Choosy Beggar Gravalax
I warned you, didn’t I? That I had been craving seafood lately? And making it aplenty? Because it’s true.
Gravalax is one of my favorite ways to eat salmon. I think it’s my inner Swede coming out, which is funny because my Mom (who is 50% Swede instead of my paltry 25%) has no interest whatsoever in eating fish which has not been cooked at high heat for longer periods of time than you would anticipate. But what can I say? I like my fish cured, smoked, brined or just plain raw. Or cooked. I do eat fish cooked, although you might be starting to wonder by looking at some of my other posts like this one…or this one….
So let’s talk about Gravalax (aka Gravlax or Salt Fish to the Finns), for anyone who hasn’t had it before. Gravalax has a texture which is similar to smoked salmon, which makes it yet another topping for your Saturday morning bagel with cream cheese. The difference being that smoked salmon is, as you would imagine from the name, smoked. Gravalax on the other hand is cured with the preservative powers of sugar and salt.
The first time that I had Gravalax I was 17, and flying with Lufthansa between Germany and Italy (a school trip for which I had been saving my shekels for many moons). I didn’t know what it was, but I’ll never forget it. The airline served diced Gravalax with corn and black beans (?!) as our in-air entree. I knew that it was fish, I could tell from the color and texture that it was salmon, but that’s all that I knew. Well, that and the fact that I LOVED IT, hoovered mine down, and then ate part of my best friend’s because she was sleeping. Just another reason never to let your guard down around me when there’s seafood involved. That was the first and last time that I ever flew Lufthansa and I imagine that their inflight food might have changed ever-so-slightly over the years, but I still dream of that first indulgence.
Every Finn or Swede worth their salt (literally) has a recipe for Gravalax, and they can be as different as the night is long but they all have four things in common:
You take those four ingredients and you’ve got Gravalax in the wings…or fins, I suppose. From there we have many variations, some of which you may like more than others. Some people add liquor (vodka, Pernod, Akavit, tequila), spices (coriander, mustard seed, pepper flakes), herbs (fennel, onion, parsley) and even mustard, depending on what they like. The key here is lots of salt and sugar which cure the salmon by drawing out a lot of the moisture and working to denature the proteins. Although the fish does not get cooked with heat, the cure effectively works in a similar way to kill bacteria, firm up the fish, and prolong the shelf life. In fact, you can keep gravalax in your fridge for as long as you would keep smoked salmon…which shouldn’t be more than about 2 weeks (tightly wrapped), but that’s still much better than you would get from a fresh filet.
I’ve made Gravalax with several variations, but this is far and above my favorite. Don’t get caught up with the fennel, it just lends a wee hint of flavor to the cure and you won’t be hit over the head with it at the end. If you still just really aren’t into fennel, well, meh. Leave it out. Such is life.
Oh! One more thing about Gravalax: you know how a nice 6 oz filet of salmon is a good light dinner? I mean, you could probably eat more but that pretty much just hit the spot and made you happy? Gravalax (like smoked salmon) gives you a lot more bang for you buck. I don’t think that I could eat 6 oz of Gravalax, even though I would be the happiest well-fed lady with an incredibly sore tummy after doing so. Less is more. If you’re making this for a party (which is a GREAT IDEA) you should figure about 1-2 oz per person, depending on what you will be doing with it.
Alright, and one more thing: remember to start about 3 days before you want to serve the Gravalax, because that’s how long it will take to cure fully. Rushing the process won’t help anybody.
Choosy Beggar Gravalax
- 2 center cut filet of salmon (about .8kg/ 1.75 lbs total)
- 1/2 tsp coriander seed
- 1 tsp mustard seed
- 1/2 tsp fennel seed
- 1/3 cup coarse sea salt
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp Pernod
- 1/2 large bunch fresh dill
Put the mustard, coriander, and fennel seeds in a mortar and pestle. Grind them until they’re all split, and most are in a powder.
In a small to medium sized bowl mix the two sugars with the salt, and add in the ground spices.
Give the dill a rough chop if you like. I like. You can leave the dill whole and just drape it overtop the end result, but I feel that chopping the dill releases a bit more flavor.
