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Coho Gravlax: An ode to the fjords of Sweden from the much-less rugged coast of Oregon

September 27, 2009

Some people crave sweets. Others crave beef. Recently I had an irresistible lust for gravlax. I don’t know what was driving it. I joke with my friends that my lust for wine is because in a past life I tended a beautiful vineyard in Bordeaux. Maybe my lust for gravlax this time was because in another past life I was Swedish and lived along one of its beautiful fjords.

According to

During the Middle Ages, gravlax was made by fishermen, who salted the salmon and lightly fermented it by burying it in the sand above the high-tide line. The word gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word grav, which means literally “grave” or “hole in the ground” (in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Estonian), and lax (or laks), which means “salmon”, thus gravlax is “salmon dug into the ground”.

Today fermentation is no longer used in the production process. Instead the salmon is “buried” in a dry marinade of salt, sugar, and herbs, and cured for a few days. As the salmon cures, by the action of osmosis, the moisture turns the dry cure into a highly concentrated brine, which can be used in Scandinavian cooking as part of a sauce . This same method of curing can be used for any fatty fish, but salmon is the most common. Modern variations on the marinade can include fennel and Pernod, black pepper and coriander seed, or horseradish.

Making gravlax is not that difficult.

Making gravlax is not that difficult.

I’ve mastered the art of smoking seafood so I set out to master the art of curing seafood. I mean, how hard could it be, right?

Well, it turns out it’s not that difficult at all. But you do have to have patience  as it takes about a week to cure. So if you’re having one of those cravings that demands immediate gratification, you’d better visit the seafood aisle at the grocery store and be prepared to pay for the price of gravlax.

I spotted a sale on fresh Oregon coho salmon at $3.99 a pound and went immediately to the store and was undaunted when I found out that the reason why it was so cheap is you had to buy the whole fish. Would they fillet the 6-pound behemoth looking up at me from the fish case, its scales glistening silver, for me? Well of course!

Back at home, I poured over my collection of cookbooks including “Northwest Flavors” from Williams Sonoma and a cookbook from Ray’s Boat House, a popular restaurant that Charles and I love in Seattle and was somewhat disappointed. Every recipe I could find used fennel seed or juniper berries, and I’m not particularly fond of either flavor.

So I improvised and took the basic technique common to all of the recipes and cookbooks, equal parts salt and sugar to cure the fish, and added an imaginative flourish of my own.

So here’s my ode to the fjords of Sweden from the much-less rugged coast of Oregon.

Oregon Coho Gravlax with dill, orange and lemon zest

Oregon Coho Gravlax with dill, orange and lemon zest

Oregon Coho Gravlax

  1. 1 cup sugar
  2. 1 cup salt
  3. 1 chopped bunch of dill
  4. The zest from 1 orange, in long strips, do your best to avoid zesting the pithy white part and only get the colored part of the skin.
  5. The zest from 1 lemon, in long strips.
  6. 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  7. 4 tablespoons of vodka
  8. 2 salmon fillets
  • On your butcher block or counter, spread out a large piece of pastic wrap, large enough that you can fold over your salmon fillets to completely wrap them.
  • Place the salmon fillets beside each other skin-side down, so that they touch each other lengthwise and the pink flesh is facing you.
  • Evenly spread the orange and lemon zest on the flesh of both fillets.
  • Evenly spread the chopped dill on both fillets.
  • In a bowl, mix together the salt, sugar and ground pepper.
  • Sprinkle this mixture on the flesh of both fillets, reserving about a half a cup. Don’t be afraid that you might be using too much. Basically you want to completely cake the fillets with the salt and sugar.
  • Sprinkle the vodka over the fillets.
  • With one quick motion, turn one of the salmon fillets on top of the other so that the flesh side faces each other and the skin side now faces you.
  • Rub half of the reserved salt and sugar mixture on the skin of the fillet facing you. Grasp both fillets, holding them sandwiched together, and flip them over and rub the salt and sugar mixture on the skin of the other fillet.
  • Completely wrap the fillets in the plastic plastic wrap.
  • Use heavy-duty aluminum foil and wrap the fillets again with the foil.
  • Put the wrapped fillets in a large rectangular Pyrex dish and place a smaller rectangular Pyrex dish on top of the fillets and put it in the fridge. Fill the top Pyrex dish with something heavy to weigh down the dish on the salmon fillets…in my case it was a 12 pack of Coronas, but you get the idea…milk jugs, water jugs, basically anything heavy.
  • Once a day, remove the weight and flip the fillets over and replace the weight. If there’s any juice that drains into the bottom of the big Pyrex dish, go ahead and pour it out.
  • In five days the Salmon will be cured and you can gently unwrap the foil and plastic wrap and separate the two fillets from each other. You’ll find that the salt and sugar have been completely absorbed, leaving the orange and lemon zest and dill.
  • Remove the zest and rinse off the fillets in cold water. Don’t be afraid to leave some of the dill on the flesh of the salmon.
  • With a very sharp flat blade, cut the flesh into very thin slices against the grain and lay the sliced pieces in a large platter. If you run out of space, spread a piece of plastic wrap on top of the layer of sliced fish in the platter and you can put another layer on top of the plastic wrap. Cover the entire thing with another piece of plastic wrap and keep refrigerated until you’re ready to serve.
The gravlax after they're sliced.

The gravlax after they're sliced.

You’ll find the gravlax are wonderfully infused with the flavors of orange, lemon and dill, and taste just slightly salty. You can close your eyes and almost smell the ocean at the Oregon Coast.

Gravlax are great served on rye squares with mustard or cream cheese and topped with chopped red onion and capers. I think this makes a great appetizer served with ice-cold vodka. You can also make a fantastic sandwich out of them using cream cheese as a spread and adding lettuce and tomatoes. Gravlax are also great served atop scrambled eggs for breakfast.


— Vic

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. charlesprice permalink*
    September 27, 2009 9:55 am

    It was like butter from the ocean.

  2. Rachel permalink
    September 28, 2009 4:51 pm

    Yum! Thanks for the thorough description. This is one of those things I’ve always been interested in attempting but been a bit intimidated by. (Read: I don’t want to poison anyone!!) This will definitely go on my holiday entertaining list!

  3. Jenny permalink
    September 28, 2009 11:15 pm

    Yummy! I hope Ian will give this a whirl. He doesn’t like seafood, but I LOVE it, and this recipe sounds scrumptuous.


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