Like many people in our region, my grandfather, Don Mathison, was 100% Norwegian and proud of it. For years, our family’s Christmas Eve buffet has included Norwegian specialties like lefse, pickled herring and sardines. Several years ago, when Tony and I started hosting our family on Christmas Eve, we wanted to add our own dishes to the mix but wished to remain true to the cultural heritage of our two families.
We had no problem deciding which items from Tony’s Italian culture would be featured among the buffet of hearty hors d’oeuvres: marinated olives, a festive pesto pasta, and a beautiful Sicilian Christmas Salad featuring exotic blood oranges. But we also wanted to pay tribute to my Norwegian and Irish heritage, without having to increase our workload too much.
After some reflection, we decided to focus on salmon as our main ingredient, as this fish is popular within both cultures. And once we’d picked salmon, we knew exactly what to make: Gravlax.
Gravlax is a traditional Scandinavian specialty of cured salmon, originally made by fishermen in the Middle Ages. The men would salt the salmon and bury it under the sand near the high-tide line. This process allowed the salmon to cure, or ferment, and also gave the dish its name: grav means grave in Norwegian, Swedish and Danish, and lax (or laks) means salmon; hence, buried salmon = gravlax.
In spite of its humble origins, today gravlax is found on fancy party platters and upscale brunch buffets. This dish was the perfect choice for us: it’s easy to make, affordable, and must be prepared several days in advance, which is always helpful this time of year. Furthermore, we could serve it on our Christmas Eve buffet, and with bagels the following morning for our Christmas brunch.
Gravlax is not a smoked salmon, but is similar in flavor and texture to the cold smoked Nova-style salmon, or lox, commonly found in the gourmet section of our local grocery stores.
“Making gravlax is easy,” Tony says, “but the result is always impressive. Recipes can vary depending on their origin, but there are four key ingredients you must have to make gravlax: salmon, fresh dill, sugar and Kosher salt. The hardest part is waiting the two days until it’s ready to serve.”
The dry brine used to cure the fish adds a slight sweetness and a buttery texture which only serve to elevate the natural flavor of the salmon. Fresh and delicate, Gravlax is the perfect dish for holiday entertaining.
For this recipe, Tony uses brown sugar, as well as small amounts of olive oil, lemon juice and brandy. You can omit the liquor, or use vodka, grappa, or go purely Scandinavian and use Aquavit instead.
For Christmas Eve, we serve our gravlax with pickled red onions and thin slices of good bread – fennel, pumpernickel, dark rye, or any crusty, European style bread will do. On Christmas morning we create a platter of diced red onion, capers and cream cheese, and serve the gravlax with toasted bagels from Bernbaum’s in downtown Fargo (known in our home as the World’s Best Bagels).
We have so enjoyed coming into your homes this holiday season. From our home to yours, we wish you Happy Holidays and a very Merry Christmas!