Beyond bagels: The many uses for smoked fish

The Hot Smoked Salmon, with giardiniera, seeds with a poached egg vinaigrette at Two Fish in Haddonfield.

Smoked fish is at once luxury food and humble staple, a special-occasion appetizer and default crowd-pleaser for brunch gatherings. It’s a coveted delicacy that people seem mostly content to take as-is. Consider the Jewish treatment, where it’s piled onto a platter — pink mounds of lox punctuated by toothpick-impaled olives and ice cream scoops of cream cheese, plus the ubiquitous fish carcass stuffed with whitefish salad — what you see is what you get.

“There’s something about smoked meat or fish — whether it’s pastrami or smoked salmon, I think humans have a love of savory flavors embedded in them,” says Yehuda Sichel, executive chef at Abe Fisher. “Growing up, two of my favorite things were whitefish salad and lox, and they were always a treat.”

Of course, when there’s a slice of cured salmon involved, a bagel or bagel-like substance is never too far away. Thus, the everything flatbread, everything crisp, everything bagel chip seems to reign supreme on brunch and appetizer menus. No one needs to reinvent this particular wheel, but the salty, oily foodstuff can also be more than a default sandwich filling.

Mike Stollenwerk breaks the mold at his restaurant Two Fish. A hot-smoked salmon (or cod) filet made in house (he also sells smoked fish at the Haddonfield Farmers’ Market and at the restaurant by call-ahead order) is layered over bright pickled vegetables, which are in turn set over a creamy poached egg vinaigrette. Of course, a bagel chip would not be out of place here, but the dish, with its salty-tangy-sweet contrasts, doesn’t need it.

Mackenzie Hilton of Time restaurant serves house-smoked salmon on herb- and oil-rubbed grilled slices of bread with a zesty pickle rémoulade. The capers and cornichons cut the richness of the fish, and a drop of sugar in the mayo-based spread offsets the salt. Hilton also uses smoked fish in place of bottarga or salted fish roe, adding very tiny flakes  for a burst of briny flavor. In the restaurant, she uses only hot-smoked fish she makes herself.

“Most people don’t realize how easy it is to do — all you need is a charcoal grill and some wood chips, and you can get great flavor with much fewer nitrates than what you’d find at the store,” Hilton says.

Green salads, open-face sandwiches, scrambled eggs, even pasta dishes all welcome slivers and flakes of fish. Any kind of pickled vegetable (think carrots, cucumbers, radishes, shallots, beets), dill, hard or soft-boiled egg, horseradish, creamy dairy, and citrus fruit can complement the unctuous texture and salty flavor. Smoked fish can also be used in place of bacon — double-smoked salmon imitating bacon is a thing that exists in the world, or at least in markets these days — as in a carbonara pasta, quiche, corn chowder, sautéed greens, or over grits.

As far as smoked fish treats go, whitefish salad remains criminally underrated outside of the lox platter crowd. At La Peg, Peter Woolsey reimagines it with more elegant ingredients: crème fraîche, homemade mayonnaise with a touch of red wine vinegar, chopped capers, and lots and lots of herbs.

“I grew up in a half-Jewish household, and my deep love for Jewish deli includes smoked fish. But now that I’m married to a French woman and I’ve spent a lot of time in France, I wanted to bring a French sensibility to it,” he says.

At Abe Fisher, Sichel stuffs a whitefish salad riff — hot-smoked fish folded into cream cheese — into squash blossoms (when seasonal), which are then tempura fried. He’s also smoked lobster for a Jewish take on the lobster roll and packed a mix of smoked trout and striped bass into a whole trout carcass in a contemporary update of gefilte fish.

“The beauty of hot smoking is you can use the whole fish — whatever excess we have, we hot smoke and it turns into a spread on our breads and spreads platter,” he says. “We’ll save the cold smoking for really beautiful fish, like hamachi or salmon, because they essentially get preserved as-is.”

At Two Fish, Stollenwerk will use smoked tuna, lime juice, cilantro, jalapeño, and red onion as a Mexican-accented dip. Chef Brett Naylor, recently of Oyster House, goes a step further and thins bluefish with sour cream and buttermilk to make a dressing for salads and vegetables.

