Skip the ham this Easter, and let salmon do all the work for you
A bagel slathered with cream cheese and draped with luxurious slices of smoked salmon is up there on the short list of reasons I'd actually be happy to venture out of bed on the weekends. Also on this list is Easter brunch -- or as I'd like to call it, "Spring Thanksgiving," which presents an opportunity to choose from a veritable cornucopia of smoked salmon-friendly dishes. It's fun to think beyond bagels and to consider new ways where smoked salmon can become the star at your next gathering.
There are two types of smoked salmon: cold-smoked and hot-smoked. Both versions start as fresh salmon, often the sockeye or king salmon varieties. While the fillets are typically cured with a blend of salt and sugar, sometimes other ingredients such as maple syrup, herbs and spices are used to imbue the fish with additional flavors.
Curing salmon, a preserving practice that dates to before the advent of refrigeration, works by drawing moisture out of the fish. After the fillets have been cured and rinsed of excess salt, they are then smoked. While cold-smoking occurs at temperatures well under 100 degrees, making, technically, a raw preparation; hot-smoking takes place at temperatures high enough to cook the fish. In either case, wood is used to impart a smoky flavor to the salmon. In commercial processing plants, the finished product is usually vacuum-sealed, which further extends its shelf life.
It's easy to tell between the two when you spot them in the refrigerated cases in the seafood section of your grocery store, or at your local fish market where smoked salmon is prepared in-house. Hot-smoked salmon looks and tastes more like traditionally cooked salmon, save for the flavor of smoke. Sold as whole fillets or in chunks, the fish's exterior is often a dark reddish-brown, depending on the type of cure.
Cold-smoked salmon, on the other hand, with its silky texture, intense salmon flavor and subtle smokiness, appears raw, with rosy-to-orange-hued flesh sliced thin or chopped. (Cold-smoked salmon is not to be confused with loaddx, which is made only from the belly of the salmon and is cured in a salt-sugar brine -- not smoked. Gravlax, similarly, is cured but with a dry mixture of salt and sugar, along with other ingredients such as dill fronds or coriander seeds.) Cold- and hot-smoked salmon are interchangeable in most recipes, so absent of specific directions, go with the texture you prefer.
Perhaps the greatest beauty of incorporating smoked salmon into brunch menus is in its convenience. Ready to eat right out of the package, it is perfect for platters, such as this riff on salade Niçoise with smoked salmon standing in for tuna. Crostini present another delightful way to serve cold-smoked salmon in a lighter form than bagels. Simply spread a bit of softened cream cheese or goat cheese on toasted baguette rounds (or bagel chips!) and top each with a piece or two of salmon, thinly sliced red onion and tiny sprigs of fresh dill. For another unique crostini idea featuring salmon, this version topped with quail eggs and anchovies is sure to impress. Smoked salmon lends itself well to dips and spreads, which can be smeared on cucumbers or endive spears for a gluten-free brunch hors d'oeuvre.
If, however, you're up for baking, a smoked salmon and leek tart is not only delicious and fits perfectly into a brunch menu, but takes much less time to make than traditional quiche. One of the more imaginative recipes for scones I've come across, calls for adding goat cheese and bits of smoked salmon to the dough. And, not to be overlooked, smoked salmon waffles are here to steal the spotlight at your next gathering. (Who really wants to spend Easter morning frying chicken anyway?)
Finally, one of my favorite ways to use cold-smoked salmon is as a garnish for deviled eggs, which are a guaranteed hit for Easter. Any traditional deviled egg recipe will do, but up the ante by including cream cheese and chives in the filling instead of plain mayonnaise. As with deviled eggs, this spin on eggs Benedict, further cements the notion that putting smoked salmon on just about anything makes it feel fancy. And if simplicity is more your thing, upgrade your scrambled eggs by folding in chopped smoked salmon at the end of cooking, just as the eggs are about set. Smoked salmon is also a fabulous addition to a spring-inspired frittata. The dish is a convenient way to feed eggs to a crowd as it can be made ahead of time, allowing you to spend more time with your guests. For a heartier meal, I bulk up my salmon frittatas with potatoes, and serve it alongside spring greens with a lemony vinaigrette.
Whether you're putting out platters to feed a crowd or dining solo, smoked salmon will make your brunch feel a little more special. All you need to do is figure out how you want to serve it.
• Angela Davis is a digital cookbook author and private chef.