Thursday, December 17, 2015

Gravlax for the Holidays or For Other Times When Gravlax Is Called For

Guys, I'm responding individually to comments on the give-away post. Please check that out, if you asked for something.
This is the photo from the Barefoot Contessa book. Because I never remember to take photos of holiday food. Because I am too excited, and too busy eating it and also drinking, to think of it. However, I did take photos of making the gravlax, which you will find below. (Note: it ends up looking just like this.) 
But here's this. Gravlax.

The ingredients are few.
Gravlax is a magic trick. After a day or so of happy contact with a simple salt-and-sugar curing mixture, raw salmon turns dense and silky, like the best smoked salmon you ever tasted, only not smoky. 
I crush the pepper in a mortar and pestle, but a heavy can works fine.
It takes well to seasonings, and in the recipe below, those seasonings include black pepper, dill, and lemon zest. You can be creative with this part, though. 

It will seem like a lot of salt and sugar, but most of it ends up in the liquid that comes out of the fish, which you will discard.
If you Google around, you’ll see lots of ideas about flavoring: grapefruit, aquavit, all kinds of spices. But if you’re new to curing salmon, try this very basic recipe first. You will not believe how easy it is—the salmon will be safely curing in the fridge five minutes after you unwrap it—and nobody will believe you made it, even if you’ve been making it every Christmas or whatever holiday for ten years. 

One year, right after I said to Michael, “Maybe I’ll skip the gravlax this year,” my mom called to ascertain, on my father’s behalf, that I was making the gravlax, and yes I was! Then again, I am the same person who found myself making latkes this year not a full ten minutes after saying, “I’m not making latkes this year.” Sigh. Happy everything, my loves.

Gravlax with Mustard Sauce
I follow the Barefoot Contessa’s basic recipe and method, but I use black pepper instead of white pepper, I omit the tablespoon of fennel seeds, and I add lemon zest (I have flavored it with crushed juniper berries instead of the lemon, which is also good). I use a little less sugar. I serve it very thinly sliced, in a big heap (although it usually gets eaten as quickly as I can slice it) with very thinly sliced cucumbers and (sometimes) fresh pumpernickel bread, which I make in skinny loaves following this ridiculously elaborate recipe from this book (Google “Artisan Bread caramel color” for the recipe for that maddening ingredient). That weird, damp brown pumpernickel cocktail bread would work fine, I bet, and another thing I’ve done is thinly slice pumpernickel bagels, not the usual way, but top to bottom into narrow, skinny slices. You could also serve the gravlax on a plate, with just a wedge of lemon, and skip the bread and mustard sauce. I’m sorry this is such a long and micromanaging headnote.

2 (1 1/2-pound) pieces center-cut very, very fresh salmon fillet
½ cup kosher salt
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons black peppercorns, crushed
1 large bunch of fresh dill, plus extra for the sauce 
The zest of one large lemon, shaved off in strips
Pumpernickel bread and thinly sliced cucumbers, for serving

Place one piece of salmon in a deep dish, skin side down. Combine the salt, sugar, and peppercorn in a small bowl and sprinkle half of it evenly over the salmon. Wash and shake dry the dill and arrange it over the fish. Top the dill with the lemon zest and sprinkle the remaining spice mixture over it. Place the other piece of salmon over the dill and spices, skin side up. Cover the dish with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Place a smaller dish on top of the plastic wrap and weight it with heavy cans (I find this easiest if I first put a small baking sheet on top of the salmon; the salmon will lose a lot of bulk as the liquid is pulled out of it by the salt, so if it flattens below the rim of the dish it’s in, lose the baking sheet.

The Contessa’s next instructions are this: “Refrigerate the salmon for at least 2 to 3 days, turning it every 12 hours and basting it with the liquid that collects.” But, except for turning it roughly every 12 hours, that’s not what I do. I do the same thing every year: I make it mid-day on the 23rd, and on Christmas eve, we bring half of it to a friend’s house. I leave the other half in the fridge, with the dill and spices still, and we eat that one on Christmas day. But some of us think that the first night, when it’s only been curing for a day and a half, is when it’s best. Also, I don’t baste it.

To serve, lay the salmon fillets flat on a cutting board and scrape off most of the dill and spices. Slice with a long, thin, very sharp knife, at an angle across the grain. Arrange the slices in a heap on a platter, with the bread, cukes, and sauce, and let people help themselves.

Mustard Sauce
½ cup Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons dry ground mustard (I use Coleman’s)
6 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup white wine vinegar
2/3 cup neutral-tasting vegetable oil (she uses olive oil, but I think it’s too strong)
6 tablespoons chopped fresh dill (my mum swears that if you cut it with a knife instead of properly snipping it with scissors, it tastes bitter, and I am an obedient child)

Combine the mustard, ground mustard, sugar, and vinegar in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the oil and stir in the chopped dill. Serve with the gravlax.


