Luscious. Silky. Salty. Fishy. Yum.
This gravlax was all of these lovely things. It was also cured in the trunk of my car. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It started, as all salmon do, as an egg (yum, salmon roe!) in a creek or riverbed in a tributary that drains into the Copper River in Alaska. It grew and swam (and was swept) downstream into the cold, rich waters of the Pacific Ocean. The cold water made it develop a lot of fat, tasty fat that doesn’t congeal in the cold and thus is healthful and all things good for us humans to eat. It ate lots of stuff – crustaceans, squids, jellies, and other things that eat lots of marine plants and even smaller things that eat more marine plants. You know those omega 3 essential fatty acids health people are always going on about? They are mainly found in marine plants. So when things eat those plants and then other things – like salmon – eat them, the omega 3s build up in a most pleasing and beneficial way. Yet, like magic, this salmon remained low in mercury – they eat fairly low on the food chain compared to, say, swordfish or sharks, and they also simply don’t live that long enough (about 3 to 5 years) to build up mercury the way longer-loved fish do. Nice work, salmon.
This particular fish then had the great misfortune (or is that supreme honor?) to end up in Bill Weber’s gillnet last September (it was on its way to spawn – and die– in the same river where it was an egg). If I know Bill, and I don’t know him well but I have met him and heard him speak at length about how he handles his fish, this salmon was hand-picked off the net, bled (which drastically slows down decomposition), and immediately put on ice. Bill has all kinds of special and advanced methods because, at heart, the man is an inventor of things, an improver of ways.
There are people who will say – and they are probably right – that the wild salmon population is not doing so well and that, really, we probably shouldn’t be eating any of these creatures. We should let them all spawn and reproduce as much as possible. Fishermen and the communities they support, of course, have many arguments against this stance. I’ve decided that if there are only so many salmon left and other people are eating them, I want my share. I don’t eat it very often and when I do I buy it from fishermen I know are fishing responsibly and with great care so the fish I get is as awesome as possible.
And I did. Behold! A thing of great beauty!
It was then packed and shipped to SFO where my editor and pal Bruce Cole picked it up and brought it to his garage. I arrived, fillet knife in hand, and – visualizing but in no way imitating the clean, swift lines of the professionals I witnessed in Cordova – filleted this lovely creature while Bruce laughed at my lack of upper body strength (it’s a BIG fish!). I then took full advantage of my excellent fine motor skills, superlative manual dexterity, and expensive professional tweezers to pull out the pin bones one by one:
I then lugged it home in a trash bag with a few of its equally mangled brethren and one to fillet at home (so I could photoshoot it for you! see above!), packed it up very carefully, and put it in the deep freezer.
The Sunday before Christmas, I pulled this salmon out (yes, the whole salmon, both sides) and let it thaw. I did this because there is Norwegian in me and every Christmas (usually on the Eve) we have gravlax. It is what we do.
On Tuesday I rinsed the salmon, patted it dry, lay the two halves on a very clean counter skin-side-down, and sprinkled each half with 2 tablespoons of horseradish-infused vodka (usually I’d use aquavit, but we were out – yes, we usually have it in the freezer and yes, we ran out; what can I say, it was a trying fall). I then sprinkled each half with about a third of a mixture made of 1/3 cup fine sea salt, 1/3 cup sugar, and 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper. A person could add dill to this mixture – about ¼ cup chopped – if they were so inclined and I would be so inclined except that my dashing husband really doesn’t like dill and really, really, really loves gravlax and Christmas is, despite how some people may choose to proceed, not a time to torture loved ones.
I put one half of the salmon skin-down in a large baking dish and laid the other half skin-up on top of it so the flesh more or less matched up. I covered it with foil and plastic wrap, weighed it down with a cutting board that fit inside the dish, put it in the fridge and laid a few wine bottles on top to weigh it down further.
On that Wednesday morning I woke up at the ass crack of dawn. I took the salmon out of its dish, patted it dry, and transferred it to a small baking sheet I had sprinkled with half of the remaining salt-sugar mixture (leaving the two sides cleaving to one another the whole time but flipping it so the fillet on the bottom was now on the top) and sprinkled the top of the salmon with the rest of the sugar-salt. I then wrapped this whole thing in foil and plastic wrap and transferred it to its new home – a small $1.99 Ikea cooler lined with a kitchen garbage bag with several ice packs at the bottom. I then worked a small cutting board (that fit into the cooler) on to of the wrapped fish, put the various bottles of champagne we were bringing to Christmas on top to weigh it down, added more ice packs to top the whole thing off, tied the garbage bag shut, and zipped the cooler closed.
We put the cooler – FACING UP AT ALL TIMES FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DON’T MOVE THE COOLER! – in the trunk of my Honda Civic with scads and scads of presents (our luggage had to go in the backseat), filled our travel mugs with coffee, and carried a very sleepy son to the backseat where I’d made a nest with his favorite quilt, a pillow, and all our luggage. We hit highway 101 before the sun rose and drove north for two days (with plenty of stops to hike in redwoods, eat seafood, and buy one hell of a fabulous late-60s dress at a junk shop) until we got to Manzanita, Oregon.
On Thursday evening, I ransacked the cupboards of my friend’s mother’s beach house for a baking dish, unpacked the fish, flipped it again while transferring it to its new home, re-jiggered the fridge and found place for both fish and champagne. Then I said hello to the various lovely people with whom we were to pass our holiday.
Christmas morning, after Santa’s good will had been fully investigated, we got out the fish.
My dashing husband carved it and we put it – with or without cream cheese and red onion and capers as individual tastes dictated – on rye crackers, baguette, pumpernickel, and/or lefse.
We ate, we drank coffee, and before we knew it, our work was done.
I hope you all had holidays that were just as delicious and lovely and extended as mine were. It’s good to be back.