Easy Holiday Appetizer: Gravlax

Gravlax Finished

Oh friends, how does one even start after having been silent for so long? Life is full in the real world, even if it seems quiet in the virtual one. I’ll get to the gravlax you see here in the photos soon enough, but first I just need to reflect a little out loud, to cast some light on the events happening between the lines of this blog.

I think 2014 will go down in my memory as a year of heartache and blessings. There’s tension as those two intermingle, so close and simultaneous. I’ve only alluded to it on the blog until now, but early in the year my dear grandma suffered a stroke and it’s been a long road of recovery. She’s closer to 100 than most people will ever be and she knows her time is coming. She’s ready. But still. Still.

During Grandma’s first stages of recovery at the hospital and then at a rehabilitation center, I was pregnant and getting ready to welcome my daughter into the family, all the while preparing my son for his new role as a big brother and helping him to create space his his heart and home for a new little one. Grandma hung on long enough to meet my daughter–who’s named in part for her–and hold that little baby in her frail, thinning arms. Now, each time I take my son and my daughter to visit Grandma, I know that it’s significant. There might be another time–maybe years’ worth, I don’t know. But it also might be the last.

These events have been the defining parts of this past year. Writing has helped me to process the emotions swelling in my heart–so, yes, I have been writing even if things have been pretty quiet around here–but it’s been too personal to publish on such an immediate, informal format as a blog. There’s a story there, many stories. I’ll share them someday. But in the meantime I’ve been working them out, creating a narrative around my experiences, and trying to just embrace and enjoy life and to savor the moments big and small. Tuesday night was one of them.

Book Club Holiday Party

As a dozen friends gathered in my kitchen for our book club holiday party, I didn’t have any idea I’d be sitting down over the next days to write about it. I took some photos of the food with my phone for the purpose of posting them on Instagram, but I didn’t plan on sharing a recipe or any sort of story here on the blog. But a comment one of you left on Facebook the other day prompted me to write again. And a fellow blogger at book club reminded me how much fun this can be.

So today I’m writing about gravlax, with photos taken with iPhones for the purpose of social media. Salmon, salt, sugar, dill–that’s it. Our book club is all about food. Italian for Under the Tuscan Sun, French for On Rue Tatin and The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. There have been Caribbean dishes (An Embarrassment of Mangoes), Indian (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Chinese (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles), and pizza (Delancey). I work in a little bit of a Scandinavian touch whenever I can, so for our holiday party this week I served gravlax.

Gravlax in Salt "Snow"As with any traditional recipe, there are plenty of variations out there for gravlax, ranging from the simplest list of ingredients to ones that get fancy with fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits that lend varying essences and hues to the salmon. I’m sure that orange, horseradish, aquavit, and beetroot–all things that I’ve spotted in recipes–yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax pure, the flavor of the salmon concentrated and accented only with a hint of dill.

Gravlax is, by definition, cured salmon. It’s typically a Nordic preparation, and the parts of the word–grav for pit or grave, lax or laks for salmon–hint at the days of preserving fish by burying it in the ground.

Gravlax Cure

My husband and I use Mark Bittman’s recipe as our base. We read about in the New York Times some years ago and have always had great results. In a nutshell, we take a fillet of frozen salmon (frozen to kill the parasites), then defrost it, cover it with a thick blanket of sugar, salt, and chopped fresh dill. We generally leave it out in a cool spot for a few hours, then refrigerate it for about 24 to 36 hours before rinsing off the salt mix and slicing the salmon thinly. For the specific recipe, I’m going to point you to Bittman’s article (it includes several recipes–we use The Minimalist’s Gravlax). Making gravlax is so simple, but perhaps because of that, I find it helpful to refer to Bittman’s guidance. It’s about using good fish, understanding the process, and not getting intimidated by something that just looks fancy.

For serving gravlax, it’s as easy as lemon wedges, mustard sauce (such as this one from Ina Garten), capers, maybe some chopped red onion, and crackers or crispbread of some sort.

