I was reading an on-line article on gravlax the other day, and boy am I glad I’m not Nordic. Don’t get me wrong, I love smorgasbord and Ikea, but I’d hate to spend so much time arguing about gravlax.
Gravlax, if you didn’t know, is just like smoked salmon but without smoking. More accurately, gravlax is salmon that is dry-cured with a mix of non-iodized salt, sugar, pepper, and dill. (See HERE for more about my adventures in curing meat). I would like to establish at this point that gravlax is in no way similar to lutefisk, the lye-cured whitefish native to the same area of the world, which Garrison Keillor likened to the afterbirth of a dog and Jeffrey Steingarten claimed was an attempt by the Scandinavians to scare the world into submission after Viking raids didn’t work out.
Anyway, I stumbled upon a website where the recipe for gravlax was dissected by a thoughtful cook without, apparently, much regard for tradition, specifically as to whether the fish was brined skin-side-up or skin-side-down. A polite fellow commented on the recipe, and, after establishing his authority through the fact that he was Swedish, explained that it was always made skin-side-down. Or perhaps it was skin-side-up, I don’t recall. Anyway, the next fellow who commented was also Swedish, and begged to differ with the first. He said that, while skin-side-up (or skin-side-down) might work, traditionally, it was always made skin-side-down (or skin-side-up). He went on at some length about the finer points of the tradition, including exactly how the dill was to be trimmed, what species of salmon was required, and what side dishes were to be served with it. At this point the first Swede replied that the second Swede was treading on dangerous ground with such comments, and that purists would have to disagree. A third Swede popped in with an enormously long comment about the difference between whatever unknown substance the first couple were talking about and actual gravlax, and went on to explain what to do when one had a whole fish instead of a fillet, that the use of cling wrap was ridiculous when what was actually appropriate was a Ziploc bag, and finished with some thoughts on the etymology of the word ‘gravlax.’ At this point another reader, perhaps hoping to warm up the tone of the conversation, made the mistake of mentioning a gravlax recipe they had tried by Emeril Lagasse, and the internet became noticeably frostier. Another Swede popped in to announce that the correct term in Sweden was actually ‘gravad lax’ and that ‘gravlax’ was an American derivation from a Norwegian word, of all things. The debate shifted to the tricky subject of whether to press the fish with weights while it cured or not, and, if so, what kinds of weights and how much were required, and dallied with the controversial new ‘bungee cord’ technique. Someone else jumped in to dismiss the Ziploc bag idea as foolish when gravlax was best made in cheesecloth, and that, by the way, in real Swedish ‘gravlax’ was spelled ‘graavlax’ and to inquire as to whether all the previous posters might be Danish? At this point I was about an eight of the way down the page of comments. I could envision the debate continuing for centuries, with politer and frostier Swedes popping in to correct other Swedes as to whether ‘buried fish’ meant preserved in pits or cellars, or whether ‘grav’ was actually derived not from ‘grave’ but from the verb ‘grava’ meaning ‘to salt.’
Come to think of it, it probably already has.
That being said, I have decided to opt out of the debate entirely by calling my recipe:
Absolutely Nothing to do with Gravlax
And keep in mind that for any step given below, there is someone out there who will argue against it.
A fillet of commercially-frozen salmon… skin removed! Didn’t see that coming, did you?
2 Tb coarse, non-idodized sea salt
2 Tb white sugar
2 tsp black pepper
a bunch of dill
It is important in this recipe that the salmon be commercially frozen, which is to say frozen at -10°F (-23°C) for at least 7 days. It is unlikely that your home freezer gets that cold. This step is required, because uncooked salmon can host parasites, and freezing kills them. Luckily for me, I happen to live just up the road from a great local seafood merchant who understands gravlax and pointed me in the direction of the right salmon to choose.
First off, remove the pin bones of the salmon. This is necessary, because you won’t be able to thinly slice it if there are pin bones in there blocking your progress. You’re generally supposed to use pliers to remove pin bones, but I don’t have any, and I found my fingers were strong enough, so don’t let a lack of pliers stop you.
Mix up the salt, sugar and pepper in a bowl. Lay the fillet down on a sheet of cling wrap and press the cure into one side. Lay plenty of dill sprigs on top of the cure, and I mean plenty. If they are too long, fold them back, but don’t chop them.
Wrap the whole thing up tightly in the cling wrap, then wrap it all up again in another sheet of cling wrap. Place it in a baking dish or Tupperware to catch the juices that will leak out, and put it in the refrigerator for three or more days.
This point of the recipe marks one of the great schisms of the gravlax debate. To weight the fish or not to weight the fish? Some claim it is completely unnecessary. I, personally, think it’s fun to put weights on fish. So I filled up a Tupperware container with water and sat that on top.
The next schism in this debate concerns turning the fish over every twelve hours. Some claim this is necessary to distribute the juices. Some claim it is pointless. I, personally, think it is fun to turn fish over every twelve hours.
After three days, remove the fish from the wrap and brush away the dill and cure. Then rinse all the pepper off it and dry it on paper towels.
Carve it up on a bias, starting at the narrower (tail end). Serve on crackers with a little brie, or just by itself.
How did my “gravlax” taste? Well, I often tell the story that a fling with smoked salmon broke up my long-term relationship with vegetarianism. Now I think I’m going to dump smoked salmon for gravlax.