Russ and Daughters Press
The Rosengarten Report
April 26, 2004
Category #7 Smoked Fish. New York-Style
Let the truth be known: if you were to examine the records of my at-home brunches over the years. . . you'd find a high percentage of them focusing on smoked fish, New York-style, the provender of what used to be called "appetizing shops" in old-time New York City. Practically every Sunday breakfast of my childhood (we didn't call it "brunch" then), and many a Sunday breakfast for my kids today, involves at least some smoked salmon on a bagel with a schmear. But non-New Yorkers are sometimes unaware of the fact that many items beyond smoked salmon exist at the descendants of these shops-and that some of those items are even yummier than smoked salmon. An array of these piscine treats-with the proper bagels and bialys, of course, and maybe a platter of fried eggs you should know-would make as terrific a Sunday brunch in Utah as it would in Brooklyn, thanks to the wonders of modern delivery.
Recently, I acquired smoked fish in all the major categories from all of the major Manhattan players in this field-so that you could share the results of my smoked fish snapshot. I call it a snapshot, because what tasted great last week may not be the same next week. That caveat aside-you could do a whole lot worse than relying on Russ & Daughters to ship your brunch-bound fish
SMOKED SALMON Let's indeed start with the grand-daddy of "appetizing" fish, the one that practically built the category. And there is no finer place in New York to acquire a varied, intensely-flavored selection of old-fashioned smoked salmon than Russ & Daughters, founded on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1914. In fact, if you really want to see what it was like back then-when New York's Jewish immigrants had a taste for salty "lox," not for elegant "Nova"-you must give a try to Russ & Daughters Alaskan Belly Lox ($28 a lb.). Most will find it stingingly salty-that's what the cream cheese is for! But I like this particular version of lox because it's more elegant than most, and features not just salt-but a certain salted fish flavor that the best lox always has. If you wish to forego the historical sodium chloride experiment, and dip right into marvelous modernity, go directly for Russ & Daughters Scottish Salmon ($28 a lb.) -one of the best smoked salmons available in New York City. It's a lovely orange-pink, with wide bands of fat, and a remarkably elegant, resilient texture. On the flavor side, elegant it's not; this Scottish salmon features a robust smokiness, which I like a great deal. Beyond the headlining Scottish stuff (which is my fave in the line), Russ & Daughters features an intriguing array of specialty salmons. In the winter, you can get Russ & Daughters Wild Baltic Salmon ($36 a lb.), a pale copper-brown, almost like raw chicken in color, with a wonderful chewy texture, a big salty-smoky-salmony flavor. Next best, for me, is not a smoked salmon at all-but the delightful, rosy-pink Russ & Daughters Scandinavian Gravlax with Dill ($26 a lb.), which is buttery, sweet, more subtle than the other salmons in the line. Lastly, I like the Russ & Daughters Pastrami Salmon ($28 a lb.) a lot chewy, with good salt and smoke, and a real pastrami flavor from the exterior spices. Not what I grew up with, but dynamite on a bagel nevertheless.
Have you had this stuff? It always was-and still is!-my favorite item on the Sunday Jewish Brunch table. It is something like a hunk of hot-smoked salmon, only it doesn't have much of a smoked flavor. Instead, you get unbelievably creamy flakes of fish that taste cured, salmon-y, intense-but not smoky. I adore I it. The only problem is-it has changed mightily with the years! First of all, it used to be called "Baked Salmon" -a moniker I that's rarely used now; most purveyors refer to it today as "Kippered Salmon." A name change doesn't bother me-but does it betoken a process change that might have occurred? For the kippered salmon I see today is almost always pink-red, whereas the Good Old Stuff was always white. Secondly-and more important-the modern Kippered Salmon rarely seems to have the luscious creaminess, or the cured intensity, of the old-time fish. But don't lose heart! I tasted a number of very good ones from my appetizing candidates. And I tasted a couple of absolutely outstanding ones from. . . once again. . . Russ & Daughters.
If you want to check out what Baked Salmon was like in the old days, simply order a chunk of Russ & Daughters Kippered White King Salmon ($24 a lb., call to order). This stuff looks just like the old days-is that the difference? they used to use white king salmon?-and, very happily, tastes like it, too. Creamy-fatty, and super-flavorful--but, at the same time, cleaner-tasting and more elegant than the others. Wow! This is the stuff!
Just behind in rank is the Russ & Daughters Kippered Salmon ($24 a lb.), which is pale pink in color, creamy-oily (as it should be), and one of the deepest in the city in salmon flavor. In case you haven't had kippered salmon before, give my prep method a shot. Toast a bialy, schmear it with a little butter, remove the skin and bones of the salmon and pile some flaky salmon flesh on the bialy, press down lightly with a fork, then sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. If the salmon is great, that's all you need. If it lacks flavor, I go for a few thin slices of raw onion.
A staple of the old-time Sunday table use dto be whole smoked whitefish, with the heads, tails, and golden skins intact; diners used to love to tear the oily-salty flesh away from the whole fish. The golden fish are still in the display cases at the old I shops, but they don't appeal to the public at large. Something related has replaced whole whitefish in the popularity polls: a wickedly delicious salad made from the whitefish flesh. Just spread it on a warm bagel half, and you are in smoked-fish heaven. I must confess-I myself buy it far more often these days than I buy whole fish. In this category, you don't have to even think about it.
The Russ & Daughters Whitefish and Baked Salmon' Salad ($14 a lb., call to order) is, without any question, the greatest whitefish salad I have ever tasted, and very possibly the most exciting product of all in this whole smoked fish tasting. It is a little pinker than the others, due to the wise inclusion of a small amount of baked salmon. It is oily and rich, as many of them are-but this one somehow manages to be devastatingly light and fluffy at the same time. It is seasoned just right, with a perfect touch of onion-y flavor. I'm warning you: you may literally become addicted to this massively satisfying stuff.