A few weeks ago I decided to try and perfect a recipe for salmon spread, which is never a good idea when you're home alone. The next day I had to hike up Eaglecrest just to burn off the taste-testing calories. Three weeks, many hikes and three batches later, I held a recipe in my hand that met all of my greatest salmon spread hopes and dreams.
With invitations to barbecues, potlucks, and bonfires rising with the daylight hours, I've been thinking a lot about go-to recipes for these often impromptu occasions. The trick lies in finding a dish that meets the unique set of picnic parameters. The best picnic dishes are ready to eat upon arrival (with little on-site preparation), and don't deteriorate with sitting time, humidity or unpredictable outdoor temperatures.
In Juneau, these gatherings are often the spontaneous result of nice weather, so it's important that they can be thrown together quickly, yet still add a bit of luxury to an otherwise casual gathering. In other words, I wanted a go-to dish that was appropriate, and beyond that I wanted it to be Alaskan. And then it hit me - salmon spread!
To me, the ultimate salmon spread is all about the salmon, with a fluffy base, and discernible bits of fish. Any additions should elevate and not distract from the salmon. Mouthfeel is important; I want textural interest beyond blah mono-paste, and it should be soft enough that it doesn't break the cracker upon spreading.
As I began my research I found a lot of salmon spread recipes, but none that exactly met my criteria. Many of them were comprised mostly of dairy with just a small fraction of actual fish. They looked in the photos like pink yogurt, and illustrated the difference between "dip" and "spread." Others used only cream cheese as a back drop, which would nullify my cracker-friendly requirement. Additions ranged from pimientos to garlic, but I trusted my instincts (as well as trial and error) to sift through those.
With the help of many tasters (i.e. friends and fellow picnic goers), I landed upon a recipe that will forever live in my permanent collection. The most important ingredient is the smoked salmon. This is a recipe that uses hot smoked or "kippered" salmon. Use the best you can find.
Capers add a nice acid component and the addition of walnuts bring crunch and an element of surprise to the spread. Chives add a mild onion flavor, and a little extra makes a convenient garnish. I found that the ideal base used a trio of sour cream, cream cheese, and mayo. You can use the light versions of all three, and you won't miss the fat (I didn't). This is it, my ultimate Smoked Salmon Spread. I hope it's yours, too.
Smoked Salmon Spread
(Makes 2 cups)
Popular go-withs for salmon spread are buttery crackers (I like Late July Organic's Classic Rich Crackers because they're light yet sturdy), pumpernickel cocktail bread, bagel chips or Lavosh-style flatbread.
8 ounces smoked salmon
4 ounces cream cheese
¼ cup sour cream
¼ cup mayonnaise
½ teaspoon Louisiana-style hot sauce
2 tablespoons capers, drained
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
2 teaspoons sour cream horseradish
2 teaspoons finely chopped chives, plus extra for garnish
1 teaspoon lemon juice
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1. Break the salmon into small pieces, discarding skin and bones. Set aside.
2. Place the cream cheese in a medium, microwave-safe mixing bowl. Microwave on high 30 seconds or until softened.
3. Add all remaining ingredients (except salmon) to the cream cheese and stir to combine. Add flaked salmon and using a rubber spatula fold into mixture until thoroughly coated.
4. Place in a serving dish and garnish with extra chives. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. May be made 1 day in advance.
Note: Please use caution when serving food at room or outdoor temperatures. Food held between 40 and 140 degrees for more than 4 hours is considered unsafe and should be discarded. The time factor is cumulative and includes preparation and transport.
Ginny Mahar is a trained chef and food writer who works at Rainbow Foods. She writes about all things "food" in Juneau, from cooking with local ingredients to restaurant news and food events. View more of her food writing at ginnymahar.blogspot.com.