Friday, 4 September 2009

Chez Moi

With too much time on my hands these days, it is tempting to explore making more things from scratch. I heard recently that canning is achieving new-found popularity. Why not make some jams and chutneys with the last of the summer produce? Or yogurt—homemade is meant to be excellent, and cheap too. Ice cream and bread are out due to lack of equipment, but many of the things on my fridge door—ketchup, curry paste, tapenade—could be attempted.

Yet while my homemade jam is perfectly nice, it falls short of even good-quality supermarket brands. Tapenade prepared in my mortar and pestle boasts an appealingly rustic texture, but it’s expensive, messy and has a shorter shelf-life. As for yogurt, I don’t share the French passion for eating it multiple times a day, which would seem necessary to make it worthwhile. Ketchup is only called into service for steak tartare; Heinz works just fine there, additives be damned.

Undoubtedly, a more skilled jam-maker or a larger household might reach different conclusions. But for me, these types of projects seem justified only if undertaken for the pleasure of the process; good results are strictly a bonus.

Boredom may yield some additions to last year’s stash of homemade plum chutney (a bit too sharp, and less versatile than I imagined). At least I’ve found one made-from-scratch project which is impressively simple, cost-efficient and tasty:

Homemade gravadlax involves nothing more than topping a salmon fillet with some greenery and seasoning, then weighting it down in the fridge for a few days. Given the length of the lines at my local supermarket, the initial preparation takes less time than visiting the chilled fish aisle, plus I’m able to buy two or three times the quantity of fresh fish for the cost of a small packet of cured. After two or three days in the fridge, homemade gravadlax has a brighter, fresher taste than its commercial counterpart. It is also easy scalable; anything from a 200 gram (1/2 pound) fillet to a whole side of salmon can be cured.

Sliced into strips, piled onto blini or thin toast and topped with sour cream, the gravadlax makes an elegant starter. Though its texture is less dense and oily, it can also stand in anywhere smoked salmon is used: eggs, salads, sandwiches. Most recently, we served it whole as a main course, accompanied by potato salad.

So, at the risk of sounding like one of missionary types who wants you make your own jam, I can only say: buy the salmon. It’s worth it. And have I mentioned that it’s easy?

adapted from Cooking for Engineers
Serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main (can be easily doubled or tripled)
Active time: 10 minutes; Total time: 2-3 days
Special equipment: mortar and pestle

1 salmon fillet, about 200 grams (try to find one of equal thickness throughout)
1 scant tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 heaping tablespoon granulated sugar (I used light brown)
1 heaping teaspoon black peppercorns
1 heaping teaspoon juniper berries (optional but recommended)
Handful fresh dill

If possible, peel or cut skin from salmon fillet. Examine for pin-bones by draping over hand, removing any with fingers or thin tweezers. Place fish in the center of a double layer of foil.

Measure salt and sugar in a small bowl. Grind peppercorns and juniper berries coarsely in a mortar and pestle and add to sugar-salt mixture. Stir to combine. Spoon mixture over both sides of fish, pressing gently into flesh.

Place dill fronds under and on fish fillet, snapping off protruding stems. Wrap fish into a tight package with the first layer of foil. Repeat packaging with second piece of foil. Place in a shallow dish and weight down evenly with cans and/or a heavy pan.

Turn 2 times/day, leaving package wrapped. After two or three days, unwrap package, brush or rinse off any excess cure and serve. Unused fish will keep covered for another week or so.

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