27 June 2014

Spruce up Your Gravlax

A recipe so smart, you'd be foolish not to try it.

Foraged spruce tips and juniper berries were used to flavour the salt cure for this gravlax recipe.

Spruce and Juniper Scented Gravlax

2 tbsp young spruce buds
6 wild juniper berries
1 + 1 tbsp coarse sea salt
2 tbsp granulated sugar
salmon, filleted, skin-on* 
2 tbsp local vodka (we used vodka made with iceberg water)

*this recipe is good for up to 2 lbs of salmon, but it's easy to scale up or down as needed.  Also, you will want either 2 fairly even-sized pieces or a large piece that can be cut into 2 more-or-less equal-sized bits.  For frugal gravlax, buy the cheaper tail end fillets.  If you go to an independent local fish monger (like The Fish Depot in downtown St. John's) and tell them what you are planning to do, they will help you find the right piece of fish.

Grind the spruce tips and juniper berries with half the salt.
In a spice grinder (or using a mortar and pestle) grind together spruce buds, juniper berries and 1 tbsp of the sea salt to a fine powder.  Combine with remaining coarse salt and sugar.

Spread the curing mixture over the salmon, but do not rub in.
If your fish is in one piece, cut it in half.  Spread a large piece of plastic wrap over your work surface and place the fish on it, skin side down.  Lightly spread a thick layer of the spice and salt mix over the fish (don't rub!).  Get one hand under one piece of fish.  Working quickly, pour the vodka over the other piece of fish and turn the dry piece onto it.  Wrap tightly in the plastic wrap**.

**if you are hopelessly inept with plastic wrap, make sure you have a friend on-site who can do the wrapping for you... it's important to get it closed up tight to contain the vodka quickly

Once the salmon is wrapped, use a heavy flat stone (or
weighted plate) to press the fish during curing.  
At this point, take a deep breath and look at your packet to make sure you've followed the instructions:  you should have spice and salt mix sandwiched between two pieces of salmon; the salmon should be flesh-to-flesh with the skin out.  There will be liquid all over the place inside the plastic wrap.  Good?  Good.  Put that packet into a plastic zipper bag, squeezing out the air as you seal it.

Put the salmon on a flat plate or platter or tray.  Put a flat, heavy, gravlax stone on top of it***.  Refrigerate for 3 days to cure the salmon, turning it twice a day when you feed your dogs****.

***You don't have a gravlax stone???  You can top the salmon with another flat plate and weigh the plate down with a brick or stone or large jar of pickles.

****You don't feed your dogs twice a day?  What do you mean you don't even have dogs?  We flip gravlax (and rinse sprouts, change salt cod soaking water, and do other things that need to be done twice a day) at 5 am and 5 pm.  You don't necessarily need to get up with caribougrrl to make gravlax... just remember to flip it over about every 12 hours.

After 3 days, remove the gravlax from it's packaging and rinse under cold water.  Pat dry gently with clean kitchen towel (or paper towels).  Store in an airtight container in the fridge. (If it lasts long enough without being eaten, this will store for a week or two according to the varying advice on the miracle of the internet.)

To serve, use a sharp knife to separate from the skin and slice thinly.  Eat on open-face sandwiches of rye bread or rye crackers, with mustard and yogurt sauce, and dandelion capers.  Or on bagels with cream cheese... on sandwiches, salads, pizza, pasta...

One of our favourite ways to eat gravlax is thinly sliced on rye crackers with mustard sauce and dandelion capers.


Anyone who's had good salmon sashimi can verify that fresh raw salmon is soft and buttery and beautiful as-is.  Salt-curing salmon concentrates and intensifies those qualities, extends the shelf life of the fish, and turns the salmon from a wholesome to a jeweled pink.  It looks almost too opulent to eat.  

I can't find a specific scientific paper or pop science article to back this up, but I once heard a radio program about the benefits of green space and being outside in the wilderness.  The thing that stuck in my mind from that radio show was that walking through coniferous forest is especially good for you.  Specifically, that inhaling the scent of spruce and pine improves cognitive function.

