My grandfather wasn’t an indulgent man, but there were ahandful of things he absolutely loved to eat. The list isn’tvery long: fresh scallops, pesto, ripe blueberries, andpumpernickel bread. Even though he’s been gone for quite afew years, I’m still always in search of a good loaf ofpumpernickel and I think of him so fondly when I find one(Russ & Daughters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for thewin). My favorite way to enjoy pumpernickel is toasted andspread with a thick schmear of cream cheese and shingledwith salty salmon. The small victory here has less to dowith the nostalgia of pumpernickel and everything to dowith homemade gravlax. Once you realize that a simplecombination of sugar, salt, and time can effectively curefish, not only does serving gravlax become infinitely moreaffordable but you also gain complete control of the qualityof the fish you’re using and the flavors you infuse it with. It’sgood to be the one behind the wheel in the kitchen.
Packed 1/4 cup [50 g] dark brown sugar
1/2 cup [70 g] kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper1
1 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
A handful of fresh sprigs of dill, roughly chopped (optional)
One 1-lb [455-g] salmon fillet, skin and any pin bonesremoved
8 oz [230 g] cream cheese, at room temperature
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 Tbsp capers, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh chives
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
12 slices pumpernickel bread, toasted, or 6 pumpernickelbagels, split and toasted
A few thinly sliced radishes and/or a sliced cucumber forserving
TO MAKE THE GRAVLAX: In a small bowl, stir together the brownsugar, salt, pepper, fennel seeds (if using), and dill (ifusing). Use your hands to do this so that you break up anyclumps in the sugar
Put a large piece of plastic wrap on your work surface andput half of the salt mixture on the plastic, spreading it to aneven thickness that measures slightly bigger than yourpiece of salmon. Put the salmon on top of the mixture andcover it with the remaining half of the salt mixture. Use yourhands to pack the mixture on and around the fish. Wrap thesalmon tightly in the plastic wrap, using an extra piece ifneeded, but leave the ends open so some air can circulateand the liquid from the fish can drain easily. Put thewrapped salmon on a wire rack set on a small rimmedbaking sheet and put another baking sheet on top of thefish. Put something heavy, like a cast-iron pan or a couple ofcans of tomatoes, on top of the baking sheet to weigh thewhole thing down. (You could use just about anything inplace of the baking sheets, such as two large plates, if youdon’t have space in your refrigerator for the baking sheets—just be sure whatever is on the bottom has a rim to catchthe liquid that escapes from the fish.)Put the whole shebang in the refrigerator and let the salmoncure for at least 2 days, for a light cure (the salmon will stillbe moist), or up to 3 days, for a more intense cure (thesalmon will lose quite a bit of moisture). Flip the salmononce a day and drain off whatever liquid accumulates on thebaking sheet.TO MAKE THE CREAM CHEESE: Put the cream cheese, lemon zest,lemon juice, capers, chives, salt, and pepper in a foodprocessor and pulse to combine (alternatively, mixeverything in a large bowl using a potato masher or a fork).Keep this mixture at room temperature if you’re serving itimmediately. Otherwise, wrap it tightly and refrigerate forup to 1 week; bring the cream cheese back to roomtemperature before serving so it’s easy to spread.
When the salmon is cured, unwrap it, thoroughly rinse offthe salt mixture, and pat dry with paper towels. Thinly slicethe salmon on the diagonal. Spread the cream cheesemixture liberally on the toast and top with the gravlax.Serve topped with thin slices of radish and/or cucumber.SPIN-OFFSFOR CARAWAY GRAVLAX, substitute 1 tsp carawayseeds for the fennel seeds. Leave the dill in or take it out—up to you.FOR PASTRAMI GRAVLAX, up the black pepper to a full1 Tbsp and add 1 tsp each coriander seeds and blackmustard seeds. Leave out the fennel seeds and dill.FOR KOREAN-STYLE GRAVLAX, add 1 Tbsp gochugaru(Korean red pepper flakes) and 1 tsp toasted sesameseeds. Leave out the black pepper and fennel seeds.Substitute two thinly sliced scallions for the dill.Skip the fish and make DRY-BRINED PICKLES. Forcarrot-and-dill pickles, thinly slice a whole heap of carrots;toss with salt, sugar, and chopped dill; and refrigeratethem, loosely covered with plastic wrap, for a few days.Stir them every so often. Actually, make these at thesame time as the gravlax and serve them with thegravlax—yum!