Friday, May 28, 2010

Pan-seared Salmon over Wilted Spinach with Sautéed Mushrooms and Brown Rice, Topped with Fried Onions

I've always liked salmon well enough, but it wasn't until a few short years ago that I truly came to enjoy this very popular and much-hyped fish. And I must admit, some of that very hype is what made me stand up and take notice. Often touted as a "top 10 power food," salmon's rich omega 3 fatty acids and other heart-healthy and immunity-boosting properties are hard to simply ignore. And so I continued ordering it in restaurants and fixing it at best I knew how. It wasn't, however, until I discovered just "how" I liked my salmon prepared that this little culinary love-fest truly got off the ground.

Though I've had salmon poached, stuffed into ravioli, tossed into salads, and shaped into little cakes with a variety of sauces, I've found it to be most delicious when simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and then quickly pan-seared or grilled over a high heat to give it a bit of a crusty coat. Then I like to partner it with something a little more distinct and flavorful...a fresh pineapple-mango salsa; a zesty, fresh corn relish; a rich aioli; a flavorful coulis...or an interesting sauté.

This particular recipe does just that. It combines a simple, but perfectly cooked salmon fillet* with a flavorful, healthy sauté of spinach and mushrooms that is brightened and enhanced with just a touch of fresh lemon juice and white wine. Then you top it all off with a touch of delicate, golden brown onion rings that have been fried to crispy perfection. Yum! It's my take on a dish I recently had dining out with friends. In that particular dish, cooked farro was added to the spinach-mushroom sauté, which I thought gave it a nice added bit of texture and flavor. Not finding the box of farro I thought I had in my pantry, I substituted brown basmati rice (which I think worked just as well as the farro). You can toss in as little or as much of the cooked rice (or farro) as you like. Not only does it give these veggies some added texture, it also makes the completed dish a more substantially rounded meal.

While there are four components to this meal -- the salmon, the sauté, the rice, and the fried onions -- it truly comes together quickly.

I suggest getting your rice (or farro) started first. While that's simmering away, you can get your onions fried up. This step will take mere minutes.

Once your rice is doing its thing and your onions are done, you can get started on your veggie sauté. Again, this step will also go rather quickly so you'll want to have all your ingredients ready at hand to drop into the skillet when it's their time. When your sauté is done, just transfer it to a dish to free up your skillet to sear your fish...less clean up for later!

Like all the steps before, your salmon will cook up in minutes. I like to leave the skin on; it helps hold the fillet together and it gives it added flavor. If you slice just a few scores in the skin it won't tighten up, which might cause your fillet to curl or bend when searing. And the scoring also allows you to better season the skin take advantage of this by sprinkling a bit of salt and pepper down into the cuts.

All in all, this meal can be on the table within 30 to 40 minutes, prep to finish. It's super easy to make...and equally nutritious and delicious.

* I selected a previously frozen, wild Coho salmon that was priced at approximately $9 per pound, over the more expensive, fresh King (Chinook) salmon that was priced at nearly $25 per pound. King (Chinook) salmon ranks at the top of the Pacific salmon varieties for its high fat content and corresponding richness. Though the Coho falls a few short notches below the King in terms of fat content, its flavor is not (in my opinion) sacrificed. And, at nearly a third the price of the King, it is definitely a value. And, yes, it was previously frozen. This doesn't (again, in my opinion), negatively impact its flavor. Though we have Pacific salmon far more readily available fresh in the Pacific Northwest, the fact that previously frozen salmon tastes just great (for most varieties), makes me believe that we need to reconsider this option when weighing taste and sustainability issues.

Pan-seared Salmon over Wilted Spinach with Sautéed Mushrooms and Brown Rice, Topped with Fried Onions
serves 3 (easily doubled)

Cooked brown basmati rice is added to the completed spinach-mushroom sauté, giving it an added boost of flavor and texture.

3 to 4 skin-on, salmon fillets (approx. 4 to 6 ounces each, as preferred), gently scored on skin side
salt and pepper, to generously season fillets
3 tablespoons olive oil (plus additional oil for light brushing of fillets)

fried onions:
1 large yellow onion, cut into thinly sliced rings
1/3 cup all-purpose flour, for dredging raw onion rings (I used a 100% stone-ground, whole-wheat flour)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups vegetable oil, for frying

veggie sauté:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup diced yellow onion
1 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced
5 ounce-package fresh spinach leaves
1/4 cup dry white wine (one you'd drink)
2 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
salt and pepper, to taste
1 to 2 cups cooked brown basmati rice (or farro)

1. Prepare brown rice according to package directions. I have found that my rice always cooks more quickly than the package states, so keep an eye on it, adding extra water if it looks like its getting dry and not yet cooked through.

