Recovered Chef – Gravlax

I used to live on another planet, a kitchen planet. All the bad behavior and mayhem you could possibly tolerate. I was lucky to get out, but sad to go. There are good restaurants and bad restaurants. I worked for a bunch of poorly managed restaurants, and a few good ones. I learned about gravlax at a time when I’d already  begun naming my knives, so I was pretty happy to see what I could do with Viking fish flowers.

Stolen picture of Viking food, very apropos.

When I met Captain Gravlax, I’d already spent a summer in the salmon industry in Kenai, Alaska. I’d spent nights up to my waist in the hold of fishing boats, sunk into a slurry of fish, blood and ice. I’d worked in canneries as a sorter, a lineman and an ice tray runner. Certainly brutal work it was. Lots of salmon in the belly, entirely worth it.

When you caught a bunch of salmon, you had to work quickly to somehow preserve the fish so you could transport it long distances. You could smoke it, you could dry it out, or you could bury it in the beach sand for a week and dig it up and then eat it. Vikings like to bury fish. Sometimes for months. That’s pretty nasty. I’m just working with a four-day window. Think: It’s Tuesday, your fish vendor shows up with some salmon, and you want to stay fly, so gravlax = wowness on Friday night.

Brining a fish is interesting. The process turns the flesh of the fish into a glassy, somewhat rubbery project material. But it tastes moist. The rose you see pictured here is incredibly easy to make, and no, I’m not going to teach you how to make it. Sorry, bitches, no free love today, I’ve got to stay focused.

EDIT: Okay, I’ll try to describe it in an off-hand way.


  • Get a salmon – orange, greasy fish with delicious skin and eyes. Check for pin bones. You’ll need a pair of bone pliers or serious tweezers to get them out. Make sure the pin bones are all removed. They lay at regular intervals along the fish. Have fun. It’s best to work on the fish in a cold environment because the sucker is slippery, moreso when it gets warm. 
  • Get two pans –  as big as the decapitated fish. I like hotel pans. I like hotels. Full of booze and Vikings. 
  • Get a lot of salt and sugar – I go halvsies. If you have five pounds of fish, you need five pounds of salt/sugar.
  • Get dill weed – fresh bunch. If you think you should go with the dry herbs, then try your luck here. 
  • Get vodka – Get a bottle of your favorite. After you’ve prepared the fish, drink the vodka and pass out. Lay inert for hours, your salmon will be doing the same thing. Be one with the fish.
  • Get black peppercorns – A handful.
  • Get a few bricks and wrap them in tin foil. If no bricks are handy, get a couple of boxes of wine. If you don’t have time to make the gravlax, relax, you already have dinner ready. Open a box, pour a mug, enjoy your journey.  If you don’t have any boxes of wine, just get some heavy stuff.

Things to Do

  • Prepare fish – Get a razor-sharp fish filet knife with a relatively long blade. Think: one foot of blade might be too short. The longer the blade, the easier. I like to cut from the tail-end. Take the salmon, pat it dry, and carefully begin to separate that creamy orange flesh from the skin, enough for you to pinch the skin as it slides free. Pinch the end of the skin with thumb and finger, sawing gently, slowly until you have enough skin to grab with your fist. With a very firm grip, you can actually peel the skin from the filet using a back-and-forth motion with the knife pressed slightly down upon the skin. In effect, you are pulling the skin underneath the blade whilst it rocks back and forth. You are moving the skin against the blade, like stropping a straight razor with a leather strip. By doing it this way, you can maneuver the fish without having to put much pressure on it from above. Once you have enough skin to hold firmly in your fist, press your fist against the surface and work the fish with the other hand. It stretches a bit. Once the skin is off, do what you like. That sounds weird.  I like to cure the skin with a dry harissa salt rub, slice it into strips and go vertical with garnish. Sometimes I sear and eat it. Salmon skin is delicious. Set the fish aside.
  • Mix Your Dry Goods –   Put salt and sugar into a bowl. Sprinkle in the cracked peppercorns. How to crack the pepper? Use the vodka bottle. Grind, pound and roll your pepper until it is coarsely cracked. Pour that shake into the bowl. Mix it with your hand. That will help get some of that salmon grease off you. You can’t be walking around with a 16″ knife, a bottle of vodka and greasy hands.
  • Get Your Things – Put 1/3 of the salt/sugar/pepper mix in the bottom of the hotel pan. Put half the dill where the fish goes. Put the fish on it. Put the rest of the dill on the fish. Pour the rest of the dry mix on the fish, making sure to spread it evenly in the pan. The fish should be completely coated with the brine ingredients. Sprinkle vodka all over it. At any point in this recipe you feel like you’re going to start drinking, this would be the time, because you’re about to do some heavy lifting, and heavy lifting is hard to do when you’re drunk. Unless you’re really drunk, then it’s easy.
  • Bury the Fish  – Put the second hotel pan atop the brine fish. Place the fish – sucker is heavy – in the fridge or cooler inside the pan sandwich. Put bricks on it so they’re nice and balanced. The weight of the bricks will help press the moisture from the gravlax, something that will help prolong the life of your rubbery Viking manna.
  • Pull your fish out and scrape all that stuff off it –  You can use that mucky brine in soups and sauces. It’s full of tasty. Take the fish and clean it, being gentle. You’re a Viking with a soft side. A nurturing side.
  • That’s gravlax – Cut it into thin slices.

Serving Suggestions – 

  • If not Viking: Serve with capers and vodka creme. Serve with roasted red pepper salad, lemon walnut oil and crème fresh on weird Scandinavian crackers. Throw capers and dill at it. Make little flowers and use the dill as a beautiful rose garnish. Serve with marinated asparagus. Use as a sushi skin for tempura rolls. Punch out shapes with a cookie cutter and throw that stuff on anything that’s not getting you free booze. Eat it on a bagel with cream cheese. Eat it in a salad. Throw lemons at it. Get Will Sasso to put lemons on it. Serve with a nice Pinot Grigio. If it gets too hard to mess with, grate it into sauces or baked goods. That’s if you’re not a Viking. One large red salmon can cater an event. I like to build my roses around a dollop of chevre mousse. It helps build the fatty mouthfeel. Use a pastry bag to pipe a drop upon  a strip of salmon. Make sure your petals are wrapped spine down. All the flat brown sides should be facing the plate. Slice your salmon at an angle so you get those fucking crazy tiger stripes. Any piece less than the length of your index finger is going to need to go on the inside. Use the longer slices for the outer petals. Fold the tops down gently. 
  • If Viking: Dig fish from sand, dunk in water, wrap in beard and sail away. Use as pillow and food.

3 Replies to “Recovered Chef – Gravlax”

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