SLICING THE FILET Fresh salmon can’t be beat.
"But you can't get fresh fish anywhere in Portland on Monday," the Swede said. We were having a scheduling conflict. She had offered to teach me (and you, dear readers) how to make her favorite dish from Sweden, cured salmon with mustard vinaigrette and potatoes au gratin. Think! What strings did I have in the world? "What if," I proposed, "I show up at your house at 10 am Monday with the most alive salmon in Portland?" She laughed. We're on!
I get Ian Hayward on the phone. He's the fishmonger at Rosemont Market in Yarmouth. "She's right," he explained. Commercial fishermen don't fish on weekends and so any fish you're getting on Monday was caught at the earliest Friday, most likely Thursday, and before if overseas. "Your best bet would be to get a whole fish." It keeps better that way. He called his people and in two minutes had the most alive whole salmon in Portland with my name on it. Monday morning I showed up in the West End at Eva Morrill's door with a two-foot fish with clear eyes and firm flesh. I think we both hooted. I say, "I hope filleting salmon is like riding a bike because it's been 20 years since I did this."
About that long ago, Eva's story goes, she came to the US to travel, but something happened and, to her mother's dismay, she never went back to live in Sweden. One night at a restaurant in Chicago called Metropolis, a friend introduced her to a man named John. The two started talking, dated, and fell in love. Like so many born-here Americans, he asked her to cook Swedish meatballs. "What are Swedish meatballs?" Eva wondered. Then she figured: oh, they're just meatballs! The lingonberries, cardamom bread, potato sausages she knew so well — all Swedish food? Who knew? And so she found Swedish grocery stores to find her now-special groceries. Then something horrible happened. She and John were living together by this time. Someone called from the hospital. He was going straight into surgery. A giant, bloody, malignant-looking tumor had grown straight through his liver. Then, at just over 30 years old, John died four times on the operating table. The white-faced surgeon explained to Eva afterward that John's liver had exploded during the operation and cancer cells surely spread everywhere. He was sorry, but if John woke up, he had less than six months.
When John came to, Eva said to him, "This is not how your life was meant to end," not knowing who exactly her sources were. "You have to believe you're going to be okay." Then, pumped up on morphine, tubes coming out all over, right there, he proposed. During the five days they waited for the results of the cancer tests, the two planned their wedding. They'd elope in Mexico and throw a party in Chicago.
The surgeon cried when he delivered the results of John's tests. He'd never seen anything like this in his life. John was cancer-free. When John returned to their apartment, he saw his life anew. What he once thought was being money manager in a big city now looked like a rat race. He asked Eva: "You want to move to Maine?" They went through with their wedding plans, moved to Maine, had three kids and lived, really lived. The gravlax, by the way, turned out awesome. This dish is a damn good reminder: always go for the most alive option.