Norwegian Cuisine: Gravlaks, Brined Raw Salmon

For centuries Norwegians have made the most out of their landscape and seas.  The rugged, cold, yet still bountiful country has always provided for those willing to work for it.  Like we have here in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, Norway’s cold waters, protected fjords, and clean rivers attract breeding salmon every year that form one of the mainstays of the local diet in a variety of forms, notably the raw, brine-cured gravlaks (recipe follows).  Norwegian waters also abound with whitefish like cod, pollock, and hake, which are the source of the famous local specialty lutefisk, whitefish cured in lye.

Norway quick facts:

  • Capital: Oslo
  • Population: 5,063,709 (2013 census)
  • Notable Norwegians: Saint Olaf, Henrik Ibsen, A-Ha

Game is also abundant in Norway’s forests and hills, and the Norwegian diet takes advantage.  Familiar game meats are used, like hare, duck, and moose, as well as others that might be considered more exotic like reindeer or ptarmigan.  Special occasions are the primary showcase for game dishes in Norway, especially Christmas and Easter, but simple game stews and roasts find their way into the year-round menu.  With neither of us being avid hunters and not wanting to pay the king’s ransom charged for farm-raised game meats locally, we focused our attention on the cured fish specialties of Norway.  Neither of us has ever tried it, but reports from Chris’s Scandinavian-descended mother are not exactly bullish on lutefisk.  Maybe another day.  Another, much less time-consuming cured fish preparation, gravlaks (recipe follows) caught our attention though and we’d like to share it today.

Gravlaks is not a strictly Norwegian specialty; they have gravlax in Sweden, gravad laks in Denmark, graavilohi in Finland, gravalax in Scotland, graavilõhe in Estonia, and graflax in Iceland, and they are all at their essence the same dish.  As a shining example of delicious international cuisine, we didn’t want to leave it off just because it can’t be pinned down to one country, so we chose to associate gravlaks with the first Scandinavian country we featured, Norway, and to spell the word according to the Norwegian language.  So it is with our sincerest apologies to our rightfully offended Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Scottish, Estonian, and Icelandic readers that we present Norwegian gravlaks.

Gravlaks

adapted from Cooking for Engineers and The Cooking of Scandinavia (Time-Life Foods of the World Series) by Dale Brown

SERVES 2-4 AS AN HORS D’OEUVRES

  • one salmon filet (we used a tail piece of coho)
  • enough of equal parts salt and sugar to amply cover the filet (we needed about 1/3 cup of each)
  • one bunch fresh dill
  • about forty whole peppercorns

The first step was to carefully trim the salmon of its skin, pick out any bones with pliers, and wash and drain the dill:

gravlaxfixins
We picked this piece of coho salmon for its beautiful, deep red color.

Next a large piece of aluminum foil was first layered with about half the salt and sugar:

drybrineoneside

…then about half the dill and peppercorns:

dilllayer

…and finally the piece of fish, followed in order by the rest of the peppercorns, dill, and salt and sugar mixture:

allingredients

The fish was not absolutely covered, but we figured it would be fine once we wrapped up the foil.

We tightly folded the foil over the fish and placed it in a bowl to catch the liquid that would surely leach out of the fish.  After about one day, there was noticeable runoff already:

gravlaxpackagedone
Delicious salmon juice can be seen just above the foil wrapper.

We couldn’t resist opening the package to check the progress of our gravlaks, and the result was impressive:

gravlax1day

The salt/sugar mixture had been turned into a thick slurry, and the salmon had an even darker red color.  We wrapped the salmon back up and returned it to the refrigerator for further curing.  Oh yeah, we refrigerated this after the first day as well.  It is probably important that we mention that for anyone wishing to try this at home.

After three days of, we assure you, refrigerated curing, the gravlaks looked only just a little bit darker than before:

gravlaxinbrinedone

It did, however, look smaller than we had remembered it being, and upon removing the fish from the foil and rinsing away the excess brine slurry and dill, it was clearly much stiffer:

gravlaxstiffnessdemo

It had almost taken on the firmness of beef jerky by this point, and in future preparations we would consider a shorter, one-day curing time to get a more tender result.

We picked up some water crackers, cream cheese, and Norwegian Jarlsberg cheese to accompany our gravlaks.  Jarlsberg is a Swiss-style cheese that is very mild in flavor and available in most supermarkets, at least in our Olympia, Washington area.  (Another noteworthy, supermarket-available Norwegian cheese we’d like to mention is Gjetost, a semi-soft, brown cheese made from caramelized cow’s milk whey.  Paired with fresh fruit, Gjetost is an interesting change of pace to cheeses you might be used to; by itself we find it almost cloyingly sweet.)

Sliced thinly, the gravlaks was arranged on a plate with the crackers, softened cream cheese, and Jarlsberg cheese:

gravlaxplate

Our gravlaks was strikingly salty at first bite, but that quickly gave way to an intensified salmon flavor from the curing process.  This has been one of the easiest dishes we’ve prepared for The World Cup of Food, and the next time we come into a windfall of salmon, as has been known to happen in the Northwest, we will certainly make it again.

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