Let’s talk about fridge fish.
First and foremost: Gravlax is not what you’re used to piling high on a sesame bagel with scallion cream cheese, red onion and tomato. That sort of fish — a.k.a. nova or Scottish-style salmon — is brined then smoked, a double-headed curing process that gives it its signature flavor and texture.
Gravlax, though, cuts smoke out of the equation entirely for a more delicately flavored fish that still melts in your mouth. To make it, all you really have to do is rub a raw salmon fillet with salt, dill, and sugar, put the salmon in your refrigerator, and wait. A few days later, you’ll have honest-to-God lox — if not the kind you’ll usually see on an appetizing platter.
I’ve made gravlax a few times now, and throughout both, I’ve been amazed by how easy the whole process is. There are only two slightly difficult parts: the waiting (which isn’t difficult so much as challenging for the impatient) and the slicing, which, real talk, I still haven’t quite mastered.
The trick is to cut the fish on a wide diagonal, trying to keep your knife as horizontal as possible while still getting down to the skin side eventually — and to use a long, thin, super super sharp knife, which isn’t a kind of knife I currently have in my repertoire.
But I haven’t let that stop me from making gravlax, and neither should you. Another bonus: Raw salmon fillets are by no means cheap, but their price (I think mine was $21 a pound) is nothing compared to the lox you’d buy at a place like Russ & Daughters (where fish tends to be more like $14… per quarter pound). Are you running to the store yet?
1-2 lbs salmon fillet [Try to get a piece that’s roughly the same shape on both sides, since that’ll make it cure more evenly. Oh, and this goes without saying, but: You’re not cooking it with fire, so please buy the best quality fish you can find.]
3 tablespoons kosher salt
4 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup aquavit or dry vermouth [In the cookbook, this is a handwritten addition to the ingredient list; it’s much more common in gravlax recipes than vinegar, though.]
1 tablespoon fresh dill weed, or 1 teaspoon dried dill weed and 1 teaspoon dill seeds [I went fresh. In related news: Anybody got ideas for what I should do with the metric ton of dill currently rotting away in my crisper drawer?]
Chop fresh dill finely (or mix dill seed and dried dill weed together) and sprinkle half on the bottom of a shallow glass dish (just big enough to hold the fish). Set the salmon, skin side down and sprinkle the top with the remaining dill.
Blend salt, sugar, pepper, and allspice together and distribute this mixture evenly over salmon, lightly patting it into the fish. Pour vinegar over the fish. [It’s not listed in the recipe, but this is presumably also where Nonnie would have us add the liquor.
If I were in charge, though, I’d advise you to pour on the liquid first, then rub in the salt brine second. If you do it Nonnie’s way, you’ll wash off a bunch of the brine, then have to spoon it up from the bottom of the dish to make sure the fish is covered.]
Cover with foil, and set a weight (I use a red brick) on top. [I do not have a spare brick lying around; according to my mom, Nonnie used to get hers by sweet-talking construction workers. Instead, I used two 28 oz. cans of tomatoes.]
Refrigerate for at least 2 days, Remove weight after 24 hours. Spoon juices over fish occasionally. Can be left in brine for a week. [Want to go all-out? Pair with limpa bread, cucumber salad, and this.]
Horseradish Mustard Sauce
1/3 cup dairy sour cream
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon white horseradish
Blend together and chill before serving.
The verdict: Honestly? I liked the first gravlax I ever made better than Nonnie’s, probably because here, the vinegar ended up drowning out every other flavor. That might not have been the case if the brine had included more herbs and spices; I think using the whole bunch of dill, for instance, would have left the final product tasting less like vinegar and more like lox.
Which isn’t to say that Nonnie’s gravlax isn’t good, provided you like vinegar. It is — and slicing it thinly means that the brine’s taste isn’t too-too pronounced, especially if you’ve got a thicker center piece. I didn’t notice its taste changing drastically throughout the week that we ate it, although it did get firmer as it continued to sit in the brine.
Meanwhile: The horseradish-mustard sauce is definitely a winner, creamy enough to mirror the salmon’s richness but spicy enough to cut through it.It’s a spread that’d work as well on a turkey sandwich as it does when paired with lox. I might add more horseradish and mustard next time — but then, I’ve never been able to stop myself from gilding the lily.
For proof, just see the slice of bread which I topped with horseradish sauce, lox… then another layer of horseradish sauce. I regret nothing.