Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Favourite Salmon Recipe

After several consecutive days of sunshine and relative warmth, Saturday was cool, cloudy, and occasionally drizzly here in the Seattle area. Despite this turn for the worst in the weather, I had a lovely day. Andrew and I spent the morning wandering around the Redmond Farmer’s Market and buying ingredients for a decidedly summery dinner, and then we got tamales and ate them while watching the market’s live entertainment. During the afternoon, a friend and I scoped out a couple of wineries and distilleries that were having release parties, and I got a bottle of Soft Tail’s crisp, clean vodka. Then, it was home again to rebel against the weather and put together that summer-invoking meal. I made something I have made many times before, but, incredibly have never blogged about here.
Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, Andrew and I have been consuming a fair amount of the wonderful wild salmon that is so plentiful around here, and I have come up with my absolute favourite way of preparing it. The dish consists of three complex (not really) layers of multi-textured goodness that all work together in perfect harmony (yes, really). Layer one: the spice rub.
The rub I make that differs slightly each time, depending on my mood and what I have on hand, but always with the same general flavour profile. If I had to name it, I would call it a chilli-chipotle rub. I use quite a bit of regular chilli powder, chipotle chilli powder, and paprika (often smoked), along with some garlic powder, cumin, salt, and a little cayenne. I rub most of it on the salmon and let that sink in for about ten minutes.
The next layer is really just an extension of the first, a way of taking those same flavours from the spice rub and transforming them into something creamy and cool. Allow me to introduce layer two: chilli-chipotle crema.
Layer two is so simple, it’s almost embarrassing. Or maybe it’s beautiful in its simplicity. Either way, it opens the door to a whole array of possibilities for the use of plain old sour cream. All I do here is mix the remainder of the spice rub with some sour cream, and add a few drops of lemon juice for a bit of brightness. Lime juice would work as well. I’m tempted to puree some avocado in with it too—I’m sure it would be outstanding. But before I get too distracted with the multitude of crema possibilities, I had better move on to layer three: caramelized onions.
So actually, I lied; step three is usually not caramelized onions. In the past, I have always made crisp-fried shallots, and they have always been a magnificently successful layer three for this salmon. This time, though, I guess I was feeling adventurous and I decided to throw caution to the wind and try something different. I bought some sweet Walla Walla onions at the market that morning, so I sliced them up and caramelized them. I did not regret the deviation from my usual routine: the caramelized onions were savoury-sweet, a perfect finishing touch to a favourite meal. The shallots are good too, though, so I’ll give instructions for both options below.

To cook the salmon, I pan-sear it and finish it in the oven. This is my favourite way to cook a piece of fish: it gets a lovely caramelized layer of crispness on the outside, while remaining soft, moist, and flavourful on the interior.
I usually serve this with some kind of rice (this time, brown), and a vegetable side. In this case, I took full advantage of the start of asparagus season by roasting some with olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs.
I have given this recipe out to several people, and they have all come back with stories of success, both on the cooking and the eating fronts. It’s a recipe I know I will come back to again many times, because it always makes for a good ending to any day.

Chilli-Chipotle Rubbed Salmon with Crema
Serves 4

1 lb. onions, preferably sweet OR 2 shallots

If caramelizing onions:
1 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
Pinch sugar

If frying shallots:
1 tbsp. flour
Vegetable oil for frying
1 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. chilli powder
1 tbsp. chipotle chilli powder
2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
2 lb. salmon fillet, skinned, and pin bones removed
½ cup sour cream
1 tsp. lemon juice

If caramelizing onions: thinly slice the onions. Heat a sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add the butter and olive oil. Once the butter has melted, add the onion, and toss. Cook slowly over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. After about fifteen minutes, stir in the salt and sugar. Continue cooking until the onions have turned a deep golden colour, about 25-30 minutes total. Set aside.