2. Heat 2 cups vegetable oil in a large, heavy pot over high heat. While oil heats, combine flour, salt, and pepper on a large plate to dredge raw onion slices. Coat rings thoroughly with flour. Using tongs, begin placing flour-coated rings into hot oil to fry, being careful not to overcrowd pot. Fry rings until golden brown, approximately 1 to 2 minutes. Remove batches of fried onions to a paper-towel-lined plate to cool and drain. Set fried onion aside when done. To keep onions warm, you can place them in a low-temp oven (just note that they will soften a bit as a result), or serve them at room temp.

3. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter to a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium high heat. Once butter is melted, add diced onion and sauté for approximately 1 minute, until onion is slightly translucent. Add in sliced mushrooms and continue to cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until mushrooms have softened and cooked through. Add fresh spinach leaves to mushroom mixture and continue to cook for another minute or so, tossing leaves to evenly cook. The spinach will wilt rather quickly. Once it begins to do so, add in wine and lemon juice and continue cooking to just warm additions through. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Transfer mixture to an oven-proof bowl and add in cooked rice. Again, you can place this in a low-temp oven to keep warm, or simply cover with aluminum foil.

4. Reheat the same heavy-bottomed skillet you used for your veggie sauté (do not rinse or wipe it clean) over medium high heat. Lightly brush fillets with olive oil and generously season them with salt and pepper. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil to skillet and swirl to coat bottom surface of pan. Place fillets skin-side down into skillet (turn up heat if it doesn't appear to sear well), and leave them to sear for 2 to 5 minutes (depending on thickness) without moving them. As the fillets cook, you'll see a distinct change in color rise up the side of each fillet. As evidence of this moves to between 1/2 and 2/3 the way up the fillets, it's time to flip them. Continuing cooking fillets for another few minutes (anywhere from 2 to 4, depending on the thickness of the fillet). The fillets are done when they no longer appear translucent on the exterior and are firm when gently squeezed, but not hard. The flesh should flake easily with a fork. Note that salmon will continue cooking for a bit once removed from its heat source, so be careful not to overcook.

5. To plate dish, spoon some of the mushroom-spinach-rice mixture onto plate; top with salmon fillet; finish with a sprinkle of fried onions over top.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Raspberry-Créme Fraîche Tart

I've been on a bit of a hiatus recently, not from cooking or eating mind you, simply from posting the evidence of such. And while there are a myriad of reasons I've not visited this space of late, one word explains it best: life. Just the every-day and not-so-every-day, time-consuming ups, downs, and "all-arounds" of life.

And yet, amid all that has consumed my time in the past few months, keeping me from this little culinary project of mine, I've managed to get in the second (and woeful last!) go-around of what I consider a "parental right." That being, of course, the one that says you get to tack on to your child's study abroad experience. No...not as they are having this wonderful adventure (I do have some tact), just at the tail end of it, when their program has come to a close and it's time to come to terms with the reality of that...and head home. But...just before that happens, this "right" implies that I get to pop in to wherever they may be and continue on with them for a little adventure of our own. This year, alas, dad was not able to go...again, that dreaded "life" getting in the way.

Two years ago, it was Rome and Venice with our oldest daughter. This year, it was London, Paris, and Amsterdam. A splurge? Yes. A treat? Definitely! A sacrifice? Worth every penny!!!

And, like I do with nearly every trip I take, whether it's a few hundred miles from home over a long weekend, or clear across the Atlantic for 10 days...I relive many of the memories of these times through my kitchen.

I happened to arrive in London for Mother's Day. With threats of a spewing volcano and airline strikes, this was no easy feat. And London, being the location of our youngest daughter's semester of study, would be left for her to present. I'd been to London nearly 12 years prior, but I eagerly looked forward to seeing it through the eyes and experiences of our 21-year-old. We walked the streets and neighborhoods she traveled in her four months abroad, going to and from school...visiting many of the same theaters, museums, parks, cathedrals, outdoor markets, major sites and, yes, bars (!!!) that she did!!

However, on Mother's Day, my daughter whisked me, via London's fabulous tube (how did we miss the memo on this mode of transport???), to the most darling little artisan café/bakery called Bea's of Bloomsbury (located on Thiobald's Road, just a short walk from the Holborn station). She had, weeks prior, reserved one of their very few tables for afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea, as you may well know, is a very English thing. High teas, or afternoon teas, are served at nearly every top hotel and trendy café in London. While there is some disagreement on whether the terms "high" and "afternoon" are interchangeable in describing what is served and when, it is generally agreed that afternoon teas originated back in the mid 1800's with the Duchess of Bedford requiring a spot of tea and some pastries mid-afternoon to curb her hunger. Lunch was traditionally served at noon, but dinner wasn't usually enjoyed until well after eight o'clock at night. So to keep the tummy from rumbling unnecessarily, afternoon teas were initiated.

