Gralax, a cured salmon, is one of my go-to recipes for large gatherings. Before you are ready to serve it, cut a small piece off and save for yourself. The hordes will attack it, leaving little left for you.
The most difficult part of making gravlax is first, remembering to buy the salmon beforehand, and second, making room in the refrigerator to store it for three to five days while it cures. Ideally, the salmon fillets will come with skin, but I have done it skinless. The recipe calls for Cognac, but you can use Bourbon in a pinch, and if you forgot to buy the fish five days ahead of time, you can cut diagonal slices in the flesh to make it cure faster. I have found it impossible to mess up.
There are many recipes for gravlax, but all are very similar. Because I have never found a Julia Child recipe to fail, I started with for “Gravlaks” found in Julia Child & Company, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1978. She wants you to use spruce branches, if available, which I have never done. But the rest of the recipe is straightforward.
5 pounds salmon fillet
3 large bunches of fresh dill weed
2 1/2 TB salt and 1 1/4 TB sugar mixed in a small bowl
4 to 5 TB Cognac (or something similar in a pinch)
Julia recommends a 5-pound center cut of salmon, boned and filleted. I usually find salmon fillets sold separately at Costco and try to get two that match in size. 4 to 5-pounds total will work. As nicely filleted as they may look, do check for any pin bones with your fingers and pull them out. You will usually find one or two.
In a non-reactive dish that is large enough to hold the fish, put down the first bunch of dill, and then lay one of the salmon fillets on it, skin down. Lay the other fillet on a board also skin down. Rub with the salt and sugar mixture and sprinkle on Cognac. Add a second bunch of dill to the fillet in the pan and top with the second fillet, skin down. You now have a sandwich of salmon and dill. Top everything with the third bunch of dill and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Put in the refrigerator with weights on the top. I used used some iron skillets with cans on top, but whatever works is fine.
Check the fish after two days and baste with the juices. I sometimes add a bit more Cognac. Then turn the fish over (an extra pair of hands here is very useful), replace the plastic and put into the refrigerator again, weighted down. I’ll do this on the third and fourth day as well. You can slice off a small piece to see how it is coming along. You can also add more salt if necessary. It should be done in five days. Take it out of the pan and remove all the clinging dill before slicing.
Cut at an angle, making very thin and long slices. You will need a sharp, thin knife, otherwise it comes out hacked. I usually serve it with a mustard dill sauce.