Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Bisque with Herb Puree and Cheese Toast

Just under the wire: your October soup! I debated between this and tortilla soup for several weeks, then it was too hot to think even remotely about soup, and when I came out on the other end, almost time for Halloween and without a single container of chicken stock in my freezer nor an ounce of impetus to make any, all I could think about was a tomato bisque with a swirl of pesto I had at a surprise Friday lunch date with N. last month at a little bistro we like, and the decision was made. Bisque is traditionally a soup made with seafood stock to which cream is added – lobster bisque is of course the poster child. However, it has evolved, as food so often does, and now seems to just indicate a soup that has been blended to smooth consistency and finished with cream. Tomato seemed like a good way of making it a vegetarian option, and I have a soft spot for tomato soup. For extra interest, I wanted to add roasted red pepper to mine, to evoke that dry, smokiness fall can sometimes carry with it. As for the tomatoes, I dithered: did it make sense to look for lingering heirlooms at my Farmers’ Market, or settle for grocery story options, and should I peel or not peel? And would it be cheating if I just grabbed a jar of fire-roasted and called it a day?

Then my friend S. sent me Deb’s new book, and of course she already had the answer, which she says came from Cook’s Illustrated: gently split and drain the canned tomatoes, and roast them until dried and lightly colored. This concentrates their flavor, saves you the headache of deciding on perfect tomatoes, makes this an any-time-of-year option, and gives you time to prep the rest of the ingredients while the tomatoes are in the oven. Yes, it probably makes the soup take a little longer to come together, and yes, if you don’t line your baking sheet with aluminum foil first you’ll be every so sorry, but the flavor difference is noticeable, so I think it’s worth doing. The roasted flavor is evened and enriched by the cream we add at the end, and I think it also combats that too-acidic bite tomatoes sometimes have. But if you find yours are still a touch sour at the end, add a quick squeeze of honey.

A tomato soup is a comforting standard, but the trick – and treat – of this one is the herb puree I made to imitate that pesto from the bistro. A quick whizz of basil along with whatever other soft stemmed herbs you like – parsley, dill, I threw in some sage, but it’s such powerful stuff you really only need a few leaves of it – a clove of garlic, some lemon juice if you dig that sourness, and enough olive oil to bring it all together.

The herb puree can be dolloped on or mixed in, but I wanted to be fancy, so I carefully dribbled a swirl through the center of my bowl. And then, because imagining a bowl of tomato-based soup without melted cheese on toasted bread is impossible for me, I broiled some sharp cheddar onto a few leftover slices of baguette and settled in for dinner.

*This recipe includes charring a fresh pepper and roasting a can of tomatoes, but you can also make it easy on yourself and sub in roasted red peppers and fire-roasted tomatoes, and I bet your results will be similar, and cut down about half an hour of the time it takes to make this. If you try that way, let me know how it turned out.

 

Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Bisque with herb puree and cheese toasts
About an hour, if your tomatoes and peppers are not pre-roasted. About half an hour if they are.
Serves 4 as a light dinner
For soup:
1 large red bell pepper (or 1 jar roasted red peppers, drained)
1 tablespoon olive oil
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, plain or fire roasted
½ cup diced onion
2-3 cloves garlic, smashed, skins removed
2 tablespoons butter
2-2½ cups vegetable or chicken stock (you may not use it all)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh oregano (1-2 sprigs)
salt and pepper to taste
½-1 cup heavy cream
1-2 teaspoons honey, optional
For herb puree:
½ cup basil leaves
¼ cup other mixed herbs – I used parsley, chives, and just a few sage leaves
1 clove garlic
lemon juice to taste
¼-½ cup olive oil
For cheese toasts:
Per slice of baguette or half-slice of sandwich bread:
½ teaspoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons finely grated sharp cheddar cheese

 

