Soon it will be salmon season! (I know you’re not buying that farmed Atlantic salmon that’s dyed orange and is ruining natural salmon runs worldwide.) And rather than that ol’ standby of slapping giant olive oil-and-soy-marinated fillets onto the grill and cooking them until they turn into chalk, I’d like to show you another — I like to think better — way of cooking salmon. (Especially if you’ll be inviting me over for dinner during salmon season.)
Salmon is one of the world’s best fish. I’ve had it cold smoked with butter and brown bread in Dingle, Ireland; I’ve had it hot smoked on crackers with mustard in Alaska; I’ve had it raw with onion and ponzu over sushi rice and blackened with Cajun spices and brown butter. But mostly, I’ve had it screwed up and overcooked. As with most thick, steaky fish, what you don’t want to do is overcook it. People rarely make the mistake of cooking ahi tuna all the way through, and yet they gleefully chat and drink beer while their poor salmon fillets petrify on the grill.
The key to good salmon, especially the thicker the fillet, is to cook it hot, and undercook it slightly. How much you undercook it is up to you. It works nicely seared on the outside and raw inside, the way you would do tuna. Or you may prefer a nice browning on the outside, tender meat inside, and a thin strip near the middle that the heat has barely reached.
In this recipe, I coat the fillet with sesame seeds to create a lovely crust. Then I slice the salmon as you would with sashimi, and serve on a bed of sesame-garlic spinach with a pinot noir reduction – sort of a Japanese/French mash-up, if you will.
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Sesame-crusted salmon with garlic spinach and pinot noir reduction
8 oz. wild Alaskan salmon fillet
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
2 cups cleaned young spinach leaves
2 garlic cloves
1/4 tsp. dried dashi broth (optional)
dash of soy sauce
1 cup pinot noir
1/2 cup broth (duck or chicken)
1/2 cup sweet mirin or sweet white wine
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. cold butter
Make the pinot noir reduction: In a small pan, heat pinot noir, broth and mirin to a boil. Turn heat to low and simmer until reduced to a few tablespoons of thick syrup. Stir in sugar and remove from heat. When cooled enough to handle, strain through a fine sieve. Return to cleaned pan or similar, and set aside until ready to serve.
In a medium skillet, heat a tablespoon of grapeseed oil over high heat. Add garlic and cook until golden. Add spinach, toss to wilt, and turn off heat. Add dashi powder if using, and a dash of soy sauce, then drizzle with a little sesame oil. Toss and keep warm on a very low burner. (Or reheat at the last minute.)
In a large skillet, heat a couple tablespoons grapeseed oil over high heat. Spread sesame seeds on a large plate and coat the salmon. Place salmon in hot oil, and reduce heat slightly. Cook for a minute on each side for rare, 2 minutes for medium. (Assuming for a salmon fillet about an inch thick. Reduce time for thinner fillet.) Remove from heat and set on cutting board.
Reheat sauce until bubbling, and turn off. Stir in cold butter until incorporated to velvet. With a very sharp knife, slice salmon into slices 1/2 inch thick. To plate: place a small mound of spinach on each of two plates, arrange salmon slices artfully on top of spinach, and drizzle pinot noir reduction around plate.
Wine suggestion: A California Central Coast or Russian River Valley pinot noir, or a fruity saké