Vesta, a longtime LoDo eatery at 1822 Blake Street, has been offering house-cured meats for years, and when Nick Kayser came on board as executive chef two years ago, he was happy to build on what his predecessors had started. Dry-cured salumi in the Italian tradition, such as salami, pepperoni piccolo and lonza, have been among the chef's offerings, and he's also explored seafood-preservation techniques, with a delicate gravlax appearing on the summer menu.
Gravlax is made by curing salmon in a mix of sugar, salt and seasonings, with aquavit (a spirit usually flavored with caraway) and fresh dill adding a distinct, summery flavor that's an integral part of Scandinavian cuisine. The curing technique for the dish is light and quick, so the salmon retains some of its soft, fatty texture. But Kayser recently decided to try pushing the salmon in a more wintry direction, so he combined other meat-preservation techniques for a bolder recipe with a longer curing time and the addition of smoke. The result? Salmon pastrami.
Kayser first mentioned the idea to me back in October, when I was polling chefs for suggestions on what to do with more than 100 pounds of salmon that I'd brought back from a family fishing trip to Alaska. (If you can't quite envision what that much fish looks like, just picture the top freezer section of a standard-sized refrigerator emptied of all its contents — including ice cube trays — and stuffed so full of vacuum-sealed fillets that it has to be held shut with bungee cords.) Among the many recipes and ideas I received (many of which have already been tried), Kayser's stood out for both its level of difficulty and potential for delicious results. After all, the recipe he sent me involved grinding a complex blend of spices, curing the fish for more than twice as long as gravlax (which only needs two or three days), and cold-smoking to finish, something I'd never done.
But after getting over my initial intimidation, I decided that the basic steps were easy enough: Sprinkle a whole salmon fillet with seasonings, let it sit in the fridge for several days, then smoke it for one hour without heating up the fish. The last step would be completed using a simple $20 device that I purchased at Proud Souls BBQ & Provisions, a barbecue supply shop at 2485 Federal Boulevard. It's nothing more than a perforated metal tube that you pack with wood pellets; it provides up to four hours of smoke without putting off much heat, so you can stick it on one side of a lidded grill and put the fish on the other side.
Here's the recipe Kayser gave me (which I reduced for home-cooking purposes), along with my technique and notes along the way:
Salmon pastrami 1 whole salmon fillet (1.5 to 2.5 pounds)
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1.5 teaspoons smoked paprika
1.5 teaspoons kosher salt, plus an additional quarter-cup or so
.5 teaspoon garlic powder
1 or 2 whole cloves
1 tablespoon coarse black pepper
1.5 teaspoons caraway seeds
1.5 teaspoons fennel seeds
Mix all of the dry ingredients together and grind into a powder. I did this with a stone mortar and pestle, but you can use an electric spice grinder, blender or food processor.
I used coho salmon, which is very low in fat compared to other species, but any good-quality salmon should work. Try to avoid pale, farm-raised salmon, since it tends to yield a flabby, watery result when cured. Buy from a fish counter you trust.
Remove the skin and pull out the pin bones — those tiny bones that just barely stick out from the meat — with needle-nosed pliers (if your butcher hasn't already done so), then pat the fish dry. Measure out a quarter-cup of your seasoning mix and mix it with a quarter-cup of kosher salt. Sprinkle an even coating of the mix on both sides of the fish. You probably won't need to use all of the mix; make sure you don't sprinkle it on so thick that you can't see the pink color of the fish. (This is the part of the recipe that's a little tricky, since the exact amount of seasoning will vary depending on the size of the fish and how finely your spices are ground. You can save any that's left over, though.)
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Put your salmon in a deep pan (like a Pyrex dish) and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Leave it in the refrigerator for at least five days (Kayser says he went a full nine), flipping it every other day. Make sure that you don't have a tight seal on the wrap; you need to let moisture evaporate. The concept behind curing is that the salt pulls water out of the fish, so you don't want the fillet sitting in its own juices.
After the fish cures for several days, you basically have a pastrami-flavored version of gravlax; you could slice it and eat it at this point, and it would be quite tasty. But the smoke gives it that final pastrami punch, so it's worth taking the extra step if you have the equipment. To cold-smoke, follow the directions on your smoker (Proud Souls sells the A-MAZE-N brand, but others are available), giving the fish at least an hour. You can go longer, but make sure the temperature of the meat stays in the 70-to-80-degree range.
Vesta serves Kayser's salmon pastrami on pumpernickel melba toast with horseradish crema and sherry gastrique (which you can easily make by simmering equal parts sugar and high-quality sherry vinegar into a syrup). My own salmon came out a bit saltier than Kayser's, and I thought the fennel flavor was a little too bold, so I will probably leave that out next time around. Otherwise, the salmon pastrami is a great appetizer for the holiday table and holds well in the fridge until your next dinner party or family event.
If you can't wait, though, there's always a table or bar stool at Vesta, where you can enjoy a cocktail and your own plate of salmon pastrami — made by a pro with plenty of experience getting it just right.