The “cure” for the winter gray

The vibrant color of gravlax and its rich salmon flavor wake up the darkest of days

gravlax

Photo: Daytona Strong
The beauty of gravlax is in its simplicity: 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.

Daytona Strong
Taste of Norway Editor

The cure begins with sugar, salt, and dill encasing the salmon. 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 around here. 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 water that seeps into its shores and cuts through the landscapes. Those fjords are a landmark of Norway, as recognizable to the rest of the world as its medieval stave churches and Viking ships unearthed over the past century and a half. 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, where it would ferment, the pH changed with help from the birch bark used to wrap the fish.

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 been largely replaced by today’s curing methods to draw out the moisture and transform the fish into the gravlax we know today, with its soft, velvety texture and its salmon flavor intensified by the salt-and sugar cure. The results are satisfying and sophisticated, yet simple and uncomplicated, just good ingredients prepared simply. What food should perhaps almost always be.

gravlax

Photo: Daytona Strong
I notice the beauty of the sockeye each time. We always use sockeye around here, without exception. 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 over the beauty of the fish—its vibrant color and silky touch portends of the deliciousness to follow.

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, previously frozen to kill bacteria or parasites, 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 ones that get fancy with fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits that lend varying essences and hues to the salmon. I’ve seen orange and horseradish, and recipes that call for beetroot, which lends the most gorgeous ombre effect to the sliced fish. I’m sure they all yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax traditional, the flavor of the salmon concentrated and accentuated only with a hint of dill.

Years ago we read Mark Bittman’s article about gravlax in The New York Times (www.nytimes.com/1998/11/11/dining/the-minimalist-gravlax-without-fear-a-stunning-dish-just-looks-hard.html) 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 (frozen to kill the parasites), then defrost it and 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). Making gravlax is so simple. 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 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 guests can assemble it to their taste. Or 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.

The Simplest Gravlax

1 (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 tbsps. 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.

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. 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 under 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.

This story and recipe originally appeared on Daytona Strong’s popular Scandinavian food blog www.outside-oslo.com.

Daytona Strong is The Norwegian American’s Taste of Norway Editor. She writes about her family’s Norwegian heritage through the lens of food at her Scandinavian food blog, www.outside-oslo.com. Find her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/OutsideOslo), Twitter (@daytonastrong, Pinterest (@daytonastrong), and Instagram (@daytonastrong).

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 12, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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