Gravlax-Platter

It’s been one of my goals this holiday season to keep our schedule light, the to-do list to a minimum. It’s far too easy to become swept up in the bustle and busyness of this time of year, and perhaps because of the time in life, I’m just trying to minimize as much stress as possible. But my book club holiday party was one of the events that I happily did write down–in pen–in my calendar. And gravlax was something special I could serve my friends–while being simple and easy to make at the same time. If you’re still looking for the perfect appetizer for a holiday party, go ahead and give it a try. With just a little planning ahead, you’ll find yourself with a gorgeous, delicious dish that took almost no hands-on time to prepare.

Thanks, E, for the photo of the gravlax platter.

Note: This fall I attended a couple of sessions at IFBC, the International Food Bloggers Conference, in Seattle. The organizers offered steep discounts to bloggers for writing about the conference, so you’ll be noticing a few posts that showcase what I learned. For this one, I’m taking cues from Shauna James Ahern‘s session on professional recipe development. She emphasized authenticity and living a full, rich life–plus not worrying about using iPhone cameras for food blog photography. Thanks, Shauna. That’s exactly what I’m doing here. If I had had to pull out the DSLR for this post, it never would have happened.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

The doorbell rings a little before 7 p.m. on a Tuesday evening each month. By now I know exactly who it is, which friend is always punctual and comes bearing a couple of bottles of wine with the food she’s brought to share. As we catch up on what’s taken place in each other’s lives over the past month, there’s a knock and then another knock as more friends trickle in, gradually filing my kitchen.

Conversation takes place as easily as wine flows. That is one of the things I love most about this group. A little over a year and a half ago I got a crazy little idea in my head and began to wonder if I might know enough people who would want to join me for a food-based book club. Now, 17 books and “Foodie Lit Book Club” dinners later, there are roughly a dozen members–some I knew previously and some I’ve met because friends have invited their friends. We’re from different walks of life and most of us would never have met had it not been for the common interests of eating and reading about food.

There’s nothing pretentious here, no need to impress. But we eat exceedingly well. We cook from the recipes in the book we’re reading–or bring something inspired by it–and so many times we’re trying something new for the first time. We’ve experimented with pizza toppings, experienced dried dates given a new dimension with olive oil and sea salt, analyzed what made a particular polenta recipe fail, and how to take an already-good shortbread recipe to the next level. We’ve proven that no matter the menu or the skill of the cook, just gathering over a meal is a sure way to connect on a meaningful level and nurture relationships.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

I served this particular recipe, a Norwegian cheese and onion pie, at a recent book club. It had nothing to do with the book we were reading–The Language of Baklava–unless you consider that author Diana Abu-Jaber’s family immigrant story has parallels with my own family’s transition to a new country. But I was working on adapting a recipe from the Scandinavian cookbook Kitchen of Light for my own preferences and decided to test it out on these friends.

Made with cheese such as Norwegian Jarlsberg, plenty of thick red onion slices, and my addition of sliced mushrooms, it’s a substantial appetizer that would pair well with a glass of chilled white wine on a hot day, the condensation forming on the outside of the glass in the summer heat. Jarlsberg tastes great with the onion, but in a pinch, sharp white cheddar works too. Viestad also says Gouda, Parmesan, or Gruyere are options.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart
Adapted from the Onion Pie with Jarlsberg and Thyme from Kitchen of Light by Andreas Viestad

3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 red onions, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
Freshly-ground black pepper
2 whole cloves
Leaves from 2-3 sprigs fresh oregano, divided
8 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted if frozen
2 cups shredded cheese such as Jarlsberg, divided

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and lower the heat to medium-low. Sprinkle garlic, bay leaf, a few grinds of pepper, cloves, and leaves from 1 sprig of oregano over the pan. Cook 10 minutes, then carefully flip the onion slices, taking care to leave them intact. Cook another 10 minutes, until they’re softened but before they turn brown.

