Thursday, December 10, 2009

On the first night of Hanukkah, my true love gave to me...Lox, bagels, and cream cheese

May I be blunt and just say it? I never met a Jew that didn't love lox (including me) but I have met a lox that I didn't love. I've made an effort this year to find my favorite lox and here's what I've come up with so far.

In their November issue, Details Magazine published their list of the "Most Delicious Mail Order Food," in which they recommend NYC's Russ and Daughters. (When I first heard about this old New York City gem, I thought people were saying "Russian Daughters" and even found some chowhounds with the same misunderstanding.) Their main competitor is Zabar's, which I have yet to try.

I finally tasted R&D's lox in September 2009 and was disappointed with their bestsellers but did enjoy their Scottish and Pastrami lox. While Details Magazine recommends the Gaspe Nova, I feel that the Scottish and Pastrami varieties are by far the best lox that Russ & Daughers has to offer and I sent them to my grandmother for her birthday. At first, I was reluctant to try the pastrami flavor because it just sounded gimmicky but I actually loved the added flavors as well as the fish itself. If you're not in NYC, you can have it shipped.

russ and daughters pastrami salmon and gravlax salmon
russ and daughters pastrami lox

On the West Coast, I found my favorite lox at the San Francisco's farmer's market at the ferry building/terminal: Cap'n Mike's Northwest Style Lox. Ingredients: wild red King salmon, alderwood smoke, sea salt, honey, brown sugar. Truly heavenly: smooth, meaty, flavorful, and perfectly balanced on the sweet/salty scale, so it's no wonder their website is "Holy Smoked Salmon".

Cap'n Mike's lox is available for shipping and I have shipped their lox as Hanukkah gifts in the past and will continue to. I can't imagine a more tasty Hanukkah gift that goes well with latkes, boiled potatoes (my preference: smashed Russian Banana Fingerling Potatoes), bagels, or biayls (Elizabeth Falkner's current obsession).

I've also tried two lox offerings at Trader Joe's, two at Safeway, and Charlie Trotter's lox products at Whole Foods. None of these came close to the taste and quality of Cap'n Mike's and frankly I would have preferred to have no lox than to have eaten any of those. Suprisingly the Safeway offerings were my favorite and some of the cheapest. The others were too salty, fishy, or just didn't taste right. If you happen to be part of the huge Jewish community in Michigan, there is good lox at Hiller's Market on Orchard Lake Rd that is packaged by the store itself. It's labeled "Ma Cohen's Lox" and is a thicker slab than normal lox cuts but the flavors are good. Just make sure it's fresh by the date on the container.

Q. What is lox? How does one find the best lox?
A. Ultimately, it's subjective but here are some pointers.

1. Of course, the main ingredient - salmon - is going to be the biggest factor in lox taste and quality. Sally Hiebert of Cap'n Mike's says that most people are used to King salmon lox, although most lox is farmed and not wild. "Farmed salmon does have a nice oily texture, but is VERY mild in flavor -- sort of tasteless to those of us used to the wild salmon." She says that Sockeye Salmon, "the very red, smaller species of salmon," has a huge, bright salmon flavor and also a slightly more buttery texture than the red King. Cap'n Mike's also has a wild white King salmon lox that is "delicate in flavor and more buttery in texture than the red King." From my experience, if you like only extremely mild fish like halibut (I personally can't relate to that), don't get a strongly flavored salmon. There may also be some differences in contaminants between farmed and wild salmon.

2. Cut: Most lox is made from salmon filets, but one can also buy cheaper salmon trimmings from near the fins called lox wings (oilier), which I ate a lot of growing up because we couldn't afford the fancy lox. It turns out that those lox wings probably are the tastiest option (see below about oil) but cheaper because they're not as pretty and much messier to eat. There's also the fish head prepared in lox style, which is also very tasty and my father still loves to eat. If you're laying out a beautiful buffet, don't get wings or the head. Check out the barn-warming party that Barefoot Contessa (aka Ina Garten) held buffet-style with smoked salmon and herbed butter.

3. Oil content: Generally, you will maximize the fish flavor by getting the package of fish with the most oil in it. You should be able to determine the juiciest fish by just looking through the clear packaging and seeing the oil flowing around.

4. To smoke or not to smoke?  Only cold-smoked salmon is "lox" because hot-smoking leads to a completely different texture (flaky). Lox has a smooth and silky texture, very close to raw salmon, because it is cold-smoked. Some lox is not smoked at all, but simply cured at home with various spices (usually just salt and sugar). My mom has created her own lox by simply curing salmon at home but it's tough to get just the right mix of salty and sweet.

5. Curing: Lox is prepared with a mixture of salt, sugar, and sometimes other spices. If the curing mixture includes water, the process is called brining or wet-brining. Know your personal taste when it comes to choosing lox that has been cured with spices because taste profiles range widely. "Nova Scotia lox" is a term denoting a certain kind of preparation (not fish origin) that usually involves a mild traditional brine whereas Gravlax typically adds dill, juniper berries, and is a bit on the sweeter side. I did enjoy the Gravlax at Russ & Daughters which seemed to have nothing but dill added to it.

If you're at Russ & Daughters, they will give you a sample when asked, even though it may come with an annoyed look. Below are photos of some of the other varieties that they carry.

russ and daughters scottish salmon and norwegian salmon

russ and daughters wild western nova lox and old fashioned belly lox

russ and daughters traditional gaspe nova lox and irish organic salmon

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