For an international food party planned for early December at my office, everyone in my department is supposed to bring a dish representing their heritage.
My Philippine colleague is bringing a noodle dish, the one from Guyana is bringing a Caribbean dish, another is bringing something Portuguese, and a Parisian lawyer has committed to bringing gougères — little French cheese puffs.
It's sort of a cocktail party, but without the cocktails. To represent my heritage, I'm bringing two things. For the Japanese side, it's edamame — boiled soybeans in the pod, with salt on them. My mother's from one of the four noble families of Japan, descended from the third son of the 56th emperor, from around 800 A.D. Japan has the longest running line of emperors in the world, the same family for over 100 generations. Her ancestors include several famous samurai and several shoguns (military dictators), including the first shogun from around 1100.
To represent my father's father's side, I'm bringing a Scandinavian dish, salmon gravlax. The Normans, Norsemen or Northmen (Vikings) originally came from Norway. In the 800's, Duke Rollo of Norway conquered Normandy, and intermarried with the French royalty. Eight generations later, in 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England. The Norman warriors who helped William were granted land -- my father's family received land in Lancastershire, northern England. The land and house are mentioned in the Domesday Book, the survey commissioned by King William in 1086 to settle land ownership disputes.
My father's mother's side of the family were from Alsace, then part of Germany but now part of France, where they owned some vineyards and had some minor aristocratic connections.
Here's how I will prepare these dishes celebrating my family's heritage.
This needs to be started three, five or seven days in advance. For the office party, I'll probably start it on Sunday evening.
It's called gravlax or gravad lax in Swedish, gravlaks in Norwegian and Danish, and graflaks in Icelandic. Grav or gravad means "grave" or "hole in the ground" in all these languages, while lax or laks means "salmon." During the Middle Ages, fishermen would salt the salmon and lightly ferment it by burying it on the beach, above the high tide line. It's not the same as lox, which is salmon generally packed in dry salt for about a week and then transferred to a wet brine for another 6 months.
- One whole side of salmon, with skin intact
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Dill branches
- Whole black peppercorns (optional)
Mix the salt and sugar together, and sprinkle evenly onto the flesh side of the salmon. Sprinkle on a few black peppercorns, if using. Arrange the dill fronds densely on top, covering as much of the salmon as possible. The dill is key to this recipe. It's locally available on the North Fork only in the summer. I grow it at my garden in Mattituck to use fresh in the summer, and harvest the seeds in the fall for making dill pickles.
Wrap the salmon in a couple of layers of plastic wrap. Put onto a baking sheet or tray to catch the liquids, because it's going to leak. You can put a plate on top of the salmon and then weight the plate down with a heavy can, like a 28-ounce tomato sauce can, but I find it works well regardless of whether you weight it down or not.
After about three days, the gravlax will start to be ready, but I like to leave it a little longer, like five days. After five days, I unwrap it out of the plastic, take off the dill fronds, and rinse off the salt and peppercorns under cold water. Then I wrap it up again tightly in the plastic wrap, and put the whole package into a ziplock bag, and it keeps in the refrigerator for another week or two.
To serve, take it out of the plastic wrap and put on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, slice it on the bias, making the slices as thin as possible. Look at the direction of the lighter colored stripes in the salmon flesh and try to cut attractive-looking slices. It's like cutting a piece of wood and cutting across the grain.
Gravlax with Cream Cheese and Local Chives
Cut up small bits of gravlax and add to cream cheese. Don't be skimpy - the more gravlax the better. Also add chopped home-grown or local chives. Spread on crackers, baguette toasts, celery sticks or sliced local apple for a canapé. Delicious!You can put it on bagels too, for breakfast.
Gravlax with Pasta and Cream
As much as I love the salmon gravlax, after eating it and serving it a few days in a row or even on two consecutive weekends, I start getting a little sick of it. Sliced paper thin, a little goes a long way, so it lasts a long time. To accelerate the use of it, I'll cook some of it, usually the last leftover end.
Put some heavy cream in a pot, like maybe a pint. Add bits of salmon gravlax. Let the salmon steep in the cream for about 4 hours. The steeping is an important step - if you don't steep, and just start cooking the cream and salmon together immediately, it won't taste as good.
Boil some pasta - I use farfalle, the bow ties with the crinkled edges. While the pasta is boiling, cook the salmon pieces slightly in the cream, until the cream is heated. It probably won't be necessary to add any salt, but taste it to be sure. Add a little fresh ground pepper. Drain the pasta. Add the drained pasta to the cream sauce, heat slightly, stir.
Broiled Salmon Skin
This is my favorite. After cutting off all the salmon from the skin, put the skin on a baking sheet and put into the broiler or in the oven for a few minutes till the skin is sizzling and crispy. If using the broiler, cover the baking sheet with foil and be careful and only do it for a few minutes so it doesn't burn. It'll be sizzling, oily, juicy and salty. Cut off pieces of the salty skin and eat as a little tidbit.
Local Bluefish Gravlax
I once tried to make the gravlax with two sides of local North Fork bluefish. Bluefish is a fatty, oily, fish, so I figured the bluefish should work just as well as salmon.
I followed all the directions as above, although I may have omitted the dill. I wrapped it in plastic wrap and put it in my second refrigerator in the little apartment above my garage.
Well, I hardly go in there, and I ended up totally forgetting that the bluefish was in the refrigerator, and it was a couple of weeks later, maybe 2-3 weeks, before I remembered.
When I went to check it, it wasn't horrible and smelly and rotten at all, and it may well have been perfectly edible, but I didn't feel comfortable so I threw it away. I never tried it with bluefish again after that, although I should give it another try. Next time I'll put it in my regular refrigerator and keep an eye on it.