My key to surviving the unstoppable train that is Christmas cooking is to apply the “cut and come again” rule. A squirrel-store of recipes that you can make on a quiet afternoon in the run-up to Christmas Eve and which will keep in good condition for several days. Useful things such as a marzipan-flecked stollen and a long-life cake that you can continually cut and come back to. Recipes that, over the course of the festivities, manage to keep this cook sane.
The most useful of these is a side of smoked salmon that I can carve as a first course, a light lunch or as a sandwich on Boxing Day. Just as versatile, but more interesting I think, is a side of raw salmon that you have cured yourself, not in a smoker but in salt, lemon and herbs.
The Helsinki market fish counters have proved to be an inspiration for this year’s Christmas cooking. Several of the open-topped glass cabinets held sides of cured fish to be bought by the kilo and — sliced as required. Laid out among the tubs of salted herrings were sides of salmon as bright as jewels, flavoured with Norse favourites — from fresh dill to juniper berries. While those with pink peppercorns, orange and lemon zest tempted, the star for me was the sweet and earthy beetroot cure, whose dazzling shades of orange, carmine and green seem more than appropriate for the festive table.
A large piece of fish seems an extravagant purchase (well, it is) but, thinly sliced with my longest, sharpest knife, it will go a long, long way. Brought to the table with a sycamore board of dark, moist rye bread, it serves more than a dozen of us.
You need a decent-sized tray or a wide dish long enough to hold the fish (you can cut the piece of fish in two but it will lack the majesty of a whole fillet brought to the table). Raw grated beetroot, sea salt and citrus zest are needed too, and, as so often in Finnish or Scandinavian recipes, fresh dill.
The only real hands-on work comes in grating the roots and patting the marinade over the fish. Salt draws out moisture, and I find you need to pour off the excess beetroot juice that accumulates in the tray over the next 24 hours or so. You will also need to secure a reasonable amount of space in the fridge. Until it has finished marinating, your piece of fish will require a whole shelf to itself.
Lightly cured salmon, carved as thinly as you would smoked salmon, is good on shattered sheets of artisan crispbread; perfect as a yule sandwich stuffer (try it with crisp, hot bacon and red-flecked winter salad leaves) but also as a light, elegant starter. Saffron, vermilion and orange, it looks good on a white plate.
I find you need something with it, too perhaps a crunchy, bracingly sour salad to nuzzle up against the silky folds of fish. Today I put together a thick dressing of salmon’s best friends — capers, soured cream, orange zest, mustard and dill. As a nod to the grated root vegetable in the dry marinade, I tossed the dressing with thick shreds of ivory-white celeriac.
Salmon marinated with beetroot, dill and orange
Ask your fishmonger to scale and bone the salmon but leave the skin on. Check for tiny bones when you get it home.
A side of salmon, boned, about 800g
100g demerara sugar
175g coarse sea salt
4tbs black peppercorns
2 lemons zest, grated
600g raw beetroot, finely grated
Check the salmon for any remaining bones, keeping an eye open for the tiny, almost invisible pin bones. These can be removed with a pair of tweezers. Lay the salmon skin-side down in a stainless steel or enamelled tin or glass dish. If the fish is too long, you can cut it in half.
Put the demerara sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Coarsely grind the peppercorns and add to the sugar together with the vodka. Roughly chop the dill and its stems and add to the marinade with the grated lemon and orange zest. Peel and grate the beetroots, then stir into the other ingredients.
Spread the mixture over the fish and rub in well with your hands. Wrap a piece of cling film over the fish and place a heavy weight on it. A small chopping board with a few cans on top will work. Refrigerate anywhere from 48 hours to four days.
Pour off and discard the liquid that has seeped from the marinade. Remove the cling film, scrape away the marinade ingredients and throw them away. Slice the fish thinly, and serve with the salad below.
A salad of celeriac, soured cream and mustard
If the celeriac is a step too far, try cucumber or lightly steamed and cooled potatoes instead. The point is to keep the flavours sharp and crisp to contrast with the sweet earthiness of the salmon. This recipe will appeal to anyone who doesn’t like their Christmas starters too rich.
200ml soured cream
2tbs olive oil
2tsp wholegrain mustard
Grated lemon zest, 1/2 a lemon
2tsp finely grated orange zest
2tsp lemon juice
Caster sugar, a pinch
2tbs dill, finely chopped
Spoon the soured cream into a bowl and lightly whisk in the olive oil with a fork or small whisk. Roughly dice the gherkins and stir into the dressing with the capers, mustard and grated lemon and orange zest. Stir in the lemon juice, a little salt, the sugar and the dill. Grate the celeriac and fold in.
Extracted from The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater
— Guardian News and Media Services