At the time, I had a good friend who helped curate the theatre collection for the City of the Museum of New York on the Upper East Side. Fancy digs. One one particularly insignificant day, he asked me if I'd be interested in catering an exhibit opening at the museum as a replacement for a caterer who bailed at the last minute. Embracing my impetuous inner me, I said yes without giving it a thought. Here's the deal. I was a hustling pizza-by-the-slice, street vendor hot dog, Asian take-out, Blarney Stone Bar buffet kind of guy. The closest I came to my imagined notion of gentrified museum snacks were the occasional nibbles I'd snag from the sample counters of Zabars and Dean and Deluca. I was a kid without a clue. Hell, that didn't stop me. I embraced what I knew and took my interpreted mish-mashed Jewish/Italian arsenal of goods on the road. Old school crab-stuffed cherry tomatoes (yep). Chopped chicken liver on matzo crackers. Smoked whitefish dip. Gravlax on rye. Skewered buffalo bocconcini balls. I was brazen, young, and unafraid. At the end of the night, when the dust settled, my traveling food show was a hit.
While my real jobs evolved and changed over time, I held fast to my museum catering gigs. In the chaos of New York, it was grounding. Sure, I grew with the changing food trends.That said, even though I mixed things up a bit, I stubbornly kept my bread and butter workhorses. My last hurrah unfolded at a satellite exhibit opening housed in a large temporary kiosk on Times Square. The exhibit was designed and mounted to showcase the historical connections and relationships between the costumes of Hollywood and Broadway.From Broadway to Hollywood and back. Bi-coastal.
The night went off without a hitch. As a one man band, I had my hands full keeping foods trays stocked and supplied. Midway through the opening, I huddled under the formica ticket counter top to refresh a tray of salmon. When I pulled up....boom. Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers stood inches away smiling at me through the dimmed rose-colored underlighting that softened their worn faces beneath the gaudy flickering neon of the entrance sign. Of course they were there, I thought. I stood there, shell-shocked and disheveled, a pastry bag in one hand with salmon slipping through the fingers of my other hand. Flummoxed, I simply used my elbow to point toward the salmon on rye. They both slipped a few pieces onto their plates and vanished into the exhibit. And that was that.
Several years later, after landing a big boy theatre job totally unrelated to food, I sat 1st Row, Center, 1st Balcony at Carnegie Hall for Ethel Merman's last live performance. Full circle. Lucky me.
Beetroot Cured Salmon on Pumpernickle Rye.
At its most basic, cured salmon simply needs salt, sugar, and time. While the ratio of salt to sugar is forgiving, it has to be strong enough and balanced to properly set the cure. I always use a 50/50 salt to sugar ratio for the foundation. After that, almost anything goes.
First and foremost, using beets in the curing process does not make the salmon taste like beets. The beets simply impart a shockingly surreal color that defies common sense. Commit and go big.
Mise en Place.
Rubber gloves. Plastic wrap. Full on rubber body suit. Beets are messy business.
I rinsed a 1 1/2 pound salmon filet under cold water, meticulously removed the pin bones, sliced it in half to make it more manageable, and set it aside. After donning plastic gloves, I grated 3 large peeled beets on the course side of a box grater over a large mixing bowl, added 1/4 cup grated fresh horseradish root, 1 cup kosher salt, and 1 cup granulated sugar.
I double lined a large sheet pan with plastic wrap (with enough overhang to wrap the salmon), spread half of the beet/horseradish/sugar/salt mixture onto the bottom of the sheet pan, placed the salmon on top of the mixture, brushed the flesh with local Pure Blue Vodka, covered the salmon with the remaining cure, nestled thinly sliced lemons into the macerated beets, and feathered fresh dill over the lemons.
I loosely folded the plastic wrap over and around the salmon, leaving enough air space for the salmon to breathe and sweat. After covering the salmon with another sheet pan, I weighed it down with 4 full bottles of wine and slid the salmon into the refrigerator to cure for 3 days, flipping the salmon once a day, draining off the liquid, and weighing it back down.
Quick Pickled Beets.
After simmering 2 medium beets in salted water for 45 minutes, I slipped the skins from the beets (rubber gloves) and set them aside. When they were cool enough to handle, I sliced them into 1/2" cubes, tumbled them into pint canning jar, added 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon peppercorns, 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds, and 1 bay leaf before sliding the beets into the refrigerator to chill.
After 3 days, I wrapped myself in plastic wrap, unwrapped the salmon, scraped off the beet-infused
cure, rinsed the salmon under cold water, and set it aside.
The fun part.
After patting the salmon dry with a clean dish towel, I sliced it on a sharp bias into paper thin ribbons using a very sharp boning knife. Slow and steady was key. I gently pulled the salmon into the knife while carefully slicing the flesh with long slicing motions, letting the salmon fall from the knife.
I brushed pumpernickle rye toasts with creme fraiche and feathered the ridiculously vibrant salmon ribbons onto the rye before finishing with slivered shallots, radishes, pickled beets, fresh chervil, and fresh dill.
Salmon on rye.
Light years (and miles) away from my vagabond museum days.