Excuses and slow-roasted salmon

I know, I know, I broke my once-a-week resolution.  But you see, I have this exam hanging over my head.  It’s a two part oral examination that involves me reading a paper I’ve written about a 14th century poem, and a committee of three professors listening and then quizzing me both about the paper, and then in the second part of the exam, about medieval literature in general, based upon a hundred-or-so item list I have put together.  My exam is next Friday.  It’s a little intimidating.

But I don’t want to talk about that now.  I want to talk about salmon.  Even if you are not a seafood person, chances are you are okay with salmon.  It’s a beautiful fish.  It’s meaty and rich and juicy and can be cooked in a number of ways.  One of our treats in the last few days of the winter break was slow roasting a huge filet of it.

I had never experimented with slow roasting like this before.  Per my recipe’s directions, I stirred together brown sugar, sea salt, and a big handful of fresh, finely chopped dill.  I love dill.  It has this fresh green smell to it that makes me feel alive and happy, and mixing it with sugar had to be a good thing.  Once combined, I sprinkled the mixture over the fish and packed it in, rubbing and pushing the herbed sugar against the flesh so the flavors could penetrate.  Then I slapped plastic wrap over the top of my baking dish and stowed it in the fridge for 5 hours.

With eons to go before dinner, I preheated the oven to 175F, unwrapped the baking dish and transferred the fish to a cookie sheet before sticking it in the barely-warmed oven and leaving it for over an hour.  Over an hour!  For fish!  I could hardly believe it either.  Trusting in the recipe, I left it alone for what felt like forever.  After a time, the smell of roasted fish and caramelizing sugar started to fill the house, and this wasn’t a briny, salty, fishy kind of smell, this was almost like a thick roast of red meat.  Once in a while there was a crackling noise from hot fat oozing out of the fish and sizzling against the cookie sheet.

Meanwhile, I prepped our side dishes: barley simmered in chicken broth and a green salad of butter lettuce, cucumbers, and sliced avocado.  As the fish recipe called for a dipping sauce of mayonnaise and whole grain mustard, I made a salad dressing with the same two flavors, adding white wine vinegar to thin it out, and a drizzle of honey to prevent it from being too bitter.  Hooray for tying flavors together!

When the timer went off for the fish, I opened the oven door and despaired.  The little cracks in the sugar coating that I could see fish through looked bright pinky-red still, as if the fish was quite raw.  Gulping back disappointment, I gently flaked into the filet with a fork and almost had to pick myself up off the floor, where my knees were threatening to melt into a puddle.  The fish was perfect.  It was cooked, and the texture was silky but firm and buttery smooth.

We ate.  The salmon was remarkable.  Though I only had it in the refrigerator for five hours (hey, we were hungry!) and the recipe called for eight, the meat was on its way toward the texture of smoked salmon, rather than baked or roasted.  I don’t know what the slow heat did, exactly, but the fish peeled off its skin in perfect fork sized chunks.  It was so rich and smooth that it was almost like eating a slice of warm butter.  The sugar surprisingly did not overpower the taste of the fish, and the mayonnaise-mustard sauce was tangy and added just the perfect touch of acid.  I was surprised that it wasn’t too creamy, with the silkiness of the salmon, the smooth mayonnaise, and the sweet sugar, but the punch of chewiness from the barley leant a nice contrast in texture, and the crisp butter lettuce and cucumbers in our salad didn’t hurt either.

Let’s see a close-up:

I think if the fish had chilled and marinated inside its sweet rub for a full eight hours before getting the slow heat treatment, the texture would have been even more pleasing.  N., who isn’t a big seafood fan, pronounced this a tentative success the first night, but the next day, when he had a cured salmon sandwich with thinly slice cucumbers, mayonnaise sauce, and a crisp leaf of lettuce on toasted sourdough, he was a complete convert.  We will have this again, when my exam is over and time operates normally again.  When I have time to devote to a dinner I begin almost ten hours ahead, and time to linger over it when it is finally, triumphantly ready.  Here’s the recipe I used, if you want to give it a try yourself.

Christmas 2009: Gluttony

Medieval theology and philosophy usually cites Gluttony as the least series of the seven deadly sins.  In the division of types, it is one of the sins of the flesh (along with lust), and it is easily conquered through abstinence.  You know, the kind so many people embark on after the New Year.  Call it a resolution.

Medieval theologians and philosophers never saw these:

These individual bittersweet chocolate soufflés provided the dessert course to our hors d’oeuvre dinner.  Our dear family friend L. brought them, and baked them in our oven just prior to serving so we would have as fluffy and elevated a puff as possible.  She was wise to do so.  Just look at that gorgeous height!  The cracked tops provided a lot of textual diversity, which was lovely because the insides were so luscious and creamy and rich.

We served these miniature masterpieces with a generous dollop of whipped cream and a sprig of spearmint, which I happened to have in the kitchen leftover from spring roll production.

They were a really nice, sophisticated blend of flavors.  Because the chocolate was bitter- to semi-sweet, the richness of the soufflé wasn’t overwhelming.  In fact, the whipped cream leant a very pleasant sweetness to the dish itself.  L. added orange zest to the batter for that classic combination, which emerged only as a subtle undertone, very complementary to the relative bitterness of the chocolate.  It was like a grown-up throwback to those chocolate oranges that you smack on a table and then unwrap to reveal perfectly molded segments.  There were nine of us.  There were nine soufflés.  We only managed to eat about six of them because they were so decadent, so rich while curiously so airy, and so sinful feeling only moments after that last loving lick of the spoon.