  • If you are using plain tomatoes, preheat the oven to 450F. If you are using fire-roasted tomatoes, no need. For both, open the tomato can and dump into a fine mesh strainer positioned over a bowl or a large glass measuring cup to collect the juices. As they drain, use your fingers to gently tear the tomatoes and extract some of the juice and seeds inside.
  • If you are using jarred roasted red peppers, skip this step. If you are using a fresh red bell pepper, while the oven is warming, char the red bell pepper over a gas burner turned on high. Let the skin blacken, adjusting the placement of the pepper with a pair of metal tongs to allow for maximum char. As each lobe blackens, turn to a new side, repeating until the skin is well charred and the flesh of the pepper is starting to soften, around 15 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap for another 15 minutes.
  • If you are using plain tomatoes, when the oven has preheated, cover a baking tray or roasting pan with aluminum foil, drizzle on the 1 tablespoon olive oil, and add the juiced, seeded tomatoes. Transfer to the oven and roast 25-30 minutes, until the tomatoes have dried out and are starting to take on a little color.
  • While the tomatoes roast and the pepper steams, turn your attention to the soup base. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, then add the diced onions and the smashed garlic. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then sweat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are translucent and smell sweet, 8-10 minutes.
  • After the pepper has steamed for about 15 minutes, strip off the plastic wrap and use a knife to cut a slit into the pepper (be careful – hot steam will be released). When it is cool enough to handle, wrap it in a dry paper towel and rub to remove the majority of the skin – it should slide off relatively easily. Don’t worry if a few charred pieces stay on. Split the pepper in half, remove the stem and seeds, then roughly chop the flesh.
  • Add the chopped pepper and the roasted tomatoes to the pot with the onions and garlic (or add the drained fire-roasted tomatoes and jarred roasted red peppers). Add enough vegetable or chicken stock to the reserved tomato juices to make 2½ cups of liquid. Add to the pot along with the bay leaf and oregano. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 20-25 minutes with a slightly vented lid.
  • While the soup is simmering, you can make the herb puree. In a food processor or blender, combine the basil, other mixed herbs, a few tablespoons lemon juice, and about ½ teaspoon of salt. Buzz to combine. While the processor is running, stream in about ¼ cup olive oil. Stop the processor, scrape down the sides, and assess. You want a reasonably smooth, well-seasoned puree. If needed, add salt, pepper if you wish, and lemon juice. If the herb pieces still seem dry and not well integrated, run the processor again and stream in some more olive oil, until the mixture comes together into a puree. Scrape into a small bowl and rinse out the processor or blender.
  • After 20-25 minutes of simmering, remove the bay leaf and the stems of oregano, if you used full sprigs, and carefully transfer the soup into the rinsed out food processor or blender. Carefully, since hot liquids can “explode” when blended from the trapped steam, cover the lid with a towel and turn on the processor or blender to low speed. I like to leave the feed tube lid/pusher out of my food processor when I do this, to let steam escape. As the soup blends, turn the machine up to high speed and run until the mixture is very smooth.
  • Once you’ve achieved the consistency you want, return the soup to the pot, add the cream, and season to taste. If it seems a little too acidic, add a little more cream and/or the 1-2 teapoons honey. Warm through over medium-low heat.
  • While the soup warms, it’s a good time to make the cheese toasts. Spread each slice of baguette or half-slice of sandwich bread with a thin layer of mayonnaise, sprinkle on the 2 tablespoons finely grated cheese, and place under a broiler or toaster oven heated to 400F until the cheese bubbles and browns.
  • To serve, ladle the soup into a large bowl. Carefully spoon on the herb puree in a swirl (or whatever pattern you want, or just a dollop). Dunk in a cheese toast, or serve it on the side, while still warm.

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Corn and Onion Crispy Rice

My Food Network obsession remains, as it was a few weeks ago when I offered you these fridge pickles sweetened with melon liqueur, Beat Bobby Flay (or, as I like to call it, Beat Up Bobby Flay). There are many reasons for this, though I think it ultimately comes down to our penchant for rooting for the underdog: Flay is accomplished and talented and usually wins (plus he presents as somewhat arrogant, which makes unseating him that much more satisfying), so we want the challenger chefs who strut into the arena to throw him off.

