Gravlax (Cured Fresh Salmon)
Many people understandably choose good-quality smoked salmon, bought from a delicatessen, a gourmet shop, or a well-stocked supermarket. Of course, that's hard to beat. But it's also fun to cure salmon yourself.
And you don't have to go out and buy a smoker, either, which is especially cheering news to people who live in apartments or condos. Instead, when I'm curing salmon for myself at home, I like to make gravlax. In this traditional Swedish preparation, raw fillets are coated with a mixture of dill, sugar, salt, and pepper and left for several days, resulting in perfectly seasoned fish that is firm and silky in texture.
The centuries-old Scandinavian dish gets its name from the words gravad lax, meaning "buried fish," which refer to the fact that long ago, Swedish cooks would actually wrap big fillets of salmon with seasonings and bury the bundle for several days in the cold ground. Fortunately, you can get the same results simply by layering salmon fillets with the seasonings, wrapping them up, weighting them down with some heavy cans, and leaving them in the refrigerator.
The entire process is surprisingly easy, and the results are well worth waiting a few days to enjoy. So, right after Christmas, get started!
For the main ingredient, go to the best source you know, whether a specialty seafood store or the fish department of a well-stocked supermarket. Request whole filleted sides of salmon, and ask for the skin to be left on, because it helps hold the fish together during the curing process and makes slicing easier. Then, just follow my curing and serving instructions in the recipe.
Instead of the simple sauce of sour cream or creme fraiche and inexpensive domestic caviar I offer in the recipe, you could also serve the fish with the traditional Swedish accompaniment, a tangy-sweet mustard-dill sauce. To make one, just stir minced fresh dill and a little sugar into some Dijon mustard until you get a balance of flavors that tastes good to you. Pass it alongside the sliced gravlax for guests to spoon onto individual servings as they like.
GRAVLAX (CURED FRESH SALMON) WITH GOLDEN CAVIAR SAUCE ON BRIOCHE TOAST
Serves 12 to 16
1 whole salmon, 5 to 6 pounds, cleaned, boned, head, tail, and fins removed, to yield 2 whole skin-on fillets
1 cup chopped fresh dill
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup freshly ground coarse black pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
CAVIAR SAUCE AND TOAST
2 cups organic sour cream or creme fraiche
1/4 cup domestic golden caviar or salmon roe
Freshly ground black pepper
2 thin slices per person brioche loaf or other rich bread
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
Place the 2 whole salmon fillets skin side up on a work surface. With a sharp knife, every 2 inches along the length of each fillet, make a cut across the center 1-1/2 inches long and 1/2 to 3/4 inch deep.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the dill, salt, pepper, and sugar. In the bottom of a glass or stainless-steel container as long as the salmon fillets, spread about a third of the dill mixture in an even bed as wide and long as a fillet. Place a fillet skin side down on top. Spread half of the remaining dill mixture over the flesh side of the fillet. Top with the other fillet, skin side up, and spread it with the remaining dill mixture. Cover the stacked fillets, not the container, directly and tightly with plastic wrap, then with a layer of aluminum foil.
Wrap 2 or 3 bricks with foil and place them on top of the fillets. Alternatively, foil-wrap a board that will fit inside the container, or another container with a flat bottom that will fit inside, place on top of the salmon, and weight it down with several heavy cans from your pantry.
Leave the container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days to cure the salmon. Any longer may result in salmon that tastes too salty.
Remove the container from the refrigerator. Remove the weights and unwrap the salmon. Scrape off the dill mixture from both fillets and place them skin-down on a clean work surface.
With your fingertips, feel lengthwise along the center of each fillet for the tips of any small bones. Use tweezers or needle-nose pliers to pull them out. With a sharp knife, neatly trim the edges of each fillet.
To serve, use a long, sharp knife to carve slices at least 1/8 inch thick, cutting at a shallow angle crosswise from each fillet, as you would for smoked salmon.
Make the sauce by gently stirring together in a mixing bowl the sour cream or creme fraiche, caviar, and pepper to taste.
Lightly toast the brioche or other bread.
Arrange the salmon slices slightly overlapping on a large platter. Transfer the sauce to a serving bowl and place it in the center or on the side. Lightly sprinkle the sauce and salmon with dill. Pass the toast in a separate napkin-lined plate.
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