I was raised on the Upper Westside of Manhattan and my all time favorite breakfast has always been bagels with lox and cream cheese. Since childhood, favorites purveyors have included Zabar's, Russ and Daughters, and Murray the Sturgeon King. Each had large display cases filled with many types of smoked fish and huge sides of smoked salmon from all over the world. There was Nova, Scotch, Irish, Gaspe, Atlantic, Pacific, and Belly Lox to name a few. This was in the days before mechanical slicing, so the oily bright orange fish was all hand sliced onto wax paper. Not sure what kind you wanted? You would say "I'm looking for a nice piece of fish" and the counter staff, a mix of young Puerto Ricans and older Eastern Jewish immigrants would interview you on your tastes..."you vant salty or not so much?" Then they would slice off paper thin bits for you to taste and decide. Along with picking up bagels (I still prefer H&H Bagels, but won't get into that debate here), cheeses, and specialty teas...this was the Sunday morning religious observation of my youth.
Photo: Nate Steiner
Now that I live in Seattle, Salmon is plentiful, but lox are scarce. Lox were originally just cured in salt and possibly sugar, though today we think of Lox as being synonymous with "Smoked Salmon." The cold smoking was added later according to the New York Times article: So Pink, So New York. Here in Seattle, by contrast, most of the smoked salmon is hot smoked...which though good, is drier and less delicate in flavor. The other issue I have with much of the available lox is that it comes from farmed Atlantic salmon, which has a host of associated environmental problems.
So, what's a nice half-Jewish boy from NY to do? Well, I figured out how to make my own! I decided to start with Farmed Steelhead, which is cultivated in freshwater closed systems preventing damage to the wild stocks. Though a bit smaller, the taste and consistency is very similar to salmon. And, I've been making gravlax for years, which involves a simple cure of salt and sugar combined with dill and onions for additional flavoring. The curing turns the raw flesh from a light opaque orange color with a flaky consistency into the firm translucent and deeper colored meat familiar to lox eaters everywhere. OK, so I knew how to get the texture right, but how to cold smoke was my next challenge. As we all know, where there's smoke, there's fire! I have an electric smoker, which doesn't get as hot as some smoking methods, but it would still cook the fish before it got smoked. To overcome that, I decided to first cure the fish and then freeze it prior to smoking. Though the edges of the fillet did get cooked a bit, once trimmed away, I was left with a side of delicious, buttery, home-smoked lox very much like the fish I remember so well! While the process takes a few days, it's really very easy. Check out my recipe to make your own.
Note: In researching this post, I was saddened to come accross the obituary of Murray Bernstein, the West Side Sturgeon King, who passed in 2000. Though I can't say I really knew Murray, his small store will always be special to me.