Anyway, when the challenger presents a dish that involves rice, BFlay’s typical move is to cook the rice just to, or even a little under, chill it, then pop it into hot cast iron for a minute or two right at the end to achieve crispy bits. Achieving a crispy bottom layer on rice, far from the universal disaster we might conceive of when addressing the burnt lacquer bottom of what was supposed to be a fluffy potful, is a sought-after result in a number of cultures. Tahdig, socarrat, xoon: when the phenomenon has its own name, you know it’s something worth emulating.

Hot off the crunchy corners of a baked pasta dish, I started eyeing the rice in my pantry for all its crispy potential. This is a loose remaking of my “‘stuck pot’ red rice” from a few years ago, but faster, with fewer ingredients, and easier to throw together: the rice gets parboiled – just ten minutes in the water so it’s still chalky in the center – while corn and onions sauté until toast-brown in a mixture of butter and olive oil. The rice, along with a few spices and some lime zest, gets stirred in with the corn and onions, we splash on a little tomato and lime juice, and then the whole mess gets pressed and cooked until a crusty bottom layer forms. Then, we scrape, flip, and cook again. By the time there’s sufficient crispiness, the rice is fully cooked and flavored with the acidic liquids we added.

This works best in cast iron, but if you don’t have a cast iron skillet, regular non-stick would probably be fine too. If you do have a cast iron skillet and never use it, for fear of improper “seasoning” or sticking or cleaning procedures, don’t look to the internet to make you feel better. There are pages and pages of complex instructions for prepping, cooking in, and maintaining your cast iron cookware, enough to whiz you right around the wheel from encouragement to intimidation. Instead, I have found what works best is my friend M’s casual, summer morning advice: “just cook eggs in it all the time with lots of butter. Or meat.” I laughed, but then I tried it, and my skillet is now no longer patchy and sticky with attempts to bake on an oil layer, but smooth and barely shiny, and when I went to flip this rice, not a single grain stuck to the pan surface, but lifted smoothly away with only a wooden spatula.

We had our crispy rice piled high next to bean and cheese tacos, but it would be equally good with grilled or roasted chicken, well-seasoned white fish, a tangled pile of charred vegetables or, as my sister declared when I described it, “I want to eat that with some salsa verde carnitas.” So do I, sister-friend. So do I.

Corn and Onion Crispy Rice
Serves 4-6 as a side
20-25 minutes
1 cup long grain white rice
1 cup corn, fresh or frozen and defrosted
1 cup frozen and defrosted pearl onions
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
zest of one lime
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
juice of half a lime, or to taste
¼ cup tomato juice or v8
1 tablespoon each fresh oregano, fresh chives, and fresh cilantro, finely chopped
additional lime wedges to serve

 

  • Bring a large, lidded pot of salted water to a full boil, then add the rice. Boil 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. The rice will be underdone; this is what we want.
  • While the water is warming and the rice is cooking, heat the butter and olive oil over medium high heat in a large skillet, preferably cast iron. When the fat mixture shimmers, add the fully defrosted corn and onions, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper to taste, and toast until caramelized, stirring and tossing frequently, 10-15 minutes. As the vegetables start to brown, add the whole cumin seeds and stir well to distribute.
  • When the cumin starts to smell toasty and the vegetables are nicely browned, add in the rice, the paprika, and the lime zest and stir well to distribute the spices and veg evenly. Stir in the tomato juice and the lime juice, then press the rice down into a compact layer.
  • Continue to cook over medium high heat until crusty bits begin to form on the bottom, 4-5 minutes. In sections, turn the rice and expose the top layer to the skillet surface for another 3-4 minutes until this, too, gets a little crunchy.
  • When the rice has crisped to your liking, remove from heat, scatter the finely chopped herbs over the top, and serve with additional lime wedges for squeezing.