Which means the smell of spruce -- and by extension I will assume the taste, because it's all the olfactory system anyway -- is good for your brain.  And we've known for a long time that fish is brain food. So with all the appropriate warnings about unscientific and unsubstantiated claims: eating spruce-cured salmon will make you smarter.


Identifying and Harvesting Spruce Tips and Juniper Berries in the Rain****

****this also works on not-rainy days...

We took the dogs with us on a rainy day foraging trip.  Bella was not convinced spruce tips were edible, but found that a good spruce branch makes a passable umbrella.

Spruce and juniper are both conifers, but spruce are all tall and up-righty, while juniper are more of a prickly woody ground cover.


Spruce is a short-needled coniferous tree, with tough (i.e. prickly) needles
spiralling around the branches. The needles are round and will roll easily
between your fingers.

The species of spruce you harvest makes no difference.  From a safety perspective, it's not even vital in the boreal forest that you can distinguish spruce from pine, larch and fir since the young tips from all of them can be used as a seasoning.  Nonetheless, there are differences in scent and therefore differences in flavour, so you may as well learn to tell them apart.

Pine trees have LONG needles in clusters of 2-5.  When you think a Group Of Seven painting, it's probably a pine tree you have featured in your mind.  They are the charismatic ones.

Larch (also called tamarack, called juniper in Newfoundland, just to be confusing) have short needles found in clusters, like tufts.  They lose their needles every year, so all the needles you see are young-of-the-year.  (Yes, I did just tell you about a deciduous conifer, feel free to call your grade 3 teacher and pass on that tidbit.)

Fir trees have short flat needles which grow along the length of the branch... if you look closely, they are in opposite pairs.  You cannot easily roll the needles between your fingers, though I'm sure some cheeky teenager would show you it can be done.

Spruce, then.  Spruce trees have short needles spiralled along the length of the branch.  The needles roll easily between your fingers.  This is the tree you are looking for for this recipe.

Spruce tips are the soft new bright green growth on the tree.  When the buds are swelling enough to break through the paper, they are ready to pick.
The young-of-the-year needles on spruce are bright green and soft.  Early enough in the year, they will still have a papery cap on them.  If you are picking spruce tips for pickling or other applications where you want them to stay whole, choose swollen tips that still have paper.  If you are using them as a spice, go ahead and harvest them any time before they harden up and get dark.

When you pick them, take a few from here and a few from there... you are pruning the tree, so be respectful of it.

Juniper Berries

Juniper is a low-growing evergreen with needles.  Juniper berries are actually cones, it's just that the cone scales are fleshy and merged together, making it look like a berry.  The best way to find the berries is to lift a branch of juniper up and look under it.

Look underneath the juniper branches for the berry-like cones.  The ripe
ones are sometimes quite dry and shrivelled in the spring but rub it
between your fingers: if it has some scent, use it.
Juniper berries take 1-3 years to mature, and birds apparently love the ripe ones, so chances are good any juniper you investigate will have many more green berries than blue ones.  In the spring, the ripe blue juniper berries are drier and less fragrant than they were in the fall, so you need more of them this time of year.  Roll them gently between your fingers and if there's any scent to them, they will work.  If they are dry and shrivelled and have no scent, it's probably not worth using. 

You might have heard that juniper berries are toxic, and I would suggest that eating handfuls of juniper berries is not a good idea.  As a spice or seasoning, however, there is no reason to be alarmed.  (With the usual caveats that if you are pregnant or have serious health concerns, you might want to leave them out of the recipe.)

Spruce and Juniper Scented Gravlax on Punk Domestics


  1. Oh Caribou girl, this sounds so good. There is a magic drink at the Fogo Island Inn made with spruce infused vodka, A tumbler of that with a plate of this would be so good on a Friday night.

    1. Oh, that's a really good idea. I think we have enough vodka left to make an infusion!


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