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Gravlax with pink peppercorns and fennel.

Grazing the fridge at the moment can be tough on the waistline if you are trying to be good. So I needed a little something that I could munch that will be healthy and not too filling. I love smoked salmon but as my smoker has yet to be built in my building site of a garden, I need to look at other options. Gravlax is a perfect solution. It is quick and easy to do. It lends itself to variations on a theme and best of all you don’t need a smoker.

In the past, I have made gravlax using fresh dill and beetroot which is delicious especially with a generous dollop of horseradish spiked mayonnaise. Also, the vibrant colour that the fresh beetroot brings to the dish makes it a bit of a show stopper.

However, at the moment I have neither beetroot or fresh dill to hand. What I do have is lots and lots of lusciously fragrant fresh fennel growing enthusiastically in my herb bed. In fact, if I am

honest, it is becoming a bit too big to remain where it is. A serious haircut and transplant may be called for once the developments outside are at an end.

So when Julie bought home a side of salmon the other day, I knew the time had come to experiment with my favourite herb. I love fennel, both the herb with its willowy aniseed flavoured fronds and the seeds themselves that when toasted and crushed cannot but help make your mouth water and also the bulb produced from the Florence variety. Mandolined thinly into a salad or a white slaw is just such a refreshingly sweet experience and don’t even get me started on fennel soup! The fact that fennel also grows wild in my garden in France cannot help but endear me to it for the pungency that reminds me of hot Pyrenean summer days.

This recipe uses lots of fresh chopped fennel fronds and that fresh green sweetness is balanced by the addition of roughly crushed fresh toasted caraway seeds, coriander seeds and pink peppercorns. This trio lend a warm floral woody note to the finished gravlax that is enticing and distinctive. If I could flavour soap with it, I could be on a winner! For another time perhaps.

The method for preparing this dish is very simple and can be done in less than 20 minutes. The long bit is the curing time in the fridge. I recommend you leave your cure for a minimum of 2 days in order to give the desired texture.

So this is a dish in part about simplicity and in part about anticipation.

For my recipe I used an 800g side of salmon with the skin left on. This the normal supermarket prepacked kind of lump. If you can get bigger and fresher then all the better but just remember, unless you are going to have this for a party or special occasion, you are going to need to eat this fish yourself. Anything more than 1 kilo is a lot of fish in one hit! Don’t get carried away, less is more here.

So as well as the salmon I used

75g of French sea salt

2 tablespoons of pink peppercorns

2 tablespoons of whole coriander seeds

2 tablespoons of whole caraway seeds.

1 teaspoon of ground white pepper.

40g of caster sugar

A big bunch of fresh fennel herb. The weight and actual quantity are not critical, it is the freshness that is important.

Prepare the salmon by making sure it is free from bones. Most salmon you buy filleted has been de-boned but there are always one or two strays. Also, the advantage of pre-prepared fish is that it will have been de-scaled too. A messy job that needs to be done if you buy whole salmon.

Leave the skin on. This will act as your base to cut to when your gravlax is ready to serve.

Dissolve about 2 tablespoons of the salt in a bowl of cold water and immerse the fish in it for around 10 minutes. This process just softens the flesh a little and gives your final product a more melt in the mouth texture.

While that is happening toast the caraway, coriander and peppercorns in a dry frying pan over a medium/high heat until they begin to become very aromatic. Be very careful not to burn them. It is a fine line and you may not always get it right but with practice you will be rewarded with the most incredible sensory experience. When the spices are toasted just so, remove from the pan to a mortar and pestle. Allow them to cool slightly, and then roughly grind them. By that I mean grind them to a coarse texture not throw your weight around!

Transfer to a clean bowl, add the white pepper, the sugar and remaining salt. Stir well to combine. Finely chop the fennel and add this to your cure mixture.

Once the fish has had its soak, remove it from the salted water and pat it dry. This also allows you one last chance to check for stray pin bones.

The next stage is to coat the fish in the cure. To do this, I actually cut the fillet in half at right angles to the length of the fish. I do it in such a way so as to end up with two pieces that, although are not the same width, are the same length. This has several benefits. It allows me to layer the cure between the fish pieces which enhances the flavour, it keeps all the cure in one area and it doesn’t take up quite so much room in the fridge!

In a ceramic casserole dish or bowl with a flat bottom sprinkle about 1/3 of the cure. (So tempting to make a Robert Smith joke there but anyway, moving on.) Lay the in salmon, skin side down and sprinkle over another 1/3. Rub it over the fish to ensure it is covered. Lay down the second piece this time skin side up and cover over with the remaining cure. Lay a piece of cling film over the fish and then top with something onto which you can place a heavy weight. You are going to need to compress this fish in the fridge for 2 days so it needs to be stable. I do my gravlax in one of several casserole dishes I have that are all the same. Therefore one will stack inside another. This means I can sandwich my fish between them. However, I have done it in the past but laying a small plastic chopping board on top of the clingfilm covered fish. Either way, you need to be aware that the gravlax will leach out some liquid as it cures so the fish must sit in something that will catch that excess.

With the top cover of your choice in place, add some weight. You do not need to get carried away here. 2 or 3 tins of beans or equivalent will do the trick.

Leave the fish in the fridge for 1 day, then take it out and carefully turn you sandwich of curing gravlax over in its container. Reapply the cover and weights and leave for a further day.

After 2 days, the gravlax with be cured and will have firmed up nicely. Take it out of the container and wipe off the excess cure and pat dry.

Now you need a sharp knife and a steady hand to cut thin shallow slices from your cured salmon. If you cut it all in one go it makes it easier (and tidier to be honest) to serve. The gravlax will keep for a couple of days in the fridge and is best served with pickles and soured cream and rye crackers.

I hope you try this and that you enjoy the fruits of your efforts. Let us all see what you achieve and share your ideas and variations.

Stay safe.


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