Gravlax – Swedish food in the raw

Gravlax sandwich

This Swedish specialty – the salt, sugar and dill cured salmon – these days internationally known under its original Swedish name gravlax or gravad lax, is served with a dill and mustard sauce and is prepared completely without any actual cooking.
Photo © J E Nilsson and C M Cordeiro-Nilsson for CMC 2010

Reading up on the latest food trends, I see that the Californian raw food is getting back in the cool stream of things with the idea of no heat, no cooking. The concept is today, spreading as an ecological trend and with the addition of ‘raw’ as in unrefined and unpolished that refers to back to basic foods. Like raw elk. With the horns on. Or, at least that was how I initially read it, and was admittedly not very impressed.

Personally I appreciate gourmet cooking as the ultimate in good handicraft and I see no point in flairs, fashions and useless embellishments. I have eaten my share of culinary creations that don’t taste good and combinations of flavours that just don’t work together, and have a healthy appreciation for the chefs that actually know what they are cooking, and don’t just combine textures and colours on a whim.

That we ever got stuck with the useless aspects of gourmet cooking is actually the fault of numerous cooking competitions where taste is only judged as one of several aspects of good cooking and not even the most important. In my view, taste should be ranked appropriately much higher than for example, the even thickness of slices or whether the display table has four equal legs.

The original ‘raw’ cooking

With the approaching Christmas season come the thoughts of the traditional Christmas dishes that we will soon meet again. Basic dishes that have been around for over several centuries, occasionally looked into and improved upon by gourmet chefs and home cookers alike, and which fill all criteria on the better aspects of ‘raw cooking’. These traditional dishes are also as far away from any food trends we can possibly get.

One dish that comes to mind is the Swedish specialty of gravlax or gravad lax, which is salt, sugar and dill cured salmon, served with a French mustard sauce also prepared completely without any actual cooking.

Gravlax – Salt, sugar and dill cured salmon

What you need in order to make this cured salmon dish is basically a really fresh piece of salmon, fresh dill and a heavy weight of about 3-4 lbs / 1-2 kg. Hygiene is of utmost importance and some will recommend that you deep freeze the salmon to sterilize it. In any warm climate or anything ‘off season’ I think this might be a good idea.

Gravlax ingredients

You will need

1 kg fresh salmon, preferably the mid part.
1-2 large bunches of dill
4 tbs sugar
1,4 tbs freshly crushed white pepper
3-4 tbs salt

Salmon, salt and pepper.

Remove all scales, wipe the fish dry but don’t rinse it. Turn the fish into two fillets. Remove all bones with a tweezer. Mix sugar, salt and white pepper and rub the salmon fillets in this.

Dill, after the salt and pepper on the salmon.

When the surfaces are thoroughly covered, add a handful of cut dill in between the fillets, cover with a dish, add a weight to press the two fillets together and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. Flip the fillets at least three times during this period, during which time you can add more dill. The purpose of the weight is to keep it down in the sugar and salt brine that will soon collect in the saucer. It also helps press together the salmon to form a more solid texture that is

easy to cut.

Cannon ball as weight on the salmon.

Personally considering the age old recipe, I chose a 6 lbs cast iron cannon ball as a weight as the most authentic of the weight options. I am positive it added quite some to the adventurous aspect of the flavour.

Gravlax, done.

When the salmon is ready to serve, scrape off the spices and cut in as thin slices as you can accomplish.

Slicing the salmon.

To enjoy this simple dish to its fullest, the ideal complement is a special French inspired dill – mustard sauce.

Gravlax with dill and mustard sauce.

To experience its fine flavor to the full only a few thin slices of gravlax with some dill-mustard sauce on a piece of toasted dark or hard bread is enough.

Leif Mannerströms Dill Mustard Sauce

This classic dill and mustard sauce occurs in a number of versions. In Sweden, with the particular addition of dill, it is called Hovmästarsås. The best version I have ever tried is the one the Swedish high profile chef Leif Mannerstöm have created for his restaurant Sjömagasinet in Gothenburg, and to get this right you need to be really careful with the ingredients as well as the proportions. There are no shortcuts, no improvisations, or it will not turn out right. The quality down to the brands, are important.

Ingrediets to dill and mustard sauce to the gravlax.

You will need

2 tbs Swedish mustard
1 tbs French dark mustard
3 tbs sugar (you can use honey)
Juice of ½ lemon
1 tbs red wine vinegar
1 tbs kikkoman soy sauce
A few drops of Worchester sauce
½ tbs freshly ground white pepper
1 tbs water
1 ½ dl equal parts canola, sunflower seed and corn oil.
1 bunch of dill, thin parts finely chopped.

You will not know what a gem of dill mustard sauce you have here before you have tried this specific recipe. If you cheat on any of the ingredients or miss out on the proportions I would say, it will fail, at least in being as good as it can. The particular splendour of this sauce is the supreme balance between spicy, sweet, sour and acidy tones, that opens up a flavour universe of a kind that is the particular signature of Leif’s Sjömagasinet restaurant cooking we have commented on before, and what have made eating there over the years such a culinary adventure.

Stirring the mustard sauce to the gravlax.

Just stir to mix the ingredients.

Mixing is pretty straightforward. Mix everything except the dill and the oil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the oil into the mixture drop by drop if you like. Add the finely chopped dill last. Let the sauce mature in the fridge for a few hours. It will keep a few days in the fridge. The dill benefits from being added as close to serving as possible.

Adding dill to the mustard sauce, gravlax.

The sauce benefits from adding dill as close to serving as possible.

A few comments on the procedure; regarding the dill, you can use the stems or leave them out as you please. The flavour is the same in all parts of this herb.

Gravlax on toast bread.

Gravlax, a simple yet sophisticated piscatorial treat.

The oils you use should be flavourless. Olive oil is discouraged since it has way too much personality of its own. Corn oil does have a distinct flavour of its own, but if mixed with lemon juice as we do here, the corn oil flavour changes into the sour acidy taste of a fresh apple, which actually works very well with this sauce. This is a useful observation worth remembering for other purposes.

A decadent pour of dill and mustard sauce over gravlax on toast bread.

Gravlax or Gravad lax is a traditional part of any Swedish traditional buffét such as the smörgåsbord or the Swedish Christmas table.

Nowadays this dill-cured, sugar- and salt-marinated salmon has become a popular delicacy in the English-speaking world and English has simply adopted the Swedish name, gravlax along with the fish itself. And yes, schnapps goes well with it. Come to think of it, all Swedish food seem to go well with schnapps.

Swedish Schnapps rules (traditional):

1. Schnapps can only be had together with herring.
2. If you don’t have herring, anything will do as herring, except porridge.
3. If you don’t have anything except porridge, porridge will also do as herring.

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