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Mom’s Chunky Gazpacho

I would wager a guess that Spain’s two best-known dishes, at least for Americans, are paella and gazpacho. While I see the value in both for late summer, this weekend the temperature in Southern California – and therefore in our living room – skyrocketed uncomfortably, and the idea of cooking anything felt like a death sentence. We turned, therefore, to the option least likely to wilt us further.

Even then, the idea of venturing into the kitchen – away from a trio of fans all blowing directly on me – to chop up a few vegetables before letting my blender do the bulk of the work was oppressive. Don’t let that stop you, though, because having a big bowl of this in your refrigerator is worth it. Gazpacho is, as I always think of it, the Spanish, blended, soup version of the Italian classic panzanella salad. Traditionally it always includes bread and olive oil along with the tomatoes, producing a lovely smooth, emulsified bowl that chopped vegetables can be floated into.

My mom’s version, which we’re having with few adjustments, doesn’t include the traditional bread component. She adds red wine vinegar and a little chicken broth to the vegetables and the olive oil, and always serves hers up cold, with a dollop of sour cream on top that can be dipped into with every spoonful, or swirled through the entire bowl, for a little extra richness. Of course you can leave off the sour cream and use vegetable broth instead, for a vegan option.

In addition to being simple, and cold, and raw, this soup keeps well; its flavors mingle over a night or two as it sits in your fridge, and it requires only a quick stir to bring it back together (it doesn’t have any emulsifying components, so after a long chill the olive oil will pool on the surface a bit which can look unappealing). One summer, I remember Mom keeping a massive tureen of it in the fridge for a few weeks, replenishing the base and adding more chopped vegetables as needed.

Aside from the indolent bother of rising from whatever surface you’re plastered to, the only troublesome complication of this soup is that it really does need to chill for a few hours before you eat it. Not only is it better served cold (some people like it at room temperature but they are wrong I obviously have preferences); the time in the fridge allows the flavors to meld, mellowing the astringency of the raw onion and the vinegar. Somehow the two acids – vinegar and tomato – harmonize as they chill, resulting in a soup that is bright but not overwhelming, and bolstered by the more neutral flavors of the other vegetables. Aside from the tomato, which softens as it sits, the vegetables retain crunch and a bowlful feels light and refreshing, which means, perhaps to the dismay of your dining partners, they will regain just enough energy to wash up afterwards.

Mom’s Chunky Gazpacho
Serves 6
About 15 minutes, plus at least 2 hours to chill
3 large tomatoes
1 bell pepper (Mom uses green; I prefer red)
1 bunch green onions, root tips removed, or 1 small red onion, or 1 large shallot
1 large English cucumber
3 cups tomato juice or low sodium V8
⅓ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
¾ cup vegetable or chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
optional garnishes: sour cream or greek yogurt, hot sauce, chives, dill

 

  • Roughly chop 1½ of the tomatoes, half of the cucumber, and half of the bell pepper. Place these into a blender. Add the white bulbs and pale green portions of the green onion stalks, if using, or half the onion or shallot, roughly chopped. Pour in the 3 cups of tomato juice and blend until smooth.
  • Chop the remaining tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper into bite-size pieces, or to your liking (I like a bit smaller than bite-sized). Thinly slice the remaining green onions, or dice the remaining onion or shallot, if using. Combine these and the blended liquid in a large bowl.
  • Stir in the red wine vinegar, the olive oil, and the broth. Add salt and pepper to taste, then cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. If desired, chill the bowls or glasses you will use as well.
  • Just before serving, taste the soup for seasoning again and adjust as needed – I found I wanted a tiny bit more salt. Following in Mom’s footsteps, I like to top mine with a good dollop of sour cream. You could use greek yogurt instead, and a sprinkle of soft herbs like chives or dill, or a few splashes of hot sauce, would not be amiss. Fresh, crusty bread – perhaps grilled and rubbed with garlic – is a perfect accompaniment.

