First, bury your fish
Nothing packs the same aromatic punch as a home-cured salmon flavoured with dill fronds and schnapps–and if you have too much, try poaching the leftovers
Home-cured gravadlax, served hot or cold, is worth the effort, says Simon Hopkinson
THE delicious Swedish cured-salmon dish known as gravadlax (now more often shortened to the briefer, perhaps lazier, gravlax) means, bluntly, ‘buried salmon’. Gravad means ‘grave’ and lax—or the kosher lox—is the Swedish for salmon. As you might imagine, I become irritably perplexed whenever I see the tautology ‘salmon gravlax’ on a menu.
And, by the way, I am similarly bewildered at the appearance of an ‘apple’ tarte Tatin or a ‘vanilla’ crème brûlée on a list of sweets. Do your homework, I mutter to myself, harrumphing into my linen napkin.
It seems essential—even polite —to find out the meaning of words and to understand the descriptions and the origins of a recipe or dish. Just because one has become used to the familiar coq au vin (a cockerel cooked in red wine) or osso buco (a bone with a hole that is central to a thick slice of braised veal shank) is no excuse for not finding out what names really mean. A Spanish paella simply refers to the thin, wide pan in which the fabled rice dish is cooked.
The first time I fashioned some gravadlax, curing the salmon with both salt and sugar, was many years ago, in Pembrokeshire, using a local sewin, the Welsh name for a sea trout. Then, the fish was plentiful and rod-caught; this was the early 1970s, after all, but the true sewin remains wild—although wildly expensive—today.
Ironically, even only a few decades ago, the kitchen budget of a normal, middle-class household used to see wild salmon as part of its normal summer expenditure. Furthermore, it’s also said that 19th-century Scottish mill workers once demanded not to be paid in wild salmon more than three times a week.
A similar outrage befell loyal staff in grand country houses, who would request that they might not be force-fed the pesky fish for below-stairs suppers all through the summer.
A little while ago, and with a similar glut of gravadlax (I’d cured a whole side of salmon for a photoshoot), I, too, had eventually tired of eating the fish as it was, so I pondered how it might taste when cooked. Well, my dears, it was a revelation!
The light salting of any fish fillet before cooking is, in itself, a very good thing. About 20 minutes for a good-size portion of fish should do it, turning it over after 10 minutes, then rinsing it in cold water. The salt releases excess moisture, so tightening the flesh. Once briefly poached or steamed, this reveals flakes of fish so pearly, so succulent, that one wonders why one had never known this culinary trick.
With the gravadlax, of course, the salt factor is a little more pronounced—but to no ill effect, be assured. Together with the sugar content, the faint whiff of alcohol and the dill, the delicately cooked fish is an utter delight.
You may simply steam the fillet on a deep plate: bring the water up to a boil, switch off the heat and leave in the residual steam
With a glut of gravadlax, I pondered how it might taste when cooked
for no more than 10 minutes before removing, loosely wrapping in foil with a knob of butter and then allowing to rest for a further 10 minutes.
For an aromatic poach, I halffill a wide, shallow pan with water (no salt needed) and add a generous splash of white-wine vinegar or cider vinegar, a thinly sliced onion, a stick of chopped celery, bay and a sprinkle of white peppercorns. Cover the pan, then simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, slide in the gravadlax, cover once more and leave for 10 minutes. Then, as above, drain and loosely wrap in foil with butter.
For both methods, leave the skin beneath attached as you carve the fillet into thick slices, then lift off each serving, before discarding the skin.