I feel strongly that there is no better breakfast (ok, brunch…ok, late brunch) than a fully-loaded bagel and lox. My ideal is a toasted (sorry, purists!) bagel, slathered with melty cream cheese, topped with tomato, paper-thin red onion slices or snipped chives, and of course, the gloriously flavorful salmon. That and a latte makes the perfect start to a weekend morning.
Last month, I moved from New York City to Vermont. Vermont has much in the way of tranquility, skiing, and hippies, but unfortunately, lacks the shops specializing in all manner of smoked and cured fish that NYC spoiled me with. I’ve had to rely on the grocery-store lox ever since.
The store-bought lox tastes fine on the large supply of New York bagels I’ve been hoarding (I mean storing!) in my freezer.
But, I mean, just look at it. It leaves something to be desired.
So in the interest of making hay where the sun shines (and it is shining outside here, albeit deceptively so, as it’s been hovering near zero degrees for way too long), I decided to attempt my own lox: gravlax, that is. Gravlax is a traditional Nordic preparation for salmon.
Most lox-type products (such as Nova salmon, Scotch or Scottish salmon, and Nordic-style salmon), are all cured in one way or another and then cold-smoked. Exposing the salmon to cooled-down smoke gives it a smoky flavor without cooking it. Gravlax just missing the cold-smoking step. But that was ok by me, as cold-smoking is a little bit of a pain. And I like breakfast to be on the painless side.
So I went to the fish market and bought a piece of salmon.
And, I have to say, it was a looker. Isn’t that a nice piece of fish? Yum.
So before I could convince myself that I should just throw it in a pan and have it for lunch, I quickly assembled my ingredients.
You’ll need a mix of salt and sugar (I used brown sugar), a big bunch of dill…and booze! Fortunately I happened to have some on hand. What a coincidence! Not.
I used brandy, but you can use vodka or even aquavit if you want to be super-Nordic.
I stuck the salmon in a 9X13-in pan, then slowly drizzled a couple of tablespoons of brandy over the salmon, trying to hit all the exposed fish. (I’ll tell you why in a second.) Then I poured myself some. Just kidding! I resisted. Then I patted on the salt/sugar mixture, trying to coat the whole fillet.
The idea here is to cure the salmon by exposing it to the salt (and sugar). Stay with me here for the science! (Or skip it if you just want to make gravlax already; I won’t tell.)
Salt draws the moisture out of the salmon. Here’s how:
Salt is unable to enter the walls of the cells that make up the salmon. Since there’s a much higher concentration of water in the fish cells than in the molecules of salt, water leaves the salmon cells and enters the salt in order to equalize the concentration. At the same time, water is also leaving any bacteria and parasites that might be present.
Once enough water leaves these cells, they collapse and die. The salmon filet will then be an inhospitable place for bacteria to live: it’s preserved. (For a week or so.) But wait! We’re not there yet.
Sugar has the same preserving action as salt. I use a combination of the two here because using all salt would result in an overly salty end product. You can play with the combination of salt and sugar to get the saltiness level that suits your taste. White sugar is fine to use; I just used brown because of its interesting flavor.
So anyway, you want to add the booze because it dissolves the salt and sugar; it’s a solvent.
(Warning! More science coming.) The molecules of water and ethanol that mostly make up the brandy are polarized: they have a negative side and a positive side, like batteries. Salt and sugar molecules also have both positive and negative charges, so the polarized molecules that make up the brandy are really good at pulling them apart: negative charge to positive charge, positive to negative.
I suppose you could use plain old water (it’s actually more polarized), but…why? The brandy contributes its delicious flavor.
Ok, back to the fun part.
So I drizzled the salmon with brandy, then covered it with the salt/sugar mixture. Then I chopped the dill up and used it to cover the salmon.
Kinda weird-looking, huh? It looks like it’s in a forest trying to hide under dill camouflage. Only it’s in a kitchen, so it’s kind of pathetically exposed. Good try, salmon, but I still see you.
The dill blanket contributes flavor to the salmon. The salmon ends up tasting very strongly of dill; salmon and dill is a really delicious flavor combination. You can experiment with adding other kinds of flavors, too. Try mixing fennel or coriander seeds in with the salt and sugar, or lemon zest, or whatever else makes you happy.
Now just cover loosely with plastic wrap and stack a smaller (8×8) dish on top of the covered fillet. Place something heavy inside to weigh down the salmon, pressing the tasty dry brine into the fish to help the process along. I used a couple of boxes of chicken broth, because my rock collection was in the other room. Use whatever you have on hand. Those big cans of tomato are good. Balance the weight on the highest part of the fillet.
Then stick it in the fridge and walk away. Sorry man, this takes 3 days. If you’re impatient and hungry, take a log of oatmeal cookie dough out of the fridge. Cut off a piece. Eat it. Feel strong enough to go on.
The next day, come back and unwrap your fish. (Don’t get too excited. We have a couple days to go.)
It looks like this now. (The fact that all the liquid has gathered on the left side of the pan shows you how tilted my 160-year old house is. Holy moly!) That brown liquid is a delicious boozy, salty, sugary syrup. It’s not doing any good in the pan. We want it on the fish working its magic.
Baste the fish with the syrup in the pan. You probably won’t get it to soak up all of the liquid, but don’t stress. If some of your dill has slipped off, just repack it. Alternatively, you can just wrap the whole thing in plastic and flip it every 12 hours or so. (Just make sure to put it in a pan still so the salmon juice doesn’t leak all over your fridge. Ick.)
24 hours later, come back and do the same syrup-drizzle thing. (I’d show you a picture, but it looks exactly the same.) Ok, fine. I’ll just show you the same picture again.
Happy? Ok, let’s move on. Sorry, I’m kind of grumpy. Must be the hunger. When is this thing going to be done already?
Using every ounce of willpower you possess, stick it back in the fridge for 24 more hours. (It can go another day if you need it to.) Then take it out, and sweep off the dill covering. And then…oh man, then:
The end result is totally worth it. The flavor isn’t too salty or sweet, just punched-up salmon, redolent of dill and with a hint of the complex flavors from the brandy. Perfection on a bagel.
And hey, it was easy, right? Except for that whole waiting part. But that’s what the brandy is for! If you like lox, gravlax is a great way to fulfill your craving. And it’s way better than the stuff that comes in the vacuum package. Don’t worry, I won’t show you that picture again. I don’t know if I can ever go back.
Place in a 9×13-inch pan:
1/2 lb salmon
2 tablespoons brandy
Combine in a small bowl:
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons salt
Pat over the salmon fillet, followed by:
1 large bunch dill, roughly chopped
Cover loosely with plastic wrap, then place a weighted 8×8 pan on highest point of fillet.
Wait 24 hours or so, then uncover and baste with liquid in the pan. Repeat the next day.
On the third day, remove from pan, scrape off dill, and slice thinly on the bias. Serve with mustard sauce, on rye toasts with cream cheese and thin slices of red onion, or on a bagel with all the trimmings.