There are some dishes that make a cook look good with remarkably little effort and no special skills. This is one of them. Its exact provenance, for once, is known. It comes from a newsletter called “The Food Enthusiast,” published many years ago by this writer and a fine chef named Yvonne Gill, who was then running a well-known restaurant in Birmingham, Mich. It was part of a spectacular menu featuring her favorite foods that we created for an imaginary birthday bash.
The recipe is a variation on gravlax, also known as gravad lax (Swedish), gravet laks (Danish) and gravlaks (Norwegian). A Scandinavian classic that has been around since the Middle Ages, it originally was made by fishermen who fermented salmon by salting it and burying it in the sand. “Grav” means “grave” or “to dig” in those languages, and “lax” is salmon. Thus, “gravlax” was “buried salmon.”
None requires burial, but many recipes for gravlax exist today, including “quick” versions that don’t pass muster for some of us. This one takes time, but the ingredients do the work, not the cook. The traditional approach uses all dill; this one allows for a combination of herbs. Another difference is brushing the finished salmon with a dressing of the marinade and some extra virgin olive oil for an attractive presentation. The sauce here is an easy and delightful one courtesy of Sally Shapiro, of Longboat Key. The recipe was published originally with a richer, homemade, mayonnaise-based, mustard-caper sauce available by request to mschechter@YourObserver.com.
Sarasota gets spicy
Penzeys Spices, a favorite mail- order resource for decades, recently opened a shop at 1516 Main St. between Lemon and Orange avenues. It stocks an almost unimaginable variety of herbs and spices in various sizes of jars and in bulk: for example, two varieties of white peppercorns, whole and ground, and three varieties of black in four forms — whole, cracked, coarse grind and fine shaker grind. The double-strength vanilla is a personal favorite. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Cured Salmon with Herbs and Cracked Pepper
Start to finish: Four days
Servings: 12 or more appetizer portions
1 salmon fillet (or “side”) weighing 2 pounds, skin on
2 ounces kosher salt or sea salt
1 tablespoon sugar or more to taste
4 ounces onion (1 medium large)
1 1/2 tablespoons white peppercorns
1/2 cup (generous) minced fresh herbs, all dill or in combination with lemon thyme, chervil, tarragon or chives, plus additional for garnish (recipe as shown used 2 parts dill and 1 part minced chives)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Day 1: Prep and cure
Remove any bones and belly fat from fillets. Put peppercorns in a double plastic bag and pound with a mallet or the bottom of a small heavy saucepan to crack them. Combine salt, sugar and cracked pepper to make a dry rub and press it into all surfaces, flesh and skin. Peel onion and slice paper-thin. Divide into two equal parts.
Cut two sheets of foil 3 inches larger than the fillet, all around. Spread one on work surface and strew with half the onion slices. Place fillet on top, then add remaining onions. Cover with second piece of foil and pleat edges to seal. Label the skin side of the packet and put on a cookie sheet, skin side down. Marinate in refrigerator for 24 hours.
Day 2: Turn and cure.
Turn packets over so skin side is up, and return to refrigerator for 24 hours.
Day 3: Herb and weight
Turn packet and open carefully; spread herbs on flesh side of fish. Re-seal packet and replace on cookie sheet, herbed side up. Top with another cookie sheet or a cutting board and distribute about 10 pounds of weight (use cans or bricks) evenly across it. This makes the salmon compact for easy slicing. Refrigerate for 18 to 24 hours.
Day 4: Presentation
Open packet and pour marinade into a small bowl.
Place fillets skin side down on a carving platter or board and wipe clean with paper towels.
Strain reserved marinade and whisk 2 to 3 tablespoons together with the oil. Brush salmon liberally with this mixture.
Slice thinly on the diagonal, starting at the tail end. Garnish with sprigs of fresh dill and serve with thin, sliced rye or pumpernickel bread or crackers and dill sauce.
Sally Shapiro’s Dill Sauce
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons dried dill weed
Whisk first four ingredients into a paste, then whisk in oil. Add dill and stir to combine. Refrigerate to thicken slightly.
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