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Midori Fridge Pickles

As both this site and my instagram feed will prove, I’m a big fan of refrigerator pickles. Really, I’m a fan of pickles in general, and have been since childhood, up to and including my Nana’s pickled beets, which marked not only my willingness to eat almost anything, but also one of the first instances in which I became aware that my parents were not above lying to me. One of the few foods I would NOT eat, at the time of my affection for the aforementioned pickled beets, was onion, in any form. Nana’s beets, though, included onions – thinly sliced, limp circles dyed brilliant purple. My parents, in their wisdom, played on my extreme gullibility and, when asked what those other things in the jar were, those clearly not beet things, told me they were “string beets.” I was then quite content to eat them.*

ANYWAY, canny parental treachery aside: fridge pickles! Vinegar, salt, sugar, dried or fresh herbs and spices, brought to a boil, poured over a thinly sliced vegetable of your choice that has been packed into a sealable container. Refrigerate for a few days, and presto! You have a perfect sandwich topper, a bright sourness to add to salads, or something homemade to serve alongside a cheese platter and impress whoever is happy hour-ing with you. I change up the kind of vinegar I use, and I like to play with what flavoring additives I use – I’ve tried everything from cardamom to fennel, but I find I like black mustard seeds the best (though I recently finished off some carrots pickled with dill, coriander, and celery seeds that were fantastic). They add a little bit of floral spiciness to the brew, but at the same time they also get pickled by the hot vinegar and become surprising little flavor bombs I eat right along with whatever vegetable they are accenting.

This particular batch arose, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, thanks to an overcrowded liquor cabinet (I mean, it’s not a very big cabinet, but still). Between a few essentials, N’s growing collection of scotch, and some red wines of mysterious origin, the bright green elixir in the mottled glass bottle that featured in my go-to college drink just sort of got pushed out. I realized I hadn’t used it in years. Aside from a syrupy cocktail, which I wasn’t really excited about, what could I do with it?

I’m not quite sure how I made the connection, but it made me think of Bobby Flay’s pickled red onions. Lately I’ve gotten hooked on his Food Network show “Beat Bobby Flay,” which requires contestants to face off against him with their own best dish, which they’ve perfected and he only learns about in the moment. He usually wins anyway. A favorite tactic of his, no matter what the dish, is to pickle red onions with a combination of red wine vinegar and grenadine. This makes a lot of sense – the syrup contributes sweetness to the pickling solution and gives the onions a brilliant color. Plus, then he doesn’t have to wait for the sugar in his pickling solution to dissolve. Maybe, I reasoned, a combination of Midori and rice vinegar would do the same!

I settled on cucumbers thanks to the cucumber-melon combination so popular in hand soaps and lotions, but added a few slivers of red onion as well for interest. Rice vinegar, with its tang, seemed like a good pairing for the melon liqueur, and I settled on coriander as well as my favorite mustard seeds for additional flavorings. I’d hoped the green of the liqueur would transfer to my vegetables, resulting in neon green dyed cucumbers, but no such luck. The red color from the onions was leached away, but the cucumbers’ color remained about the same. Despite that minor disappointment, the pickles have a subtle but very pleasing melon sweetness a few days in – there’s a complexity here you wouldn’t have if you had just used sugar and vinegar in the mixture. The cucumbers stay crunchy, too, which is perfect. Though above I’ve listed some more sophisticated ways you can eat these, my preference is honestly just a straight-from-the-jar snack, usually while poised just inside the refrigerator door while I look around for what dinner will be. We also had them on salmon sandwiches, a crunch and sweetness to contrast the heat of wasabi mayo spread liberally over a toasted bun.

* not to be outdone, my dad’s oldest sister, whose kids also liked pickled beets but not onions, told their oldest that those purple strings were “munions” and were also believed.

