Traditionally a showcase for pork and beef, charcuterie is a delicious assortment of smoked and cured meats and pâtés, often served with bread, cheese and a pickled veggie or two.
But charcuterie is now having a seafood moment.
A survey of popular chefs in the Boston Globe determined that seafood charcuterie is the number one restaurant trend of 2012. In the past six months, in New England and Florida, I’ve encountered tuna and salmon pastrami: a new and unconventional preparation of these fishes. Smoked fish and fish pâtés are now easily found at all the crave-worthy spots in Los Angeles.
But the biggest surprise is that seafood charcuterie was not been popularized sooner. Pepper has always been a common seasoning for fish, so a peppery, pastrami-like crust on the meat makes total, delicious sense. And creamy fish spreads are filling without the gut-busting feeling that a terrine of pork livers delivers.
In light of the current season, this interest in fish charcuterie feels just right. Transitioning into the lighter fare of springtime, smoked and cured fish strikes a nuanced flavor profile, balancing light, subtle meat and spice flavors.
If those flavors seem off-putting — as in, if you are one of the many people suppressing your gag-reflex just thinking of “fishy” tasting salmon — think again.
Treating fish as charcuterie controls the flavors. Smoking trout curbs the fish’s saltiness. At your discretion, lemon juice and horseradish in salmon pâtés can add depth or disguise the fish’s natural flavor.
Downtown Los Angeles’ Church and State bistro serves its salmon rillettes — salmon cooked slowly in fat — in glass jars alongside crusty slices of baguette. This combination of smoked as well as cooked salmon exemplifies how vastly different preparations of the same fish can taste.
As a sidenote, if you’re fortunate enough to snag a table at this hard-to-find bistro, wash each creamy bite down with a Rosemary Collins — a savory rosemary perfumed cocktail. It’s a perfect Provençal pairing.
Charcuterie need not be sophisticated. Son of a Gun on Third Street in West Hollywood offers a smoked Mahi fish dip. Plastic-wrapped saltines are provided for your scooping and spreading pleasure. It’s simple, sure, but the humble presentation smooths out the intimidation of tasting a fish you haven’t had this way.
If you’re usually a reluctant host, enjoying seafood charcuterie at home is for you. It requires no cooking, only the purchasing of prepared fish. Most examples of smoked trout and salmon come in a variety of prepackaged preparations with lemon or pepper and garlic seasoning. Similarly, fish spreads can often be found in the seafood section of the supermarket.
The complements to fish charcuterie are important as well. One benefit of fish charcuterie over the meat variety is how well it pairs with citrus; it is citrus season, after all, so present some grapefruit or blood orange sections as a refreshing garnish.
You can also provide some easy-to-spread goat cream cheese, as Suzanne Goin does at her restaurant A.O.C. The creamy-yet-dry consistency combines well with the oiliness of fish, and a thick slice of fresh, ripe tomato makes flavors pop. Place the pairing, along with some smoked or cured fish, atop a piece of grilled bread and you might never want to eat anything else.
It is with the utmost encouragement that I recommend that you experience this silky, luscious combination. It’s sexy — well, as sexy as an open-faced fish sandwich can be.
Seafood charcuterie, like its pork and beef cousins, welcomes creativity and a do-it-yourself spirit. Humans have been curing and smoking fishes since man obtained a spear and learned, probably the hard way, that the stabbed fish required preservation.
Bacon and sausage fanatics have seen their favorite meats rise to the highest levels of culinary inspiration for years. It’s time to shut the meatheads up with a worthy successor. It’s time to return to the unsung hero that is deliciously cured seafood.
The answer, you see, is in the sea.
Bernard Leed is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column “Amuse-Bouche” runs Wednesdays.