Smoked fish naturally pairs well with potatoes, and Stollenwerk will toss some in with a potato salad, either mustard- or mayonnaise-based. Oyster House’s smoked fish and potato cakes, which can be made with trout, mackerel, or any white fish, are extra-delicious with a poached or fried egg served on top.

Naylor is a huge fan of smoked fish at home because it’s shelf stable and easy to serve without much preparation. Mackerel is a favorite. When asked how he might enjoy that as a breakfast, he admits he has it as most of us would.

“Usually with cream cheese and on a bagel.”


La Peg Whitefish Salad

Serves 6-8 as an appetizer

La Peg´s Whitefish Salad.

INGREDIENTS

1 whole egg

½ tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 small garlic clove

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 cup soy oil

Salt, to taste

1 whole smoked white fish, filleted and pin-boned (about 1 pound of meat)

1 pint crème fraîche

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons finely chopped capers

2 tablespoons finely cut chives

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped dill

Salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

  1. Make the mayonnaise: Blend the eggs, Dijon, garlic, and red wine vinegar. Slowly add oil to running blender until a stiff emulsion forms.
  2. Mix the remaining ingredients together lightly so as not to break up the whitefish. Serve with crackers, bagel chips, cucumbers, olives, and shallots.

— Peter Woolsey, La Peg


Hot Smoked Salmon, Giardiniera, Seeds, Poached Egg Vinaigrette

Serves 4

The Hot Smoked Salmon, with giardiniera, seeds with a poached egg vinaigrette at Two Fish in Haddonfield.

INGREDIENTS

1 pound hot-smoked salmon

 

Giardiniera

1 carrot, peeled and diced

1 stalk celery, sliced

¼ cup cauliflower florets

1 shallot, sliced

1 poblano pepper, sliced

1 pint white vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

½ teaspoon mustard seeds

½ teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon garlic, minced

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

¼ cup olive oil

 

Poached Egg Vinaigrette 

2 eggs

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 cup canola oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Kosher salt

Black pepper

 

Garnish

1 tablespoon chives, sliced thin

1 tablespoon sunflower seeds

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

DIRECTIONS

  1. Make the giardiniera:  Combine all the cut vegetables in a glass or plastic container. In a small sauce pot over medium heat, combine the vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, garlic, and red pepper flakes and cook for approximately 6 minutes, until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the vegetables to cover. Place in the refrigerator overnight to let vegetables pickle. Strain out the vinegar  and mix the olive oil with the vegetables. This will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.
  2. Make the Poached Egg Vinaigrette: Place a small pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, carefully add the eggs and continue to boil for exactly 4 minutes. Remove pot from heat and place under cold running water to cool eggs. Peel eggs and place in a blender with the Dijon and red wine vinegar. With the blender running, slowly drizzle in the oil to create an emulsion. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. To serve: Spoon some vinaigrette onto the center of 4 plates. Next, scatter the giardiniera on top of the vinaigrette. Divide the smoked salmon into four servings and place on top of the giardiniera. Garnish the dish with a sprinkling of chives and seeds, and serve.

— Mike Stollenwerk, Two Fish


Smoked Fish and Potato Cakes

Serves 4

The smoked fish hash at Oyster House in Center City.

INGREDIENTS

6 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and quartered

1 pint heavy cream

1 sprig thyme

6 ounces smoked trout, mackerel, or whitefish fillets

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped tarragon or parsley

2 tablespoons butter

DIRECTIONS

  1. Combine potatoes, cream, and thyme sprig in a pot. Bring to a boil, then allow to cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until potatoes are soft enough to pierce with a knife but not mushy. Drain potatoes and remove thyme sprig. Set potatoes in a bowl and cool to room temperature.
  2. When potatoes are cool enough to touch, flake smoked fish into the bowl with the potatoes. Add olive oil and chopped herbs and mix until evenly combined, mashing up the potatoes with your hands so they hold the fish together but some chunks remain. Form mixture into four flattened patties.
  3. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add butter to the pan. Cook cakes, working in batches if necessary, for four minutes per side, or until nicely browned. Flip and cook on the other side for four minutes, or until browned and crisp. Serve cakes with fried or poached eggs on top.

— Adapted from Oyster House