Day after day of winter grayness, when morning blends into midday and soon becomes night, I start thinking about how they used to do things in the old days. You know, when they didn’t have freezers but still wanted to preserve the catch-of-the-day, that kind of thing. Thinking about the old notion of preserving with salt led me to consult Jerry Traunfeld’s Herbfarm Cookbook to look up his recipe for home-cured salmon or gravlax. Home-curing fish is a simple process and requires very little, other than plenty of room in a reliably cold place for weighting the fish while it cures. Over the holidays I bought some super-fresh sockeye salmon from Loki Fish. I didn’t have much room in the fridge, but still managed to make it work with lots of very precarious stacking. (I’m proud to report that I have since completely cleaned out my fridge. That’s a different story, but I seem to need to pat myself on the back for tackling that task).
I actually made this recipe twice. The first time I used a one pound fillet as suggested by the recipe. It turned out so well that I decided to buy a whole fish, a 3 pounder, and attempt to fillet it myself or more accurately, watch Charlie, while reading instructions to him off the internet. All I can say is that it’s a good thing we were going to slice it up anyway. The next time, I’ll go for the fillet.
Start out with a piece of sushi-grade salmon. One of the reasons Loki fish is so deliciously fresh is that it’s “dressed onboard and immediately chilled to below freezing in refrigerated seawater holds”. You can bring it home and use it right away or continue to freeze it until you need it. Since curing fish isn’t the same as “cooking” by raising the temperature, you’ll want to buy the freshest you can find.
Remove the skin and gray fat with a very sharp knife and bones with tweezers or needle-nose pliers.
Stir together 11/2 T coarse sea salt & 1T sugar in a small bowl or cup. Place a piece of plastic wrap on the counter. Spread several dill sprigs in an area about the size of the fillet on the plastic. Rub the top of the fish with sugar & salt mixture and then place it on top of the herbs. Cover with freshly ground pepper. Turn the fillet over and repeat with the sugar & salt mixture and more pepper. Cover with the remaining herbs. Sprinkle with 1T gin or pernod. Wrap the whole thing up in the plastic and set on a flat plate.
Cover with another plate and put a weight of 4-5 pounds on top. I used a 2 qt container filled with water. You could also use 3 large cans of tomatoes. Let it cure, refrigerated, for 36 hours, turning it over once about halfway through and replacing the weight.
When you are ready to serve, scrape off the herbs and salt with the edge of a sharp knife. You can rinse it and dry it with paper towels, if you wish. It can be wrapped in a fresh piece of plastic and refrigerated for several more days.
To serve as hors d’oeuvres, slice very thin and place on pumpernickel, rye bread or crackers with a dollop of creme fraiche mixed with a touch of horseradish and mustard. Top with dill or fennel sprigs or capers. Add a shot of icy cold vodka, sit by the fire and let yourself be transported to the “old country”. Maybe this weather is not so bad after all………….