Today's Challenge: Fast from... all highly processed foods.
In many parts of Europe it is traditional to eat fish on Christmas Eve. Carp in Germany, Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe; salt cod in Provence and Italy; a spicy fish stew known as halászlé, in Hungary and gravadlax, or cured salmon in Scandinavia. In part, this is a reflection of European Christian heritage - Christmas Eve is traditionally observed both by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians as a strict fast day on which no meat is consumed since it is the vigil of the Solemn Feast of Christmas. But this also reflects seasonal availability, more relevant in the past than today perhaps. Unlike fresh meat, fresh fish continued to be available throughout the winter, either from the sea or from freshwater lakes and rivers and if fresh fish wasn't available, dried salt fish or pickled fish in brine were additional options that could be relied upon when other food could be scarce.
Fish these days is a luxury - it is expensive, often prohibitively so - the days of being able to fill up on oysters and salmon because they are so cheap are long gone. I often serve fish on Christmas Eve - a nod to past tradition and since it is a treat, I feel it is also an appropriate harbinger of the feast of the morrow.
I usually make a fish soup - either a flaming scarlet, Italian-style burrida with a base of onions, fennel, carrots, tomatoes and white wine, flavoured with orange peel and rosemary, or a paler more English-style one, with onions, leeks, celery and potato, flavoured with saffron and dill and finished with cream. The fish in either soup is usually of one kind rather than a mixture, cubed white fish such as cod or haddock loin, monkfish if I'm feeling extravagant, or pale scallops, halved if they're large, dropped into the simmering broth and poached until just done. Sometimes I use fresh salmon fillet for the English-style one which looks beautiful - the pale pink of the fish against the golden yellow backdrop of the soup.
Today I have not made fish soup; I've produced something I usually leave until after Christmas to make and that is homemade gravadlax. This sounds more ambitious than it is and if you've never tried preparing this at home, I recommend it. Minimally processed, it has all the nutrients and vitamins of raw fish and is absolutely delicious.
I first tried it in 2014 the year I got 'Salt, Sugar and Smoke', Diana Henry's excellent book which contains a couple of recipes for cured salmon, one with vodka and one with whisky and I've made it for high days and holidays ever since. I prefer the version with vodka. To make this, you do need at least one whole side of very fresh, good quality salmon, cleaned and boned but with the skin on. I get mine by mail order from here ahead of time and freeze it. Freezing is recommended in fact, prior to curing, as it kills off any parasites. I m not sure how this works but that is the advice given by Diana Henry and elsewhere.
Preparation (it can hardly be called cooking) is a doddle but it has to be done well ahead of time as the cure needs several days to 'take'. You mix sugar, salt, black peppercorns and chopped fresh dill together and sandwich this together with the vodka between two pieces of fish.
This 'sandwich' is then tightly wrapped in a double layer of tin foil, placed on a baking tray and weighted down in the fridge for four - five days. Diana Henry says two to four days but I would say it's best to leave it to cure for the full four days before unpacking and slicing . You can either sandwich two whole sides of salmon together or, if you want to prepare a smaller quantity, you can cut one side of salmon into two chunks and place one on top of the other. This is what I've done for today. Either way, you need to turn the salmon once a day, replacing the weights to keep the fish in contact with the cure. I usually put my weights on a tray or plate as once you've started to turn the salmon, the cure draws out a lot of liquid and you don't want that all over your weights.
At the end of the curing period you remove the fish from its foil parcel and slice thinly with an extremely sharp knife. You can discard the peppercorn and dill residue of the curing mixture or I like to add some of the black and green fragments back over the sliced salmon. And the best bit of the process? Those teensy weensy nuggets of cured salmon that haven't made the grade of proper slices are the cook's privilege to sample and savour in the quiet of the kitchen. Christmas has begun in earnest! Actually the apostrophe is in the wrong place - it should come after the 's' as this is usually a joint effort between H and myself. I prepare and turn the salmon beforehand and H, armed with a wickedly sharp, very long, slim blade is generally charged with the slicing as he is far more proficient than I am at patiently and skilfully taking off long, thin, elegant slices right down to the skin at the base of the fillet.
Diana Henry comments that the preparation of cured salmon is traditionally done in Scandinavia 'in coolness, in silence and in shadow' and I can confirm that preparing this in silence, by candlelight, before dawn, around the time of the winter solstice, feels wonderfully atavistic. On a practical note, regardless of how you conduct the preparation, the slicing should definitely be undertaken in coolness and silence, although not in semi-darkness. It is a job requiring very clean hands, good light and plenty of space and time. Always slice horizontally away from you as H is doing in the pic below this afternoon. Any interruptions or distractions should be banned - a blade that lethal should be treated with considerable circumspection. Enough said!
tea with unsweetened soya milk
homemade Greek-style yoghurt
homemade game pâté on granary toast and homemade apricot and tomato chutney
panforte di Siena
pickled marinaded mushrooms with dill and black peppercorns
Russian sourdough rye bread with unsalted butter
mince pies made with homemade damson and hazelnut mincemeat with cream
chocolate meringue log*
* A BBC Good Food recipe from 1995 - I can't find a link to this anywhere - it pre-dates Internet days - but it's basically meringue flecked with grated plain chocolate, baked flat and rolled around a filling of whipped cream, rum and melted milk chocolate. The only tricky thing is making sure there isn't too much of a differential between the temperature of the melted milk chocolate and that of the whipped cream for the filling, otherwise, if the chocolate is too warm and the cream too cold, the chocolate seizes on contact with the cream. Not a disaster if this happens - it just makes the filling a bit granular in texture. This has happened to me in the past and I've served it up anyway - no one has ever complained!
The chocolate holly leaves are a frivolous extra but do make it look very pretty. You pipe the outlines in melted dark chocolate before filling in with melted white chocolate. They are 'glued' in place with a little bit of reserved filling.
I am conscious that although the roulade is homemade it does rely on the processed food that is chocolate. I fear this therefore may be a fail at the last fence as it were!
Anyway, Happy Christmas Eve to you and all who are with you in spirit, body or remembrance.
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