Suolakala – Bob Katajamaki’s Salt Fish

By Chef Rachel Globensky

A lifelong foodie, my stepdad Bob has taught me a lot about cooking, and about producing your own food. We lived on a hobby farm near Nolalu, and had fresh eggs, milk, beef, pork, and chicken, and oodles of veggies year-round. I certainly didn’t appreciate how good I had it at home until I moved out and had to grocery shop on my own—the store-bought chicken was tasteless, the beef was fatty, and the produce was listless and waxy! (Thankfully, Thunder Bay’s local food-producing scene has evolved since then!) As a young adult, I often left with yummy “care packages” after visiting the farm (I still do!). Bob prides himself on his home-grown dinners and even at 70 still loves to host meals for family, neighbours, and any “waifs and strays” I bring home.

One of the foods Bob makes superbly is Finnish salt fish, or suolakala (pronounced: soo-la-ka-la); it’s a staple at any family gathering. Similar to Swedish gravlax, suolakala is cured fish, flavoured primarily with salt, dill, and vodka or gin, served on rye bread and sprinkled with green onion. Our family uses salmon for this, usually, but if we’re lucky, my brother Dan will have some fresh trout on hand. A fatty fish works best for this purpose, as its creaminess balances well with the salt, and the end result is firm but not tough.

Like most excellent home cooks, Bob doesn’t use measuring spoons or cups, or follow a recipe for most of his dishes. I did manage to pin down a booklet he wrote while teaching a salt fish class at the Metropolitan Moose a few years back. He’s talked about putting together another class, as he had a lot of fun doing the first one—let me know if you’d be interested!

Suolakala
Makes enough for 6, with leftovers, if there are any…

2 skin-on, centre-cut salmon or trout fillets (about 1 lb each)
Wash fillets under cold water and dry with paper towel. Run your hand over the flesh and ensure all bones are out (clean tweezers work well to pick out tiny bones). Lay one fillet in a glass or pottery baking dish, skin side down.

¼ c vodka or gin
Sprinkle 2 tbsp vodka or gin over fish.

2 tbsp peppercorns
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp dry mustard
2 tbsp kosher salt
2 tbsp white or brown sugar
Using a mortar and pestle (or a zipper bag and a rolling pin), crush/mix the peppercorns, coriander, and dry mustard together; add salt and sugar, and mix well. Liberally sprinkle half of the mixture over the boozy fillet.

1 large bunch fresh dill
Lay half of the dill fronds on top and press gently.

Repeat the process with the other piece of fish, and the remaining ingredients. Bob does this while holding the second piece of salmon in his hand, and simultaneously sipping scotch. I’m not that talented, so I rest my fish on top of the other fillet (skin-side down) while I doctor it up with booze and spices. Finally, lay more dill over the salmon and loosely cover fish with plastic wrap.

Place a tray or small board inside the dish on top of the fish. Weigh down with a few cans or other moderately heavy weights. Refrigerate for 2-3 days, turning fish over every 12 hours, if desired. The length of time it takes to cure the fish depends on the thickness of the fillets; when the fish feels firm, it’s ready to eat.

Remove the fillets from the brine and wipe off most of the salt and dill with a paper towel. The suolakala is easiest to slice if partially frozen, so place it in a resealable bag and throw it in the freezer for a while. Slice the fish thinly and serve atop rye or brown bread (Murillo bread works well for this!) that has been spread with unsalted butter. Garnish with chopped green onions or capers, and away you go.