Smoked fish—essentially priced as a luxury item today—likely had quite humbler origins. Fish and other meats were salt-cured and kept at low heat for some time to preserve them. Smoke was simply a by-product from the heat source. However, as we all know, consuming smoke can be pleasurable, and having fish that tastes like it is now a delicacy.
Little has changed since smoking fish began in prehistory, except that today the meats are generally wet-cured, meaning brined, instead of rubbed with salt. All the smoking process itself has been improved to ensure better quality control than before.
All discussions of smoked fish should begin with salmon, the most popular and various. Speak with your fishmonger, but usually Nova will have the mildest smoke, then lox, then Scottish. Other options include double-smoked and gravlax, which often have other spices or herbs rubbed on. Expect a rich, decadent texture. Nothing against bagels and cream cheese, but I like to tear these into very creamy scrambled eggs and then sprinkle with lemon zest. This and a flute of Champagne serve as a restorative Christmas evening dinner, when fish is traditional.
Smoked trout have a meatier texture because they're usually hot smoked, but the flavor is fantastic and they're very versatile. From canapes with tarragon caper sauce on rye points to a salad with cannelini, shallot and lemon, trout is a keeper.
Sable is distinct for its milky-colored flesh and its outer coating of paprika and sometimes garlic. Some purists raise an eyebrow over the addition of spices, but not for nothing are these foods, and their consumption, called "appetizing". The fish are rich and fatty, so the addition of salt cuts that some and the smoke and spice add piquancy, stimulating the palate and the appetite. Anyway, where salmon can be oily and chewy, sable is succulent.
Above all, though, is sturgeon. This fish, which also produces caviar, makes a smoke unlike any other. It is more luxuriously silky than the others, but also delicate. While it has a fishy flavor, it is sweeter and cleaner than others. This one is both for people who are put off by other smoked fish and for the true aficionados.
If you really want to ramp it up, try some smoked caviar. Two great tastes… Sources: Collins Caviar Co., Chicago, 800-226-0342, collinscaviar.com (smoked caviar); Russ & Daughters, New York, 800-787-7229, russanddaughters.com (smoked fish); Zabar's, New York, 212-787-2000, zabars.com (smoked fish); Dean & Deluca, New York 800-221-7714, deandeluca.com (especially the Daniel Boulud salmon); Browne Trading Company, Portland, Maine, 800-944-7848; browne-trading.com (smoked fish); Shuckman's Fish Co. & Smokery, Louisville, 502-775-6478, kysmokedfish.com (smoked fish).