, I think it needs something with a bit of colour and a bit of crunch, which is why I alighted on trimmed, blanched green asparagus spears. Capers are lovely with almost any salmon dish, and are a perfect match for a gravadlax or ceviche recipe.
For cured Norwegian salmon in ruby grapefruit and tequila, you need:
A piece of very fresh Norwegian salmon fillet (skin on) big enough to give each guest four or five very thin slices (judge it by your eye)
1 tot tequila
Juice of 1 ripe ruby grapefruit
Plenty of fennel leaves (say 8 to 10 large sprigs)
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl except the fennel. Place salmon flesh side down in a container. Sprinkle salt and sugar over the top. Turn it over and repeat on the other side. Pack fennel all over and pour over the liquid. Cover with a weight (such as a heavy tin atop a plate or lid that fits on the fish), cover the dish with clingfilm and refrigerate for three days, turning the fish and basting daily.
To serve, drain away the liquids and discard. Peel off the skin in one piece, from one corner. Just lift carefully at a corner and it will peel away easily. On a board and using an exceptionally sharp flat-edge knife (no, your serrated steak knife will not do, Daisy), slice across the fillet into super-thin strips, like carpaccio. Arrange on a plate. Earlier, blanche some lightly peeled green asparagus in mildly simmering water for two minutes, drain and plunge into iced water for two minutes, and drain. Arrange these on the asparagus, with de-membraned wedges of citrus such as orange and grapefruit. Garnish with chives and filligree fluffs of fennel, and drizzle over a dressing made of grapefruit cells, 1 tot tequila, grapefruit juice and a teaspoon of honey.
And if you do insist on using witblits rather than tequila, we may or may not want to know about it.
First published in Weekend Argus October 2011