Gravlax 2, 19 September 2014
My physical location often dictates what in the world I will eat, but it does not always coincide with where in the world I want to eat. The boon companion to my peripatetic imagination is a stomach that likes to wander, and is very catholic in its spheres of interest. The idea of a dish will lodge itself in my head without apparent reason. The belly does not rest until it feeds upon that dish. Such is the case of gravlax. It was showing up in my dreams.
For those unfamiliar with gravlax, it is a cured fish preparation of Scandinavian origin. The traditional (and most common) fish is salmon, and the typical curing mix is salt, sugar and dill. Other typical additions are black pepper and aquavit, a Scandinavian distilled spirit flavored with a variety of herbs and spices. In no uncertain terms, gravlax is not the first food that comes to mind when compared to my ancestry and what I typically eat.
Although, I suppose that somewhere in my bloodline there might be some Nordic genes laying about, DNA echoes shouted out from the Vikings who raided and traded in Ireland so long ago. Interesting to contemplate, and could explain much about my psyche.
But I digress. It is gravlax what held my imagination, so it is gravlax to discuss. In my penchant for whirlwind obsessions, I decided that this time that I would make my own gravlax at home. It requires little hardware and some kitchen basics. Of course, no fixation would be complete without some research. I happily spent some spare time digging up recipes and comparing what I found with what my belly likes to eat.
The root of the cure is salt, sugar and dill. The next flourish is black pepper, ground, or in my case, cracked. Other embellishments were the aforementioned aquavit, caraway seeds, and even fennel seeds. But one spice that really caught my tongue was juniper berries. They are not your everyday seasoning, no doubt. As my current culinary fortunes run, I had a bag of juniper berries stashed in my spice cabinet, apparently just waiting for such a moment to spring into action.
My desire for gravlax intersected with a spur of the moment grocery run, wherein I picked up a fine-looking coho salmon fillet, skinned, of two pounds. I mixed up some salt and sugar, broke out the dill and cracked black pepper, then smacked a palmful of juniper berries with a rolling pin. That act of mild brutality lightly crushed the juniper without pulverizing it. This in turn would add some nice aromatics and flavors to the salmon. The downside was that the rolling pin smelled a bit like a tumbler full of gin.
So rubbing the fillet with the juniper, adding a heavy layer of dill, then blanketing (and I mean blanketing) the fish with the salt/sugar mix, I realized I had no aquavit. Admittedly, the cure would work just fine without the liquor, but the idea of it being in the mix I found fascinating. A quick trip to the liquor cabinet showed that indeed there was no aquavit, but I did have a small amount of single-malt scotch remaining in one bottle.
DING! Imagine a huge light bulb going off over my head. It took almost no time for my brain and my belly to decide that the smokiness of the whisky would be a great match for salmon. So, out of the bottle and sprinkled on the fish. I cut the fillet in half, turned it into a big salmon sandwich, then wrapped it up tight in plastic wrap. The slab went into a plastic tub. I placed a half-full box of kosher salt on top to properly press it together, then placed the tub in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
Chef note: I should point out that the salmon used was as fresh as I could get, thoroughly rinsed and patted dry before curing. Work surfaces were sanitized and knives were carefully cleaned before and after use. The cure does a great job of killing off the nasty bugs, but cleanliness and freshness and paramount.
Then I waited. During that time I flipped the salmon over about every twelve hours to ensure even distribution of the cure and the liquid it produces. The liquid is a good sign, and is also why the salmon should be placed in a vessel with a rim.
Three days and then the grand reveal! The salmon was unwrapped. The liquid was somewhat pungent, but did not have that tell-tale "bad fish" aroma of something gone wrong. The cure had turned into a thick, slightly gritty paste on the fish but was easily washed off under cool water. It looked good, smelled interesting.
I laid it on the cutting board to trim off a piece. I hesitated briefly, then decided I had invested a fair amount of time and money in this project so qualms be damned I was not going to let it go to waste. I hoped sincerely it would taste good.
Hallelujah, boys and girls, it did taste good. Salty to be sure, but also sweetly aromatic from the sugar, pepper, dill and juniper. The single malt was there hovering in the background. Concentrate on too hard and it would disappear, but let it go and it would come back to pad lightly around the warmth of the hearth.
Finishing the third slice I began to wonder if I was out of my gourd for wanting to try something like this at home. All the fears and worries about bacteria and parasites and non-professional kitchens crowded into my head, momentarily throwing me off my feed. I hesitated again, knife in hand, twitching slightly above the fillet.
"In for a penny, in for a pound" cried my buccaneer soul. The knife went down. The fourth slice came off. The belly would not be denied, brothers and sisters, nor would the soul. The gravlax was delicious.