Looking for a no-cook option for creating a brunch for clients? Then you’ll want to make gravlax. It’s easy to make, a rich and briny alternative to lox or smoked salmon, and perfect for these hot summer days when you don’t want to get near an oven.

First let’s tackle the difference between lox and smoked salmon. Lox is cured salmon, preserved with salt. But back in the day in places where salt was a scarce resource, the fish was smoked. According to Jewish food historian Gil Marks in his “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” during early 1930s America cured salmon fillet became known to Eastern European Jewish transplants as lox. This is the Americanized spelling of the Yiddish word laks, or salmon, itself from the German lachs–and the Swedish gravlax. See where I’m going with this?

Skip ahead past the ways shipping and refrigeration technologies evolved and made intense brining to preserve the fish unnecessary and you have a lightly salted preservation method, which resulted in a smoother, milder tasting fish. What evolved for lox was a method that could include light brining or dry curing in salt and perhaps brown sugar before then cold-smoking it. This method doesn’t cook the fish the way warm-smoking does. The result is a delicate slice instead of flaky flesh.

While we’re here, let’s also address the difference between lox and Nova. Lox became known as the curing style that was wet-brined with no additional smoking or cooking. Nova, with its origins in salmon from Nova Scotia, became known as the method discussed above: mild brining in salt, water, and perhaps brown sugar, then lightly cold-smoked for up to 24 hours. Lox, as anyone who tastes it knows, is the saltier of the two. And, as Marks notes, it’s less expensive because it’s easier to prepare. Today, the terms are largely interchangeable since most of the lox sold today is actually prepared Nova style with cold smoking.

Now to gravlax. Here’s a brined salmon dish that anyone can make with just a few key ingredients. This Scandinavian cured salmon is primarily different from Eastern European lox thanks to the inclusion of dill. Look up recipes for gravlax and you’ll find all sorts of intriguing variations. But what doesn’t change is the salmon belly, salt, and dill. Lots and lots of dill. And time–48 hours in the refrigerator.

You can sweeten it a bit with sugar. You can add vodka to the brine. You can add pepper. You can also add complementary spices. I add fennel seeds and grains of paradise, a cool variation on peppercorns, with a floral scent and flavor.

Here’s how making gravlax works:

Buy the freshest 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of salmon belly you can. Most recipes will call for it to be skin on. I accidentally found myself with a big piece that was supposed to be skin on but wasn’t. It turned out fine.

Make sure you or your fishmonger pulls out all the pin bones in the fish. Then in a bowl mix up your cure: salt, sugar, spices. Mine is a mixture of lightly toasted, then crushed fennel seeds and grains of paradise along with sea salt, granulated sugar, and brown sugar. And have on hand bunches of dill. I also had Absolute Citron vodka to add a distinctly citrusy Scandinavian flavor.

Place half of the dill fronds in a baking dish just large enough to hold the fish. Then sprinkle half of the cure on the dill and place the fish on top and press down gently. Sprinkle the vodka over the top of the fish and then the rest of the cure and the rest of the dill. Cover the fish with plastic wrap.

Now you have to weight it down so the curing mixture will penetrate into the fish. So place another, slightly smaller, baking dish on top of the wrapped fish and a couple of cans into that dish. Refrigerate overnight. After 24 hours, remove the weights and flip the fish over so the cure will penetrate the fish evenly. Put the weights back on the fish and everything back into the refrigerator.

Once the 48 hours has passed you can remove the fish from the refrigerator, remove the weights and unwrap the fish from the plastic. Don’t worry about any liquid that’s accumulated. That’s exactly what you want. Discard the dill and rinse the fish with cold water, removing the salt, sugar, and spices. Pat dry.

Now comes the fun part. You’ll need a knife with as sharp an edge as possible because you’re going to slice the gravlax very thinly at a sharp diagonal. If you have skin on the fish, slice away and off the skin. You can plate the slices in straight lines or as rings. Sliced lemon goes nicely with it, as does diced red onion and capers.

And then we return to our initial conversation. Bagels and cream cheese? Sure, it’s grav”lax” after all. But, how about some marscarpone cheese and black bread for a change?

Gravlax
Serves 8 or more, depending on how many other dishes are served

Ingredients
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon grains of paradise (you can substitute with black peppercorns)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup sea salt
2 bunches of dill
2 tablespoons Absolut Citron vodka (or regular vodka)
1 1/2 to 2 pounds salmon belly, pin bones removed

Preparation
Lightly toast fennel seeds and grains of paradise. When cool, crush them together in a mortar and pestle.

In a bowl mix together the fennel seeds, grains of paradise, both sugars and salt.

Place half of the dill fronds in a pile the size of the salmon in a baking dish just large enough to hold the salmon. Sprinkle half of the curing mixture on the dill. Then set the fish on top. Sprinkle the vodka over the salmon and then press in the rest of the cure. Top with the remaining dill fronds to cover the fish.

Cover the fish with plastic wrap. Place another, smaller baking dish on the fish and put a brick or two cans into that dish.

Refrigerate for 24 hours, then remove the weights and turn the fish. Put the weights back on the fish and refrigerate another 24 hours.

When you’re ready to serve, remove the fish from the refrigerator, remove the weights, and remove the plastic wrap. Discard the dill and rinse the fish under cold water, then pat dry.

Using a very sharp knife, slice the gravlax as thinly as you can at a diagonal. If the salmon still has skin on it, slice away from the skin and discard the skin once the salmon is sliced.

Serve with lemon, diced red onion, capers–and a whipped cheese–on brown bread, pumpernickel, crackers, or a bagel.

What’s your favorite hot weather dish for catering brunch? 

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