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Lynda Balslev: A cure for the holidays

Lynda Balslev
Columnist
In Danish tradition, gravlax is an important ingredient in the parade of courses during the celebratory dinners (ironically called Julefrokost, or Christmas lunch) leading up to Christmas.

You say holidays, and I say gravlax. In our Danish-American home, the winter holiday season is not complete without making home-cured salmon gravlax. It’s simple to make and an easy, elegant appetizer or addition to a brunch table. All you need are two important things to make gravlax: fresh sashimi-grade salmon and time. The salmon is rubbed with a dry cure and stowed in the refrigerator to brine for two to three days. When ready, all you need to do is unwrap and remove the cure, then slice the salmon and drape it over bread. The flavor, presentation and simplicity are the essence of Nordic cuisine: elegant, minimal and clean.

In Danish tradition, gravlax is an important ingredient in the parade of courses during the celebratory dinners (ironically called Julefrokost, or Christmas lunch) leading up to Christmas. Gravlax (gravlaks in Danish and Norwegian or gravad laks in Swedish) literally means salmon in a grave or hole. During the Middle Ages, fisherman would salt salmon and let it ferment by burying it in a hole above the high-tide line.

Nowadays, it’s not necessary to bury salmon in sand, but rather in salt and sugar and banish it to the refrigerator. It will cure for several days, during which the salt and sugar will turn into liquid and create a brine. Salt and sugar are necessary ingredients for curing, while fresh or dried herbs, peppercorns, citrus or spirits are often added for additional flavor. This recipe includes dill, fennel, peppercorns and akvavit, a Danish snaps.



To serve gravlax, thinly slice and arrange on bread. While pumpernickel is sometimes suggested for serving, Nordic tradition expressly uses white bread, not dark rye bread, with salmon. Accompany the salmon with a squeeze of lemon, fresh dill sprigs and a dollop of homemade honey-mustard sauce.

 

Salmon Gravlax



Active Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 to 3 days for curing

Yield: Serves 8 to 10

1 side sushi-grade wild-caught salmon with skin, 2 to 2 1/2 pounds, pin bones removed

1 tablespoon white peppercorns

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 large bunch fresh dill sprigs

1 cup fennel fronds, chopped

3 to 4 tablespoons akvavit or vodka

 

Honey Dill Mustard

1/3 cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

1/4 cup grapeseed oil

2 tablespoons chopped dill sprigs

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Rinse the salmon under cold water and pat dry. Refrigerate, uncovered, while preparing the spice rub.

Lightly toast the peppercorns and fennel seeds in a dry skillet over medium-high heat until aromatic, about 1 minute. Transfer to a mortar and finely grind. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the salt and sugars. Rub the fish all over with the spice mix.

Line a long baking pan or dish with plastic wrap. Place half of the dill sprigs and half of the fennel fronds over the plastic wrap. Arrange the salmon skin-side down on the herbs. Sprinkle the akvavit over the salmon. Top with the remaining dill and fennel. Cover with additional plastic wrap, sealing the fish. Place a heavy pan or tray on the fish and weigh down the pan with cans or bottles. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 days.

Before serving, whisk the mustard, vinegar and honey in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the oil to emulsify and then stir in the dill and black pepper.

Remove the fish from refrigerator. Remove and discard the plastic wrap. Pour off the collected juices and wipe off the excess brine and dill with paper towels. Slice the fish diagonally from one corner of the salmon toward the center of the fillet.

Fold a slice of gravlax on toasted brioche bread or white bread. Squeeze a few drops of fresh lemon juice and smear a spoonful of Honey Dill Mustard on the fish. Garnish with a dill sprig. Gravlax may be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Lynda Balslev is a cookbook author, food and travel writer, and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay area.


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