Chef Varin will smoke just about anything—cola or caramel, fish, roe or fowl. In this installment of Smoke Signals he takes salmon to a whole new level when he goes for the eggs.
Chef Varin: Fish roe is such a magical, unique food. With their tiny packages and their characteristic “pop!” these little eggs pack a wallop of flavor. To some the jewels may be otherworldly, but the fact is fish roe creates life, is highly nutritious, and taste wonderful.
While the thought of caviar may invoke images of a room full of billionaires drinking champagne, roe is not exclusively for the rich and famous. Traditional caviar—the eggs of sturgeon such as sevruga, osetra, and beluga—can cost upwards of $3,000 a pound, although in the U.S. you can find substitutes that cost considerably less. Idaho’s local white sturgeon caviar, for example, costs about $1,000 a pound. And, as with many other foods with a Bentley price tag (i.e. Truffles and saffron) one doesn’t need pounds to make a big impression. Plus, there are delicious caviar substitutes.
As a kid, on a field trip to a salmon hatchery, I saw the process of harvesting eggs and milt. I remember how savage and brutal it seemed, and also being amazed by the cycle of life. Later, as a salmon fisherman, I learned how to cure eggs for bait—a near blasphemy since this roe is also a luxurious food. For me, such bait is critical to catching more fish, but I also love the taste of salmon roe. Now I always use half my roe for bait, and half for my table.
Stand knee deep in a river and you start to get curious about the shore, and specifically about the white sacs among the discarded entrails on so many riverbanks. These I discovered one day are the sperm sac of the male salmon—also known as soft roe or milt. With that knowledge in hand I gathered up a sperm sac and took it home to be brined and gently smoked, then breaded and fried. The result was wonderful! The flavors of the smoke and the sea permeated the milt, and the texture was similar to soft tofu or a creamy, cooked summer oyster.
Why caviar and the roe of female fish get so much love while the boy parts earn disdain (and a place downriver) is a mystery to me. So, in an attempt to open minds—and make mouths water—I created a smoked roe recipe and a few recipes for milt.
Smoked Salmon Roe*
10.5 oz Salmon Roe (In skein or sac. Single eggs in mature fish tend to be tough)
1 Tbl Brown Sugar
1.5 tsp Salt
2 pinches Pimenton de la Vera Dulce
2 pinches Onion Powder
2 pinches Garlic Powder
2 pinches Urfa Biber
Rinse roe, remove membrane and drain as much blood as possible. Dry with a paper towel. Combine all ingredients and gently mix. Let roe cure for 8 hours or overnight. Lay roe out on a sheet pan to dry and form a pellicle (Second step of smoking process). Takes one to two hours. Do not over dry as the roe can become too hard. Smoke lightly with desired wood (We prefer alder wood). You can also add or omit any of the spices. Most like roe very simple with only salt.
Crispy Fried Salmon Sperm
2 Salmon Sperm Sacs
Dry brine as needed. Remove vein and blood from sperm sac and rinse. Rub sperm sac with enough brine to coat. Cure for 8 hours. Turn over once. Lay sperm out on a sheet pan to dry and form a pellicle. Smoke lightly with desired wood.
0.5 cup Brown Sugar
1.5 Tbl Salt
1.5 Tbl Spices (optional)
Combine all ingredients and mix well. Store room temp in airtight container. Feel free to add any spices you think may fit into what you are making. We have done it with garlic, onion, chili, and various herbs.
Keep your eyes peeled—and your smoker hot—for forthcoming installments in the series “Smoke Signals”.