05 October 2014

Za'atar Cured Salmon

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I hate saying that we've been busy. It's one of those American things that has come to annoy me the more I live outside the country, in the same way that I try to avoid asking people what they do for a living at cocktail parties. It always results in far more interesting conversations.

So instead we've been pleasantly occupied, traveling here and there to visit family and friends, working, doing a lot of yoga, trying to organize our life so that half of it ends up in Chicago and half ends up in Cairo. I'm on a first name basis with the people at Maersk shipping. My spare moments have been filled with painting and fixing up our apartment and the bare bit of cooking I have done consists mainly of buying a nice piece of fish at the market, seasoning it, and sticking it under the broiler until it is just barely done, and then eating it with some simple vegetables. Also a lot of toast. You can never go wrong with toast.

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I have also been playing around with home cured salmon, which has the great benefit of taking up almost no time at all. I had no idea cured salmon was so easy, slap a sugar/salt mix on your salmon, leave it for a few days, and voila! The perfect bagel-and-schmear topper, salad addition, or light lunch.

The curing mix is a simple ratio of 2 parts salt to 1 part sugar, and then any spices you add to the mix penetrate the salmon surprisingly well. When I first made the cured salmon with za'atar, the Lebanese herb mix, I wasn't sure if the flavor would translate through to the final product, but I was pleasantly surprised that it did. The herby-ness is a bit like the Middle Eastern twist on your classic dill and salmon pairing.

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Za'atar Cured Salmon
I keep several types of za'atar in the cabinet, some higher and lesser quality, for this dish I recommend using average grocery-store quality za'atar. I imagine this would also work really well with the Egyptian spice mix dukkah.

3 cups salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup za'atar (available from mail order sources or Middle Eastern groceries)
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh black pepper
1 large fillet of salmon (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)

1. In a bowl, mix the salt, sugar, za'atar, lemon zest, and pepper.
2. Place several sheets of plastic wrap on a working surface. Pour about 1/3 of the curing mix over the plastic wrap and spread it into a rectangle. Place the salmon fillet over top the curing mix. Pack the remaining curing mix around the salmon (you may not use all of it).
3. Wrap the plastic wrap up around the fish, then wrap some more plastic wrap tightly around the fillet. Then wrap the fillet in a layer of aluminum foil and place in a rimmed baking dish. Place a smaller plate or baking sheet over top the fillet and weigh it down with heavy items cuch as a few large cans of tomatoes.
4. Place the whole thing in the fridge to cure for 3 days. About halfway through, flip the fillet over to the other side. After about a day liquid will begin to release from the salmon.
5. After 3 days, unwrap the fillet, brush off and discard the salt. Rinse the salmon under running water to remove any excess salt. Thinly slice the salmon on an angle and serve as desired.