Alex Stupak’s mezcal-cured salmon with savory cream cheese foam and Ina Garten’s blinis.

Mezcal-cured salmon with cream cheese foam

Longtime readers (all five two of you) will know that it’s hard for me to say no to a cured salmon–I’m pretty sure it’s my absolute favorite way to eat it these days–and while I’ve tried a few different ways with citrus over the years, a few months ago I stumbled across a really intriguing version that called for mezcal and dried chipotle peppers ground with salt as the primary (and only) curing ingredients. The recipe came from Alex Stupak of New York’s Empellón restaurant group. He’s popped up in a few episodes of The Mind of a Chef and prior to starting his own group of Mexican-inspired eateries he served as a pastry chef at Alinea and WD-50.

If you judge him solely by his appearances on TV, he does come off a bit fussy but it does make sense considering his culinary lineage–I can only imagine the combined impacts of being a pastry chef and working at two of the most well-known restaurants devoted to modernist cuisine does to someone. Take, for instance, his interpretation of a shrimp tostada that he made with Edward Lee:

It looks beautiful and it probably tastes really good…but let’s be honest here–it’s a bit ridiculous too.

Mezcal-cured salmon with cream cheese foam and Ina’s buckwheat blinis.

All that aside, when it comes to chefs like him, the real test in bone fides is whether they can deliver either food or even a recipe that doesn’t rely on bells and whistles to make it special and instead simply tastes really, really good and frankly, this mezcal-cured salmon nails it. To get around not being able to smoke things in the city due to strict fire codes, he uses the smokiness of the mezcal and the chipotles to infuse into the fish and give it a smoky (and in this case, spicy) kick without the fish tasting too boozy or salty.

I’ve made this a few times now, trying a few different ways to serve it. The first time around I simply piled the slices high and served with some goat cheese and scallions; while great for dinner, it wasn’t ideal for what I felt it would be perfect for which would be an appetizer. I then started thinking about making a sort of cream cheese foam to go with it, first trying this recipe to infuse onion flavor into the cheese, but it didn’t really work all that well because it was too subtle.

Then Michael had the rather brilliant idea to simply grate an onion and use the liquid that comes out of it to flavor the cream cheese, doing essentially a savory version of my beloved cheesecake foam. It came out perfectly–while you got the onion taste, it didn’t overwhelm you and it paired nicely with the fish.

I then had the task of figuring out what to serve the fish and foam on, which was a little more difficult than I anticipated. I wanted to use Wasa crackers initially but honestly, they made too much of a mess and could never be relied upon to break neatly, making for an inconsistent presentation. I bought a few packets of frozen blinis while at a Balducci’s another time, and while I loved them I found them to be overly expensive. I started searching for recipes, and of course the one that delivered fabulous blinis came from none other than Ina Garten.

I made them first in advance of Christmas Eve dinner with Michael’s family to be one of the seven fish courses, and then again a week later to go with creme fraiche and caviar for our New Year’s Eve spread, each time making them a few days ahead of time and storing them in the freezer which worked splendidly. All they needed was a little warming up in the microwave and they were good to go.

The only tricky thing about making any of this is that you need to do a little planning in order to get it all done–the salmon needs a minimum of nine hours to cure, and you want to let the cream cheese sit out and come to room temperature prior to making a foam, but otherwise it’s relatively simple. If you can, ask your fishmonger to remove the skin of the salmon for you to make it even easier.

Mezcal-cured salmon
Slightly adapted from Alex Stupak via Food & Wine

  • 1 lb sushi-grade salmon, skin removed
  • 3 dried chipotles, seeded and stemmed and broken into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup mezcal

Add the chipotle pieces to a spice grinder and grind well until they are smaller, then add the kosher salt and pulse again until well-ground and blended. Set aside in a small ramekin.

Place the fish in a shallow dish that can hold it comfortably and brush the fish with half of the mezcal. Cover and let sit for an hour. Add the chipotle salt to both sides of the fish, recover the fish and let sit for four hours.

Place the fish on a plate lined with enough cling wrap to cover it, and add everything in the dish to the fish and cover with the remaining mezcal and wrap the fish tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four more hours to overnight.

Unwrap the fish, rinse it well, and then slice very thinly to serve

Savory cream cheese and onion foam

  • 1 8 oz package cream cheese, softened
  • 100 g water
  • 1 large sweet onion, grated with water reserved (save the grated stuff to make onion pancakes!)
  • 50 g yogurt
  • Healthy pinch of kosher salt to taste

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, blend the cream cheese until very soft and smooth over medium speed. Add the remaining ingredients and continue to blend until everything is very smooth and there are no lumps. Add this to a whipped cream siphon, charge it with one cream (N2O) charger, shake well, and charge with a second cream charger. Let chill in the fridge for a least an hour before serving.

For Ina’s blinis, just go here–there’s no need to try to reinvent her fantastic recipe. TO assemble, carefully place a little cream cheese foam on each blini, top with some salmon, and finish with a couple of chives for garnish and a little extra touch of onion.



6 Comments Add yours

  1. Brianne says:

    Girl, yes. You’ve been hyping this salmon for a while, and I really dig it! I’ve never done any curing–it still intimidates me–but this is a really approachable recipe! The only thing about Alex Stupak that annoys me is that the subtitle of his taco book is Recipes and Provocations. I mean, tacos are great, but do you really need to provocate about them!? No need to get all high-falutin’! But I’d eat any of his food. And you can always count on Ina to save the day!

    1. elizabeth says:

      Yeah, it’s a little ridiculous, and I’m not dying to get his book because even though I know he likes to poke fun that he’s a “white guy cooking Mexican food,” he’s still a white guy cooking Mexican food, and so it has to be high-falutin’ in order to be provocative, I guess. Our trip to New York this past weekend actually introduced me to the analogue of Alex Stupak and I’ll be writing about him soon because I think you’ll be quite intrigued.

  2. Jeeezus woman.
    Come visit me already!
    So we can eat this and talk shit.

  3. George says:

    Great recipe, thank you for sharing. I am excited to try this out! I work in Manhattan, but I live on Long Island, the land of supermarkets. I have no idea where to buy sushi-grade fish. Any ideas?

    1. elizabeth says:

      That’s a great question! I can’t recommend specific markets because I never really made it out to Long Island, but you’re going to want to go to fish markets rather than supermarkets because you have the best shot at getting high-quality product. This article is a good place to start, I think, but Googling “fishmonger” and your town might help you find some good ones too: Your best bet is to call around and ask them if they carry sashimi-grade or sushi-grade fish–if they can’t give you a straight answer, do not engage. Hope this helps!

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