  1. Makes me wish I was Scandinavian. I'm going to check our swanky co-op and see if the salmon is possible.

  2. Re: Caramel coloring--would burnt sugar syrup be similar enough that you could buy that instead of making your own? A million years ago, when I was living in Boston, I fuond it at a Caribbean grocery so I could make Laurie Colwin's Black Cake, from HOME COOKING. It might have been this brand:
    Just tossing it out there. And if it's not the same thing, at least I got to think about Laurie Colwin :)

    1. That looks like it would work perfectly, Carrie! Laurie Colwin. Sigh.

    2. plazamom11:42 AM

      Yes, I really miss Laurie Colwin, too. Sigh. I checked out a book of her stories from the library just last month, for old times' sake.

    3. Sometimes I still just can't believe there'll never be another Laurie Colwin book. But. Black cake. Roast chicken. Yam and black bean fritters. BLACK CAKE. Thanks for the memories!

  3. I just really liked your title. I can always trust you to plainly spell things out.

  4. Do you just buy the salmon at the grocery store? Or do you go to a fishmonger or something? (In MN we are not known for our seafood selection....). Elsiroomom (#notreallyanonymous)

    1. Hi Elisroomom! I buy the fish at Whole Foods here, but if you have a Costco nearby, I have found that they tend to have excellent salmon.

  5. This looks like the perfect, fussy fancy (but not fussy to make) Christmas Day appetizer that I just realized I should make and take to my mom's house so I can be the hero of the day!

  6. Caroline12:01 PM

    Ok-- I am making this today and I'm very excited about it! I have what is probably a stupid question. What do you mean by "turn it every 12 hours"? Do I flip the salmon, so the bottom piece is on top and the top on the bottom? Or rotate it around so the top stays on top? I'm thinking it must mean flip because if the weight is evenly pushing down on the salmon what difference could front and back make? But I am suddenly worried I'm going to ruin the whole process by misunderstanding. P.S. I was pre-bragging to my kids about how awesome this Gravlax will surely be, and my daughter said "Mom, I'm sure your Crotch-Rocks are going to be fantastic." :)

    1. Ha ha! Crotch-Rocks. Yes, that's right. It's a bit of a pain: remove the cans and the wrap, turn the whole bundle of salmon over, and replace everything. Report back! xo

    2. Caroline3:57 PM

      Thank you!! So far, so good!

    3. Caroline12:41 PM

      The Crotch-Rocks were fantastic! I think this might have to be a new Christmas tradition. So easy and so delicious! Thank you!

  7. ok please forgive me being off topic--i am trying to find an old lasagna recipe that I think might have been from you--it was in a column of a parenting magazine that isn't published anymore (maybe CHILD?). It was a series called "beat this recipe" or something like that--throwing down the gauntlet for someone to send in a better recipe--the lasagna had chicken broth and cream cheese in the white sauce and red wine in the red meat sauce--and it was awesome and my family loved it and i lost it and my internet sleuthing skills have failed me---and my kids have requested it for christmas eve----aggh!! was it your recipe? can you help? thank you thank you in advance.......laura in california

    1. So sorry it's not in time for Christmas Eve, but I bet you're looking for this Ann Hodgman recipe:

    2. She wrote cookbooks called "Beat This!" and "Beat That!" and the [now defunct] link goes to
      Maybe you can serve it for New Year's Eve? xox

  8. Anonymous12:28 AM

    I have to make gravlax every new year's eve, or I think my family would disown me. Mine's slightly different: I leave it in the fridge to cure for a full 5 days. Starting out with sushi grade salmon. And adding gin to the salt- sugar- aromatics (yep, there's your juniper flavour!) Lovely and firm: as you say, the moisture is drawn out of the salmon leaving it silky and toothsome and lovely. Serving? I just slice it and pile the paper-thin slices on a small plate with a tiny fork beside it so people can lift a slice to their open hand. It usually lasts a full minute! -Carol S-B

  9. Should you ever find yourself wanting to change it up a bit, try putting grated raw beets into the salt mixture. The salmon ends up looing like an umbrella drink, ombre pink to orange, with a lovely flavor.

  10. Barbara5:56 PM

    I made this for Christmas Eve. There were just enough leftovers for Christmas Day appetizers so the folks who couldn't make it until the 25th didn't feel left out. I will definitely make this again! Thank you.

  11. My mom definitely love this one. .Can't wait <3

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