Gravlax recipe – Grafinn lax

The Norwegians and/or Swedes invented Gravlax, and it is a national dish in both countries. This pickled salmon is an excellent entrée and has in recent years become a necessary part of any cold buffet in Iceland. It is almost always served in the same way: thin slices on toast with mustard-dill sauce.

I’m including two gravlax recipes here, one with MSG and another one without it. I’m also including two recipes for mustard-dill sauce, one simple, the other fancy. The pickle mix can also be used with trout.

Recipe 1:
The following pickle is enough for two medium salmon fillets (from a 3-4 kg. fish).
4 tbs fine salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1 tsp fennel
1 tsp MSG
3 tbs dill (fresh)

Mix all ingredients together. Apply an even layer of the mix to the fish. Wrap each fillet in plastic wrap and then in kitchen foil, skin down. Leave in the refrigerator for 4 days. Remove the gravlax from the packaging and gently scrape off the spice mix. Cut the fish into very thin diagonal slices, across the fillet, and serve on toast with mustard-dill sauce.
You can use the spices from the fish to make the sauce, but I would only do so if it will be eaten right away. If you need to store the sauce for more than a few hours, use fresh dill.

Recipe 2
This spice mix is good for two 400 g. fillets of salmon.
6 tbs coarse salt
4 tbs sugar
24 black peppercorns, ground
enough fresh dill to cover the fish

Mix up a batch of the pickle mix without the dill, and divide into two portions. Cover the bottom of a serving dish or other container with dill. Lay a salmon fillet on top, skin down, and cover with one batch of the pickle mix. Put the other half on the other fillet. Cover the first fillet with dill and lay the other fillet on top, skin up, head end to tail end. Cover and weigh down, for example with a heavy cutting board. Keep in the refrigerator for about 48 hours, turning every 12 hours or so. When ready, gently scrape off the pickle mix and pat dry. Will keep for a few days in the refrigerator, or a couple of months in the freezer. Serve as above.

Mustard-dill sauce for Gravlax
This sauce is also good with marinated herring.

Simple gravlax sauce:
250 g mayonnaise
1 tbs mustard
1 tbs honey
1 tsp dill
salt and ground pepper to taste

Mix together mayonnaise, mustard and honey. Add dill, salt and pepper, or pickle mix from the gravlax. If using dried dill, allow the sauce to stand for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Deluxe gravlax sauce:
2 tbs sweet mustard
1 tbs Hot mustard, Dijon is good
1 tbs sugar
1 tbs vinegar
1 egg yolk (optional – makes the sauce smoother)
salt and white pepper to taste
1/2 cup vegetable oil
fresh dill, chopped, to taste (use plenty)

Mix together mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper and egg yolk (if using). Add the oil slowly, while beating constantly. Continue until the sauce is creamy and smooth. Add the dill.
If you don’t like dill, leave it out of the sauce, and scrape it off the fish before eating.

Serving suggestions for Gravlax:

  • Traditional: top some toast OR rye/pumpernickel bread with thin slices of gravlax and pour or spread the sauce on top.
  • New York-style: spread cream cheese on a fresh bagel and top with gravlax. This is how New Yorkers serve lox (salted salmon), but it’s just as good with gravlax or smoked salmon.
  • At a website I visited (sorry, can’t remember which), it was suggested that gravlax be eaten on thin slices of black pumpernickel bread, with lemon and pickled cucumber salad on the side, in addition to the sauce.
  • Another site suggested serving it arranged on a slice of toast and topped with spears of asparagus.

Fish soup

I sometimes make this delicious fish soup. It’s especially warming on a cold winter’s evening.

Serves 4.
4-5 potatoes , diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 tbs olive oil
1 litre water
1 tbs fish bouillon
1 sprig thyme or basil (optional)
2 garlic cloves, pressed
8-10 sun-dried tomatoes, sliced into finger-wide slices
2 carrots, julienned
1 tsp lemon juice
400-500 g white fish or 250 g white fish and 250 g shrimp, lobster/crab and/or scallops
optional: broccoli, cauliflower, celery, chives, parsley

Fry the potatoes and onion lightly in the oil (use a deep saucepan or soup pot). Add the water, fish bouillon, thyme, garlic and sun-dried tomato slices*, and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the julienned carrots to the soup. If you are using broccoli or cauliflower, slice broccoli stalks and cut cauliflower into small florets and add with the carrots. Cook for approx. 5 minutes. If using, julienne the celery and cut broccoli heads into florets and add. Adjust the taste with salt and pepper and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Cut the fish fillet(s) into strips (cut fillets across). Add fish and lobster/crab/shrimps (if using) and cook until done – approx 5-7 minutes, depending on size and thickness. (If you are using scallops, let them cook for a maximum of 2 minutes only, as they will become as tough as chewing gum if overcooked.) Add lemon juice. Pour into soup bowls and garnish with finely cut chives or small sprigs of parsley.
Serve with crusty bread and perhaps a fresh salad.

