The first time I did it felt decadent, self- indulgent, absurdly extravagant. A one-hundred gram packet of smoked salmon slit open and the slices (at least I went to the trouble) fanned out decoratively on my dinner plate. Lemon wedges and a little mound of those tiny capers, the salt rinsed away. Translucent moons of finely sliced red onion. A bulge of cream cheese sprigged with shrill green dill. Bread basket filled with slim diagonals of sourdough breadstick I had crisped and faintly coloured in the oven. An evening meal for a night I had no wish nor energy to cook, to merely compose – and a wonderful feast it was.
Since then I will periodically dine in this queenly manner on smoked salmon, but the guilt has long since departed. That entire meal costs me less than $10; fresh grilled fish and salad would come to more. The fact is that smoked salmon, historically a luxury and to this day still deemed one, is completely affordable and not an absurd extravagance at all. (Something about this makes me sad in the same way that items like laughably cheap sound systems make me sad: remembering the months and months I paid off my very first stereo in my teens, how special it was, how grand that final payment made me feel.)
Smoked salmon these days could – nay should – be a kitchen staple, a pack or two as part of the standard contents of a refrigerator. Especially now as we enter the stressful festive season with its concomitant rounds of celebratory events, all involving eating and drinking, it must rank as one of the easiest options around. Even devoid of all the accoutrements – even simply as a draping of smoked salmon on a wooden board alongside a bread knife and a breadstick and a couple of lemons. There aren’t many people who will resist it. Supermarkets offer a series of choices from as low as $5 but my favourite way of purchasing this so-called delicacy is from a fishmonger’s where the slices, eased off an entire side of the fish, are of superior quality and taste (if it can be said of something smoked) somehow fresher.
You can of course go to the sort of lengths I am often in the mood for – like whipping up a batch of yeasty buckwheat blini. At various stages of my life I have been found plopping teaspoonfuls of batter mixture, with infinite patience, into a frypan for well over an hour, removing each perfectly formed baby pikelet to an ever-growing tower of the things. And that’s only phase one before the individual smearing with creme fraiche of each, the delicate curling of smoked salmon on top, the careful grating of lemon zest and tiny tuft of dill. Other times I have made miniature dill scones as vehicles for the smoked salmon. Potato pancakes and zucchini pancakes work beautifully as well, although the simplicity of a moist and fruity rye or pumpernickel bread – and you can buy these in little rounds as well as squares – should not be overlooked.
Having a packet of smoked salmon there in your refrigerator, lasting pretty well forever, also means you have the essence of surely one of the easiest pasta dishes around. As long as you are careful about not actually cooking the strips of smoked salmon – which ruins it, toughens it up, robs it of flavour – but merely warming them through in some foaming butter, you can have the dish on the table within the time it takes to cook the pasta. I find a fresh eggy strand pasta works best – fettuccine, tagliatelle. As it bubbles away you are quickly tossing the fish in the butter, splashing in a slug of brandy (igniting it if you are using gas and feeling theatrical), pouring in some cream and a handful of capers and reducing it till it’s thick. Hurl in the pasta, coat with the sauce – and there you are.