 

Midori Fridge Pickles
Makes ½ cup pickling liquid for about ½ a large cucumber
About 15 minutes, plus at least 2 days resting time
¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup Midori or other melon liqueur
1½ teaspoons salt
enough thin slices of cucumber to tightly pack a 6 ounce jar – for me, this was about ½ of a large cucumber
a few thin slices of red onion, if desired
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole black or yellow mustard seeds

 

  • In a small pot, bring the vinegar, Midori, and salt to a rolling boil. While you wait, pack the cucumbers, onions, and whole spices into a small jar with a lid that closes tightly.
  • When the liquid reaches a boil, stir briefly to dissolve the salt, then pour carefully over the vegetables to fill the jar. Put the lid on tightly, shake the jar to distribute (careful; if the lid isn’t on tightly, hot vinegar can seep out!), and store in the fridge for at least 2 days, shaking occasionally to distribute liquid and spices.
  • After at least 2 days, or when the cucumbers have soured to your liking, consume as desired!

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Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundae

As I type this, I am sitting in my parents’ backyard, at a table in what I’ve been calling their “redwood grove,” sipping a glass of prosecco and thinking about vacation. I think there are a few different levels of vacation, and with them come differing levels of indulgence. The good old “staycation,” a concept that has been around for decades but which only became an official word in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010, seems to call for something humble – homey – perhaps a slice of pound cake with some berries or a smear of jam and not much else. A heavy-duty vacation – the kind that requires airline travel or a passport – requires something more indulgent. On a voyage up and down the East Coast that N. and I took a number of years ago, we unexpectedly ended up in a first class train cabin on a leg from Boston to New York City, and as we sat back and wondered at our luck, an attendant suddenly, unexpectedly, dropped off two gleaming glasses of lush, impossibly light chocolate mousse. That’s a big vacation dessert. Indulgent. Rich. Not the first thing you’d choose from a cookbook. Big vacations are opera cakes and crème brûlée and napoleons.

But there are also in between vacations: those that require only a day trip, or when you lie around in your rented beach-house-for-the-weekend with no agenda besides thinking all day about what will be for dinner, and then scrapping all your plans and going to get tacos instead. There are the ones that consist of living with friends for a week because you only get to see them once a year, or dropping by the family’s house for a few warm evenings to shake off the spent semester, or grabbing a hotel room unexpectedly because the glory of the afternoon wore on so long you can’t bear the idea of the drive home, and besides, you’re on vacation.

This dessert is for one of those in between kinds of vacations. The idea came from Judy Rodgers’ red wine figs in her Zuni Café Cookbook, a thick tome spilling with interesting combinations that I’m still working my way through, and a garam masala laced bowl of walnuts I whipped up for a last minute happy hour a month or two ago. The result is a glorious trifecta of textures and temperatures: ice cream, chewy figs steeped in warm, orange-spiked red wine, and toasted walnuts tossed in spiced honey. It’s a very adult sort of sundae – no sprinkles, no bright berries, no whipped cream or chocolate of any sort. Yet it’s also indulgent – wine-drenched figs intense enough you’ll only want a few, and warm walnuts dripping with honey, so reminiscent of baklava, slowly melting the rich, cold, sweet ice cream underneath. And if you are lucky enough to choose an ice cream that is studded with dozens of tiny, crunchy seeds scraped from that precious pod, well, all the better.

And now that you have this on a Monday, you’ve got something to dream about (and get going: the figs need a few days to steep and soak up that wine) until you get to your weekend, and whatever kind of vacation it holds.

Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundaes
Makes 4 sundaes
About 40 minutes active time, plus at least 2 days for figs to steep
For Drunken Figs:
1½ cups red wine
2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
2 bay leaves
1 strip of orange zest, about half an inch wide, taken from stem end to navel end of orange
8 ounces dried black mission figs
1-2 teaspoons honey
For Honeyed Walnuts:
1 cup walnut halves or pieces, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons honey
¼ – ½ teaspoon salt (we found ½ teaspoon was right on the edge of being too much)
½ teaspoon garam masala
To serve:
Vanilla bean ice cream, about two scoops per person

 

