Smoked Salmon Brunch Taco Bar

by Cathy Pollak
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smoked-salmon-brunch-taco-barWe have all experienced great meals, ones that we talk and think about again and again. And then there are the meals and flavors that are so epic, they imprint on our brains forever. This, my friends, was one of those meals. It was just spectacular.

Does anyone remember Wolfgang Puck's celebrated Smoked Salmon Pizza with Caviar? It was one of his signature dishes from the 80's at Spago in Beverly Hills. In fact, it was one of the dishes that really put him on the map. I have to admit, that recipe sort of inspired me here. If Puck can do smoked salmon pizza, I can do tacos.

And living in the Pacific Northwest, fresh, wild salmon is part of the culture. And smoking it yourself is part of the fun. Now, don't worry, you can easily use purchased smoked salmon in this recipe. However, if you have the capability to smoke your own, I'm going to show you how. It is so worth the small amount of effort it takes.

Here is your set up, perfect for Mother's Day, the biggest brunch day of the year. It's a lovely spread for when guests arrive. Not to mention it's to die for with a little Pinot Noir or sparkling wine. What you see here is the flaked smoked salmon, we'll get to making that in a moment. Whipped cream cheese is mixed with Sargento Pepper Jack Cheese. The pepper jack gave the tacos a hint of heat and little more smokiness. The shredded cheese also added texture to the creamy cheese, an important factor in this dish.

smoked-salmon-brunch-taco-bar-layout-of-ingredientsFinely chopped red onions and tangy capers are also part of the mix. And one of the best and favorite components here are the pickled daikon radishes. Don't leave them out, they are a cinch to make and add crunch. Toasted sesame seeds (you can buy them already toasted in the Asian aisle) mimics a toasted sesame bagel and a new ingredient many of you might not have experienced called furikake.

While in Hawaii a few weeks ago, I kept noticing a seasoning used by the Japanese tourists. They covered their rice, eggs, baked potatoes, popcorn and vegetables with it. I started asking around and found out it was called furikake. I had to taste it and with one bite, I was hooked. Come to find out this stuff is the "salt and pepper" of Japan. It's crunchy, salty, earthy, briny and it's delicious. Not all furikake is made alike, some have ground fish as an ingredient but the one I fell in love with does not. This particular brand is just salt, sesame seeds, seaweed flakes and sugar. You can definitely leave this out if you choose but it does add so much flavor to these little tacos.

This is a 2-pound fillet of skin-on, Chinook salmon with the bones removed.. The amount of salmon you use will be dependent on how many people you are serving. One important aspect of smoking your fish is brining it overnight. A longer brining process would make the fish too salty for my taste. But brining is really necessary as it helps impart flavor and tenderize the fish. 

I made a salt-sugar-maple syrup brine and it added so much flavor with a hint of sweet. Total perfection.

smoked-salmon-brunch-taco-bar-brine-solutionAfter the brining process it is important to dry the skin enough to allow a pellicle, a thin shiny film, to form on the fish. I placed the fish on a cooling rack and used a small fan to blow air over the fish for a few hours. Here you can see the shiny layer starting to appear. It provides a better surface for the smoke to stick to. If you don't allow a sufficient pellicle to form, the fish will ooze fat during the smoking process and your fish will be dry. It doesn't look too great after that.

I placed the fish in a smoker, mine is fueled by propane. You want the salmon to reach an internal temperature of 140-145 degrees F. I placed my meat thermometer in the middle of the salmon and closed the door. Alder wood chips were used for the smoke flavor. I also basted the salmon with a thin layer of pure maple syrup once every hour.

One of the tricks to a good smoked salmon is to go low and slow. Quick-cooking will absolutely ruin it. This fish took about 5-6 hours to smoke. At one point it was holding its temperature at 120 degrees F so I did turn up the heat just slightly. I removed it from the smoker at 143 degrees F. I let it cool and refrigerated it overnight.

I wanted small, appetizer sized tacos. I used my 4-inch cookie cutter to cut three smaller tacos from burrito sized flour tortillas. Use the freshest and best quality, authentic flour tortillas you can find. How many you make will be dependent on how many people are serving. I would suggest 3-4 tacos for each guest.

Please know that the amounts listed in the recipe will depend on how many guests you are needing to serve. Please just use as a guide.

Smoked Salmon Brunch Taco Bar

Recipe by Cathy Pollak for NoblePig.com | Serves: Makes 24 tacos (there will be leftover salmon)

Ingredients

Salmon:

  • 2 poundsfresh, wild, skin on salmon fillet, bones removed or already purchased smoked salmon
  • Alder wood smoking chips

Brine:

  • 2 cupswater
  • 1/4 cupkosher salt
  • 1/4 cuplight brown sugar
  • 1/4 cuppure maple syrup, plus more for basting

Pickled Daikon Radish:

  • 1daikon radish, cut into thick matchsticks, about 3" long
  • 2 cupsseasoned rice vinegar

Taco Bar Ingredients:

  • 8 ounceswhipped cream cheese
  • 2 cupsshredded, Sargento Pepper Jack Cheese
  • 1 largered onion, finely chopped
  • pickled daikon radish
  • 1/4 cupcapers
  • 2 Tablespoonstoasted sesame seeds
  • 2 Tablespoonsfurikake, optional
  • 8 burrito sized flour tortillas, each cut into three 4" circles

Directions

  • If you are going to smoke your own salmon, two days before you want to serve this recipe, start the brining process. Combine water, salt, sugar and maple syrup, stirring until fully incorporated. Place the fish into a Ziploc bag and pour the brine inside. Seal completely and place in the refrigerator overnight, turning once.
  • Remove fish from the brine and pat dry. Place on a cooling rack over a rimmed baking tray. Point a fan over the fish and let dry for a few hours. Once you see the top of the fish start to change and become shiny, you know you have formed the pellicle; about 3-4 hours.
  • Preheat the smoker on a low heat with wood chips. Place salmon inside with meat thermometer placed in the middle of the fillet. Baste with maple syrup now and once every hour while smoking. Smoke salmon on low heat to 140-145 degrees F, about 5-6 hours. Remove salmon and let cool. Refrigerate overnight.
  • Day before serving, make the pickled daikon radish. Slice daikon onto thick matchstick pieces about 3" long. Place in a mason jar and cover with seasoned rice vinegar. Refrigerate until needed. You can also make these 1-2 weeks ahead. The longer they sit, the better they taste.
  • For the taco bar set up: flake salmon, fold together cream cheese and pepper jack cheese, chop onion and set out other ingredients like daikon, capers, sesame seeds and furikake.
  • Build each taco with a layer of cream-pepper jack cheese spread, 2 daikon radish pieces, smoked salmon, red onion, capers, sesame seeds and furikake.

Cathy owns her vineyard and winery in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.  She is a food writer for Davis Life Magazine and blogs daily about wine, food and everyday living.  She currently resides in Oregon with her husband and two sons.  You can visit her at noblepig.com.

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