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Cured salmon makes spectacular party dish

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014 7:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014 1:22 p.m. CDT

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Ultra-thin slices of salmon are a mainstay on many party tables.

You’ll see those slices dressed up with shaved red onion, salty capers and even some cream cheese.

Most of us refer to all that brilliant orange salmon as smoked salmon. And that would be wrong.

Take gravlax, for example. A delicious delicacy, it looks much like smoked salmon and lox, but it’s a cured fish, not smoked.

And, absurdly easy to make, this Swedish specialty is simply raw salmon cured in a salt-sugar-dill mixture, according to the “Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst (Barron’s $14.95).

While the thought of sprinkling raw fish with some seasonings, refrigerating it and calling it good to eat in a few days might make you squeamish, keep an open mind. It’s that age-old curing practice that makes this recipe quite tasty. History has it that fishermen used to salt salmon and cure it by burying it in the sand above the high-tide level. In fact, the word “gravlax” means buried salmon.

All that’s required for gravlax is salt, sugar, lots of fresh dill and perhaps a splash or two of Aquavit (caraway-flavored vodka) or Cognac. And don’t worry about using too much dill because you can’t overdo it with this. I use cognac in today’s recipe, just as Julia Child did in her gravlax recipe, which I’ve made several times with terrific results.

Here’s the absurdly easy part. The salmon is cured through the process of osmosis. You start out seasoning the salmon, laying it on a thick bed of dill and drizzling it with the cognac. Wrap it in plastic wrap, place it in a glass baking dish, weigh it down and refrigerate for 24-48 hours. Weighing it down forces the seasonings into the fish and the moisture out, thus creating a super-concentrated brine.

After a few days, you end up with this deep orange, silky and tender cured salmon. Give it a rinse of all the dill, slice it thin on an angle (make sure your knife is sharp) and arrange it on a platter. Serve it with some capers or a traditional mustard sauce.

Because the salmon is sliced paper-thin, a small amount goes a long way. There’s no need to make a ton of gravlax unless you’re having a huge crowd.

Once you make this recipe (trust me) your guests will be impressed. It is such a flavorful and beautiful appetizer that requires little effort.

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GRAVLAX WITH CAPERS AND CHOPPED RED ONION

Serves: 10 / Preparation time: 10 minutes (plus curing time)

Total time: 30 minutes (plus curing time)

GRAVLAX

3 tablespoons white or brown sugar

2 tablespoons sea salt

1 tablespoon cracked coriander seed, optional

2 teaspoons freshly ground peppercorn medley (mix of black, white and pink peppercorns)

1¼ pounds good-quality, center-cut salmon fillet, pin bones removed

1½ cups chopped dill

¼ cup cognac

FOR SERVING

Chopped capers

Thinly sliced red onion

Dill sprigs

Rye crisps or crostini

Spreadable cream cheese

Mustard sauce (see note)

For the gravlax: In a small bowl combine sugar, salt, coriander seed, black and pink peppercorns. Rinse salmon and pat it dry.

Line a glass baking dish large enough to hold salmon with plastic wrap. Place a good bed of dill on the plastic wrap. Sprinkle the flesh-side of salmon with half of the sugar mixture and then rub it all over with the cognac. Place flesh down on top of dill. Sprinkle skin-side of salmon with remaining sugar mixture and top with remaining dill. Wrap up in the plastic wrap — tightly.

Place a heavyweight can on top or whatever you have. (I placed a glass loaf pan with a bottled water inside on top.) Refrigerate for 24 hours. Turn salmon over, baste with any juices and continue to cure in refrigerator for another 12 hours or longer.

To serve, unwrap salmon and discard liquid. Quickly rinse off the dill and seasoning or wipe it off with a paper towel. Using a sharp knife, thinly slice on an angle. Garnish with capers, red onion and dill. Serve with cream cheese or mustard sauce if desired.

Cook’s note: To make the mustard sauce, in a small bowl combine ¼ cup Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon ground dry mustard, 3 tablespoons sugar (or to taste), 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar and red hot pepper sauce to taste. Whisk in 1/3 cup olive oil and 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream. Stir in 2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill if desired.

Adapted from several basic gravlax recipes. Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen. Nutrition information not available.

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