  • To make the drunken figs, heat the wine and orange liqueur in a small saucepan with the bay leaves and boil until it has reduced to ½ cup. This will take around 20 minutes.
  • While the wine reduces, stem and halve the figs (cut from stem end to belly end to expose all of the seeds) and place them in a 2 – 4 cup vessel with a tight fitting lid. Add the strip of orange zest.
  • When the wine has reduced, stir in the honey, then pour over the figs and zest. Cover and shake, “leave to swell for a few days,” shaking periodically (for me, this ended up being 2 days), then refrigerate until ready to use. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.
  • To make the honeyed walnuts, preheat the oven to 300F and scatter the walnuts on a baking tray. Bake until lightly browned and fragrant; 10-15 minutes. While they toast, combine the honey, salt, and garam masala in a small bowl with a whisk. When the walnuts come out of the oven, immediately scrape and pour the honey over them and toss to coat. The hot walnuts will heat and thin the honey, making it easier to combine.
  • To serve, place two scoops of ice cream into a dish of your choice. Scoop and drizzle about ¼ cup of the walnuts over the top, then add 5-6 fig halves plus a little remaining liquid, if there is any. Eat immediately.

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Melinda’s Perfect Oven Poached Cold Salmon

A few weeks ago I attended a retirement luncheon for a now-former colleague (there are a lot of now-formers here lately, aren’t there?) at the home of one of her friends (and one of her now-former colleagues!). Our hostess made, among other perfect, not-too-heavy dishes for quite a warm day, a cold side of salmon so buttery and moist and perfectly cooked that a day or two later I had to email her to find out how she had done it.

Imagine my delight when, rather than a quick overview or an inexact “oh I just…” response, she sent me a page long, detailed explanation of both how she’d prepared the massive six pound piece of fish for that day, but how she does so when she’s only making a portion or two. Every step was well explained and justified, and she also told me where she gets her fish (a bit pricey for me at the moment, but maybe someday).

Because salmon is delicious cold, and because the actual cooking phase for this dish only takes about half an hour including the time spent preheating the oven, it’s a perfect dish for summer, when you don’t want to be cooking anyway (well, unless you’re me), and you can take care of the house-heating portion in the morning and stow the flaky, fatty main course in the fridge for the rest of the day.

My hostess explained that she disguised a few cracks that formed during cooking with cucumber “scales,” and this struck me for two reasons: one, wouldn’t it be gorgeous to plate more of the filet with vegetable scales of different colors – green from cucumbers, florescent pink and white from radishes, maybe even yellow from baby golden beets – and serve a fish still enrobed in imitation of its original form? (Answer: yes, and a Google image search puts my meager shingling skills to shame.) Second, the idea of vegetables atop the fish made it seem only a step or two away from a salad. To complement the “scales” and disguise any possibility of dryness caused by potential overcooking, could you add a brisk, herby lemon vinaigrette right at the last minute, drizzling over fish and vegetables alike, and thus layer on one more fatty component to ensure moistness?

I decided to find out. Following my foolhardy practice of testing out new recipe ideas on guests, I determined to showcase M.’s fish – with a few of my adjustments – for some friends joining us for a weekend dinner.

If you like salmon at all, you have to try this one. The pan, lined with aluminum foil for ease of fish manipulation and clean-up, preheats with the oven. Wine, garlic, lemon slices, thyme, and a few cubes of butter make the fragrant bath this cooks in, and though they lend subtle flavors, the star remains the salmon. The high heat of the oven does the job quickly, but the liquid bath means the method of cooking here is somewhere between steaming and poaching, which keeps the flesh of the fish tender and – not to overuse that word my former college roommate castigated as “too descriptive” – moist throughout. Slapping the fish straight onto the hot pan before adding the liquid and aromatics means the skin sticks to the hot surface, and when you remove the fish later you can peel the flabby skin right off along with its foil lining with little trouble.

