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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Seared Salmon with Pea Pesto and Celery Root Puree

If you are a certain type of food blogger, one who is interested in trends of the food and restaurant world, not just the backdrop and vintage props Pinterest tells us are all the rage this month, then you care about and try to integrate sustainability, and seasonality, and local foods into your cooking. You are all about ramps and rhubarb in the spring, you plan zucchini dishes for late summer and early autumn when that crop is glutted. You wouldn’t dream of presenting a heavy stew or cream-based soup unless the weather has been cold. You let the year and its turning rule your kitchen.

2015 Blog August-0298I try to be that kind of blogger. I try to keep my food in tune with the seasons and plan vegetable dishes according not just to what appears at my farmers’ market, but to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone is in Southern California, so not everyone has the same plethora of options I do. I even try to plan for holidays, and get appropriate dishes out there ahead of time (sometimes barely) in case you want to make them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

2015 Blog August-0286But here’s the thing: I’m also ruled by my stomach. Sometimes I don’t want zucchini. Sometimes I would rather roast than grill. Sometimes there’s a combination I dream up that sounds so good I don’t want to wait until the “right” time to cook it and present it to you. That’s the case this week. This is, if I were being a responsible food person, without question a spring dish. The peas could be fresh out of the pod, the dill is all about feathery fronds and new shoots. I cook the salmon so the skin is crispy, then balance the flesh side atop lemon slices in the pan to keep it moist and tender, all freshness and brightness. The celery roots, on the other hand, are the last dregs of winter, knobbly and earthy and strange, adding pale richness to complement the salmon and tame the sprightly sharpness of the pesto.

2015 Blog August-0292But when I thought of it – a nutty pesto of peas and walnuts, seasoned with dill instead of basil or mint and almost on the verge of being too salty, sitting atop a piece of moist, pink salmon with crisp skin, all surrounded by the creamy celery-scented puree, I couldn’t wait half a year. It had to happen now.

There’s not much to say about this dish, story-wise. No childhood memory or restaurant meal inspired it. I just thought the combination sounded good, and it was. The pesto, in particular, though admittedly not the most appealing shade of green, is a surprising and intriguing punch. Dill works very well with peas as well as lemon, and the tannic bitterness of toasted walnuts tames the sweetness of the peas enough to keep them in the savory realm.

2015 Blog August-0295Note: the puree does take the longest time to create, since the starchy roots can take up to half an hour to soften. If you’re very efficient, you’ll be able to prep the remainder of the components while the hunks of celery root are simmering. I am not all that efficient, so I made the pesto first just in case. You know you best, so plan accordingly.

2015 Blog August-0298

Seared Salmon with Pea Pesto and Celery Root Puree
45-50 minutes prep and cook time
Serves 4
For celery root puree:
2 medium celery roots, any attached stalks removed, peeled and chopped into small chunks
1-2 cups milk
1 clove garlic, skin removed
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper (use white pepper if you don’t want flecks)
6 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
For pea pesto:
1 cup (4 ounces) peas, fresh or frozen
⅓ cup walnut pieces
1 clove garlic, skin removed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon fresh black pepper (or to taste)
¼ cup olive oil
For salmon:
4 filets of salmon, 4-6 ounces each
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lemon, cut into ¼ inch slices

 

  • To make the celery root puree, place the chunks of chopped celery root in a medium pot and pour in enough milk just to cover. Add salt and pepper and toss in the garlic clove. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately turn down the heat, and cook at a bare simmer until celery root pieces are fork tender, 20-30 minutes.
  • Once roots are tender, remove the pot from the heat, add the mascarpone cheese, and let sit for 5-10 minutes just to cool. Use an immersion blender or a regular blender (be VERY careful with the hot liquid) to blend to a smooth puree.
  • While the celery root chunks are simmering, remove the salmon from the fridge and its packaging and sprinkle it with the ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Then set it aside. We want it to come up to room temperature so it cooks evenly.
  • To make the pea pesto, either blanch your fresh peas by dropping them into boiling water for 1-2 minutes before a quick drain, or defrost your peas if they are frozen.
  • Toast the walnut pieces in a dry pan just until they smell roasty and are slightly darker brown. Let them cool, then toss them into a food processor with the garlic and whir these together into damp crumbs. Add in the dill and whir again to break up the fronds.
  • Dump the cooled peas into the processor and pulse at 2-second intervals 3-4 times to create a chunky, clumpy mixture that is not quite a paste.
  • Finally, add the lemon juice, salt, pepper, and olive oil, and pulse again in 2-second intervals until you have a thick, barely emulsified paste. You want this to be spoonable, not pourable, so keep your eye on the texture.
  • When you are ready to cook the salmon, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the oil is rippling and shimmering in the heat. Carefully add the salmon skin-side down (oil will likely spatter a bit in excitement when you do, so stand back!), and let it cook undisturbed for 5 minutes. Really! Don’t mess with it!
  • After 5 minutes, top each salmon piece with 2-3 lemon slices and carefully flip over so that the lemon slices, not the flesh of the salmon, are in contact with the pan. Again, this may cause some spattering of the oil, so be careful. Let the salmon cook atop the lemon slices for another 2-3 minutes, or until just done in the center.
  • To serve, pour ⅓–½ cup celery root puree into the base of a small plate or a shallow bowl. Place a piece of salmon skin-side up atop in the center of the pool of puree (leave the lemon slices in the skillet, or serve one off to the side if desired). Top the salmon with 1-2 tablespoons of the pea pesto, and serve immediately.