Le Pique-Nique 2 – Gravlax with a Beet Cure


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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.


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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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


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Jody Notes:  

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.   





42 thoughts

  1. Such vibrancy! Gorgeous colors, and what a wonderful picnic accompaniment. I almost guessed you were making gravlax, but the fish looks white in the photo. But that got me thinking.. could you make gravlax with tuna? hmmm

    • Boy, you’re up early (or still in Europe?). Glad you like the color–the beets are great. I’ve never tried it with tuna, but I don’t see why you couldn’t do it, or any other fatty fish like bluefish or mackerel for that matter. The thing is, given the grain of the muscle fibers, I think you’d want to do it with something that you could buy as an entire side so that you could be sure to slice against the grain, which you could easily do with blues or mackerel, but kind of tough to find for tuna, which is already portioned as a slice cut across the grain. Let me know if you try any of the variations–I’m really curious to see how they’d work out. Thanks. Ken

      • Got back last night! Good point about the tuna. I’ll just have to live vicariously through you guys, as I can’t get sides of fish except for salmon. Catfish anyone?!!!

  2. I love gravlax! It´s one of the things that is always available in Iceland and I always have some in my freezer just in case I will have to pull up something quickly for guests. Still I have never heard of nor tried one that contains beetroots. It looks gorgeous and the recipe sounds delicious so I´m defiantly making your gravlax to take with me to the summerhouse next week.

      • Your welcome :-) and yes I´m Iceland experiencing an extremely rainy summer over here so I´m spending more time in the kitchen than usual. Anyway… Arnaldur Indriðason is one of my favorite authors but it´s hard to say which is my favorite novel because I love them all. Do you guys have a favorite by him?

      • I’m still working my way through the series, and trying to figure out the correct order–not all of his books are available in English here and the ones that are aren’t necessarily in the correct order. His main character is wonderfully misanthropic, and extremely sympathetic when it comes to his daughter. His one thriller (vs.his mystery series) was good, I thought, but what most interested me was the background on Icelandic politics vis à vis Nato bases. Jody doesn’t read mystery series. Ken

  3. Pingback: Le Pique-Nique 2 – Gravlax with a Beet Cure | Cooking Harmony

    • We bought this particular salmon at Whole Foods, which was having a sale on wild salmon. For the record, our favorite seafood store in Cambridge is Courthouse Fish Market. Ken

  4. Jody and Ken -I just love that you posted this recipe for me and I am going to make it ASAP. It was also very clever of you two to post a “cure” the weekend of the PMC! Safe riding and I will see you all in Brewster on Sunday morning..thank you for creating the recipe and all of your amazing fund raising/team sprit/and riding to help beat out cancer…you two are the best! BA
    PS. On a more practical note, how long will with cured salmon keep?

    • In spite of the cure, gravlax is still essentially fresh fish (unlike, say, salted or smoked seafood) so we use it within a few days of curing it. Cooking Harmony (see comment above) who’s in Iceland, says she freezes it. I assume you wrap it tightly in plastic and then foil. I can’t claim to have tried it, but next time we have leftovers from a batch I definitely will. Ken

  5. Wow, you guys have done it again. I literally had bookmarked another cured salmon recipe, but I still don’t trust my curing/pickling skills. I had my preserved lemons and I’m still okay. I had my radishes, but I’m afraid if I have them again, I’ll die. I was too scared to mess with fish, but alas, I’m going to do this. I grew up on smoked salmon. I probably had it for breakfast every weekend for the first 18 years of my life. Maybe more. And at every special occasion. Such is my heritage. I cannot wait to make this for my grandma. Thank you so much. The photos are so beautiful. I really love the beet twist. I feel so funny. I’ve cooked more off of your blog lately than anywhere else. Also, Cape Cod is so beautiful. I used to go there as a kid. I got engaged there too. Have a wonderful ride. Be safe, work hard.

    • If it really said “à la betteraves” with an S, it was a mistake! :) I’ve made beet gravlax before, also using orange and lemon zest, but not herbs. Nowadays I hardly ever eat salmon, but your beautiful post makes me want to make an exception, and if I do, I’ll give your version a go, I love the look of all those fresh herbs.

      • Oops, I don’t know how this post ended up under Amanda’s comment, but now it did: Amanda, stop worrying and make gravlax! It is foolproof and so delicious! You can totally make it! :)

  6. Top class Ken. Absolutely top class. I am doing some work with a fish company based in County Kerry. They have been smoking wild salmon since 1963. I intend getting into the smoke house when it is in action. I also intend putting the arm on them for a side or two….

  7. Saw your recipe in the market cookbook, which I noticed/bought at Costco! Then got this today from one if my favorite chefs. Jody Adams has Rialto in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. And a couple of other spots in the area. A great food newsletter. Enjoy!

    Sharon S. Feather 600 Spruce Avenue Lake Forest, IL 60045 P: 847.234.1826 C: 224.554.9216 ssfeather@mac.com


    • Hi, Sharon–Quite a red letter day! To be honest, I didn’t even know about The Market Cookbook (although I’m sure Jody told me at one point). She’s all over the place, so half the time I find out after the fact. :-) Ken

  8. I’ve thought about making gravlax before but this is the first I’ve heard of using beets in the process. The color of your gralvax is incredible and has given me the bug to give it a try. Thanks for posting this how-to for us, and, as always, Ken, your photography is stunning.

  9. Thank you for this beautiful inspiring post! I am improvising using homemade lacto-fermented beet relish on a small piece of wild sockeye salmon. It’s been in the frig for 48 hrs and still feels wiggly, not firm. Should it feel firm when ready?

    • Hmmm… that depends. Sorry, but this is going to be a guess, since I can’t look in your fridge. My first question is, Have you ever had gravlax? If yes, and you know what that texture is like, then trust your own judgment. If not, I can only say, it’s going to be like some forms of very moist smoked salmon, with the emphasis on “moist.” The other factor here is that I don’t know what effect your fermented beet relish will have on it. If it were me, I’d probably slice into it and if it were anywhere north of sushi, declare victory and eat it. Let me know what you discover. Ken

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