Finding gravlax in the south of France is a bit disconcerting, like strolling through an open air market and seeing a vendor in full Viking regalia hawking cured fish among his competitors’ stands of sausage, nougat, and sour cherries. But there it was, gravlax, an appetizer goody that arrived at our table one night to prime the pump before the serious business of the main course–eating duck–began. Thin slices of cured salmon with a beautiful fringe tinted the color of roses. Except the color derived from beets. Gravlax à la betteraves, the menu said. I’m still a little confused about that singular à la preceding a plural betteraves (beets). Did we stumble across a menu error in grammar? Or was that simply how it was done? The plate itself gave no clue–just salmon, no accompanying beet(s) salad. The betteraves had played their part in the cure–a bit of flavor, a lot of visual drama–and were then ushered offstage. The flavor erased our interest in grammar. Rich, buttery salmon, a hint of beet, of dill and gorgeous color. None of us could remember the last time we had gravlax, but it had been awhile. Wouldn’t it be great for picnic? Gravlax with a Beet Cure packed among the dark bread, cheese and fruit tarts? Especially with a few cucumbers and some fermented European butter spread on the dark bread before layering on the salmon? Of course it would.
Gravlax is raw salmon that has been cured in a mixture of salt, sugar and dill. In ye olden times the fish was then buried so it could ferment, essentially preserving it in the way that traditional pickles are created, that is, by putting something in a mixture of salt and sugar then allowing the naturally present lactobacillus bacteria to thrive. These bacteria produce lactic acid, which creates the sour flavor of the pickles. The sour environment inhibits the growth of undesirable bacteria that cause organic matter to rot. The food is preserved and the sugar takes the edge off the salty flavor. We no longer bury the salmon–or allow it to ferment. Our modern “cure” is really all about reducing the moisture content of the fish and adding some flavoring. We’re not preserving the salmon until next spring, just until the next picnic. Enjoy. Ken
RIDING FOR THE OTHER CURE. As you read this I’m driving Jody and her fellow Team Rialto-Trade members out to Sturbridge for the 2014 PanMass Challenge. Between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon the team will cycle over 200 miles from Sturbridge to Provincetown, from western Massachusetts to the very tip of Cape Cod. The ride raises money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. It also serves as vivid reminder that none of us escape cancer’s reach. Some of the riders are cancer survivors; others have lost a spouse, a sibling, a child or parent–you can tell by the pictures printed on their t-shirts and jerseys. Others, like one of Jody’s sisters, are still battling the disease. And that’s the point–all of us could be riders. Generous donors have already pushed Team Rialto-Trade past its goal of $1oo,ooo this year. If you’d like to add your help to the search for a cure, please consider making a donation to Jody’s ride on the PanMass Challenge website. No amount is too small. Thank you.
Gravlax with a Beet Cure
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon peppercorns, white if you can get them
- ½ cup coarse sea salt
- ½ cup demerara sugar
- 1 pound medium raw fresh beets
- 1 2-pound side of wild salmon, from sustainable sources. Ask your fishmonger to remove the scales and bones, but leave the skin on.
- 2 cups fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
- 1 cup coarsely chopped, washed and dried, fresh dill
- Optional: dark bread, butter, mascarpone or crème fraîche, cucumbers, lemons
- Crush the fennel seeds and peppercorns together, using the bottom edge of a small pot or pan (see photos). In a bowl, combine the crushed fennel and pepper with the salt and sugar.
- Peel the beets. If they come with leaves, save the leaves and use them like spinach in another recipe. Grate the beets using the large-holed grating disc of a food processor.
- Check the fish for pin bones (see Jody Notes) then rub the fish all over with the salt mixture. Lay a piece of plastic wrap in a non-reactive pan and then set the fish, skin side down, on top of the plastic. Pat the remaining salt mixture over the fish. Pack the beets on top of the fish. Sprinkle with the basil and dill.
- Pull the plastic wrap up over the fish and tuck in the edges so the fish is wrapped snuggly. Top the fish with a couple of bricks or another weight. I like to use a small cutting board, and then put the weights on that in order to distribute the pressure. Refrigerate for 24 to 72 hours. The longer it cures, the drier and saltier it will be. As it cures it will release liquid–this is supposed to happen. I like the texture and flavor best after 48 hours. If you’re uncertain, check it after 24 hours. You can always close it up, replace the weights and shove it back in the fridge.
- When the salmon is sufficiently cured, scrape off the marinade, rinse under running water and pat dry. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate. When serving, use a long-bladed knife, very sharp, to cut thin slices across the grain. You get better with practice and if you make a mistake you can always eat it. Serve with lemon, dark bread and butter, mascarpone or crème fraîche.
This recipe is dedicated to BA, one of the most intrepid home cooks I know and a generous traveling companion. She ordered the beet gravlax in St. Cirq Lapopie, and wanted to know how to make it. Here you go.
A couple of tips. Rub your fingers over the flesh side of the salmon before you cover it with the salt mix. If you feel any pin bones poking through, remove them. If you don’t, the gravlax will tear where the knife edge encounters a bone while you slice it. Most cooks use needle-nose pliers to remove pin bones; I prefer a strawberry huller, which you can see in Ken’s photographs. When slicing, use the sharpest, thinnest straight blade you have. Ideally you would use a granton slicer–that’s the official name for those long skinny blades with tiny dents in the blade surface. The dents help prevent things like smoked fish or rare roast beef from sticking to the blade as it slices. We don’t have one so I just used the sharpest knife I could find. Ken likes wide slices cut an angle, which are quite pretty, but difficult to pull off. I just cut narrow slices. Whichever you do, slice down at an angle.
Curing, along with fermenting, is all the rage. It’s fun to do, it’s easy, and it is a great way to preserve abundance or excess. I have to work hard not to laugh when some young cook who’s applying for a job asks me, “Do you have a fermentation program at Rialto?” A fermentation program? Only since before you were born, I want to say, only since before you were born.