Salmon, Two Ways: One Epic, One Everyday

Recently, I have been spending time simplifying some old recipes.

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Salmon, Two Ways: One Epic, One Everyday
, New York Times

Recently, I have been spending time simplifying some old recipes.

“Not everyone has a couple of hours to spare in the kitchen on a school night,” my sister once said to me, voicing a familiar complaint about the time commitment demanded by some of my dishes.

“I know, I know,” I said, and offered my standard response. “But, hey, when you get to taste them — it all makes total sense, right?”

“I guess so,” she conceded, with a lack of conviction reserved for family members.

Even if I try to let such grievances glide like water over my proverbial duck’s back, they do make me ask myself about the circumstances under which people cook. Is there a way to deliver the impact I like my food to have — surprising, complex, bold and, of course, delicious — without having to put together 18 ingredients and set aside the two hours my sister can’t spare when cooking for her family? The short answer is yes, but there is more to it than that.

In the next few months, I’ll be using these pages to offer two variations on a theme in each column: one recipe that you can whip up quickly without breaking your back or your bank balance; another one that will be a more involved, special occasion kind of dish in which you’ll happily invest time and resources. My hope is that two versions on a common theme will allow you, the reader, and me to better understand the particular conditions under which we cook and the kind of dishes that work best. It will also offer extra-busy people (like my dear sister) an opportunity to try out the particular ingredients and flavor combinations I get so excited about.

My focus today is salmon. I am taking inspiration for these two recipes from the two tips of Europe: Sweden at the very north for my “epic” recipe and Sicily in the south for the everyday version.

I give a traditional Nordic laxpudding, a cozy bake of potatoes, salmon and dill, bright Mediterranean touches from capers and lemon. And a quick pan-seared fillet, that most modern of preparations, benefits from the classic Sicilian contrast of currants, olives and pine nuts. How the fish is cooked is entirely different in these two versions but, put together, they show the versatility of salmon and how well it adapts to different culinary circumstances.

My sister promises to try it both ways.


Creamy Potato Gratin With Smoked and Fresh Salmon

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Time: 1 1/2 hours


Generous pinch of saffron

3 large potatoes or 2 celeriac bulbs (about 2.5 pounds/1.2 kilograms total), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch-/1-centimeter-thick half-moons

1/3 cup/75 milliliters olive oil, more as needed

Salt and black pepper

3 oil-packed anchovies, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

About 1 pound/500 grams large leaf spinach, washed, stems and leaves roughly chopped

1 gently packed cup (about 1 ounce/30 grams) basil leaves, roughly chopped

1/2 cup/20 grams roughly chopped fresh dill (about 3/4 ounce), more for garnish

4 tablespoons/50 grams brined baby capers (about 1.75 ounces), drained and patted dry

About 1 pound/460 grams skinless salmon fillets, cut into 1-inch/2- to 3-centimeter pieces

About 5 ounces/150 grams thinly sliced cold-smoked salmon, cut into 1-inch/2- to 3-centimeter pieces

5 egg yolks

1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

1 2/3 cups/400 milliliters whole milk

1/2 cup/100 milliliters heavy cream (double cream)

1 lemon, cut into wedges, for serving


Step 1: Heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit/240 degrees Celsius. In a small bowl, mix 1 tablespoon of boiling water with the saffron and set aside for 20 minutes (longer is fine).

Step 2: Cook the potatoes: In a large bowl, use your hands to mix the potatoes with 2 tablespoons of the oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and plenty of pepper. Spread out on 2 large parchment-lined baking sheets (baking trays) and roast for 20 minutes, or until soft and caramelized. Set aside to cool.

Step 3: Cook the greens: In a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the anchovy and garlic and fry just until the garlic is starting to brown, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add half the spinach, stir through for a minute to wilt slightly, and then add the remaining half. Cover for 1 to 2 minutes to wilt some more, then remove the lid and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently, until all the moisture has evaporated and the spinach has begun to dry out. Raise the heat as needed to cook off the liquid. Turn off heat and stir in herbs. Stir in half the capers and set aside.

Step 4: Using your hands, mix the fresh and smoked salmon with 1/3 teaspoon of salt in a bowl, separating the layers of smoked salmon in the process. Set aside.

Step 5: Make the custard: In a medium saucepan, whisk together the saffron and its soaking water, egg yolks, cornstarch (corn flour), lemon zest, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper until smooth. Pour in the milk and cream and whisk until combined. Place over medium heat and cook, whisking continuously to prevent the custard from scorching or sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until steaming and starting to thicken. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Step 6: When ready to bake, heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit/200 degrees Celsius. To assemble, start by layering half the potatoes at the bottom of a baking dish. (A deep 8-by-8-inch square, 9-inch round, or 20-by-30-centimeter rectangle will all work.) Top with half the spinach mixture followed by all the salmon. Top with the remaining potatoes and then the spinach. Pour the custard over evenly and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the custard has set and is starting to brown. (If your custard seems dangerously close to the top of the pan, place it on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch any drips.) Remove from the oven and set aside for 5 minutes.

Step 7: In a small saucepan, combine remaining capers with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over high heat. (The oil should just cover the capers, so you may need to add a touch more oil, depending on the size of your pan.) Fry the capers in the oil for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until the capers have opened up and become crisp.

Step 8: Spoon the fried capers over the gratin, garnish with fresh dill, and serve warm with lemon wedges.


Pan-Seared Salmon With Celery, Olives and Capers

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 45 minutes


2/3 cup/100 grams currants

Generous pinch of saffron

4 salmon fillets (about 1 pound/500 grams total), skin on

About 1/2 cup/100 milliliters olive oil

Salt and black pepper

4 sticks celery (about 6 ounces/180 grams), cut into 1/2-inch/1-centimeter dice, leaves removed and reserved for garnish

1/4 cup/30 grams pine nuts, roughly chopped

Scant 1/4 cup/40 grams drained capers, plus 2 tablespoons of their brine

8 large green olives, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch/1-centimeter dice

1/3 cup/20 grams parsley, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon lemon juice


Step 1: Cover the currants with boiling water and set aside to soak for 20 minutes. In a separate small bowl, mix 1 tablespoon of boiling water with the saffron and also leave for 20 minutes or longer.

Step 2: Gently rub the salmon fillets with 2 teaspoons of the oil, 1/3 teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Set aside while you make the relish.

Step 3: Add 1/3 cup/75 milliliters of olive oil to a large sauté pan over high heat. Add the celery and pine nuts and fry for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the nuts begin to brown (watch carefully as they can burn quickly). Turn off heat and stir in the capers and their brine, the olives, saffron and its water and a pinch of salt. Drain the currants and add them as well, along with the parsley, lemon zest and juice. Mix well and set aside.

Step 4: In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add salmon fillets skin-side down and let cook for 3 minutes, until the skin is crisp. Reduce the heat to medium, flip the fillets over and cook 2 to 4 minutes more (depending on how much you like the salmon to be cooked).

Step 5: Divide the salmon on 4 plates and serve with the warm relish spooned on top. Scatter reserved celery leaves (if using) and serve immediately.

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