If frying shallots: in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat ½” vegetable oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Meanwhile, thinly slice the shallots and toss with the flour. When the oil is hot enough, add the shallots in in batches, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. They will crisp up in about a minute. When they do, remove them with a slotted spoon to a paper towel, and sprinkle with salt. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Prepare the spice rub by combining the chilli powders, paprika, garlic powder, cumin, salt, and cayenne. Gently rub about two-thirds of the mixture onto the nicest-looking side of the salmon. Let it sit at room temperature for about ten minutes. Meanwhile, combine the remainder of the spice rub with the sour cream and lemon juice. Taste the crema and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Heat a large, heavy, oven-safe skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium-high heat. Add 1 tbsp. olive oil. Slice the salmon into four even portions. When the oil is shimmering, place each of the salmon fillets in the skillet, spice-rubbed side down, being gentle with the delicate fish. It should sizzle as it hits the skillet. Do not move the fish once it is in. After about twenty seconds, reduce the heat to medium.

Continue cooking on the stovetop for about four minutes, until about ¼” of the salmon has gone opaque, looking at a fillet from the side. Place the skillet in the oven, and cook for about four more minutes. Remove from the oven and check for doneness. If you are not used to cooking fish, use a thermometer: it is recommended that fish be cook to 145 F. We like our fish a little less done than that, and probably go a few degrees lower, but do so at your own risk, and only with fish you know is fresh. Once you are more accustomed to cooking fish, you won’t need the thermometer and will be able to check for doneness by sight and feel.

Serve the salmon topped with a couple tablespoons of the crema, and some of the onions or shallots.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On a Whim: Spaghetti al Limone

I tend to be a planner, and this applies very much to my cooking habits. Most of the time, I take time out of my weekend to plan out meals for the week ahead. I try to incorporate variety into the seven meals, use up ingredients I have around, and keep things exciting and mouth-watering. By doing this instead of winging it and coming up with dinner on the day I eat it, I save money by not buying a lot of ingredients that will go bad before they are used up, I eat healthier by having a plan, and I save time by not having to figure out what to cook every day. Sometimes, though, I get a whim that I just can’t ignore. When I get a craving—or, we could call it an inspiration—like this, I’ll often give in to it. I never regret it when I do.

This happened to me recently. I was reading another blogger’s post and she mentioned the spaghetti al limone she had recently, and suddenly, dinner had been decided. The rich, yet, somehow, almost refreshing taste of this pasta dish was what I wanted. Fortunately, like many Italian masterpieces, the recipe is incredibly simple, and I already had all of the ingredients on hand. I say, it was a sign.
A lemon, some parmesan, white wine, heavy cream, butter, spaghetti pasta, salt, and pepper are all that’s required. A note on parmesan: good food deserves good parmesan, so don’t skimp out and buy any of the pre-grated stuff, or—heaven forbid—that white powder that Kraft likes to call parmesan. Is this the good stuff pricey? Yup, it sure is, but it’s totally worth it. Keep in mind that you only use a little at a time and it keeps really well, so you won’t have to buy it often. Or, you can do what I do, and buy the ends. A lot of grocery stores will do this: they will sell the ends of the parmesan wheels and other odd little pieces in bags for about half the price they sell the big chunks for. The quality is the same; you’re just not getting one solid, perfect piece.
I used this recipe from the New York Times as a guideline, but made some modifications. A few things in the recipe’s directions don’t really make sense, so I think I’ve written a clearer recipe here. Like I said, though, it’s pretty straight-forward. To start, reduce wine and with lemon zest and some juice until the flavour is concentrated and the consistency is syrupy. Then, incorporate the cream into the reduction.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in salted water. When it is finished, do not drain it! Use a pasta lifter to lift the cooked spaghetti right out of the water and into the pan containing the cream sauce. With a toss and maybe a little extra pasta water, you’re almost done. Finish it off with some butter and plenty of parmesan.
Finally, plate it simply in a shallow bowl and top with a little more parm and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. In about half an hour, dinner is served, and inspiration is realized.
Sometimes, plans are good. They keep life organized, and they keep you on the right track. But you can’t always follow the plan, and that’s a good thing too.

Spaghetti al Limone
Adapted from The New York Times, January 31, 2007
Serves 4

1 lemon
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
1 lb. spaghetti
3 tbsp. butter, cut into pieces
4 oz. freshly grated parmesan cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Zest the lemon into a large skillet. Juice the lemon, add about a tablespoon to the skillet and reserve the rest. Add the wine to the skillet. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Let the liquid reduce by about three-quarters, until it has a thicker, more syrupy consistency. Keep a close eye on it—you don’t want it to over-reduce, and this will happen quickly.