In London, afternoon tea at the Ritz, the Dorchester, or at Fortnum & Mason are highly touted and especially popular with tourists armed with their trusty travel guides. Resplendent with scones, doilies, and perfectly polished silver service, these pricey extravaganzas can, however, fall short in the charm category. So this is where the benefit of local knowledge has its value.

Bea's is a charming, tiny, jewel-box-like café of sweet treats and steaming brews. It is, as its name aptly denotes, located in the Bloomsbury neighborhood in central London. Bloomsbury is known for its blossoming trees and abundant greenery (thus, the name), and also for being home to the famous Bloomsbury Group of literaries -- Virginia Wolff, E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot --as well as writers Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. Obviously a locale fertile beyond its vegetation!

At Bea's, the front window is filled with towers of perfectly iced cupcakes (yes...cupcakes are the "in" thing now when it comes to afternoon tea); colossal-sized meringues (some sprinkled with chopped nuts, others topped with berry-flavored drizzles...never before have I seen such meringues!); varieties of colorful fruit-flavored marshmallows (another first!); and a bevy of sweet cakes, chocolates and brownies. The treats dare passers-by to simply pass...knowing full well they won't. Without knowledge of this little gem, however, one could easily dismiss this quiet street so near the City center.

Being more of a savory girl myself, I have to admit that I was a little hesitant about my ability to eat more than one or two little sweet treats in one sitting. Fortunately, we started with a small plate of mini sandwiches...perfectly made little morsels of fresh baguette layered with sweet red tomato, fresh basil, and mouth-watering mozzarella cheese. Simple...yet delicious. We had both agreed on a vanilla-flavored tea and, surprisingly, it went quite well with our little sandwich selection. And then...our tower of sweets arrived!

There were scones, cupcakes, mini meringues, sweet little bits of cake and brownie, and a variety of little fruit-flavored marshmallows...all beautifully arranged on a two-tiered, porcelain pedestal. And of course there was also clotted cream (yum!) and fresh jam. Having witnessed some tea-goers before us happily carting a small box of leftover treats on their way out, I comfortably settled in to simply enjoy the spread laid out before us, and the company of my darling daughter. More than an hour later, our steaming pot of tea was emptied and our tower of sweets stood bare! Unlike the Duchess of Bedford, we had NOT had the benefit of a noontime lunch.

Now that we are firmly (though not necessarily permanently) planted at home, I will always have wonderful memories of our afternoon tea at Bea's of Bloomsbury. Many that will stay in my heart forever.

I will look forward to making some mini meringues to top with fresh berries (if our drizzle ever fizzles) and even, perhaps, take a stab at some flavored marshmallows. For now, however, this beautiful raspberry-créme fraîche tart will have to do...and it does quite well. I have served it to my family and friends many times over. It's delicious and keeps well...which is especially perfect if you need a dessert to make ahead. And, it makes a pretty presentation -- dotted with sweet red raspberries, that nestle down into the tart once baked. And, like the many treats we enjoyed at Bea's, it's not sugary-sweet...a definite plus in my opinion. It has a nice airy, cake-like texture that is perfectly enhanced by the tart-yet-sweet raspberries that dot its surface. It's a great dessert offering...or, cut into little wedges, perfect for an afternoon tea!

Raspberry-Créme Fraîche Tart
serves 8 to 10
I adapted this recipe from one I cut from a magazine more than seven years ago. Best guess is it's from Bon Appetit.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided (note: 3/4 cup portion will be used in 1/2 cup and 1/4 cup portions to make batter and custard levels, respectively; remaining tablespoon will be sprinkled over tart prior to baking)
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, divided
1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup créme fraîche
2 cups fresh raspberries

1. Place baking sheet in bottom of oven. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Wrap outside of 11-inch tart pan with removable bottom with foil (to prevent batter from seeping out). Set pan aside.

2. Using electric mixer, beat butter, 1/2 cup sugar and salt in large bowl until blended. Add three eggs and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla; beat until smooth.

3. Add flour and beat just until blended. Spread batter over bottom of tart pan (it will come approx. 1/2" up sides of pan).

4. In a separate bowl, beat 1/4 cup sugar, 1 egg, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and créme fraîche until well blended. Spread custard over top of batter. Arrange berries 1/4" apart atop custard, Sprinkle tart with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and place in oven.

5. Bake tart for approx. 40 to 45 minutes, until set and browned around edges. Cool completely and carefully remove sides of tart pan, easing edges out slowly to avoid tears. Place on serving platter. (Note: at this stage, you can loosely cover tart with foil and chill, if planning to serve the following day. Let come to room temperature before dusting with sugar or serving.) Once tart is completely cooled (or at room temp, if previously chilled), dust lightly with powdered sugar, if desired, and serve.