A RARE foray into the world of fish this week, and a seasonal favourite of mine.
One thing people often associate with the Christmas period is salmon, more specifically the smoked salmon we see displayed prominently in many supermarkets, or on menus in many of our local restaurants.
I’m not sure why it’s so popular at this time of year more than any other period, but perhaps it’s something to do with the perceived luxury of the product.
It’s certain that the slippery, yielding sheets of almost translucent pink salmon feel and taste very fancy, especially when combined with rich cream cheese and perhaps even a touch of caviar, yet it’s one of our cheapest native fish, and is quite happy to be farmed.
It’s wonderfully rich, oily flesh lends itself to so many recipes, and also smokes and cures incredibly well. And it’s curing we’re trying this week; timed, hopefully, so that any of you wanting to have a go will have it ready to serve at a moment’s notice at any point over the Christmas week.
The recipe we’re taking on this week is the Swedish favourite, Gravad Lax. I find it immensely preferable to smoked salmon, though I do love that very much too.
I suppose it’s me being simply a sucker for dill – I adore the herb, with its unique pungent, aniseed-y flavour, in anything from pickles to creamy sauces – but the combination of the fresh herb with a sweet salt cure and the freshest fillet of salmon just does the trick, especially when combined with a sweet-sour mustardy sauce (heaped with more of that delicious dill) and some good brown bread.
It makes great sandwiches, and can be used in many other recipes that call for smoked salmon, such as twice-baked soufflés, stuffed mushrooms, rolled fillets of sole etc. It even grills to a crisp a bit like bacon, which is great for garnishing and sarnies.
Literally translated as ‘buried salmon’, Gravad Lax was originally created as a way of preserving fish through the harsh Scandinavian winters, by fishermen who would salt the fish and bury it in sand, above the high tide mark.
It would ferment slightly (the Swedes do have a thing for slightly whiffy fish – I suggest you NEVER try surströmming, even as an experiment!) and the dill and sugar were added to make it taste better.
Fortunately we’ve moved on, and now the sweet salt cure, bolstered with masses of fresh, scented dill, gives the fish its memorable flavour.
If you’ve never made Gravad Lax before, don’t be put off. It is actually one of the easiest dishes to put together, and takes only a few moments preparation before resting in the fridge to cure for a few days.
When you open up that parcel and slice into the now densely-textured, fragrant fish, you’ll wonder why you ever bothered buying the stuff from the supermarket.
You can also, as I’m always suggesting, play about with the additions.
A few dill or caraway seeds in the cure add new elements of flavour, as do zests of citrus fruit. Try adding some grated beetroot and you get the most amazing pink-hued salmon tinged with the most iridescent purple you can imagine. It looks amazing on the plate.
Now, some caveats: this dish is one you can’t really make in small portions. Trying to cure individual pieces of salmon will result in a rather unpalatable salty mess.
You need at least one side of salmon (cut into two equal pieces and sandwiched) or, for perfect results, both fillets of a whole small fish.
It will freeze when cured, and around Christmas, you’ll find plenty of takers for ‘just another’ slice of this delicious Scandinavian treat.
Just remember to start well in advance. The cure will work OK in 3 days, but is best after 5. Now, off you go to find a friendly fishmonger!
I wouldn’t suggest you use wild salmon for this particular recipe as its delicate flavour would be rather flattened. Your bog-standard farmed fish will do just fine. Aprons on!
For the salmon:
1 X 3-4kg fresh salmon
300g Maldon salt
400g unrefined golden caster sugar
1 large bunch (2 supermarket packets) fresh dill
4 tbsps ground black pepper
A good splash of vodka
100ml white wine vinegar
100g unrefined demerara sugar
4 tbsps Dijon mustard
4 tbsps fresh double cream
Handful of fresh dill
Foil, clingfilm, a deep tray
Let’s get the salmon ready and away into its cosy parcel of salt first. Your fishmonger should remove the fillets for you, leaving the skin intact and pin-boning both fillets.
Wash the salmon and pat dry, then rub a few spoonfuls of vodka into each fillet. Chop the dill finely.
To make the cure, mix the salt, sugar, dill and a good few grinds of black pepper in a bowl.
On a wide, flat surface, lay out a sheet of foil about a third as long again as the salmon.
Sprinkle a couple of handfuls of the cure down the middle of the foil, and lay one side of salmon on the cure, flesh-side-up.
Tip most of the cure over the salmon, massaging it into the flesh, and making sure it’s covered completely. Pile up the cure that spills over on top of the fillet, and sandwich the other side of salmon over the cured fillet flesh-side-down, rubbing the remaining cure into the skin, and shoring up the loose salt against the ‘sandwich’, making sure it’s all used.
Fold the foil around the salmon and pinch together. You may need to use a couple of sheets for this first wrap. Then, wrap again in more foil, and finish by wrapping in several sheets of clingfilm.
Place the salmon parcel in a deep tray, as it may leak a little during curing. The salt and sugar will liquefy to make a rich brine, and you should flip the parcel over every day for the full five days to ensure total evenness of curing. When it’s ready, unwrap the parcel in the sink, and rinse the fillets quickly in cold water, then pat dry.
You will notice that the flesh has stiffened a little, into a slightly gelatinous texture, and the skin has toughened. This makes slicing very easy.
Using a very sharp knife, trim off a little salmon from the thin end of the fillet (any local cats will be grateful for this delicious morsel), and cut the salmon slowly and as thinly as possible at a 45º angle, flipping each slice deftly off the skin, which should remain intact as you work along the fillet, taking slice after delicious slice until you have your required amount.
Wrap the remaining salmon tightly in clingfilm. It will keep, refrigerated, for at least a week, and will freeze well, too.
To make the dill-mustard sauce, gently heat the vinegar and sugar together in a saucepan, and boil until the syrup makes thick, oily bubbles.
Remove from the heat and whisk in the mustard and cream, and return to a gentle heat. When the sauce is completely smooth, add a few grinds of black pepper and cool.
Chop the dill finely, and stir into the sauce. This will keep for weeks in the fridge, and is lovely in sandwiches, or drizzled over the gravad lax at the table.
It’s also great with crispy fried potatoes – a very Scandinavian treat!