Whether you butcher your own salmon or buy a whole slab already prepped by the fishmonger is your call. The important thing is to start the cure a full five days before you want to serve it, so that the fish will “cook,” weighted down under its blanket of salt and sugar, and become well seasoned with its thick carpet of chopped fresh dill and the heavy-handed dusting of fresh ground black pepper. Think of the cure like steeping a tea bag: too short a dunk, and you get wan tea; too long, and your brew gets rather intense. So you can pull the fish early by a day or two, but you’ll find it unremarkable. And you can leave it for up to 10 days, but you’ll be heading toward salmon jerky.
I keep the salmon in the walk-in under a few heavy cans of olive oil or plum tomatoes, and soon the fatty orange flesh becomes denser and starts to take on that satisfying seasoning — a little sharp from the black pepper and fresh from the dill and rounded out from the sugar. The sugar and salt draw the moisture from the flesh and internally season it at the same time. The cure becomes liquid after a day in the refrigerator, and at the end of the third day, you can flip the fillet over, skin side up now, flesh submerged in the liquid, to be sure each side of the salmon has ample time in the flavored liquid. When you pull it out of the cure at the end of the week, you will see how changed the texture is — and you’ll feel it too, as you slice thin sheets with a sharp, beveled blade. The slices will feel a little leathery, but I mean that in the best way: buttery Italian couch leather, not Charlie Chaplin shoe leather.
I don’t love the traditional accompanying sauce of brown sugar, mustard and dill, so now that I’m my own employer, I serve the gravlax the way I most like to eat it: sliced thin, and laid generously on black pumpernickel bread, with a little schmear of butter seasoned with minced shallots, fresh dill and mustard. For my money, that is a very fine Sunday-morning alternative to the bagel, cream cheese and lox routine.
This gravlax freezes well, defrosts well and is much less expensive than the prepared salmon at the gourmet deli, which is another old catering trick I’m sure we could all find useful. I could also show you how we used to get that rubber chicken rubbery and how we used to get the salads to wilt just in time for the sit-down plated dinner in Banquet Hall C on level mezzanine, but let’s start with this catering success: your own cured gravlax, in your own house, made start to finish by you, and so tasty that you’ll still be excited to eat it even after you’ve made thousands. How great to be able to lay this out at brunch next weekend — and countless weekends ahead.