Growing up on Puget Sound in Western Washington, I enjoyed seafood in all its various forms- salmon, halibut, mussels, clams, buttery Dungeness crab. In Washington, much of the seafood available at the deli counter is incredibly fresh – that is, if you or someone you know didn’t catch it themselves! In fact, the tagline for one of my favorite seafood restaurants growing up was, “The oysters that you eat today slept last night in Oyster Bay.”
Unfortunately, living in the inland Northwest, fresh and sustainable sourced seafood is much more difficult to come by. The first time I requested fresh crab at our local grocery store, the woman behind the counter pointed me toward vacuum-sealed packages of soy product labeled “Krab.” Salmon often bears little resemblance to fish, and fresh halibut at a remotely reasonable price is more elusive than the moose that wander through the nearby Rocky Mountains. Occasionally our grocery stores do stock fish that both looks and smells edible, but there is little consistency so it is difficult to build those foods into a menu plan because you never know what the fish will look like, and it is difficult to buy fish too far in advance. I attempt to plan our menus on a weekly basis, and shop accordingly: even if we stray from the menu here and there, it does cut back on wondering what to make for dinner at the end of a long day and food that goes uneaten and spoils.
Given the above difficulties finding fresh fish in Helena, when I glimpsed some beautiful, wild-caught King salmon, I snatched up as much as I could justify, knowing that we already had plans to go out for several meals over the weekend.
Ordinarily, I prefer a simple preparation for fish: some olive oil, fresh herbs and salt and pepper, served with heaps of veggies and salad. However, it was a Saturday afternoon and I was feeling creative.
I recently rediscovered this classic fish recipe, which exists in countless variations and is stuffed to the gills (pun intended) with butter, sour cream, mayonnaise and Parmesan cheese. While truly mouth-watering, that preparation a bit more of a splurge for us, calorically speaking, as well as being better-suited to white fish. Using the contents of our refrigerator (always interesting to see what is left in there by Saturday morning…), I put together this salmon dish that I believe is equally mouth-watering. Adam, always supportive of my efforts in the kitchen (“Broccolini and kale smoothie, honey? Sounds delicious!“), claimed it was the most perfectly cooked salmon he has ever had.
This is definitely a strong dish, full of onion, lemon juice and dark leafy greens, so it pairs well with the equally strong flavor of salmon. It is a bit difficult to taste as you go, because the sauce is full of raw onion before it is cooked, so if that makes you wary, another option is to sauté the onion before adding it to the fish mixture. This will give you a better sense of what the sauce will taste like once it has been cooked, and allow you to season accordingly.
Poaching method. To poach simply means to cook an item in liquid at a slow simmer. Most frequently, you hear of poaching eggs in either water or tomato sauce, but my favorite use for this technique is fresh fish. While I usually use a basic mixture of white wine and herbs as the poaching liquid, this recipe uses a full-blown cream sauce consisting of dark leafy greens, Worcestershire sauce, both green and white onion, lemon juice, hot sauce and small amounts of sour cream and mayonnaise to pull it all together. Typically, you want to avoid boiling cream-based sauces, as they “break” or curdle above 175ºF. However, I am an impatient chef and broke all of the rules with this recipe, including mixing dairy and lemon before cooking, but I did not run into any issues with the sauce – presumably because the sauce cooks only at a gentle simmer rather than a rolling boil.
Dark leafy greens. Dark leafy greens are nutritional powerhouses and arguably the most important food(s) to incorporate into your diet. The rule of thumb is, “The darker the green, the more nutrients it has.” Yes, sadly, that iceberg wedge smothered in blue cheese and bacon may be tasty, but its nutritional value is negligible in comparison to it’s darker-hued brethren.
Greens from the cruciferous family – mustard and collard greens, broccoli, and the omnipresent kale – are packed with magnesium and tryptophan (enhancing brain function and promoting heart health) and also contain glucosinolates, which inhibit the growth of certain cancers. Spinach, affectionately dubbed the “First Superfood,” and Swiss chard are rich in iron, magnesium and calcium, and loaded with vitamins A, K, D, and E; Omega 3 fatty acids; carotenoids (to protect against eye diseases like cataracts and macular degeneration), fiber and folate. All are full of antioxidants, which I feel is one of those terms that has become a buzzword for everyone to roll their eyes at, like toxin or cleanse. An antioxidant is simply a molecule that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules. Wikipedia, o’ font of all wisdom, summarizes why antioxidants are beneficial to us nicely:
“Although oxidation reactions are crucial for life, they can also be damaging; plants and animals maintain complex systems of multiple types of antioxidants[.] Insufficient levels of antioxidants, or inhibition of the antioxidant enzymes, cause oxidative stress and may damage or kill cells. Oxidative stress is damage to cell structure and cell function by overly reactive oxygen-containing molecules and chronic excessive inflammation. Oxidative stress seems to play a significant role in many human diseases, including cancers.”
