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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fish Stories/Salmon

I hated the smell of salmon cooking when I was a kid.  Well, not just salmon, but basically anything strong smelling, including shrimp. A whiff of blue cheese would send me running out of the kitchen. Friday afternoons I would feel a heavy cloud of doom approaching as I realized that we would be having fish for dinner - again - in our Catholic household. Many a piece of fried flounder got stuffed into my napkin, or covered with ketchup and choked down, nose pinched.

Now I love fish (and smelly cheese too), and wonder what it was that made me hate it so much.  I first learned to like and cook white fish fillets in my twenties.  I was a much later convert to the stronger flavor of salmon.  I would always try a bite of it, and say, yes that's good, but I don't want any more.

Then I saw it on a menu on vacation at Mohonk Mountain House with a maple soy glaze, and decided to throw caution to the wind and order it.  I ate the whole thing.

Salmon with Tomatoes:  I could eat this right now!

Since then, I've cooked salmon  50 differerent ways:  with butter and leeks, grilled with a mustard glaze, you name it, I've tried it.  But this preparation beats them all:   Salmon with Melting Cherry Tomatoes, (by Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa - Foolproof).  It creates a crispy seared crust on the salmon without overcooking it, while  the accompanying balsamic tomatoes and onions enhance the fish with just the right balance of sweetness and acidity.

That seared crust which smells so divine to me now is the result of something called the Maillard reaction, technically a chemical reaction between an amino acid and sugar which creates that change in color, texture, aroma and flavor which is so delectable.   There was an experiment done by Cook's Illustrated where they had people taste bread with the crusts removed from two types of bread:  one which had a browned crust, and the other where the crust was just lightly colored.  Tasters overwhelmingly preferred the taste of the bread from loaves whose crusts were browned, even when the crusts were not present.

What does this mean for our salmon?  Yes, the outside crust of the salmon is crunchy and delicious, but the whole of the fish is infused with that transformed, fuller flavor.  The first time I made this with awesomely fresh salmon from the Lobster House in Cape May, and it was probably the best salmon I ever ate.  The next time it was with salmon from Costco, but it was still very, very good.   Try this easy, wonderful recipe, and you may make some converts too.

Salmon with Melting Cherry Tomatoes, adapted from Ina Garten's The Barefoot Contessa - Foolproof

2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped sweet onion, like Vidalia
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half through the stem
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 Tablespoons good balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 Tablespoons julienned fresh basil

one 2 lb. salmon fillet (with or without skin) cut crosswise into 4 pieces
Preheat the oven to 425 for at least 15 minutes.

In a 10" non-stick saute pan, heat up the olive oil.  Add the onion and cook over medium heat until tender but not brown, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute.  Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook for 10 - 15 minutes or until the juices have somewhat evaporated and the tomatoes are soft.

Brush the fillets all over with olive oil, and lightly salt and pepper them.  Heat a 12" cast iron skillet over the highest heat possible for 5 minutes.  Set the timer for this - you don't want to forget it, and it will smoke!  Carefully add the fillets face down (leave the skin side UP if the fillets you are using have skin on them).  And here's the important point - set a timer and do NOT move them for 4 minutes!  Then, turn them over so the skin side is down, and place in the oven for 8 minutes exactly.  Remove from the oven to a platter, cover with foil and let rest to continue cooking from the residual heat for 5 minutes.  (At this point, I removed the skin and scraped away the grayish underbelly of the salmon fillets, but you can skip this step if your diners don't object to fish with skin.)

Gently reheat the tomatoes, add the balsamic vinegar and the basil and fold in.  Serve the beautiful salmon fillets over the tomatoes.

Enjoy, including that wonderful Maillard reaction smell!

Diane Whitman
Reference Librarian
Reformed Picky Eater


Jeff said...

Yes, you were a very picky eater. How things change! Brother Jeff

Jeff said...

Yes, you were a very picky eater as an 8 year-old. How things change!

Of course, the food is better now...
Brother Jeff

Diane said...

Lol, or have my taste buds just gotten old?