Months ago, my darling friend Lashley invited me and my then new-ish boyfriend Andrew to a Þorrablót* feast held by The Icelandic Association of Northern California. Now, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but Lashley and her family never fail to disappoint on a good time, so we showed up curious, ready to have some fun, and a little bit late (oops).
*Þorrablót or Thorrablot is an Icelandic mid-winter celebration, generally involving traditional songs, food, drink and dancing.
Not long after sitting down, Lashley turned to Andrew with a giddy (and only slightly evil) grin on her face and announced that she’d nominated him as the representative from our table for an eating contest involving some Icelandic “delicacies.” Always a good sport, and perhaps aiming to impress, Andrew took on the challenge.
The organizers of the event weren’t messing around, and appropriately dubbed this diversion “Icelandic Fear Factor,” and set before the brave nominees tastes of traditional Icelandic fare such as hákarl*, blood sausage, head cheese, and some sort of pickled bone, all washed down with brennivín**.
* Fermented shark, with an aroma similar to that of ammonia cleaning products.
**A particularly potent schnapps colloquially referred to as “black death”.
Amongst ample cheering from our somewhat rowdy group, Andrew managed to finish it all (with minimal gagging I might add). Jenny (Lashley’s mom, more commonly referred to by our group of friends as J-Simms) turned to me and simply stated what I quickly was realizing – that he was a keeper.
You might notice that the gravlax changed containers; I realized that the easiest way to weight down the salmon during the curing process was to distribute the weight in a container, so I switched it to two pie plates, of which I have an ample supply. A brick would work well here, but I used what I had lying around – including pie weights and quarters…
Andrew is hardly nostalgic for the taste of hákarl, but adores gravlax, which actually came out of a similar tradition. Gravlax literally translates to “buried salmon” in many of the Scandinavian languages, as it originally was cured and fermented by burying it in the sand for a period of time in order to preserve it. Nowadays, it’s more of a luxury product, than a food of hardship, and is no longer fermented, rather, simply cured for a few days.
So, when Andrew’s 26th birthday rolled around last Saturday, I knew I’d try my hand at making one of his favorite breakfast treats. Even better, this doesn’t exactly break my streak of recipes on this blog involving sugar, as gravlax is salmon cured with a mixture of salt, sugar, and whatever aromatics strike your fancy. I mostly stuck with tradition and dusted it with dill, cracked peppercorns, lemon zest and crushed fennel seeds, but have seen a surprising amount of variety from citrus to Morrocan-inspired versions. I also (per his somewhat bizarre request) made a yule-log cake for his birthday cake (Christmas in July?), but sadly in my haste to get it all together in time for his birthday celebration forgot to take pictures!
I’m generally not as enamored with gravlax (or smoked salmon for that matter) as Andrew is, mostly due to my distaste for dill (gravlax) and smoked foods (smoked salmon) but I really appreciated the clean, slightly sweet flavor to this, it doesn’t muck around too much with the natural flavor of the salmon.
In exciting news (at least to us), Andrew and Pat’s (of Pattycake fame) company TEESPY is nearly ready to launch their product, which in a nutshell is a social app for golf/a client for booking tee times. If you’re a golfer (or even if you’re not) check out their promotional video and website. I barely dabble in golf (I like hitting some balls at the driving range from time to time, but that’s about it) but found it entertaining nonetheless. Congrats guys!
This is less a recipe and more a technique, so feel free to experiment a bit flavor-wise. I mostly stuck to traditional flavors, but came across a surprising amount of variety from citrus to Morrocan-inspired versions. Andrew likes his gravlax best on a toasted (onion) bagel with cream cheese, sliced red onion, capers and thinly sliced tomato, but I prefer it in a salad with a mustardy dressing; the options are wide ranging for pairings, I’d love to hear your favorite. Also note that I made this mainly for one person, so stuck to a fairly small portion (just shy of one pound of salmon) feel free to double or triple if making for a crowd – this made enough gravlax for 4-5 bagels.
Adapted from this Ina Garten recipe
1 pound very fresh* salmon, center-cut (I used wild Alaskan king salmon, but go with whatever looks best where you are)
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 large bunch dill, about ¼-½ cup roughly chopped, the rest intact + another fresh bunch the day of slicing
the zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper (white is traditional, but I had black on hand)
≈ ½ teaspoon crushed fennel seed (optional)
Carefully remove and discard any pin bones that remain in the salmon (it’s easiest to do this with a good pair of tweezers). Mix together all other ingredients except the whole dill sprigs. Spread about half of the curing mixture in a shallow dish**; place the fillet skin side down in the dish and sprinkle with the remaining curing mixture. Place dill sprigs on top, and cover the dish loosely with plastic wrap. Place a second dish of the same size or smaller on top of the salmon and fill with weights (I used cans, pie weights and a couple rolls of quarters, use whatever you have on hand).
Refrigerate for 2-3 days (until the flesh feels a bit firmer, and the fillet is of uniform thickness from the weights), flipping the salmon at least every 12 hours, and basting with some of the liquid that will collect in the bottom of the dish.
When ready to slice, remove the salmon and rinse it off and pat it dry. Place on a cutting board, and slice on a bias as thinly as possible; I found this mostly took practice to get nice larger (but thin) pieces, but a very sharp knife will go a long way towards ensuring your success. Sprinkle with a handful of freshly chopped dill, and dig in.
*very important as this is basically a raw preparation
** I used a Pyrex pie plate, because I had two of them, which makes it easier to evenly distribute the weights on the salmon during the curing process, but use whatever you have on hand that will comfortably fit the fillet size you are using.