I try to include dark leafy greens into at least one meal each day, either raw or cooked. (I love buying the greens blends that feature a variety of greens, like these, which are carried by most of the grocery stores near us.)
Because I am not a fan of endlessly munching on salads and wilted greens, we throw them into smoothies or chop them into small pieces and add them to soups and sauces. Often you can’t even taste them- but still reap the nutritional benefits! – and that was the case with this pretty green sauce, which is chock full of greens and still managed to taste like a lemony cream sauce.
(Plus, I love any excuse to whip out the immersion blender.)
Poached Salmon + Creamy Greens
1.5-2 pounds fresh salmon fillets
5 ounces (approximately 1 cup raw per ounce) dark leafy greens, washed and ready for consumption
including, but not limited to: spinach, kale, swiss chard, beet or turnip greens, collards or mustard greens
1/2 white or yellow onion, roughly chopped
4 green onions, roughly sliced
2 cloves garlic, grated with microplane zester
1/2 cup sour cream, full-fat
1/2 cup mayonnaise, full-fat
juice from 2 lemons
Worcestershire sauce, to taste (5-6 tablespoons or so)
hot sauce, like Tobasco, to taste (approximately 3-4 tablespoons)
1/4 cup fresh dill or basil (or both), finely chopped
2 tablespoons cold water, or as needed
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper, to taste
1-2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
3 cups fresh arugula, to garnish
Cast-iron skillet, or similar pan which can transition from stove-top to oven
1. Prepare the green sauce first. Assemble greens, chopped white and green onions, and garlic in a large bowl. Note: You may also sauté the onion in advance if you strongly dislike raw onion flavor, as you will want to check the taste of the sauce before cooking.
2. In a separate bowl, mix together the sour cream, mayonnaise, and a few conservative glugs each of Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce. Pour this over the bowl of greens and onion and stir well to combine. The produce should be coated nicely.
3. Using an immersion blender, blend together the mixture. I added a tablespoon or two of cold water to kickstart the blender, but then it puréed everything quite nicely. Blend until smooth. Add the lemon juice, fresh herbs, and half of the grated Parmesan cheese; stir to combine. Taste and add more Worcestershire and Tobasco until the mixture is flavorful but not overpowering. If you add too much, balance it out with a bit more sour cream.
4. Heat a cast-iron skillet on the stove at medium-high heat. Add a dab of butter or small drizzle of olive oil, and allow to coat the pan. Lay your fillets upside down in the pan and sear lightly, two-three minutes. This is an excellent how-to on the science behind cooking salmon perfectly, and includes cooking temperatures for rare, medium and well-done salmon. Having ruined salmon many times by accidentally overcooking, and then overcompensated by under-cooking it to the point where Adam asked if I was trying to make sushi and put his in the microwave…this article has been invaluable.
5. Flip the fillets over in the pan. They should have a thin, delicate crust along the top. Pour the creamy green mixture over the top of the salmon until the very tops of fillets are just visible through the sauce. Note: I did not do this, and had far too much sauce for the amount of fish. Luckily, it was delicious enough that I ate it with a spoon, but it didn’t need it. Reserve any remaining sauce for another fish, another day.
6. Put into the oven at 350ºF and allow to come to a low simmer. The sauce will begin to bubble up gently around the salmon. Using a meat thermometer, bring the salmon to 125°F – optimum temperature for juiciness and flakiness, without being raw or overcooked. This takes approximately ten to twenty minutes, depending on a variety of factors, so pour yourself a glass of wine and park yourself in front of the oven so you can check on it periodically. When it is close to done, sprinkle the remaining Parmesan cheese over the top and turn on the broiler for two minutes, allowing the top to turn a golden brown.
Serve the salmon with fresh arugula on top. Roasted fingerling potatoes or garlicky green beans would be a nice accompaniment.
Serves 4 for a light lunch, 2 for dinner (with leftovers).