Making Gravlax / Lox (or being a cheap bastard)

         One problem I have is no matter how much I try to economize, someone in the family will end up finding unique ways of making my efforts futile. My wife is no exception, and if anything, the worst culprit. What drove this point home for me was when I thought I was going to enjoy some lox. You would figure I would have been able to enjoy a little of the lox I purchased a couple weeks ago from Costco. That should be a bargain, right, and there should be enough of it with what you usually get from that purveyor of bulkitude. I surely would have been able to delicately and judiciously drape the pink translucent flesh on a Lender’s bagel with cream cheese.

         For those who are about to kvetch about my choice in bagels, I view this, as do my co-workers, as a device to deliver cream cheese & lox, not as an end in itself. Even if I scored a good one from the local bagel place, by the time I got to eat it, it would just be a ball of gluten, rather than something with a lightly crispy crust with tender innards. And yes, I am part Swedish, but due to a Rye - among countless other things - allergy in the house, Pumpernickel is verboten here.

         Anyhow, by the time I got to the lox, just a square is left. What am I to do with that? Let it dry and make a festive eye patch for the kids latest arts & crafts project?

         So one day last week I saw Salmon filets at Costco, and thought, Why can’t I make lox? Ok I can’t smoke the stuff, but I can make gravlax. I’m not a foodie, and don’t get too uptight that it’s not “traditional” lox, in that its not smoked. And no one seems to have a clear definition of what lox really is anyway. Other than the people in New York. They know and will be the arbiters and will tell you so. But they don't know what they're talking about either. And I say that in a loving way.

       It doesn't matter. The last time I tried to smoke something (Mackerel) it just ended up cooked  so I would jump over that portion of the program.

         Three pounds of salmon was roughly $30. I’d lose a little water weight in curing, but I supposed this wasn’t like making jerky (I successfully made beef jerky and highly recommend doing so especially if you have a bench freezer and like having high blood pressure.) Now, I was tempted to get the steelhead but I went traditional and the more expensive route with the Atlantic salmon. After all, its probably fortified with a diet that includes important minerals like mercury, which is needed to keep the mind sharp, and there’s nothing better for the Atlantic ecology than to keep invasive species like Atlantic salmon in check.

         But I also needed a couple other things. Dill, and a lot of it. I didn’t have any dried dill, despite seeming to have every herb jarred up in the closet for the past 10 years. (Note to law enforcement: I don’t have that one. Unfortunately.) But the farmer’s market has mountains of it, and it’s fresh for $1.00. That gives you enough to supply a Swedish restaurant for a week. At least that’s what I imagine, I’ve never been to a Swedish restaurant, nor have I ever seen one. I don’t think they exist, nor does Marcus Samuelsson exist. He doesn't exist at my price point anyway.

         Also needed kosher salt. Apparently regular iodized salt will make the fish too salty and turn the fish brown. Rock salt would have been best. I think that’s for roads, so ... meh.

         I was following a recipe off the Internet, and not from the two Scandinavian cookbooks I have: Andreas Viestad’s “Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking” or Nilsson’s encyclopedic “Nordic Cookbook.” (Both are good reading in themselves.) When you’re on the spot, you can now just reach for the closest resource, which is usually a smartphone, and rather than call up a recipe that may be more coherent, edited, and tested.

         Nevertheless, the recipe I found seemed to be very well researched and the cook actually did variants based on different salts, so I had some confidence in it, unlike some where there were recipes that suddenly call for ingredients not listed in the recipe list, or disturbingly, when there are ingredients listed that aren’t used in the instructions at all. My wife runs into this problem constantly. She is prone to (a) get a recipe off Instagram (b) not find any reviews for it and (c) skip steps when following the recipe and wonder what went wrong. She has the heart, but I do the cooking.

         The first problem I faced was how to contain a 3 lb. slab of fish in the fridge. This is putting basketball player in coach seating. And there’s limited room in my fridge with half-eaten whats-its and whodats. So things had to be ... consolidated. Not sure how much went to the rubbish pile in honor of the experiment.