I fell asleep dreaming about the leftovers.  The next morning after a triumphant gift-exchanging ceremony, the Husband and I jetted off to spend the big day with his family, while my sister and her boyfriend did the same.

N.’s family does a very traditional style Christmas dinner after the fashion of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner: an enormous turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, the works.  It kept our dog’s nose, and desires, busy all day.

The next day, feeling repentant, we set off to share lunch with my sister and her boyfriend, whose parents live only a few miles from N.’s old homestead.  After a few days of richness, what could be more penitent and healthy than rice and fish?  Perhaps many things, if that rice and fish looks like this:

This jewel-encrusted carbuncle of sushi beauty is courtesy of Mikuni Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar , my favorite sushi establishment, and perhaps even my favorite restaurant in California.  The rice is chewy and nutty and sticky, the fish is extremely fresh and expertly handled, and as you can see, the combinations and toppings are imaginative and beautiful.  N. and I shared three rolls which, as you can see, I forgot to document until it was almost too late.  Such are the consequences of gluttony.

Plumbing the Depths of the Sesame Crusted Sublime

A week or so ago, when we had a span of delightful warm weather, a number of truly wonderful things happened. My wonderful friend S. drove us to Lowe’s where we bought lumber to create garden plots, my wonderful husband N. built us said garden plots, and I spent about two wonderful hours too long in the early Spring sun getting my neck, chest, and arms burned while I introduced young plants to their new homes. The upshot of these two glorious afternoons was the creation of a vegetable and herb garden. The backlash was the toasted skin.

Oddly inspired by the fire burning my skin from within, and not wanting anything involving the oven for dinner, I set about morphing together two recipes: my mom’s friend Jen’s Chinese Chicken Salad with a really delicious seared ahi salad I had at Henry’s 12th Street Tavern (http://henrystavern.com/index.php) for my 1 year wedding anniversary.

Taking my own toasting into account, I dredged a beautiful hunk of sushi grade ahi in sesame seeds. I seared it lightly on all sides so that the sesame seeds were nutty smelling and golden on the outside and the tuna had layers of doneness culminating in a glorious rare center. I mounded up a mixture of savoy cabbage, chives, and (I know, so gauche but so good) crumbled ramen noodles in our salad bowls, and topped it with thin slices of tuna, mango, and avocado, then crowned the whole thing with some deep fried won ton strips.

It was perfect. The tangy acidity of the mango cut through the buttery richness of the avocado and the achingly, meltingly perfect tuna center. The perfect bite was all three heavy hitters on one forkful, followed by a crunchy bite of won ton to change up the texture and cleanse the palate. I won’t lie; the cabbage salad was really just there for looks. And to pretend we were getting our full serving of vegetables. We really just wanted this tropical take on sashimi. Now, with my sunburn a fading memory, clouds back in the skies, and rain on the way, I can only remind you of that shiny glimpse of springtime:

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Hasty Bites 2

I have tried, in recent months, to create not only a list before going to that temptation-laden den that is the grocery store, but also a meal plan for the week, so that I can see as I shop how the seemingly random ingredients I toss haphazardly into my cart (inevitably squeaky, sticky, or with a bum wheel) fit together.

Of course, this doesn’t always work.  Usually I veer off from my established course (from the meal plan, that is.  The shopping cart leads me physically astray throughout the voyage) when I hit the produce section.  In very late fall and very early spring, my weakness is asparagus.  Pencil-thin spears, that woody green color of new growth – at this time of year these bunches of promise not only attract me from a flavor perspective, but they mean something about the weather.  Since it is only February, this is sometimes a lie, but they give me something to look forward to – they permit me brief rememberances of what Spring means (in the sense that the weather warms and the sky blues, not that the allergens arrive).

My new favorite way to cook asparagus is not on the stovetop, as Mom taught me, but in the oven.  img_0206

I snap the stems of the asparagus and combine them, a scattering of cherry tomatoes, two or three minced cloves of garlic, the juice from half a lemon and the juiced lemon half, sliced, on a baking sheet.  I toss my veg liberally with olive oil, then add black pepper and sea salt.  At 400, a bunch of skinny spears usually takes about 15 minutes to cook.  If you’re feeling less technical about the whole thing, once most of the tomatoes have begun to burst it’s a good time to check for doneness.

We had our roasted asparagus with big, beautiful pan-fried salmon filets.  Just salt, pepper, olive oil, and a sprinkle of dill on each.

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Post Thanksgiving Paradise

You can only have turkey so many days in a row.  The mistake that I think gets made with Thanksgiving leftovers is trying to reheat and re-eat the whole menu at once.  Of course two or three days of turkey-with-stuffing-and-potatoes-and-a-side-of-something-green is going to get old.  And so, I turned away from the tupperware and found perfection: pb2902041

The finest fish sandwich from Cornucopia and my mom’s whole berry cranberry sauce made a glorious Saturday lunch.  Crispy batter around flaky white fish, a chewy, yeasty roll holding the whole sandwich together, and of course that most deletable, most seasonal of sides, the tart-sweet taste of cranberries that have burst open their skins into a thick, rich syrup.  I like mine straight out of the refrigerator, as cold as I can stand them.

Pasta Redemption

The chewy tastiness of the center of farfalle – how do they pinch it together so that the butterfly/bowtie keeps its shape when the pasta dries?

Silken texture of smoked salmon with the fresh greenness of dill that stays herby and bright on my hands and in my nose until long after dinner is over.

Soft and tangy Roma tomatoes slowly broken down in a sauce of heavy cream and a few tablespoons of vodka.

Tossed and consumed with joy.