Gravlax with Dill Mustard Sauce and Cucumber Salad

This means ‘buried salmon', an unappealing way of describing a now universally loved dish that is quintessentially Scandinavian. Indeed, all four nations claim it as their own. Being Danish by association (married to one) I favour their claim.

This is a dish which introduces dill to people who previously thought of it just as part of a Jewish pickle jar. If fresh dill is unavailable you can achieve fairly good results with masses of the freeze-dried herb. In Denmark gravlax is usually served with an oversweet, mild mustard relish. I serve it with sweet pickled cucumbers and a rather more abrasive sauce to counteract the silky texture and taste of the salmon. You will note that I have specified farmed - as opposed to wild - salmon. This is the only dish in which I would contemplate doing so. Never try and make it with too small a piece of fish as the cure does not work. You will just end up with an over-salted and pretty inedible piece of salmon.

The slicing and serving sound rather complicated but are not in fact, difficult You can practise on the first fillet and demonstrate your mastery of the technique on the second, remembering all the while that farmed salmon is now one of the cheapest protein sources available. One fillet will do for six people. The rest will make great second helpings or sandwiches.

Scandinavians eat more salt than anybody except perhaps the Japanese, so consider your second course carefully. No more salt - something gentle and soothing. In any case, gravlax is so rich it is really a meal in its own right Bread with it and cheese and fruit afterwards. Ça suffit or however you say that in Danish.

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Ingredients

  • 1 farmed salmon, weighing about 3.5-4.5kg/8-10 lb (as 2 whole fillets, untrimmed and unskinned, this will yield 23-2.7kg / 5-6/b of fillet)

For the Cure

  • 2 large bunches of fresh dill
  • 170g/6 oz Maldon salt
  • 350g/12 oz caster sugar
  • 30g/1 oz freshly ground black pepper

For the Cucumber Salad

  • 1 large or 3 small cucumbers (I prefer the smaller as they have better flavour)
  • 100g/ oz Maldon salt
  • 500g/1 lb 2 oz caster sugar
  • 500ml/16 fl oz good white wine vinegar or Japanese rice vinegar

For the Dill Mustard Sauce

  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • bunch of dill
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp double cream

Utensils

  • bowl
  • electrician's pliers or strong tweezers
  • widest sheet of aluminium foil from the biggest pack you can buy
  • high-sided metal tray large enough to hold the salmon wrapped in foil and which will it in your fridge
  • second tray to sit on top
  • potato peeler
  • mandoline grater
  • small saucepan
  • large sieve
  • food processor
  • 2 Kilner jars
  • flexible slicing knife (desirable but not essential)

Method

Preparation

To prepare the salmon: begin a minimum of 5 days in advance - a week is better. Suggestions from elsewhere that this time can be reduced to as little as 2 days should be ignored: it takes at least 5 days for the harmony of pickle and salmon to develop.

Coarsely chop the dill and mix thoroughly in a bowl with the salt, sugar and pepper.

Lay out a sheet of foil which is at least 3 times the width of a salmon fillet Distribute one-quarter of the pickling mix over approximately the area a single fillet will occupy, leaving the first 15cm/6in of the foil clear for folding over.

Place one fillet, skin side down, on the bed of pickle mixture and cover with about two-thirds of the remaining mixture. Put the second fillet on top, skin side upwards, to make a sandwich. Scatter the remaining pickle mixture over the skin.

Now wrap it up: fold over the clear end of the foil then bring the sides of the sheet together. Bring the long side over and tuck the sides and ends of foil under. Carefully turn over and adjust to make a neat package.

Put the package on the tray and place in the fridge with the other tray on top. Put everything else in the fridge you have had to remove to make room for it back on top of that tray to weight it down.

Turn the salmon package daily for 5-7 days. It will exude a salty sugar syrup, which is to be expected, but make sure the tray you use on the bottom has high enough sides to avoid pickling everything else in the fridge. If you pickle for the full 7 days then eat within 3 days.

To prepare the Cucumber Salad (again several days ahead): using a potato peeler, half peel the cucumber, taking alternating strips off it along its length to produce a striped effect. Chop the ends off and discard. Using the mandoline, cut it into slices about 2.5mm / 1 1/10in thick and put them in a bowl. Scatter 100g/31/2 oz salt and all but 1 teaspoon of the sugar over the cucumber slices and mix thoroughly. (Hands are best for this job.) Leave to cure for 2 hours.

Meanwhile, make the salad dressing: heat the vinegar in a pan to just below boiling point Add the remaining sugar, stirring to prevent it solidifying. Then add a teaspoon of salt, stir again, and set aside to cool.

After the cucumber has cured for 2 hours, tip it into the sieve and leave to drain with the sieve resting over the now empty bowl. Considerable amounts of water will be drawn from the cucumber.

After another hour, discard the liquid that has drained into the bowl and tip the cucumber back into the bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water and leave for 5 minutes. Drain and then fill again with cold water. Leave for another 5 minutes. Drain in the sieve and taste the cucumber for saltiness. If too salty, then repeat the procedure a third time.

Half fill a Kilner jar with the salad dressing (there should be plenty left). Gently squeeze moisture out of the cucumber and pack loosely into the jar. Seal the top and shake gently to coat the slices with the sweet dressing. This is an excellent pickle and keeps for weeks in the fridge if unopened. Once opened, however, it deteriorates rapidly and should be used within 2 days.

To make the Dill Mustard Sauce: put the mustard and destalked dill in a food processor with 2 tablespoons of the salad dressing and whizz it up. With the machine still running, pour in the oil slowly through the feeder tube to form a light emulsion. Stop processing. Pour in all the cream and chum briefly to incorporate. Transfer to a Kilner jar. (For real mustard enthusiasts, like me, add another tablespoon of mustard at the beginning.)

On the day of serving: unwrap the salmon and rinse it gently to wash off all the cure. Lay the fillet with the head end in the direction of your preferred hand and the skin side down. There is a line of bones called 'pin bones’ that are located from the head end of the fillet running centrally to about half-way along. Using pliers or tweezers, grip them individually and pull them out easing them away at an angle towards your preferred side. If the fishmonger has left any rib bones, remove them in the same way.

Tidy the edges of the fillet, cutting away the outer strip which contains bones and fins. Don't cut too much away, but these edges will be over-cured anyway and are therefore no great loss. Starting at the tail end, about 15cm/6in along the fillet cut at a 30 degree angle away from you towards the tail. The first 2 slices, being from the thinner tail end, will be over-salty and a little dry so don’t serve them (eat them yourself rinsed down with a glass of something suitable). Gravlax is traditionally cut thicker than smoked salmon, which makes it that much easier to deal with.

Serving

Put 3 good slices on each plate along with a spoonful of drained cucumber salad and a spoonful of mustard sauce. A sprig of fresh dill sets it off.

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