The real reason we wanted to make gravlax actually goes back to New Year's Eve a few years ago.
Picture it: Dec. 31, 2011. Rhinebeck, N.Y. We had driven up to ring in the new year with our friends Ingela and Anders -- and half a dozen other folks -- at Ingela's parents' house in the beautiful upstate town of Rhinebeck.
As you might not be surprised to learn, given their names, both Ingela and Anders hail from Swedish stock. And they like to celebrate New Year's with a full-on traditional smörgåsbord. That means herring, boiled potatoes and pickled vegetables. It means sharp cheeses and sausages. It means made-from-scratch meatballs in a warm, creamy gravy.
And it means gravlax. (It also means many, many shots of akvavit accompanied by rounds of traditional Swedish songs. Of course we didn't know any of the words, but the akvavit made us not seem to mind.)
The gravlax was a highlight, the perfect balance of salty and sweet, shot through with that great, bracing dill flavor and served with a tangy mustard sauce.
It was an epic night. Here's a photo of us vamping with Ingela at some point in the evening:
Anyway, when we had our disappointing gravlax experience last week, we knew just who to call to set us straight with a traditional Sweish recipe for gravlax.
We set up a phone date with Ingela's mom, Paula.
Paula was born in Sweden and grew up there before moving to San Francisco in 1968. Today she splits her time between Rhinebeck, N.Y., and Southern California. We caught up with her in California, where she was about to head out for a day of golf.
Paula was more than happy to talk about her gravlax recipe. It was handed down to her from her mother, who had originally adapted it from a 1949 Swedish cookbook called Stora Kokboken. "I grew up eating this," Paula told us. "Always the same. It's a very old recipe."
Like many practiced chefs with a treasured family dish, Paula doesn't really even use a recipe anymore. "I just do it all by eye," she says. Everything is "a handful of dill" or "enough sugar." But once we cornered her and demanded more information, she helped us with some specific measurements. (By the way, we're joking about having to corner her; Paula was an absolute delight, and our chat was one of the most charming conversations we've had in a long time.)
One measure that needs no specificity, really, is the dill. Basically, you can't use enough of it. "You need tons of dill," Paula says. "You can't overdill it. But then again, I'm Swedish."
We talked with her about the Food Network Magazine gravlax we made last week, and she told us about the key differences between that recipe and the one she uses:
-- No brown sugar. ("In Sweden, we don't do that!") Instead, Paula's recipe uses white sugar.
-- Less salt. Paula uses equal parts salt and sugar, and she uses less of both than the Food Network recipe did. That recipe called for 3 cups of sugar-salt mixture; Paula's uses a total of about 1 cup.
-- No red onion, and no lime. ("Limes aren't exactly a traditional Swedish ingredient...") Paula's recipe keeps things simpler.
-- Skin on. Paula prefers to keep the skin on the salmon until she slices it just prior to serving. It helps keep everything intact and it makes the salmon easier to slice.
-- Weigh it down. The Food Network recipe didn't mention anything about weights. But Paula says it's "extremely important" to weigh down the wrapped pack of salmon. It helps the curing process, and it infuses the salmon with flavor. Paula uses her husband's dumbbell weight plates. You can also use a couple heavy cans of tomatoes or other heavy items.
-- Flip it! Again, there's no mention in the Food Network version about flipping the salmon during the curing process. But Paula says that flipping the whole thing once a day is crucial to help distribute the cure evenly.
Armed with Paula's tried and true recipe, we set out this past weekend for our third attempt at making our own gravlax. Despite the long curing time, the prep is crazy easy. We mixed, rubbed, stacked, wrapped, weighted, cured, and flipped. And flipped. And flipped. After three days, we pulled the salmon out, scraped off the excess spices, and sliced.
It's gooood. It's everything you want from a classic gravlax -- sweet, salty and aromatic from the dill.
Paula likes to serve her gravlax mixed with tiny potatoes that have been boiled in dill water. (Apparently you really can't overdill it!) We opted for more of an appetizer preparation, with slices of the cured fish atop brown bread.
However you serve gravlax, you must serve it with the excellent mustard sauce that Paula told us how to make, which she calls a Gravlax Sauce. It's tangy and creamy and the perfect accompaniment.
Gravlax is an ideal party food, because you prepare it completely in advance -- and because it's super delicious and super impressive and people will think you're totally amazing and maybe even a tad Swedish.
Growing up in Sweden, Paula says that gravlax was a very popular mid-summer dish. But it was also popular at Christmastime, which is mostly when she makes it nowadays. "I always make it for Christmas now. You know, there are certain dishes you just associate with certain holidays. But I don't know why I don't make it more often. It's always delicious!"
We think you'll agree!
Traditional Swedish Gravlax with Mustard Sauce
From Ingela's mom Paula, originally adapted from Stora Kokboken (1949)
Total time: 3 days | Active time: 15 minutes
1 lb center-cut salmon fillet, not too thick, preferably wild-caught
1/2 cup Kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
20 white peppercorns, coarsely cracked
20 black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
2 large bunches fresh dill, roughly chopped, about 2 cups
Mustard Sauce (recipe below)
Brown bread, such as pumpernickel, or crackers for serving
Run your finger or the back of a knife over the salmon fillet to expose any remaining bones; use tweezers to remove any you find. Cut salmon fillet in the center to create two 7 to 8 inch pieces of the same size (do not remove skin). Set salmon aside.
In a small bowl, mix salt, sugar and crushed peppercorns. Rub mixture on both sides of both pieces of salmon.
Place one sheet of plastic wrap on a smooth surface. Place one handful dill on the plastic wrap. Top with one piece of salmon, skin side down. Top with a few sprigs of dill. Place second piece of salmon on top, skin side up. Top with another handful of dill.
Wrap everything tightly using several sheets of plastic wrap. Place wrapped salmon in a dish or rimmed sheet pan large enough to allow the fish to lie flat. Top with another sheet pan and weigh down with moderately heavy weights, such as a couple cans of tomatoes. Place in refrigerator.
Let sit in refrigerator for 3 days, flipping the wrapped package once a day, returning the weights each time.
Remove wrapped package from refrigerator. Unwrap plastic and discard. Remove dill and scrape off excess salt-sugar mixture from fish.
Slice the salmon: Using your sharpest knife and wiping down the knife as you go, slice salmon into thin slices on the diagonal, down to the skin (discard skin). Arrange slices on a plate with brown bread or crackers. Serve with more dill and Mustard Sauce (below).
Gravlax Mustard Sauce
Total time: 5 minutes
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
3/4 Tablespoon sugar
2 Tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
Combine the mustard, sugar, vinegar and egg yolk in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil, combining until smooth. Add chopped fresh dill and serve.