It’s Copper River salmon season, and I decided to do something different with this delicate fish from Alaska that we are gifted with only once per year. Instead of planking or grilling the salmon, I decided to turn it into Gravlax.
I called on a friend, culinary artist and longtime assistant Patrick Barry, to help me.
Barry is an anthropologist, which influences his cooking. To prepare an iconic dish from a specific culture, he argues that you have to do your research first and live the culture.
There is no greater dish for the flavor of Copper River salmon than traditional Scandinavian Gravlax. In Norwegian, the dish is “Gravad Lax,” which literally translates to “grave salmon.” The key to this dish is the burial.
Barry insists on authenticity in the kitchen or as close as one can manage if an ocean gets in the way. His secret weapon is the granite he collected from northern Ontario that would be similar in geologic composition and density as what one might find in Northern Europe.
Gravlax is a cured or cold smoked salmon, and is the quintessential element in any smorgasbord.
Selecting a wild caught salmon is just like picking a steak. It takes an appreciation for the fish and literacy in reading marbled fat. For Gravlax you need high-quality wild-caught salmon, and you want to look for one with a moderate amount of belly fat and nice white marbling through the flesh.
Any decent wild-caught salmon should have a red tint. This season’s Copper River variety is ideal for Gravlax. This dish requires one full side with the skin intact.
When you get the fish home, it is important to run your fingers from the tail to the head to map the location of the pin bones. Using a pair of well-sterilized tweezers, carefully remove each pin bone.
Next, give the fish a good rinse and then pat dry with paper towels. Cut the salmon into two pieces of roughly equal proportion.
The next step in the process it to prepare the rub. The first Scandinavians to make Gravlax buried it near salt water, so Barry insists that we use sea salt. When working with such premium salmon, it is worth the extra money to upgrade to crushed sea salt or at least kosher salt.
One of the modern adaptations Barry makes is to use granulated sugar in the rub, because it will melt into the salmon more efficiently than brown sugar, which can be to syrupy. The rub is two parts sugar and two parts salt. If you are preparing one side of salmon, one cup of sugar to one-half cup of salt will work fine. Once the salt and sugar have been mixed together well, rub them over every part of the fish.
Gravlax was traditionally made during the winter — Scandinavian winter at that — so if you are making it this far south during spring or summer, you have to adapt. Normally you would let the salmon sit at room temperature for five minutes, but in this part of the world you want to rely on your eyes. Keep your eyes on the salmon, and when you see the sugar start to melt, it has been long enough.
Next you sprinkle the flesh of the salmon with dill seeds, at least one to two teaspoons, and season with fresh-cracked black pepper to taste.
The next step is what gives Gravlax its distinctive flavor. Layer fresh dill weed, stems and all, over the salmon. The truth is that there is no such thing as too much fresh dill when making the dish. Barry says to layer the fresh dill thick enough that you can’t see the salmon anymore.
Once the dill is in place, layer the two parts of the salmon face to face with the dill sandwiched in the center. Throw any extra rub on top of the salmon skin.
Authentic Gravlax was buried by the sea. You don’t have to bury your salmon in the ground, but you have to understand the scientific conditions. Dirt and sand are insulators, so we need to put our salmon into a glass or plastic container. Metal will pick up the cold and ruin the process.
Once the salmon and dill sandwich is in our container, we cover it with plastic wrap.
The next part of the process is what Barry says makes his Gravlax the most pure around. He uses a special variety of granite from Canada. He uses stones the size of one’s palm that have been rounded by the waves at Lake Superior.
The reason Barry won’t use any other stone is a matter of geology. The particular composition of the granite has a relatively light density. The pressure on the fish as it cures is crucial. If the burial material is too dense, it will bruise and squish the salmon. Barry says that if you can’t get your granite from Scandinavia, get it from the parts of Minnesota or Canada where all the Scandinavians settled because it looked just like home.
No worries, just use any granite that has very little of the potassium feldspar that makes the pinkish hue in most granite. Salt-and-pepper or green granite is best.
Once the stones are layered over the top of the salmon, the whole container goes into a fridge. Every 12 hours you take the Gravlax from the fridge, turn it over, cover it with plastic wrap and bury it again. Each time you return to the salmon, you can see the salt cure pull the fluids from the salmon. This process starts once the salmon receives its rub.
After the first few days the salmon will be noticeably smaller. It is important to leave any and all juices in the container when you flip the salmon. This process of rotation and reburial lasts one full week.
At the end of the week we remove the Gravlax from the fridge and carefully scrape off the remaining salt, sugar and dill. The Gravlax is served with no additional cooking, and our curing process allows it to keep for a week in the fridge or a month in the freezer.
Gravlax is best served sliced paper thin like Scottish-style smoked lox. The traditional way to serve Gravlax is on crispy crackers or thinly sliced toasted bread with a sweet dill mustard sauce. For some great and easy sauce for your Gravlax, Barry recommends getting a jar of Maille honey mustard from the grocery store mixed with fresh dill weed. A little red onion and capers never hurt. It is no secret that I have my own loyalty to salmon carpaccio. Come on, I am Italian.
This is Barry’s and my favorite way to enjoy Copper River salmon. We have enjoyed it every year when the salmon arrives in the stores. And by the way, you don’t have to be an anthropologist to make such an authentic dish, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Grazie, Barry!
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 59-year-old restaurant with his brother. Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.