Eating salmon is a long-standing Scandinavian tradition. Twenty to thirty years ago, it was expensive and reserved for parties or fine dining. It was often boiled to pieces and served with a hollandaise sauce. That was a time when we still looked to the French for inspiration, before the trend of reinventing the Scandinavian kitchen.
Gravad or smoked salmon has always been part of the tradition. When I was young, we would indulge and have it for lunch on special occasions. It was almost always part of Christmas party food. Today, salmon has become an everyday food and less expensive than cod.
North Atlantic salmon, both wild and farmed, is one of the top species for cooking. Wild salmon, whose meat is lighter in color and whose taste is at once more delicate and concentrated than farmed, is harder to find in the Scandinavian countries because of overfishing. It is more readily available from February to November, and the meat is at its best from June to September.
Despite a significant movement to restore the wild salmon population in the oceans and rivers, for now, farmed salmon is the more common reality. When choosing farmed salmon, it is important to support sustainable farms, which don’t overcrowd the pens and give the fish room to swim around. Assuming responsibility for the welfare of the fish and environment, these operations don’t use growth promoters or antibiotics. By trying to create conditions as natural as possible, they also produce the best quality salmon.
Scandinavian cured salmon is world famous as “gravad lax,” the traditional and most popular recipe being cured with dill and served with sweet mustard dill sauce. There are endless ways of curing salmon and they are all called “gravad,” which means “buried.” In medieval times, the fish was salted and buried under sand or in soil to preserve it.
My favorite way to eat salmon is cured or smoked. In the morning, I’ll have smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, or with toasted rye bread and spinach wilted in butter. For lunch, citrus gravad lax with toasted bread and horseradish dressing. The citrus gravad lax has been my signature salmon recipe for many years, and the orange zest complements the salmon beautifully.
Why cure salmon? Because, apart from preservation, curing adds flavor and texture. It is easy, and tastes wonderful. For a piece of salmon of the size described in the recipe below, you can combine all kinds of spices or vegetables, but the amount of sugar and salt should stay the same. For a smaller piece of salmon reduce the sugar and salt.
In lieu of lemon and orange zest, you can use the following combinations for curing:
If you think the salmon filet is too big for your purposes, it can also be used for canapés. After the curing, cut it into small pieces and freeze. The salmon lasts up to two months and still tastes great when defrosted.
Citrus Gravad Lax With Horseradish Cream
For the salmon:
For the horseradish cream:
- If you have a zester, use it to remove the zest from the orange and lemon. Alternatively, finely grate the zest from the fruit. Mix the zests with the sugar and salt.
- Use tweezers to remove any pin-bones from the salmon filet. Spread the zest mixture evenly over the entire surface of the salmon, then wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 days.
- Take the salmon out of the refrigerator, remove the plastic wrap, and wipe off the marinade with a paper towel.
- On the day of serving the salmon, make the horseradish cream. Mix the sour cream, horseradish and sugar together, stirring very gently. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Test whether it needs more horseradish; it has to be spicy.
To serve, place the salmon on a board and cut into thin slices with a very sharp knife. The traditional cutting technique starts diagonally at one corner of the salmon and then works back toward the center of the fillet.
Sprinkle the grated zest from the remaining orange and lemon over the salmon.
Serve with horseradish cream, toasted bread and a crunchy green salad.
Trina Hahnemann is a Copenhagen-based chef and caterer and the author of six cookbooks, including “The Scandinavian Kitchen.” She has catered for artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones. Her company Hahnemann’s Køkken, which runs in-house canteens, counts the Danish House of Parliament among its clients. Trina writes a monthly column in Denmark’s leading women’s magazine Alt for Damerne.
Photo: Citrus gravad lax. Credit: Trina Hahnemann