When I was a kid, before my “teen” years there were quite a few things I disliked (before that I ate almost anything!)… “you’ll see when you learn to like it…how you will regret it!” my parents used to tell me after frustrated attempts to get me to eat them. But one of the things I remember I loved, strangely, was raw cured salmon: “marinated salmon” my mom referred to it. She used to make a lovely simple mustard and dill sauce to accompany and I would devour it whenever she made it! I think it was mostly on festive times, she’d buy a whole salmon and make it, and in a few days, it was all gone!
At some point when I began to cook, she taught me how to make it…and though I’ve tried various other ways, I still prefer the way she taught me: the sugar:salt ratio to cure it, the procedure and…the contrasting sweet mustard & dill sauce! Most scandivian recipes for gravlax (that’s how it’s called in sweeden. We used to call it “gravadlax”, I guess misspell of the danish name of the dish “Graved laks” ) use a 1:1 sugar:salt ratio, or even a 2:1, but after trying both, I prefer the slightly salted 1:2 ratio, so you can play around to find which you like best! I wanted to make some blinis to accompany it, but I haven’t really had much time lately, so I leave you with the mains: gravlax and the side-sauce! Enjoy!
Gravlax and sweet mustard & dill sauce
For the salmon, I used:
1,5 kg of clean fresh salmon
300g granulated sugar
600g coarse sea salt
~1tbsp of whole black peppercorns
a few sprigs of fresh dill
a good drizzle of vodka (optional)
For the mustard sauce:
50g of american-type mustard (not dijon or bavarian)
10-15g of agave syrup (you can substitute to taste with sugar or honey)
pinch of salt
freshly ground pepper
some chopped fresh (or dried) dill
~1-2 tbsp of mild extra virgin olive oil
optional: a drizzle of lemon or white wine vinegar
This time I picked a fairly generous transversal cut of a whole large salmon, which I then separated into it’s two fillets. You can choose the amount of salmon you like, even just a fillet works out well. The skin I always leave intact, with the scales…I actually don’t think removing them would make much of a difference, as even if they make the skin less permeable, the salmon still cures from the flesh side. Independently of whether you fillet it yourself or get it done, make sure that with pliers or tweezers you remove any pin bones down the centre of the flesh. You’ll feel them if you press slightly down with your fingers.
Anyway, I never really measure the amount of salt & sugar relative to the weight of the fish, I just make sure I have enough of the mix to cover the skin. I know that before this curing technique was more of a conservation method, thus more salt mixture was needed to cure it, whereas now it’s more about the texture and flavour and I could get by with less mix per kg. But I still prefer to make sure it covers the fish well, and then depending on the thickness I just make sure I remove it before it gets overly dry and even salted.
So, I choose a tupper or pyrex with sides that will fit the fillets (if both sides are used, they’ll be placed over each other) and sprinkle a bit of the sugar:salt mix, which like I’ve said I like it being 2 parts salt to 1 of sugar, but you may prefer the more subtle flavour of 1:1 ratio. If you have two fillets, you can try one with each to see which you prefer.
Then I place one of the fillets skin side down over the salt mix and lightly crush the black pepper with a pestle and season both fillets.
Then, I place some dill sprigs to flavour the salmon. More flavourings can be used, you can improvise with orange rind or juniper berries or even some coriander. But I love the plain traditional flavour of dill here.
Now, generously cover this bottom fillet with the salt mix and then drizzle lightly with some vodka (some people use gin, but I prefer the more neutral flavour of vodka). I was once adviced to try the orange or mandarin vodka, but I still haven’t tried it. Ah, no need to use the best vodka on the house, a cheap brand will do!
Then, place the other fill over that one, skin side up but turned around, that is, the thicker part of the fillet over the thinner one of the bottom one, so both together make a flat surface. Does it make sense? Ah, and if you just have one fillet, you stop there, obviously!;)
Does it show here?
Then, cover with some more salt mix. As I said at the beginning, I begin mixing some salt with half it’s weigh of sugar, if I’m short of it, I just mix some more…
Finally, I wrap it up well and place a flat surface that is at least the size of the fillets and place some weight over them. like another tupper with some cans in or a tray with milk tetra bricks…anything that will fit it your fridge! The weighing down is not a must, you can actually cure without it, but I find it goes quicker and more even this way.
If it’s not too hot outside, it’s best to leave it for at least an hour before placing in the fridge so the sugar&salt mix begin extracting the salmon juices out. In fact at a restaurant we used the same procedure to cure duck breasts before smoking them, and they were left 12 hours at room temperature (well-covered with the curing mix, though).
I check after about 12 hours…If the fillets are thin, it may even be ready. You will tell from the even translucent colour of the flesh, if not, I turn both fillets over, that is, I grab both together and place the top one on the bottom and bottom one on top…
12 more hours…check again…If not ready, turn over again. These very thick ones took 36 hours to be to my taste…some people leave them up to 48 hours. But with this much curing mix and weighing them down usually less time is required or they can end up getting salty, not just cured and too dry! This actually happened to me once, the solution: as when you hydrate salted cod, I placed it in cool water to cover until it improved textured and removed excess salt. It’s best to avoid over-curing, but this fixes the mistake!
When you remove the cured salmon, you’ll find it it floats in a funny looking greasy liquid and much of the salt mix has been dissolved. This is all the extracted juices from the salmon. It will look a bit like this:
And each fillet like this…
Now, all you need to do is wash off the salt mix under running cold water and remove the pepper if you don’t want it there (I like to leave some crakled bits) and dry each fillet very well.
That’s quite a bit for two, so to space it out in time I always make two fillets and freeze one. I would strongly advice you to rub the flesh of both, but specially the fillet you will freeze, with a thin layer of a mild flavoured olive oil (or any other neutral oil), as it keeps much, much better and protects the one in the fridge from absorbing any funny flavours and the frozen one from burning from the slow freezing (sadly we don’t have a nitrogen quick deep-freezing machine at home!). Then, obviously wrap very well in cling film and if possible place in a bag or tupper.
For the mustard sauce, simply place the mustard in a bowl, season it to taste with freshly ground pepper, the agave syrup, sugar or honey. Add chopped dill to taste (I’m fairly generous, though Linguini is not a fan of dill) and emulsify it adding slowly as you swirl in olive oil. If you feel it needs some more sour taste, add a drop of lemon juice or vinegar and that’s it!
To serve, slice the salmon as finely as possible…(to my taste, Linguini likes it thicker)
And serve with the sauce and some good bread!