The Easiest Gravlax

The cure begins by tucking the salmon into a blanket of sugar, salt, and dill. By the time the ingredients are fully applied, there’s no trace of the fish. The vibrant red of the sockeye is buried—as its name gravlax (“grave salmon”) suggests—in a mound that resembles freshly fallen snow.

We’ve been making gravlax, a Scandinavian cured salmon with roots that go back to the Middle Ages, for years in my home. It’s our go-to holiday appetizer, the constant fixture in our Christmas feast. The rest of the menu almost doesn’t matter; no matter how complicated or simple I make the task of designing the menu, gravlax is there.

The beauty of gravlax is in its simplicity; while many recipes call for additional spices and flavorings, I prefer to let the essence of the salmon shine. With nothing aside from salt, sugar, dill, and perhaps a bit of aquavit or vodka, the flavor of the salmon intensifies, transforming the fish into an even more rich and luscious version of itself.

When making gravlax, I know that I’m celebrating something of my heritage, joining in a centuries-old tradition, albeit one that’s morphed considerably over time.

Thinking of the origins of gravlax—which appears in documents as early as the 1300s–I imagine Norway in the Middle Ages and see a land of jagged topography lined with frigid waters that bleed into its shores and cut through the mountainous landscape. These fjords are a landmark of sorts of Norway, as recognizable to the rest of the world as are the country’s medieval Stave churches and the Viking ships unearthed over the past 150 or so years. Some things are sure: The waters were cold. The winters were dark. People needed food.

And that’s where preserved fish comes in. Gravlax, of course, gets its name from its origins. Grave salmon, buried salmon. These days, preparations like mine literally bury the salmon in a coat of sugar and salt. But its roots go back to a different kind of preservation, burying fish in the ground, wrapped in birch bark, where it would ferment.

Today a type of fermented fish, rakfisk, remains a Norwegian delicacy. The Swedes have surströmming. But the fish fermentation of the Middle Ages has otherwise largely been replaced by today’s curing methods, which draw out moisture and accentuate flavor, leaving behind the softest, most velvety texture. The results are satisfying and sophisticated, yet simple and uncomplicated—just good ingredients prepared simply. What food should perhaps almost always be.

Over the years I’ve come to see gravlax as less of a recipe than a technique. It’s almost a formula: high-quality salmon with a two-to-one cure of sugar and salt and traditionally a scattering of fresh dill. All other ingredients are optional and vary. As with any traditional recipe, variations abound, ranging from the simplest to others incorporating fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits to lend varying essences and hues to the fish. I’ve seen recipes with orange and horseradish, and others that call for beetroot, the latter of which lends the most gorgeous magenta ombré effect to the sliced salmon. I’m sure they all yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax traditional, the flavor of the already-rich sockeye concentrated and accentuated only with a hint of dill.

Years ago we read Mark Bittman’s article about gravlax in The New York Times and have almost always used The Minimalist’s Gravlax recipe as our base, though over the years it’s begun to feel less like a recipe, more like a technique. In a nutshell, we take a fillet of sockeye salmon (previously frozen to kill parasites and bacteria), then defrost it and cover it with a thick blanket of sugar, salt, and chopped fresh dill. In the winter months, we leave it out in a cool spot for a few hours, then refrigerate it for about 24 to 36 hours before wiping or rinsing off the salt mix and slicing the salmon thinly. Making gravlax is so simple. It’s about using good fish, understanding the process, and not getting intimidated by something that just looks fancy.

When it comes to serving gravlax, it’s as easy as setting out some crispbread or crackers, lemon wedges, a dill-flecked mustard sauce sweetened with a bit of honey, and perhaps some capers and chopped red onion, so that guests can assemble it to their own taste. I find that simple is best, and that gravlax needs little more than a cracker to bring it one’s mouth. Of course, one can also feel free to serve it alongside potatoes, on smørbrød (open-faced sandwich), or as the centerpiece of a salad.

No matter how you serve it, it’s hard to beat something as simple yet elegant as this.

And to think it only required a simple cure.

The Simplest Gravlax
I notice the beauty of the sockeye each time we bring a fillet into our home. We always use sockeye for our gravlax, with no exception. It’s my favorite kind of salmon; the  color is only a hint at the flavor and the richness of the fish, whether grilled or poached, cured or sashimi-style. Each time I unwrap a fillet I marvel at the beauty of the fish—its vibrant color and silky texture portend the deliciousness to come.

1 ( approximately 2 pound) fillet of best-quality salmon, skin on, previously frozen
1 bunch dill
2 cups sugar
1 cup salt (I use kosher)
3-4 tablespoons vodka or aquavit

Line a large baking sheet with plastic wrap, leaving enough over the ends to wrap over the salmon. Top this with a layer of parchment paper similarly sized. (The double layer helps to contain the mess when draining the excess liquid, although a single layer of plastic wrap will do in a pinch.)

Rinse the salmon and pat it dry. Remove any pin bones and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.

Thoroughly wash and dry the dill, then rough chop the whole bunch, including the stems (you’ll be removing the dill later, leaving just its essence behind). In a medium bowl, mix the dill, sugar, salt, and vodka or aquavit, then scatter it on top of and underneath the salmon, being sure to pack the cure ingredients on every part of the fish. Wrap the salmon, first with the parchment and then the plastic wrap.

At this point, you can refrigerate it immediately or take Mark Bittman’s advice and place it in a cool location (he recommends below 70 degrees) to rest for about 6 hours before refrigerating it, which will shorten the amount of time it needs to cure.

Check the gravlax every 12 hours or so, pouring out excess liquid (some is okay and can be used to baste the fish, but drain some out if it’s excessive) and turning the fish. After the salmon has cured to your liking (at least 24 hours, or as long as two days), drain off the liquid and pat the salmon dry, removing excess curing ingredients from the surface (alternatively, you can rinse them off and then pat dry if you don’t like the little flecks of dill left over). Slice very thinly.

Leftovers, if you have any, should last about five days and can also be frozen. I’ve also taken the advice of Michelin starred chef Titti Qvarnstrom, previously of Sweden’s Bloom in the Park, who taught at Seattle’s Nordic Culinary Conference last year, and briefly steamed thicker portions of leftovers. These make a wonderful addition to salads.

Makes enough for a crowd.

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.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...