Like many in our region, my grandfather, Don Mathison, was 100 percent 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Gravlax is a traditional Scandinavian specialty of cured salmon, originally made by fishermen in the Middle Ages.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."
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. 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 or 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 The Green Market 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!
Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 8-year-old son, Giovanni.
Serves: 10 to 12 (at least)
1 side of salmon - "pin bone out" (bones removed), skin on
2 cups brown sugar (white sugar will also work)
¾ cup kosher salt
¼ cup fresh chopped dill
2 28-ounce cans of tomatoes (or any item of comparable weight) to weigh down the salmon
(You can use any, all three, or none of these ingredients)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon brandy
In a medium bowl, combine the brown sugar, kosher salt and dill together and set aside. In a separate bowl, combine the olive oil, lemon juice and brandy and brush over the fillet of salmon, skin side down.
Take the sugar/salt mixture and, using your hands, pack it onto the flesh side of the salmon, making sure to cover the entire area of exposed flesh.
Wrap the side of salmon very tightly with plastic wrap and place between two sheet pans. Place two 28-ounce cans on top of the sheet pan to weigh down the salmon, and refrigerate for two days. The weight of the cans is necessary to compress the salmon and achieve the desired outcome.
After two days, unwrap the salmon and use a paper towel to wipe off the excess salt mixture. To slice, use a very sharp knife and cut along the bias in super-thin slices. Be careful not to cut through to the skin. Place slices on individual plates or a large platter and serve.
Once the salmon has cured for 48 hours and the brine has been removed, cover the gravlax in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to five days. To freeze, cut the gravlax into slices and wrap in wax paper. Place in an airtight container and freeze for up to two months.
Gravlax may be served alone or with a number of complementary items. For this occasion we have included our recipe for Pickled Red Onion, but you may serve the gravlax with red onions, capers, diced hard-boiled egg, cream cheese, red onions and toast points.
PICKLED RED ONINONS
Serves 10 to 12
2 large red onions, sliced into ¼-inch slices
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup white vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
Put all ingredients into a sauce pan, cover and cook for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally and chill when done. Recommended for serving with gravlax.
Place in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to four days.