This year spring in my city has been slow to start with below average temperatures. It is the end of April and the tulips are still dormant hidden underground, the trees are still absent of leaves, and the city covered in a fine layer of dust that gets blown around onto everything. I’m waiting for green grass and spring blooms to arrive. A few weeks ago I went on vacation to a temperate climate and enjoyed an explosion of cherry blossom blooms overhead and tiny leaves starting on the trees.
Even though spring flowers hadn’t arrived yet, salmon had. I happened to spot a particularly fresh salmon, head and tail intact, with a clear eye on a bed of crushed ice and bought it without hesitation and without a clear plan with what to do with it. One of the best ways to cook is to be an opportunist and collect the best ingredients you happen across and then figure out a plan for them later; never mind searching for a particular item because more often or not you can never find something that you are looking for. At home I thought of a bunch of possibilities for my salmon: whole roasted, or baked in a salt crust, cut into steaks, grilled, fillets pan fried in butter, or preserved as in gravlax. I wasn’t planning on hosting a dinner party so I decided on gravlax. Which ironically I took to a party a week later to share with friends.
Gravlax is simple to prepare and requires only a few quality ingredients. It is a way of transforming fish and extending its keeping time and introduces aromatics into its flesh. And unlike cold smoking it is easier to achieve at home successfully. The curing process depends on finding the correct balance of salt and sugar. The salt draws out moisture from the fish, preserving it, and the sugar keeps the flesh supple preventing it from becoming dry and stringy.
For fish you can use salmon, trout, or mackerel, almost any oily clean tasting fish. Just cut the fish into fillets with the skin on and remove the pin bones with tweezers for easy slicing later. The curing time depends on the size of fillet, its thickness, the type of fish, and how much of a cure you want on it. After curing I like to leave the fish in a container for a few days so that the texture evens out and the fish oils distribute themselves. Although you can eat the gravlax immediately if you are rushed or eager to sample.
Adapted from The River Cottage Fish Book
100 g coarse demerara sugar or sugar
75 g coarse sea salt
15 g crushed white peppercorns or black or a mix
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 large bunch of dill, coarse stalks removed, chopped
Very fresh salmon, mackerel, or trout, skin on, cut into fillets, pin bones removed
Mix all of the cure ingredients together. Spread a thin layer on a piece of cling film. Add the first fillet skin side down, add a layer of cure, then the second fillet, and another layer of cure. Wrap tightly in the cling film and place in a dish. Weigh the fish down with a board and brick and refrigerate. Everyday turn the fish over. Cure the fish for 2-7 days total. When the fish is cured to your liking, scrape off the cure and any juices and leave to rest covered for a few days. To serve, slice thinly on a bias. The gravlax will keep in the fridge for up to 10 days and can be frozen for 3-6 months.