Having just returned from an epic exploration of the frozen North – specifically the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near the North Pole – I remember with great fondness the unique food of the region.
Most people are familiar with cured salmon, usually cold-smoked to a delicious silken perfection, perhaps accented with a squirt of fresh lemon juice.
That is not this. 🙂
The Scandinavians are the originators of Gravlax – raw salmon cured simply with salt and sugar and flavored with dill and occasionally the caraway-flavored national drink of the Nordic nations, called Aquavit. All this plus time, cold, and nary a whiff of smoke to be seen are what makes the dish complete.
Gravlax is actually very easy to make and is usually served as an appetizer, sliced thinly and accompanied by hovmästarsås (literally steward sauce, also known as gravlaxsås), a dill and mustard sauce. Gravlax is typically served on bread of some type – I for one love it as a change from smoked salmon on my bagel. 🙂
My gravlax recipe includes not just salt and sugar, but also white and black peppercorns as well as coriander seed for more of a pastrami effect – it is delicious and the addition of aquavit in my recipe and the sauce really completes the dish.
FYI – gravlax actually means “Grave Salmon” – so named because during the Middle Ages, gravlax was made by fishermen who salted the salmon and lightly fermented it by burying it in the sand above the high-tide line. The osmotic action of the small amounts of salt water in the sand and the cold helped cure and preserve the fish for later eating. Today, the “grave” is made by covering the fish with salt and there is no fermentation involved in modern gravlax.
One very important note – **DO NOT** make this recipe with salmon you’ve caught yourself! Since there is no cooking involved in this recipe, any parasites in the fish will not be killed by the heat found in the oven or hot smoking. Commercial salmon has typically been flash frozen for long enough that the extreme cold kills anything that might be there that shouldn’t be. If in doubt, ask your fishmonger for salmon fillets suitable for sushi – these have been flash-frozen long enough to be safe. I am horrified how most recipes for this dish neglect to mention this crucial bit of information!
Enjoy this delicious taste of the North, Citizens!
Battle on – The Generalissimo
1 teaspoon whole white peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 tablespoons sea salt (I prefer larger crystal grey fleur de sel from France)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons Aquavit (if you can’t find aquavit, try a suitably flavored herbal or spiced vodka or simply omit)
1 1-pound salmon fillet, skin on
1 cup chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons Beaver brand Russian mustard
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
2 ½ tablespoons canola oil
½ tablespoon Aquavit
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
¼ teaspoon salt
Mini pumpernickel rounds
Heat all peppercorns and coriander seeds in small skillet over medium-high heat, shaking skillet frequently for about 2 minutes. Crush spices in mortar with pestle or transfer to work surface, cover with a kitchen towel and crush with a mallet or bottom of heavy pan. Transfer spices to small bowl. Mix in aquavit, salt and sugar.
Using small sharp knife, poke 12 small holes through the skin of the salmon. Rub 1/3 of spice mixture over skin. Sprinkle 1/3 cup chopped dill in bottom of a 7x7x2-inch or 8x8x2-inch glass baking dish. Place salmon, skin side down, on top of the dill. Rub remaining spice mixture into top of salmon. Press 2/3 cup chopped dill onto salmon. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing directly onto fish. Place plate or another pan atop plastic. Place heavy cans on plate. Refrigerate 3 days. Flip the salmon once every 12 hours, draining off excess liquid each time.
Whisk mustard and vinegar in small bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in oil and Aquavit. Stir in chopped dill and salt. Season with ground black pepper. (Sauce can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and chill.)
Scrape spices and dill off both sides of salmon (some spice mixture inevitably remains). Using a knife with a long, thin blade, thinly slice salmon diagonally at 45-degree angle from top of fillet toward skin. Cut off any brown or gray bits and enjoy.
Arrange toasts on platter; top with salmon slices, sauce, and dill sprigs.