The next stop in our culinary alphabet is “G” and I have chosen one of my all-time favorite dishes, Gravlax (sometimes also written gravlox). It is Scandinavian cured salmon, and when I make it I feel more like an alchemist than a chef. It’s transformation from raw fish to opulent delicacy is just a little magical.
It is an ancient dish made originally by fishermen, who would salt the fish and bury it in the sand to sure. Grav meanes grave, or hole in the ground, and lax is salmon.
Curing is a method of cooking without heat, in which protein is denatured by salt. It is the method used to make ham, salami, and salt cod, one of the oldest cured foods. Salt cured meat and fish enabled ancient travelers to carry a nutritious food source for weeks, which meant longer journeys, and the eventually the expansion of civilization. Go Cod!
Sugar, herbs and spices are added for flavor, and can be adjusted as desired. The recipe below is simple and classic, flavored with dill and lemon. After the recipe I have listed a few fun variations.
The recipe is very simple, but the curing process takes a few days, so plan ahead.
2 (2-3 pound) salmon filets, skin on and boned
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1 lemon, sliced into thin wheels
1 bunch fresh dill
- Wash and pat dry salmon filets, and place them on a large sheet of plastic wrap. Mix salt, sugar, and pepper. Divide the mix between the two filets and rub on to the pink meat.
- Divide the lemon wheels between the two salt covered filets and arrange them, overlapping if necessary, to completely cover the salt.
- Place the entire bunch of dill on top of one filet, then carefully flip the other filet over and place on top of the dill. (It should look like a dill sandwich with salmon filet bread.) Fold the plastic wrap over the salmon and seal tightly. Use more wrap as necessary.
- Place the wrapped salmon in a baking dish, and place another dish or pan on top, weighted down with some canned foods. Refrigerate for 48-72 hours, flipping it over every 8-12 hours. This allows gravity to help spread the cure. The gravlax will be swimming in salty juice when done, and the salmon flesh will be darker pink and leathery.
- To serve, rinse thoroughly, pat dry, and slice paper thin. Use a slicer (a long knife with indentations on the blade made for thin slices of meat and veg), or a very, very sharp chef knife, and cut at an angle. Serve with thin bread or crackers (I like pumpernickel), sour cream or crème fraiche, minced onions, and capers. Let your guests build their own canapés, or you can assemble them in advance.
- Some chefs sprinkle on booze before sandwiching the fish. Try 2-3 tablespoons of vodka or aquavit.
- Try using cilantro and sliced jalapenos instead of dill, and use limes instead of lemons. Then sprinkle with tequila.
- Spread on a layer of mustard before the cure, and use thyme, lavender, and cognac.