Give in to the allure of gravlax

A handful of distinctly Nordic ingredients combine to create the perfect holiday appetizer

Photos: Maria Stordahl Nelson The holidays are a perfect time to indulge in this most Nordic of treats.

Photo: Maria Stordahl Nelson
The holidays are a perfect time to indulge in this most Nordic of treats.

Maria Stordahl Nelson
Seattle, Wash.

Small bites of deliciously cured salmon on hearty rye have always screamed elegant holiday appetizer to me. Although “screamed” is probably not the most accurate word to describe something so beautiful, sophisticated, and delicate, gravlax definitely, consistently grabs my attention. It grabs my ears and eyes with what is probably most aptly described as a very authoritative whisper.

The seductive allure of this delicious appetizer is likely something I’ll never be able to ignore, and each Thanksgiving and Christmas occasion provides a timely opportunity for me to trot out my recipes and indulge in this most Nordic of treats.

Once the idea forms in my mind, I can usually be found rummaging around in my freezer looking for that coral pink package of salmon that I carefully and thoughtfully preserved over the summer. Curing salmon while it’s fresh and in season has become an absolute necessity for me. It creates a more delicious and affordable option, and always provides a quick and delightful advantage when planning future meals.

Inevitably a threatening avalanche of frozen goods greets me each time I open the freezer door, however not to be deterred, I eventually unearth my treasure, flush with a feeling akin to victory. All that’s wanting now is a few simple complimentary ingredients to make it all sing.

Some quick pickled radishes, paper-thin slices of fennel, dollops of mustard, and a smattering of dill are our new favorites. All quickly assembled and stunningly served up on a platter with an obligatory cocktail or champagne on the side. Each year the toppings look a little different. In purist fashion we serve it alongside dill mustard some years and others times it’s dressed up to suit a more festive and formal occasion.

If you haven’t any salmon languishing in your freezer, frozen sides from the market work just as well and some say cure even more favorably. Thankfully gravlax is readily available in most stores, so if you’re not inclined to go to the trouble you definitely shouldn’t feel the need to. My recipe is a simple one, one I’ve used for years and tweaked for our tastes. There are plenty of recipes available from other sources, so use one that appeals most to you.

Be sure to prepare your fish two to three days in advance.

Photo: Maria Stordahl Nelson

Photo: Maria Stordahl Nelson

1 3 to 4 lb. salmon side, fresh or thawed if frozen, skin on (this year I used Coho salmon)
3/4 cup kosher salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 to 3 small bunches or one very large bunch of fresh dill
2 tbsps. caraway seeds
1 tsp. anise seed
2 tbsps. akevitt or vodka

Rinse the salmon and lay it skin side down in a long baking dish that has been lined with plastic wrap, with plenty of excess on all sides. Make sure the dish has sides that are at least 2 inches tall.

Combine the salt, sugar, and seeds in a medium-sized bowl. Evenly spread the mixture over the salmon and cover it completely. Place the dill, stems and all, on top. Pour the akevitt over the dill, then wrap the whole salmon in the plastic wrap.

Place a smaller dish or cutting board on top of the fish. Just make sure that it’s small enough to completely fit inside the baking dish.

Place in the refrigerator and put a heavy object on top of the dish. My favorites are large cans of tomatoes. Refrigerate for 12 hours. Remove the cans and open the plastic and baste the fish in the juices. Re-cover and let sit 12 more hours. I prefer my salmon to be moist and pliable, so I stop curing at this stage. Feel free to continue curing the fish up to 2 more days if you desire a firmer and more strongly flavored fish. Be sure to baste every 12 hours.

When ready to serve, remove from dish and brush off any remaining herbs or seeds. Move to a cutting board and slice thinly. Serve with dark rye, crisp bread, shaved fennel, pickled radishes, fresh dill, and small greens.

Maria Stordahl Nelson is a Seattle-area food writer, photographer, and recipe developer. She shares her love of all things sweet, savory, and sometimes Nordic at

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 20, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.