*If the tomatoes are dry, prepare as indicated on packaging – if they are in oil, drain before adding to the soup.

Skyr, recipe and instructions

The Viking settlers are believed to have brought the knowledge of how to make skyr with them from Norway, and may have developed it further after settlement. Since that time, the knowledge of skyr-making has been lost in Scandinavia.

Skyr looks like thick yoghurt, and the taste is reminiscent of it. But skyr is actually a type of fresh cheese. Because it is made with skim milk, the fat content is very low, allowing it to be eaten with cream and sugar without too much guilt. It is also an excellent source of calcium. Making it takes time, but it’s well worth the effort.

Skyr is not widely available outside Iceland (it is sold in limited amounts in some speciality shops in the USA), which can make it hard to produce in other countries. The reason for this is that in order to make skyr, you need skyr. There is a special bacteria culture that gives skyr its taste and texture, and the best way of getting the bacteria into a new batch is by mixing a portion of prepared skyr into it. Sour cream or buttermilk can be used as a starter in place of skyr, but the taste will be slightly different.

This recipe makes 16 to 20 servings, and can easily be reduced. The skyr can be stored for 4-5 days in a closed container.

10 l skim milk, preferably not pasteurised
8-9 drops OR 1 1/2 tablet rennet
10 g skyr, for the bacteria starter. If not available, use 1 tbs live culture sour cream or buttermilk.

1. Heat the skim milk up to 86-90°C, and cool slowly for about 2 hours, down to 39°C. Stir a little scalded milk into the starter to make a thin paste and mix into the skim milk with the rennet (if you are using dry rennet, dissolve in a little water before adding).

2. Close the cooking pot and wrap in towels or a thick blanket. The milk should curdle over a period of about 5 hours. If it curdles in less than 4 1/2 hours, the curds will be coarse, but if it curdles in more than 5 hours, the skyr will be so thick it will be difficult to strain. When the milk is curdled, cut into the curds with a knife. When you can make a cut which will not close immediately, then you can go on to the next stage.

3. Line a sieve or colander with cheesecloth or a fine linen cloth and pour in the skyr. Tie the ends of the cloth together over the top and hang over a bucket or other container so the whey can drip off. If the skyr-making has been successful, there will be little whey, and it will not float over the curds, but will be visible along the edges of the sieve and in the cuts you made into the surface. You can judge the quality of the skyr from the appearance of the curds when you pour them into the sieve. If the skyr is good, it will crack and fall apart in pieces, but should neither be thin nor lumpy. Do not put a layer thicker than 7-9 cm into the sieve. Keep the sieve in a well ventilated room, with a temperature no higher than 12° and no lower than 0° Celsius. The skyr should be ready to eat in 12-24 hours.

4. The skyr should be firm and look dry when ready. The whey can be used as a drink, to pickle food, or as a replacement for white wine in cooking.

Problems you may encounter, and how to solve them:
If the whey does not leak off the curds or floats over the curds, or the curds do not shrink from the edges of the sieve, then something is wrong. The milk has not been heated to a high enough temperature or has been cooled too quickly, so that the rennet has not had time to work. The more milk you curdle at a time, the relatively less starter and rennet you need. A large container cools slower than a small one, and the effects of starter and rennet last longer.

About the starter:
It is best to use skyr for the starter. If the skyr is sour, it should be mixed into the milk while it is still 80°-90°C. This will remove the sourness. Don’t add the rennet until the milk has cooled to approx. 40°C. When the weather is cold, it is best to mix it in when the milk is a little over 40°C (say, 41° or 42°). In cold weather, the milk also needs to be covered more tightly while it curdles. This is especially important if you are making a small portion of skyr.

Eat the skyr as it is, or stir some milk and sugar into it and serve with cream and fruit/berries (bilberries/blueberries are traditional, but crowberries or strawberries are also good). It is also good with müesli and/or brown sugar, honey or maple syrup.

The historical information comes from the teaching leaflet Súrt og Sætt, by Sigríður Sigurðardóttir, published by Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga, 1998.
Recipe translated from Nýja Matreiðslubókin by Halldóra Eggertsdóttir & Sólveig Benediktsdóttir, Reykjavík, MCMLXI; additional information: my grandmother.

In Iceland, you can buy skyr in any supermarket, with a choice of many different flavours, ranging from plain to the traditional bilberry/blueberry, to vanilla, pear, chocolate, etc. You can also get refreshing drinks made with skyr and fruit.

Herring salad – Síldarsalat

This herring salad is a fresh and unusual addition to a brunch or buffet.

1 sweet apple
5-6 slices pickled red beet (Recipe!)
2-3 fillets marinated
or spice pickled herring
1/2 – 2/3 cup mayonnaise

Take about half a cup of mayonnaise and stir well to prevent lumps (Icelandic mayonnaise is thick and tends to become lumpy if not stirred). Cut the herring fillets into small slices and the apple and beet into small cubes. Add to the mayonnaise and mix well. The salad should be a rose-pink colour – if not, add some of the juice from the beets (or cheat and use red food colouring).