        Then there was the matter of actually creating a cure, containing that on the fish, and pressing down on the whole mass for a day or two. I only had a narrow shelf to work with after all the consolidation, but fortunately no idiot (I use that term in a loving way) would be likely to use that shelf at least. The rest of the family haphazardly uses space in the fridge, and they tend to miss that shelf, just dumping everything in the two main areas.

         The recipe said to use something that could contain liquid like a glass dish. Yeah. I had a few inches of height to work with. A cookie sheet was my instrument. Big enough to trap the fish but I hoped to heaven the water wouldn't blast out of every cell of the fish and jettison onto the sheet, causing the it to overflow and corrupting that refridgerator shelf, as well as anything underneath it with jus de poisson.

         Next I needed to cover the fish in plastic wrap. I unfurled an amount that seemed to be the length of the fish and then some, and then doubled it so I could cover the top of the fish as well.

         As for the cure, it was a lot of salt and the same weight of granulated sugar. But the dill was the difficult part. Coming so cheap, it had everything. Even dirt. I cleaved and pruned the dill off the stems until I had about a cup of it, but there were still blobs of mud. Which might have been acceptable in the Viking era, but, (and my family may be surprised to know) I have higher standards, and a rudimentary understanding of microbiology. (My five year old does not, and regularly eats things off the ground despite repeated chastisement.) So, rinse, rinse, rinse, rinse. And then rinse some more. I chiffonaded the dill to break it up, and then mixed it up with the salt & sugar.

         I also added some black pepper. I used one of those tins of McCormick’s preground black pepper. I’m lazy and don’t have a grinder.

         Hipster: “But Sven, fresh ground pepper is best.”

         SE: “Well you can come and grind it. I use my mortar and pestle to grind up the flea and tick pills I give to the dog.”

         Hipster: “But you won’t get the subtle aromas of citrus and spice that only a newly ground peppercorn can provide.”

         SE: “I’ll put some cayenne in Orange Fanta.”

         Hipster: “You’re just an insolent heathen with no taste, and a lack of understanding of the tradition and authenticity that a recipe drafted by a well-trained chef can provide.”

         SE: “Yes. Now go back to drinking your Caramel Almond Milk Macchiatto or whatever the hell that is.”

         When I mixed the dill and the salt & sugar, it reminded me of Christmas. The dill poked through the snow of salt and sugar and looked like a miniature forest. The grains of pepper (often annoyingly clumped up) look like bits of soil, giving it a bit of an earthy look. At first, I thought I inadequately cleaned the dill; it really did look like soil. This had to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in meal preparation, kind of like a bit of Christmas in July. When I showed it to my daughter, she was non-plussed.

         But it was time to throw down. I managed to dump half the mix in the shape of the fish on the plastic wrap. About 90% accurate. Good enough. Then I had to manipulate this slimy pink almost gelatinous flesh mass on top of it just right, without it landing on the floor or making a hash of the tray. I achieved this using my 18 Dexterity. I scattered other half of the cure on top of the fish, covering it gently, all the while not playing with it like it was a sandbox.

         The problem now was covering the fish in its entirety with plastic wrap. The bottom was done, but the top needed to be covered as well. In the best of times my wrapping ability is weak. My wife has an even worse time of it, and knowing this is her Achilles heel, spends $5.00 on a gift bag for a $15.00 gift, or in perhaps a moment of financial clarity, tells me to wrap it.

         I tried folding over the rest of the plastic wrap over the fish. It is well documented that plastic wrap has its own volition.  Impregnated in every square inch of plastic wrap are neuronic stem cells from adolescents so the plastic wrap will contort and fold upon itself, and not behave the way you want. But after multiple horizontal and vertical passes with the wrap, it was perfect. That is, it looked like a mess.

         Next, I placed another cookie sheet on top of the now smothered fish. The idea is to press down on the fish and force liquid out with the salt and sugar being the catalyst for an osmotic reaction, and then the combined relative dryness and salinity of the fish makes it less habitable for more unpleasant type microbes to survive. Or something like that. I didn’t think that was enough weight, but didn’t have anything in the kitchen that thin and heavy to press down. I needed something else that met these criteria and wasn’t often used.

