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Imported From Sweden: Gravlax, a Treat Made From Salmon

In the mid 1980s, at the end of a two-month trip through Asia and Russia with our then 5-year-old son, we stopped in Sweden. We’d been living in Singapore for two years, enjoying an incredible variety of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Indonesian food. Our first meal in Stockholm was gastronomic culture shock. There were endless varieties of meat, fish, cheese, vegetables, breads and berries artfully arranged on a breakfast buffet. I began by tasting a little bit of almost everything. When I tasted the thinly sliced, cured salmon I was expecting salty lox and was surprised by the fresh, slightly sweet, dill flavor and delighted by the sauce that accompanied it.

I went back to the buffet for a second helping and knew that I would order it at every meal until we left Stockholm. A friendly Swede at the buffet table explained that what I had fallen in love with was called gravlax. She explained that the word gravlax is a combination of two Scandinavian words — grav meaning grave and lax meaning salmon — and was in fact the recipe for making it. In the Middle Ages, fishermen prepared salmon by salting and burying fish in the sand, above the high tide line, to ferment. Fortunately, the salmon on the buffet had been cured with salt, sugar and fresh dill in a refrigerator rather than fermented in sand. It was a lovely shade of orange, thinly sliced, served with buttered brown bread and a sweet mustard, dill sauce called hovastarsas. Months later, after we had recovered from our trip halfway around the world, I remembered my salmon binge in Stockholm and decided to make gravlax. It was a remarkably simple process and I make it frequently.

Salmon and trout are in the same family with the distinction that salmon migrate and trout don’t. Salmon come from both the Atlantic and Pacific and may be either wild or farmed. Varieties of salmon include: Chinook, Coho, pink, sockeye, steelhead and chum. Gravlax can be made with any variety of salmon, and I choose the variety based on guidance I get from Alex, the guy behind the fish counter at my market.

The last time I made it was for a dinner party to welcome our friend, Kay, back from her recent trip to Sweden. Following Alex’s recommendation, I chose a one-pound fillet of steelhead. I prepared it three days before the party so that it would have time to cure. Here’s how I did it:

Gravlax

1 pound salmon filet

3 Tablespoons granulated sugar

3 Tablespoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons ground black pepper

1 bunch fresh dill, including stems, chopped (reserve 3 Tablespoons for mustard sauce)

1 Tablespoon gin

I put the salmon, skin side down, over an inverted shallow bowl to make it easy to find any bones, and used a pair of kitchen tweezers to pull them out. I combined the sugar, salt and black pepper in a small bowl. I put the filet, skin side down, on a large piece of plastic wrap, spooned a thick layer of the salt-sugar-pepper marinade onto the salmon flesh, topped it with a generous layer of fresh dill leaves, sprinkled on the gin and then wrapped the salmon, marinade and dill tightly in the plastic. I put it into the fridge in a shallow bowl to cure. I put a can of beans on top of the fish to compress it and tried to remember to turn it once or twice a day. The salmon was ready in three days but can be cured for as long as a week. The addition of gin is optional. I use it because we like the taste of juniper it adds.

Just before dinner, while the tiny, new potatoes cooked, I made the sweet mustard sauce. Here’s how I did it:

Sweet Mustard Sauce

2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

1 Tablespoon white vinegar

3 Tablespoons vegetable oil

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

3 Tablespoons dill

I used a whisk to combine the mustard, honey, vinegar, oil and salt. When the mixture was creamy, I stirred in the dill.

To serve the gravlax, I discarded the dill leaves and gently scraped off any excess black pepper. I used a knife with a thin, sharp blade to slice the salmon as thinly as possible, at a 45-degree angle from the top of the fillet toward but not through the skin.

At dinner we shared memories of sunny days in Stockholm and stories of unexpected food discoveries, all unforgettable, whether they were as delightful as gravlax or as disastrous as sea cucumbers — but that’s a story for another day.

Carol Egbert lives in Quechee, where she paints and cooks. Her food blog can be found at www.carolegbert.com.