Starters from the sea

When the weather gets warm, fishy appetizers become especially appealing.

sardine starters 311 (photo credit: Nick Koon/Orange County Register/MCT)
sardine starters 311
(photo credit: Nick Koon/Orange County Register/MCT)
A smoked whitefish spread I enjoyed at a brunch party at a Santa Monica, California, synagogue was the most popular item on the table. The spread was composed of flaked smoked whitefish simply mixed with mayonnaise. Similar spreads – known also as pâtés, mousses or salads – consist of shredded fish blended with a touch of seasoning and enough of an enriching ingredient to make the mixture spreadable.
When the weather gets warm, such appetizers become especially appealing. Cooks find them valuable for spur-of-the-moment entertaining because they are among the easiest appetizers to make at home.
Smoked and cured fish are ideal for making spreads as they are so flavorful. Orange-hued lox and smoked salmon are obvious choices for a tasty, bright-colored spread. At many delicatessens cream cheese and lox spread is a favorite. Other popular fish for pâtés include mackerel, tuna and smoked herring, also known as kippers.
Making a quick pâté is a good way to stretch a small amount of cooked, baked or grilled fish you might have from another meal. Even canned fish, including humble sardines, can be easily made into tasty, ready-in-minutes pâtés.
I learned to make one of the best such starters at La Varenne cooking school in Paris. The luscious pâté was made of fresh and smoked salmon and unsalted butter in equal weights. When it was spread on good-quality baguette, it was one of the most tempting appetizers imaginable.
For enrichment, soft butter is the top choice among French cooks but cream cheese works well too. Be sure to use unsalted butter, especially with smoked fish, which can be quite salty. For parve pâtés, use mayonnaise, or opt for margarine if you prefer a firmer texture. To make a variation with Mediterranean relish, pair grilled fish with aioli, a garlicky mayonnaise made with olive oil. If your spread comes out too thick, stir in a little sour cream or creme fraiche. I find that even low-calorie mayonnaise and light white cheese can work.
To flavor these spreads, you can use fresh chives, green onion, dill, thyme, finely chopped rosemary, basil, a little pesto or white horseradish. Some classic combinations are tuna with anchovies, smoked fish or sardines with mustard and poached delicate fish with lemon juice and zest. For garnish, capers, olives, chopped hard boiled eggs and anchovy strips are traditional; other good choices are fresh herb leaves, small tomato slices or grilled pepper strips.
Sylvie Gerard, author of Les Poissons Fumés, a book on smoked fish, enriches smoked trout mousse not only with softened butter, but with crème fraiche and sweet cream as well, and flavors it with pepper, lime juice and grated zest. To spice her smoked herring pâté, she opts for the lively accents of freshly ground cloves, nutmeg, cayenne and anchovy paste. For a fruity flavor, she puts grated orange zest in a smoked trout pâté, along with mustard, garlic and parsley. My friend Jayne Cohen, author of The Gefilte Variations, flavors smoked whitefish salad with chopped fresh fennel, fennel seeds, dill and grapefruit juice and blends it with sour cream and mayonnaise.
Serve fish pâtés with sliced fresh or toasted bread, bagels or matza. If using crackers, choose unsalted or very lightly salted ones, especially as companions for spreads made from smoked fish. Jayne Cohen also accompanies fish pâtés with a colorful assortment of cut fresh vegetables like carrots, celery or endive leaves.
Halved avocados are fine containers for fish appetizers, like a popular fish and avocado salad I learned to make in Paris. It called for mixing cooked fish with balls of avocado and a little mayonnaise flavored with mustard and cognac and tinted a rosy color with tomato paste and a bit of ketchup. Simple fish pâtés make wonderful fillings also for halved, hollowed-out cucumbers, roasted peppers, small tomatoes and cooked artichoke bottoms.
Pâtés like this are convenient starters for parties and picnics. Instead of serving the spread in a bowl accompanied by bread, you can use it to make canapes: Spread it on small, thin slices of fresh baguette or other bread, and decorate it with olives, capers or chopped hard-boiled eggs; or spread it on toast to make crostini. You can keep this spread, covered, up to two days in the refrigerator.
To make kipper spread, substitute 400 grams of drained kippers for the sardines and the tuna; you need a smaller amount of kippers because their taste is stronger.
200 gr. sardines in oil300 gr. tuna in oil200 gr. unsalted buttersalt (if needed) and freshly ground pepper to taste Pinch of cayenne pepper, or more to tasteA few drops of lemon juice, or to tasteFresh or toasted bread (for serving)
Drain oil thoroughly from sardines and tuna. Beat butter until soft, with a wooden spoon or using a mixer.
Flake sardines and tuna with a fork and mix with the butter. Add pepper, cayenne and lemon juice. Taste, and add salt if needed. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until firm.
Serve cold, with fresh bread or hot toast.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
This pâté is a lightened adaptation of the fresh and smoked salmon pâté I learned to make in France. Instead of mixing the fresh and smoked fish with butter, I use half butter and half cream cheese. Even if you use reduced-fat cream cheese, the pâté will be delicious. Considering how tasty this appetizer is, it requires very little effort to make.
Serve the pâté with slices of very fresh, crusty French baguette or with thin small slices of Italian bread, fresh rye or pumpernickel bread. If you want to serve halla, an unsweetened variety is best.
1⁄4 cup dry white wine 5 parsley stems 1 bay leaf1 small thyme sprig or 1⁄4 tsp. dried thymea 275-gr. to 300-gr. piece fresh salmon fillet or steaksalt and freshly ground pepper to taste225 gr. lox or smoked salmon, cut in pieces100 gr. to 110 gr. unsalted butter, softened and cut in pieces100 gr. to 110 gr. cream cheese, softened and cut in piecesfreshly grated nutmeg to tasteabout 2 Tbsp. salmon caviar or 1 Tbsp. snipped chivesslices of fresh French baguette, rye bread or pumpernickel    (for serving)
In a saute pan combine wine, 1⁄2 cup water, parsley, bay leaf andthyme. Bring to a simmer. Add fresh salmon and a small pinch of salt.Return to a simmer. Cover and poach over low heat for about 5 minutesfor fillet or about 9-10 minutes for steak or until salmon is justtender when pierced with a knife. Uncover and let cool in the poachingliquid.
Remove salmon from the liquid. (You can save the liquid as light fish stock.) Discard salmon skin and any bones.
Combine poached salmon and lox in a food processor. Process untilfinely ground. Add butter and process until blended. Add cream cheeseand process to blend. Add a pinch of pepper and nutmeg. Spoon intosmall serving dishes or ramekins and chill thoroughly.
Just before serving, top pâté with salmon caviar or chives. Serve cold, with bread.
Makes 8 to 12 servings.
Faye Levy is the coauthor, with Fernand Chambrette,of La Cuisine du Poisson, published in Paris byFlammarion.