Once the desired consistency is reached, remove the skillet from the heat and gradually stir in the cream. Put it back on the heat and allow it to come to a simmer again and reduce by about a quarter. Stir in the rest of the lemon juice. Season with about a quarter teaspoon of sea salt, and a quick grind of black pepper.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in a large pot of salted water until it is al dente. When it is cooked, turn off the heat and do not drain it. Use a pasta lifter to lift the spaghetti right out of the water and into the skillet containing the sauce. Set the skillet over low heat and toss to coat the pasta with the sauce. If the combination is looking dry, add a little bit of pasta water. Drop the butter in and sprinkle with most of the parmesan, reserving a little for garnish. Toss again and add pasta water if necessary. Taste and season with salt, as needed. Plate in shallow bowls and finish with a dusting of parmesan, and a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Little Unusual: Ramen with Tuna

Sometimes, a recipe looks so unique, I feel absolutely compelled to try it. An unexpected combination of ingredients just has a way of drawing me in. I love it when this happens, when I am surprised by an idea I never would have thought of before. This was the case with a dish described in this May’s Bon Appétit. The recipe was not so much a recipe as a few lines describing how to throw together this quick meal in a brief feature on different uses for canned tuna. This one was tuna with ramen.
So here’s the general idea: store-bought kimchi-flavoured ramen is combined with tuna, vegetables, herbs, and egg to make a more complete meal. I have a soft-spot for instant ramen, but I don’t allow myself to have it often because of the multitude of sins it commits against a healthy, natural diet of whole foods. One glance at the ingredients list will tell you how heavily processed this stuff is, and skimming the nutritional facts will quickly indicate that having this every day would not be wise. Still, a bowl of those salty, slurpy, scrumptious noodles every once in a while is fine by me, and the idea in Bon Appétit seemed like an improvement on having the soup as-is.
This is not the first time I’ve heard of adding other ingredients to store-bought ramen , but it was certainly the first time I had heard of adding tuna. I started by warming sesame oil in a pot with a dash of red pepper flakes.

Next, BA suggests adding some diced vegetables: carrot, pepper, onion, broccoli, and garlic would all be good. I was feeling lazy, though, and decided to omit the extra veggies. Instead, I added the tuna. I used half of a five-ounce can for my one bowl of ramen. Then, I stirred in the flavour packet from the ramen. Actually, I stirred in about three-quarters of the flavour packet—I never find it necessary to use the whole thing.
When the tuna had warmed up, I added vegetable stock and the ramen noodles, and brought it to a boil. Then, I threw in some herbs (basil and cilantro, but feel free to use whatever you have on hand), and cracked an egg into the hot liquid. My thought here was that I would poach the egg, as the BA recipe suggests, but I’m not sure if this is the best method. It takes a while for the egg to cook through this way, and by the time it’s done, the noodles start getting mushy and over-cooked. I would suggest beating the egg a bit first, then adding it in so that you get more of an egg ribbon effect.
So the final results? It was good, but way too salty. I really have to talk about the salt here, because it was a major issue for me. These instant ramen soups are always high-sodium (this one boasts 1021 mg of sodium for HALF the bowl!!!), but I found that this one tasted even saltier than usual, and I didn’t even use the entire flavour packet. I used tuna with no salt added and a low-sodium store-bought stock. My suggestion to reduce the sodium even more: use only half the flavour packet, and use either salt-free homemade stock or just plain water.
What I loved about trying this recipe out, was that it made me want to try out other combinations with ramen. What about a broccoli stir-fry with shrimp ramen? Or chicken ramen with vegetables and bacon added? I figure, if instant ramen is something I’ll only allow myself every once in a while, I might as well make the most of it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Cooking My Way to a Better Day