         I had it! If you were thinking of my work laptop, that would be an excellent choice, but I haven’t received my pink slip yet. I’m working on it. Just one more inappropriate sexual or racial remark should do it folks!

        Rather, my instinctive “horrible/bad dad” gene activated, and I picked something the kids should, but don’t use, is rather heavy for its size, and they wouldn’t lose any sleep over if it ended up smelling like fish. Yes, it’s the “Macmillan First Dictionary.” Beautiful, thick paper. Good definitions for growing minds with pictures to help clarify the meaning. The most use it will likely see in this era of iPads is to press fluid out of fish. That went on top of the second cookie sheet and into the fridge.

         Twelve hours later I checked on it. A viscous fluid expressed on the bottom cookie sheet. This was ectoplasm from the fish, and repeating an exorcism chant, I drained it carefully into a silver chalice crafted by Abyssinian monks. This precious fluid will be sent to the movie studios to be used on “Ghostbusters: Revenge of the Fish.”

         Flipped the salmon. Went to sleep.

         In the morning it was time for the unveiling. But another draining first. You’ll be glad to know the dictionary survived and dies not smell like anything other than an unused book.

         I scraped the cure off the fish and gave it a gentle rinse. A little dill still stuck to it. I had my wife pat the thing dry with some paper towels and placed it on another unmanageable piece of wrap. My wife found my plastic wrap wrangling a source of amusement.

         Now the fish resembled more a tongue than fish. I wish I could have harassed the kids with it. But  I imagined I’d end up like Marlon Brando’s character in the Godfather, but croaking in the living room instead of a beautiful orchard, and my kids last memory of me would be with  a giant piece of salmon sticking out of my mouth rather than an orange slice. And that's undignified. The best way would be with a maraschino cherry in each ear, but that may be debatable.

         Once again, the salmon had to rest in the fridge to let the remaining salt soak deeper into the flesh, so the salt distribution was more even. At least this process wasn’t like cooking something that smells wonderful over a long period of time, like Appalachian Baked Beans in a crockpot. That's torture where you have to wait and wait, and no you can’t open the lid, just keep waiting and smelling. With the gravlax, all you have to do with this is flip it a few times and drain some disturbing fluid. But it doesn’t smell like much other than a waft of dill. Bonus, the kids upon seeing it are not terribly likely to mess with it in the fridge.

         Finally, it was time to slice. I have a fileting knife that my wife decides on occasion to cut bread with it (ignoring the serrated knife), or to just use it as a steak knife. That needed to be sharpened. The outside of the fish was a little bit leathery, but once I cut the fish on a long bias, there was just a micron of this tougher material. The rest was orange stained glass with bands of white stripes. At least it looked right. I sliced the fish into thirds and froze two-thirds of it. That’s what it said I could do online and the Internet is 100% accurate, just like a claim from the White House.

         The taste test came after I thinly sliced the remaining third.

         Dead on.

         The difference between this and store bought was a more pronounced but gentle dill flavor which I find totally lacking from store bought. But for me it was cheap bagel and cream cheese time. (No mustard sauce, yes, my kids are allergic to mustard. No, it’s not made up, and you do not want to see the allergic reaction when the kids have it, this is what keeps parents up at night. And yes not having these ingredients around is torture.)

         So now I have lox (quibble with me later over the terminology, smoked fish heads. I say that in a loving way, just like I do with any other insult) at about the price I’d pay for decent deli ham. And I’d need to get to that price; my wife made a wrap for lunch with the gravlax without a second thought. We’ve gone through about 3/4 of that first cut in just one day.

        I’ll probably try to secrete one of the other cuts, but somehow my wife finds my hiding spots. If I parked it behind one of her salads she wouldn’t notice. That often goes untouched for weeks but money is continuously spent on these green wastes. I think it’s just the camouflage I think I’ll need.