In many parts of the world, one heck of a party is underway. The feasts and celebrations of Mardi Gras have built to a crescendo, but by this time tomorrow a more virtuous tone will have settled across the Christian world as Ash Wednesday kicks off the start of Lent.
For many, this may feel like a transition time, from the festivities of the year’s end and then Carnival season into a period of self-sacrifice and worship. Hopefully you got some king cake and good partying in.
Although I wasn’t brought up in a terribly religious family, I do think Lent gets a bit of a bad rap. Yes, there is sacrifice and reflection to honor the sacred and divine. But consider the timing. How many of us are still going strong on our New Year’s resolutions?
I’m no theologian, but I’m pretty sure most religions consider life to be a gift from a higher power. So resolving to better your mind, body and soul is a divine act. By this reasoning, Lent is a chance to double down on those self-improving commitments you made just a few short weeks ago, kind of like a second wind.
While I’m not into most types of abstinence, particularly those involving, ahem, the flesh, the prospect of a few no-meat Fridays makes me think about seafood and other foods that have fallen off my menu rotation lately. In fact, shopping at the Napa Farmers Market this month reminds me of all the choices that can replace the ones that Lent observers must avoid one night a week. I even wonder if the market’s meat vendors (Long Meadow Ranch, Contimo Provisions, A4 Farms and others) actually see a bit of a sales boost during Lent since abstaining happens the night before the Saturday market.
Regardless of your religious views, you probably associate Lent with eating fish. But given that a beautiful salmon filet purchased on Saturday from FreshWay Fish won’t be nearly as beautiful by the following no-meat Friday, it’s a great time to explore the ancient preserving method of gravlax.
Unlike hot- or cold-smoked salmon, gravlax (or gravad lax) relies on a partial salt and sugar cure. It’s much easier to make at home than smoked salmon, and you can use the same method on other oily, meaty fish if you want to experiment.
The technique has evolved a lot since medieval times, when Scandinavians used it to preserve their excess spring and summer catch. Gravad lax, which translates as “buried salmon,” involved burying sides of the fish with salt, pepper and pine needles for a few months. You can imagine that this fermented fish was an acquired taste.
Today, in most recipes, fresh dill replaces pine needles, and the advent of refrigeration (or even freezing, which gravlax handles reasonably well) has made the outcome more palatable. Traditionally, making gravlax calls for pressing together two whole sides of salmon, but I’ve had good results using smaller amounts that our family can consume within a week or so. Just be careful not to over-cure the smaller fillets.
Serve gravlax on a toasted “everything bagel” with cream cheese from the Toasted stall at the Napa Farmers Market. Add thin slices of red onion, tomato and cucumber and a few capers and you are in brunch heaven.
Kids Activities at the Napa Farmers Market: Bring your youngsters to the market’s Education Station on Saturday, March 9, for Story Time at 10:30 a.m.
On the KVYN Music Stage: James Patrick Regan will perform at the Napa Farmers Market on Saturday, March 9.
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Adapted from “The River Cottage Fish Book: The Definitive Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Fish and Shellfish” by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher. For a dinner appetizer, arrange slices in a single layer on a plate, drizzle with high quality olive oil, serve with capers and a wedge of lemon.
1/4 cup sugar, preferably superfine
2-1/2 tablespoons kosher salt or other coarse salt
1-1/2 teaspoons coarsely ground black or white pepper
1/2 bunch of fresh dill, large stems removed, finely chopped
Zest of 1 lemon, optional
Two 6- to 8-ounce skin-on salmon fillets of similar thickness and dimensions, pin bones removed
In a bowl, combine the sugar, salt, pepper, dill and lemon zest, if using. Choose a flat-bottomed dish just large enough to hold one of the salmon fillets; line it with plastic wrap. Spread about one-third of the cure in the dish and top with one of the salmon fillets, skin side down. Top the salmon with half of the remaining cure, then put the second fillet on top, skin side up. Sprinkle the remaining cure on top. Fold the plastic wrap tightly over the fish. Place a 3- to 5-pound weight on top of the fish. Canned goods from the pantry or a half-gallon container of water works well.
Refrigerate for 1 to 4 days, flipping the plastic-wrapped package daily (don’t unwrap it, just flip it) until the fish has cured to your taste. Test for firmness by pressing the fillets through the plastic wrap. A classic smoked-salmon consistency should be achieved in about 2 days.
When ready, rinse the fillets under cold running water to remove the cure. Slice thinly to serve. Once rinsed, gravlax will keep in the refrigerator for up to 10 days; freeze, unsliced, for longer keeping.