It had been one of those days. There was no one to blame but myself, really. I was in a bad mood, and I had allowed it to affect everything I did. Each small annoyance dragged me down, and by the time I got home from work, I was fed up. Have I mentioned that I started a new job recently? I’m a barista at a coffee shop in Redmond. It’s a great place: we roast all of our coffee ourselves, and the café has a unique, rustic atmosphere. For the most part, I like the job, but this had just not been a good day for me. So, of course, I needed to cook.
I wanted something that would cook slowly, preferably in a large pot, and would require the building of layers of flavours, filling my apartment and my nostrils with calming, enticing aromas. The gumbo in this May’s Food & Wine magazine seemed like just the ticket. The recipe comes from Andrew Zimmern of the TV show Bizarre Foods, and had a lot of components that appealed to me. Not only did this gumbo contain oysters, crab, and andouille sausage, but the broth was built with chicken stock, clam juice, and Worcestershire sauce, all of which sounded absolutely delicious. Also, and on this day, probably most importantly, it would require me to make a dark roux. This was exactly the kind of slow, meditative cooking that my mood demanded.
If you have never cooked Cajun food before, you may have never made a dark roux. It is a long, painstaking, and often frustrating process. Do not try to do this in a hurry: it will take as long as it needs to take. Like any other roux, it starts with the combination of equal parts fat (in this case, vegetable oil) and flour. This combination is heated and darkened gently as you stir it constantly or at least once every 15 seconds or so. But don’t let it burn! If black spots start appearing in your roux, you have burned it, and you must start over.

So how long does it take? Well, here is where Mr. Zimmern and I seem to disagree. You are looking for a deep, dark brown color in your roux. His recipe says that this will take 15 minutes. For me, it took 50 minutes, and this is how long it normally takes me. Other recipes I have read suggest the same. Roux can also be made in a 350 F oven, allowing you to go about your business while it cooks, but to me, this just seems like cheating. I like the process of standing over the pot and stirring, and on this day, I needed it.
So as I lovingly made my roux, coddling it into rich, dark submission, I took the time to think, to relax, and to meditate. As the toasty and slightly sweet scent of the roux developed and began to embrace me, I thought about my day, and how I could have made it better for myself. I thought about how much I have to be grateful for, and how many reasons I have to not waste a moment of precious time with negativity. I thought about how something so simple, like making this gumbo, could bring me so much pleasure, and how this was yet another thing to be thankful for. I looked forward to when Andrew would get home and we would enjoy it together. I could vent to him about my day, and let the problems that had seemed so troublesome at the time, shrink into nothingness, quickly forgotten.

Once the roux is made, the rest of the process mainly involves combining the remaining ingredients and letting it all simmer for an hour or so. The oysters and crab are added at the last minute so they don’t become tough and overcooked.
After making the gumbo, I had a better evening, and then a better day after that. Yesterday was fantastic: the weather here in Seattle was stunning. I went out to Georgetown where Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks was doing a book signing. I cannot wait to sink my teeth into her new cookbook, Super Natural Every Day. After that, I wandered around Pike Place Market in the sunshine, had one of the best cappuccinos I’ve ever had at Local Color Café, then met up with Andrew and some friends for dinner at Serious Pie.
It’s easy to let a bad day get the best of you, but with a little effort, it isn’t too hard to have a good day either. And sometimes, all it takes to change a bad mood is time spent cooking.

Andouille, Crab, and Oyster Gumbo
Adapted from Andrew Zimmern in May 2011 Food & Wine
Serves 8

½ cup flour
½ cup vegetable oil
1 lb. andouille sausage, sliced ¼-inch thick
3 large celery ribs, cut into ½-inch dice
1 onion, cut into ½-inch dice
1 red or green bell pepper, cut into ½-inch dice
1 habanero chilli, minced and most seeds discarded
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ lb. okra, sliced ¼-inch thick (I am not a fan of okra, so I omitted it and replaced it with extra bell pepper, which worked out great)
2 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
3 tbsp. filé powder (find it in the spice section)
5 cups chicken stock
3 cups bottled clam juice
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 large tomatoes, finely chopped
1 lb. lump crabmeat, picked over
2 dozen shucked oysters in their liquor
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, stir together the oil and flour until smooth. Cook over low-to-medium heat, stirring constantly or at least every 15 seconds, until the roux has turned a dark, chocolaty-brown colour, about 50 minutes. Alternatively, place the flour and oil combination in a 350 F oven for an hour or so, checking often, until it has reached the desired color. Add the sausage, celery, onion, bell pepper, habanero, garlic, okra (if using), thyme, bay leaf, and half of the filé powder. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent. Stir in the stock, clam juice, Worcestershire, and tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the remaining filé powder and add the crab, oysters, and their liquor. Simmer gently for a minute or so, until the oysters have just cooked. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over rice, or with bread.