Salmon in a grave. Buried (rotting) fish. That’s the literal translation of gravlax. Folks used to salt and bury the fish so that it would ferment ever so slightly (presumably in cold North Atlantic weather) before consuming it. I bet most of you who have enjoyed smoked salmon or gravlax didn’t know that. I certainly didn’t before I started reading up on the process several months ago, increasingly curious about attempting to make my own gravlax at home for the holidays. It seemed a bit of a stretch at the least, no fresh salmon in the vicinity, no cool outdoor temperatures, and a proliferation of neighborhood cats just waiting to pounce on a nice juicy pink fish. But let me tell you, this was one of the easiest and most elegant food items I have ever prepared. Why we have all been bamboozled into paying through the nose for this “delicacy” is now beyond me.
It started with an expedition to the shores of Manila Bay… The Seaside market that is. :) To my suki salmon and tuna vendor and the hope of scoring a nice, just minutes before defrosted salmon (probably from the Pacific Northwest, and most likely farmed not wild which would have been preferable) that was then filleted for me and ready for curing. But it wasn’t going to be that easy. They had no whole salmon left that was already defrosted. So I had to buy a whole frozen salmon, still in its original plastic bag. That wasn’t such a bad thing, for cootie purposes, but that also meant I would have to clean and fillet the monster myself. :) Back at home, we defrosted the nearly 15 pound fish for 4+ hours and while still very cold in parts, I started to scale it in the outdoor laundry area… What a mess!
Once the crew had given my fish the once over and declared it mostly scale-free, I took a big cleaver and decapitated it with one forceful, confident blow to the neck (do fish have necks?). It was extremely satisfying to do this. Almost as good as smashing plates against a wall. I did the same to the tail and took out a thin fillet knife and took a deep breath. I had recently watched an episode of Masterchef where they had to fillet a whole salmon and do it neatly, with minimum wastage and brilliant portions. I would have failed that challenge. :)
This is perhaps the most flattering photo of my efforts. And I had help holding the slippery creature down. I must admit, a bead or two of sweat fell onto the skin of the fish, quickly dabbed with a paper towel, but perhaps more sweat would have contributed that special “x” factor to the dish eventually. :) The problem was the center of the fish was still a bit frozen, so my fillets were a tad jagged. But I did it…
The head, tail and trimmings were used for salmon sinigang. The two sides were cut in half, so we had four fillets. One of the fillets was portioned and frozen for future use. And three fillets were readied for curing. You will need just five ingredients (and actually it works with four as well). Kosher salt, sugar, white peppercorns, juniper berries and lots and lots of fresh dill (thank you Gejo for sourcing this for me).
For about 6-7 pounds of cleaned filleted salmon, I made a mixture of 2.5 cups sugar, 3/4 cup kosher salt, 2-2.5 tablespoons of cracked white peppercorns, and a tablespoon of cracked dried juniper berries. I prepped roughly 250 grams worth of fresh dill, roughly chopping the herbs. My main reference source for this recipe was Marcus Samuelson’s wonderful cookbook from the restaurant Aquavit in New York, though similar curing mixes abound on the internet and other cookbooks.
Lay your fillets on a clean chopping board, and rub the salt/sugar mixture all over the fillets. Cover them with chopped dill as well. Place the fillets into clean ziplock bags, adding the remainder of the mixture to the bags. Leave the bags out in cool temperature (we took them into an airconditioned room for say 2-3 hours) to let the sugar and salt mixture dissolve and liquefy. Place the bags into a refrigerator and turn them every 8 hours or so, leaving them in the fridge for a total of 36 hours curing time. Do NOT worry if it all seems to turn quite soupy. The brine has drawn out liquid from the fish…
Remember to rub both sides of the fish, the skin also need the brine. After 36 hours, scrape off as much of the herbs and peppercorns as possible, and discard the brining liquid. Dab the fish surface with a paper towel, wrap in cling wrap and return to the fridge. It is now ready to serve, and will keep for up to 5-6 days in the fridge. You can also freeze it for longer periods.
The color of the fish will turn a darker orange. And yes, no cooking at all. The salt and sugar will have “cooked” the meat of the fish. Our cook, looked at me with disbelief when I said she could eat it now, and refused to taste it until several other folks in the house had braved the gravlax… :)
Later that day, for a snazzy holiday dinner, we served the thinly sliced gravlax with a fresh citrus salsa and some toast. It turned out very well indeed. Guests and I were amazed how relatively easy this was to make. And it probably cost 1/5th or less the price of gravlax for sale at fancy delicatessens. We enjoyed some the next morning with cream cheese and bagels and in an ultimate display of yumminess…
…I deep-fried some of the salmon skin, and topped it with a slice of gravlax and drizzled it with some fresh lemon juice. SUPERB! A perfect dish for the holidays.