Gravlax is a dish that has reached cult status as a gourmet appetizer. But its origins are humble, as was my introduction to it.
Pronounced “GRAH vlox,” the word is a shortened form of the original Swedish word for “buried salmon.” There is some dispute as to whether that refers to the salmon being buried in the earth to ferment (like pemmican) or if it simply refers to the salmon being buried in a salt-and sugar mixture. Whichever it refers to, my grandmother simply called it “cured salmon” to differentiate it from the kipper-like smoked salmon she made in the little smokehouse out back, and I didn’t realize our humble cured salmon had another name…or had moved up the social ladder…until I saw a chef preparing it on TV on Cooking at the Academy.
If you can find gravlax at a gourmet boutique deli, you are going to pay through the nose for it. But you can have not only gravlax but an endless array of epicurean variations, all for little more than the price of the raw salmon itself, if you just follow the recipes below!
Gravlax (Base recipe)
1 salmon fillet, skin on (buy the tail end to save money)
1 oz (shot) good quality vodka or aquavit
For sweet gravlax: 2 cups granulated white sugar
1 cup salt
For salty gravlax: 1 cup granulated white sugar
2 cups salt
Fresh salmon can have parasites, most notably roundworms. To make sure your salmon is free of them, use only commercially frozen salmon or freeze your fresh salmon to at least -10°F (-23°C) for seven days or longer. Freezing kills any parasites that might be in your fish Make sure you thaw the salmon completely before you begin.
Check the salmon for bones both by sight and by touch. If you find any bones, they can be pulled out with needle-nosed pliers. Drape the salmon filet over your hand like a towel, cut side up. This will force the tips of the bones stick up, making it easier for you to grab them with the pliers.
Mix the salt and sugar together. Pour half of the mixture in the bottom of a glass or ceramic dish large enough for the entire piece of salmon to flat in. Add the vodka and spread the mixture out evenly to cover the bottom of the dish.
Lay out the salmon, skin side down, on top of the salt/sugar mixture and cover with the remainder. Make sure the entire salmon is fully covered with the mixture.
Cover the mixture and salmon with a sheet of plastic wrap, pressing it down to cover the entire contents of the dish. Place several heavy objects on top of the plastic to press down on the salmon (I use large cans of tomatoes or fruit). Place in refrigerator.
Wait 24 hours and remove from refrigerator. Remove cans and plastic wrap and set aside. Gently pour accumulated fluid down the drain, turn the salmon to show the skin side, and make sure the salmon is packed, top and bottom, with the salt/sugar mixture. Cover with plastic, add cans, and return to the refrigerator.
After another 24 hours, remove from the refrigerator. Rinse the fish under running water and pat dry with a paper towel and place on a wood cutting board.
Starting at the narrowest end of the fish, slice paper thin at a 45° angle, lifting the slices away from the skin.
Serve with mild cheeses like mascarpone or cream cheese, chopped fresh herbs, and textured breads like pumpernickel or rye, or coarse crackers, and thin lemon wedges.
Instead of plain vodka, use one of the following:
Your favourite flavoured vodka
A spicy gin (like Bombay Sapphire)
In addition to the vodka, add one of the following:
¼ cup beet juice
¼ cup cranberry juice
After placing the salt/sugar mixture on top of the salmon, put one of the following on top and then cover with plastic wrap:
1 tsp coarsely ground pepper
½ cup coarsely chopped dill
¼ cup thin strips of lemon and/or orange peel
¼ cup thin slices of fresh ginger
½ cup fresh herbs, chopped
Photo by Bruce_Lee, Flickr