What you are left with under all that, once it has cooled and you’ve meticulously shingled on some bright, thin vegetable slices (or not – up to you!) and then drizzled the whole thing with a bright, herby lemon vinaigrette, is a filet that is just cooked through, so the fish doesn’t so much flake as it does sigh into tender, buttery layers. Cold, you can taste the richness of the fish but the whole thing still feels light, and if you’ve been wise enough to plan out the rest of your dinner with make-ahead options, you only have to leave your guests for five minutes while you sweep into the kitchen and emerge with a gleaming, laden platter they will exclaim over (and, if you’re anything like me, immediately try to recreate!)

And if all that’s not enough for you, should there be any leftovers, stacked onto some soft, fresh slices of French bread that you’ve liberally spread with mayonnaise, or salted butter, or some whipped cream cheese, they produce a perfect lunch the next day that gives you enough strength to face the sink full of dishes that is the worthwhile consequence of every dinner party.

Melinda’s Perfect Oven Poached Cold Salmon
Serves 4-6
Prep and cooking time: about 30 minutes before, then another 15 after chilling, to decorate
Chilling time: 2-6 hours
For the salmon:
1½ pound filet of salmon, skin on
1 cup dry white wine
6 cloves garlic, lightly smashed
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 small lemon, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small chunks
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
For the “scales” and vinaigrette:
About ½ a cucumber, skin on, cut into very thin slices
2-3 radishes, cut into very thin slices
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon minced chives
1 tablespoon minced dill
1 tablespoon minced parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
additional dill, to serve (optional)
lemon wedges, to serve (optional)

 

  • Preheat the oven to 425F with a foil-lined cookie sheet inside. As soon as you turn on the oven, take the salmon and wine out of the refrigerator to warm up a bit for more even cooking.
  • When the oven is preheated, remove the pan and carefully place the fish skin-side down on the hot foil. Pour the wine over the fish, then scatter the garlic, lemon slices, thyme sprigs, and butter on and around the fish. Sprinkle salt and pepper onto the fish, then carefully slide the whole pan back into the oven.
  • Cook in the 425F oven for 12 minutes, or until the fish reaches and internal temperature of 120-125F. It will be pale pink with some white splotches, and look slightly fatty on top. Remove the whole pan carefully from the oven and set on a wire cooling rack. Immediately, using a large spoon, baste the salmon with the cooking liquid, then let the whole thing sit for 10 minutes.
  • After 10 minutes, baste again, then drain off the liquid. Lay a cooling rack top-side-down over the top of the salmon, then, holding both cooling rack and cookie sheet, carefully flip the whole cookie sheet over (it’s a good idea to do this over the sink). The salmon will now be top-side-down on the cooling rack. Remove the cookie sheet and peel back the foil a little at a time – the salmon skin should stick to the foil and come off cleanly (mine stuck in one place and necessitated a little cajoling).
  • When the skin and foil are removed, place your serving platter serving side down over the top of the salmon (so the bottom of the salmon is on the part of the plate that will be facing up). Carefully, holding both serving vessel and cooling rack, invert so the salmon and the serving plate are now right-side up. Remove cooling rack.
  • Cover the platter, salmon and all, with aluminum foil and refrigerate until cold.
  • 30-45 minutes before you intend to serve, remove the salmon from the refrigerator. We want it cold, but not chilly. While you wait for it to climb a few degrees in temperature, prep the cucumber and radish slices and make the vinaigrette: in a small measuring cup, combine the lemon zest, minced chives, dill, and parsley. Squeeze in the 2 tablespoons lemon juice, then whisk in the ¼ cup olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside until needed.
  • To decorate, shingle the sliced cucumbers and radishes over some or all of the fish in a pattern you like – you can see what I did above, and the internet has, as always, many gorgeous alternatives. If you wish, arrange some bushy dill sprigs in the corner of your platter and pile some lemon slices on them for diners to choose at their whim.
  • Just before serving, drizzle the fish and its vegetable “scales” with the lemon vinaigrette, using a whisk or a fork, if needed, to distribute the herbs evenly (they may come out in little clumps). Serve with a large fork or a wooden spatula.

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