Meanwhile, melt remaining tablespoon of butter in a skillet and saute the mushrooms over medium to medium-high heat until they’re cooked through but still have a toothsome bite, 4-5 minutes. (You can do this in a separate pan while the onions cook, or you can do what I do and reduce the amount of cleanup by using the same pan when the onions are done–just give it a quick wipe beforehand.)

The recipe can be made in advance until this point; just refrigerate the onions and mushrooms until shortly before you’re ready to assemble the tart, giving them a little time to come up to room temperature.

Roll out puff pastry into a 10×16-inch rectangle onto floured parchment paper. Trim away any rough edges. Transfer the parchment and pastry onto a baking sheet and prick the pastry all over with a fork, avoiding an inch-wide border. Bake for about 12 minutes, until it turns golden.

Sprinkle pastry with 1 cup shredded cheese, leaving a 1-inch border, then layer on the onion slices followed by the mushrooms. Scatter remaining cheese over the top and bake until the cheese is melted and glistening, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining oregano leaves and serve.

Serves 6.

Classic Norwegian Rhubarb Cake

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake

Oh springtime, you most gentle of seasons, on one day you bring sunshine and warmth, and on the next a tranquil fog.

The quiet morning unfolds with the aroma of coffee as I unload the dishwasher and begin the next phase of cleaning up. These mornings after, with vestiges of the previous night’s book club meal, involve reflection and reminiscing: new friends and old, successful new recipes, and countless tangents originating from one common book. These book club dinners, begun just months ago, have become an instant highlight in each one of our lives.

Book Club Mussels

As I load the dishwasher with the next batch of bowls and glasses, I pour remnants of milky broth speckled with parsley, shallots, and bay leaves down the drain. The fragrant scent of mussels lingers in the air and I light candles to freshen the room, enjoying the special quality they add to the morning. I take a bite of rhubarb cake, leftover from the night before, and sip my coffee, which cools rapidly in the ceramic mug.

I have come to enjoy these still, quiet mornings and to savor the freshness of a cloudy spring day. While the sunny days of the past week beckoned us to hurry outside, today with its diffused light and tranquil stillness seems to give us permission to just be—to enjoy a leisurely walk with a friend, to read a few extra books to my son before his nap, to linger at the computer and enjoy the process of writing as much as the progress, even as the kitchen remains cluttered.

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake Batter

Freshly Baked Norwegian Rhubarb Cake

Oh springtime, you most gracious of seasons! Even as I write this, the blue sky emerges from the fading clouds and the sunlight casts its warm rays on the trees outside. Morning has transitioned to afternoon, with the promise of a mild evening and the possibility of a dinner enjoyed outdoors. But not before I head back to the kitchen and finish the final phase of cleaning—and eat another bite of rhubarb cake.

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake on Pedestal

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake (Rabarbrakake)
Adapted from Norwegian National Recipes, this recipe features the exact proportions called for in the original, but elaborates on the instructions, which were limited. So, what you’ll find here is a true classic. Please try to bake this cake within a few hours of serving. At its most moist and tender in the first three hours, this is the perfect time to present it to guests. I must add, though, that you shouldn’t hesitate to enjoy the leftovers with a cup of coffee the next morning as you get ready to start your day–consider it a host or hostess’ reward.

1/4 cup salted butter
1/3 cup milk
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 large stalk rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat, then remove from the heat and stir in the milk. Meanwhile, beat the eggs and sugar together until light and fluffy. While continuing to stir, slowly pour in the melted butter. Add flour and baking powder and mix until combined.

Pour batter into an 8-inch springform pan and sprinkle the rhubarb over the top, making sure the rhubarb doesn’t touch the sides of the pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean–this took about an hour for me, but check it in advance. Allow to cool and carefully remove from the pan. This cake would be lovely served with whipped cream, as the original recipe suggests, but is also delicious plain.

Serves 6.

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