Friday, December 26, 2008

Bright Lights, Fun Nights and Gravlax -- It Must Be the Holiday Season

Things have been festive here in Blog Appetit land.

We've attended several swell Chanukah parties -- annual affairs hosted by friends who are like family with not so much dreidel to play, but lots of latkes (potato pancakes) to eat. Still to come are birthday celebrations (for me!) and New Year's Eve festivities with catering by a private chef.

Jody, the hostess of the first party, is a good friend and an amazing cook. I felt honored when she asked if I could bring an appetizer and a vegetable side dish to complement her homemade chopped liver, prime rib, latkes with homemade applesauce, and more dinner. The side dish was easy -- Brussels sprouts. They are in season, very reasonable, my husband and Jody love them and I have a good recipe for them (more in another post). But the appetizer, that was harder to decide on.

I wanted something that was special and not too heavy (after all there was chopped liver), something that if not traditionally Jewish felt right. I did my usual crawl through the cookbooks when it suddenly came to me -- gravlax (cold cured salmon) would be perfect. It wasn't lox, a traditional Jewish brine-cured salmon or smoked salmon, but it had a definite gravitas and flavor that would work well at a Chanukah feast. (FYI -- Did you know the word lox comes from the same root word for salmon in German and Yiddish that is related to the Swedish word for salmon -- lax?)

Back to the cookbooks for more research. I decided on a Marcus Samuelsson recipe which I adapted. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden and became noted for his Scandinavian cooking at Aquavit in New York.

His recipe calls for kosher salt. As if I needed a sign that gravlax was "Jewish" enough for what I wanted, there is was. On the back of my decade-old box of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt was a recipe for gravlax and an accompanying mustard-dill sauce.

Making gravlax is relatively straight forward, you just need to allow enough time for the salt, sugar and pepper cure to do its work. Like many homemade versions of foods people are used to buying (such as pickles and ice cream), people assume making your own is much more complicated than the process really is, adding to the wow factor. Plus the cured salmon is delicious.

I've served it several ways, once as a starter for a Jewish holiday meal with an Italian green sauce with parsley, green olives and garlic (recipe here) as a first course and last Sunday as an appetizer sprinkled with chopped dill with mustard sauce on small squares of pumpernickel cocktail bread. This article has other serving suggestions and recipes, including one for a mustard-dill sauce. (I used Trader Joe's mustard aoli sauce, which I thought complemented the fish nicely.)

Holiday Gravlax

This version is very peppery, which I think cuts through the sweetness provided by the sugar in the curing mixture. The dill taste is there, but is not prevalent.

Makes about 3 pounds of gravlax or about 24 appetizer-sized servings

(Recipe adapted from Marcus Samuelsson's Gravlax with Mustard Sauce as it appeared in Dr. Shapiro's Picture Perfect Weight Loss Cookbook.)

1/2 cup kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons ground white pepper
2 tablespoons cracked (very coarsely ground) peppercorns -- I used a mix of five types, but all black or all white would work fine
3 pounds of salmon filets
3 bunches of fresh dill, divided
1 lemon, cut in thin slices or wedges

Toss together the salt, sugar and peppers. Mix thoroughly. Take about a half cup and rub it on both sides of the filet. Place the salmon in a non-reactive pan or dish that will accommodate it (my three pounds of filet were in two pieces and fit nicely in a large glass baking dish), skin side down if your filet still has its skin attached. Scatter the rest of salt, sugar and pepper mixture on top of the filet(s). Scatter the individual branches of dill from two of the bunches over the top. Cover with plastic wrap. Let sit at room temperature for about six hours. Move to the refrigerator. The salmon will exude liquids, refrigerate for 1-3 days, making sure the filet(s) stay evenly covered by the liquid. The fish should be nicely finished throughout and have a cured taste. (The longer you allow it to cure, the stronger the flavor. Very thin filets will cure faster than thicker ones.)

Remove from the brine, discard dill and brush off any remaining salt or peppercorns. (Remove the skin from the bottom of the salmon if necessary.) Slice thinly on the bias in short strips for appetizer portions to be served on bread or crackers or larger ones to serve as a starter. Serve with chopped dill from the remaining bunch and the lemon slices. (Note: If you are using the Italian green sauce, I'd opt to not to sprinkle the fresh, chopped dill over the gravlax.)

For step-by-step photos and a slightly different technique, click here.

Bonus: Here's Samuelsson's recipe for mustard sauce in case you need it: Mix 1 tablespoon honey mustard, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 2 teaspoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Mix in 3/4 cup canola or other vegetable oil "while you pour it in a steady stream." When the sauce has thicken to a "mayonnaise-like consistency" stir in a 1/4 cup of chopped fresh dill. (If you use this sauce, you may want to skip using the fresh dill on the platter of finished gravlax, unless you REALLY like dill.)

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