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It was my last day in Seattle. There was an early plane to catch, but fortunately, the fish markets were open by 4 am. I’d remembered to bring my own cooler; all I needed was a Copper River King salmon, some ice and clear lanes all the way to the airport.

Back at home, the tail half of the fish went into the freezer. The head went into a pot of tamarind-infused sinagang.  Two thick fillets were the centerpiece for a special dinner. Meanwhile, a thick and firm and still-glistening center cut will be reincarnated as silky slices of gravlax—a miracle transformation worth every single minute of curing.

I went to family-run Pure Fish Food at Pike Place. No, it’s not the cheapest place to buy salmon, but it’s on the way to the airport, the guys are super friendly and helpful, and—most importantly—their fish is fresh. I splurged on a whole fish, cut into four large chunks.

Deep, red-orange flesh and rich marbling hint at Copper River King salmon’s prized flavor. Work quickly while the fish is still cold and firm. A sharp, thin knife makes skinning and boning much easier. Cut straight down the back to the central bone, then ease the knife close around the bone to halve the fish into two thick “sides.”

When trimming away the white membrane and thin bones of the stomach cavity, hold the blade at an oblique angle to avoid cutting into the flesh. (If you were removing the skin, you’d use the same flat angle along with a quick, short, back-and-forth jiggling motion to peel the skin away from the flesh on the other side. For gravlax, however, keep the skin on.)

Press gently with your fingertips to find the soft pin bones embedded in a line near the belly. Grip the tip of each with needle-nose pliers and pull out along the grain of the flesh.

For this version, I’m coarsely grinding a mix of white peppercorn and a small amount of mustard seeds. Dried dill stands in for fresh, since I missed my market run, and vodka replaces traditional aquavit. Sugar and Murray River salt (from an Australian friend) round out the cure.

Pierce the skin here and there with the tip of a paring knife, to allow the cure to penetrate throughout the fish. Sprinkle the booze and rub the spices evenly on all surfaces. I usually sandwich a generous bunch of fresh dill sprigs between the salmon sides.

Place the salmon on a rack inside a shallow dish or pan. Drape with plastic, place a cutting board or flat platter on top, and then weight with heavy cans. Refrigerator, turning once a day and draining excess liquid. After 3-4 days, your gravlax will be ready!

I have a long, hollow ground blade with special dimples that resist friction for cutting paper-thin slices smoothly, but any sharp knife will work. Just be sure to angle the blade for wide ribbons of silky salmon. Sure, it freezes well, but inviting friends over for brunch will leave you with no leftovers!

July 2006