When you’re thinking about the vesicle that your salmon will be in for the next three days, try to give it some comfort in a snug fit. A container too small won’t do you any good, and one that’s too large isn’t as effective. You see, as the salmon cures it will release a lot of juice. This highly salty-sweet juice acts as a brine for the rest of the salmon as it continues to cure. If the dish is too large this will be less effective.
So! When you’ve found a container that’s Goldilocks style juuuust right, line it with plastic wrap. I like to do one long strip horizontally, and a smaller one vertically to form a ‘t’.
Think of both the sugar/salt/spice and dill as getting divided by 4 where 1/4 goes on the bottom and top, and 1/2 goes in the middle.
In the bottom of your plastic wrap lined container you can lay 1/4 of the dill and 1/4 of the sugar/spice/salt mixture. Take 1 piece of salmon and place it skin side down on top of your sprinkles. Cover the meat side with 1/2 the dill (that’s 2/3 of what is left after you put out the first bit) and 1/2 (again, 2/3 in case fractions aren’t your bag) of the sugar/spice/salt that is left. Douse the whole shebang with the Pernod.
Place the other filet skin side up (so that meat faces meat) and sprinkle the rest of the dill and seasoning on top.
Tightly wrap the whole package.
To encourage the liquid to release from the salmon, a couple of weights will help. Place a cover that’s just smaller than your container over top and weigh it down with a brick or a few cans. As you can see, my cat food and tuna cans dwell in the same dark part of my pantry. I haven’t confused them yet, but it’s only a matter of time…..
Tuck the salmon in the fridge for 3 days. At least once or twice per day you will want to go into the fridge and turn the salmon over, replacing the weights every time.
After three days you will see that a lot of liquid has been released, and your salmon is literally swimming in brine. This is actually a good thing, trust me.
Remove the salmon filets from the plastic wrap and give each a nice rinse under very cold running water, patting them dry.
And that’s it! Your Gravalax is done!! That’s not too bad, is it? A bit of sugar and salt, and three days later you have the most delectable cured salmon – just waiting to be used for appetizers aplenty!!
The best way to serve Gravalax (particularly to people who may not be as fond of it) is to slice it as thinly as possible. Use a very sharp, long, thin knife and slice across the grain. The closer you can come to paper-thin the better, unless you’re like me (and a whole lotta Scandinavians) and you like the thicker pieces.
I had a dinner party on Saturday, and one of the appetizers that I made was open faced Gravalax sandwiches.
These are easier than sin, I swear. On a thin slice of dense dark bread (preferably pumpernickle or a dark rye) spread a mixture of cream cheese and grainy dijon. Top that with the thinly sliced Gravalax and sprinkle with finely sliced scallions and capers.
I ate this plate as my reward for making the dinner…and then ate more 2 hours later when people arrived. It was supposed to be for Mike, but, well, he was at the gym……..
The next night I baked some multi-colored mini potatoes (white, red and purple). eviscerated them and stuffed the lot with a fresh creamy dilly mixture (there might have been some yoghurt in there to lighten it up….) and topped the mini gems with a twirl of Gravalax.
And DAMN these were good. Like, I hoarded the leftovers and took them for lunch on Monday. They were good like that.
Oh, and then there was sad, quiet, back-to-work Monday. But…there was still Gravalax….which means that we didn’t have Monday food, we had FUN food. These are possibly my new favorite appetizer ever. In fact, thinking of them in retrospect, I may actually be mourning the fact that I have no more Gravalax to make these mini-feats of valor and cursing every appetizer I have eaten to this point because they were not THESE.
That’s thinly sliced Gravalax wrapped around pickled asparagus, Cambozola (oh, oh, oh….the things I would like to do with a wheel of Cambozola…..) and frisee with a dijon and white balsamic vinaigrette on the side.
If you can’t find Cambozola then any slightly nutty and very creamy blue cheese (specifically Gorgonzola) would do. And if you partner it with some Camembert or Brie to double your cheese-eating-fun, I would dump Mike and be your immediate girlfriend. I swear. Sorry Mike, but you know what they say about guys and gals who bring home the cheese……
……..I like them……..
And back to the beginning! This is a tray of the open faced sandwiches that I DIDN’T eat and actually served to guests. Who ate them. And although I was happy that they ate them, I was also rather sad……