Serving suggestions:
-serve with rye bread or crackers. Top with slices of hard boiled egg (optional).
-replace half the mayonnaise with sour cream.

Marinated/pickled herring – Marineruð síld í kryddlegi

Marinated herring is a family favourite, although I must admit that we prefer to buy it ready made rather than make it from scratch.

3 salted herrings
200 ml white vinegar
1 medium onion
200 ml water
6 black peppercorns
100 ml sugar
1 laurel leaf, broken into pieces

(To convert measures, use the link on the right sidebar)

First, the excess salt must be removed from the herring:
Wash the fish under cold, running water. Soak in plenty of cold water for 24 hours, changing the water every few hours. Fillet and soak in cold water for 1-2 hours.

Cut each fillet diagonally across, into finger-wide pieces, OR roll up, beginning at the tail end. Slice the onion. Put the herring into a sterilized jar, layering with onion slices and spices. Stir together vinegar, water and sugar until sugar dissolves. Pour over herring until covered. Close the jar, and give the herring a few days to marinate properly. Store in the refrigerator. Will keep for a couple of weeks.

Serving suggestions:
-serve with hot, cooked potatoes and rye bread
-arrange on a slice of rye or pumpernickel bread with slices of sweet apple, banana and hard boiled egg. Serve with or without this sweet curry sauce:
Mix 2 parts mayonnaise with 1 part sour cream. Add some honey to make it slightly sweet. Add some mild or medium hot curry powder to taste. The sauce should be creamy and smooth, with a definite curry taste and a hint of honey. Pour over the fish and fruit on the bread and top with slices of hard-boiled egg. You can also cut the fish, egg and fruit into small pieces, mix into the sauce and serve as a salad.

Icelandic lamb/mutton pate – Lamba/kindaKæfa

In Iceland, the economy-minded meal-planner knows that it is cheaper to buy a whole or half lamb (divided into various cuts) than to buy individual pieces when needed. The meat is bought frozen and will keep for 6 months or more at -18°C. This pâté is a good way to use up those leftovers and scraps that you don’t know what to do with, and cuts that have freezer burn but have not gone bad.

5 kg meat on the bone (lamb or mutton)
1 1/2 kg mutton suet (optional)
120 g onion, quartered
150 g salt
2 tsp ground pepper
2 tsp allspice, ground
1 tsp cloves, ground

To convert measures, click the link on the right sidebar.

Note: If you leave out the suet, use fatty meat. Some fat is necessary to hold the pâté together.

Wash the meat and cook in a little water with the suet (if using), onions and salt. When the bones can be easily pulled from the meat, it is done. My mother likes to pour off some of the cooking liquid at this point, and continue to gently fry the meat in its own fat for a while (at a low temperature – it must not burn). Put the cooking liquid aside and skim off the fat – do not throw away! Remove the bones and gristle from the meat and run the meat through a grinder or food processor with the onion pieces. Don’t grind it too finely – it must have some texture.
Knead the pâté (use a mixer with kneading hooks) and thin with the cooking liquid and fat. It should be fairly thick. Add the spices to taste. The colour of the pâté should be pale, almost white. My grandmother likes to whip the pâté, which makes it very light.
To store, pour into moulds (loaf pans are suitable). Allow to cool to room temperature before putting in the refrigerator to cool completely. Remove from the mould and cut up into suitable pieces. Wrap up in kitchen foil, pack into plastic bags and freeze.
Alternative storing methods include pasteurising in jars, pouring into cheesecloth bags and dipping in melted tallow or keeping it in brine (not used anymore, to my knowledge). For short term storage, pour into jars or bowls and pour melted fat on top.
Slice or spread on fresh bread. Particularly good on rye bread.

Icelandic bread soup – Brauðsúpa

Thriftiness is a strong trait in many older Icelanders, especially the generations that were born before World War II. Everything had to be used up, and throwing away edible leftovers was considered criminal. This thick soup is one way of using up bread leftovers and crusts.

Recipe serves 5.
200 g rye bread or assorted bread leftovers. Must be at least half rye bread.
1,25 l water
2 tbs raisins OR 4 prunes
1 tbs orange marmalade (optional)
6 slices lemon, OR orange/lemon zest or a cinnamon stick
2-3 tbs sugar
100 ml cream, whipped

(There is a link to a measurement converter on the right sidebar).

Soak the bread in the water overnight, or until the crusts are soft. Purée (use a blender if you have one) and cook on low for 1 hour. Add the raisins, lemon slices and sugar and cook for about 10 minutes more. Serve warm with whipped cream.

Recipe translated from Helga Sigurðardóttir’s recipe book Matur & Drykkur“, Mál og Menning, Reykjavík, 1986 (1947).