I usually travel the same, well-worn route with salmon, letting it cure briefly with a rub of salt, sugar, crushed coriander and zests — a mix of lemon, orange and lime. Then I bake it in the oven. But I decided to steer a different course this time.
I decided to make my own gravlax.
I used a recipe of Melissa Clark's that appeared in the Dining Section of The New York Times last June. That's how long it has taken for me to work up my nerve to attempt it.
Not that the process is complicated. You rub a mixture of pepper, sugar, salt and mild flavoring herbs (in this recipe, fennel and tarragon) into the pink flesh of the salmon, wrap it in plastic film and ignore it for three days. No fuss.
But I find curing fish intimidating. I worry that I will do something wrong, and it won't work, like failing to get a loaf of bread to rise. And in this instance, if I don't do it right, I'll be left with raw, rotting fish.
Or so I think. I decided to face my fears and DO IT.
I didn't have any fennel or tarragon. I also didn't have any dill, a classic flavoring agent with salmon. I was off to a bad start. But I did have celery leaves. I used that in my rub.
"How'd that work out for you?" Peter Shelsky asked, when I called him to talk about my gravlax. Shelsky is the founder of Shelsky's Smoked Fish, an appetizing store in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, which opened around the same time Clark’s gravlax recipe was published.
“Fine,” I told him. The taste was light and sprightly.
"Now, if you served that with Dr. Brown Celery Soda,” he said, “you'd really have something!"
Shelsky makes his gravlax using aquavit, lemon juice, salt, sugar, pepper and "quite a bit of dill."
He says dill is classic, but if I wanted to experiment further, "try lovage. It's hard to get, but it would be phenomenal."
I asked him why well-known herbs like thyme, oregano or rosemary aren't used for gravlax.
"I think they would really overpower the salmon,” he said. “You need to complement the flavor, so the salmon fat taste we love comes through."
Next time, I'll be sure to stock up on dill and tarragon before curing salmon.
And, yes, there will be a next time.