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CHEF DU JOUR

Strandberg Wraps Up the Mystery of Lax

March 18, 1993|MIKE SPENCER | Mike Spencer is a member of The Times Orange County Edition staff.

There's nothing more colorful or tasty on an authentic Swedish smorgasbord than the traditional lax, the thinly sliced, bright orange salmon--and fewer dishes more a mystery to the average diner.

Many confuse it with lox, which is also salmon, but its preparation is something else. Lox is cured and smoked. Lax (which is the Swedish word for salmon) is not cooked in the traditional sense; that is, it's not boiled, baked, fried, sauteed or soaked in a heavy marinade. And yet, it certainly is not raw when served.

For a definitive answer, and a recipe, we turn to chef Ulf Anders Strandberg of the elegant Gustaf Anders restaurant in Costa Mesa, where lax is a popular item.

"The fish is coated with salt and sugar and packed with fresh dill, then wrapped and refrigerated for several days, during which the time the curing process 'cooks' it," Strandberg says. "The salt and the sugar actually cook the fish. But it takes time, and that's why you have to cure it for three or four days before serving. The process is an old method of preserving the fish, from the days before refrigeration. In Sweden, they actually buried the fish in the ground so there would be food during the long winter."

Strandberg has one serious warning, however, for anyone wanting to try the process at home: "Do not use Pacific salmon; it contains a parasite," which is not necessarily killed in the curing process. "You should use either Atlantic or Norwegian salmon, both of which are plentiful in the markets and both of which are free of any problems."

That aside, the dish is easy to prepare and well worth the waiting period.

The fish is first "washed" in brandy, then coated with salt, pepper and sugar, covered with fresh whole dill ("Use it all," Strandberg says, "stalks, crowns, the whole thing"), wrapped in parchment paper or plastic wrap, tied tightly and refrigerated with some kind of weight on top ("a brick does nicely," says Strandberg).

Strandberg was born and trained in Sweden and has been co-owner of Gustaf Anders since its birth with only six tables in Pacific Beach, near San Diego, 14 years ago. The restaurant expanded and then moved to La Jolla and then relocated to South Coast Plaza Village in Santa Ana four years ago.

*GRAVAD LAX WITH COLD DILL MUSTARD SAUCE

3 pounds fresh Atlantic or Norwegian salmon

1 cup brandy

5 tablespoons salt

2 teaspoons white peppercorns, crushed

5 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 cup oil

Several pounds of fresh whole dill, including stalks and crowns

*

"Wash" salmon with brandy. Cut fish lengthwise, carefully removing backbone and any small bones. In small bowl, mix salt, peppercorns and sugar. Moisten fish with oil and rub in mixture of salt, peppercorns and sugar. Layer bottom of pan with dill. Place half of fish skin down on bed of dill and sprinkle generously with more dill. Place other half, skin up, atop first half, with thick end resting on thin end of bottom piece. Sprinkle more dill over and around salmon. Wrap in plastic wrap or parchment paper, tape tightly and refrigerate for 48 to 72 hours with weight on top, turning package several times. Before serving, scrape off dill and seasonings and slice diagonally in thin slices.

*Dill Mustard Sauce

1/2 cup Dijon mustard

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons white vinegar

2/3 cup corn oil

1/2 cup fresh dill leaf, finely chopped

Salt, pepper

*

Place mustard in bowl and add sugar, vinegar, dash of salt and pepper. Mix well and slowly dribble oil into bowl, mixing constantly with a wooden spoon. Mix in the dill.

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