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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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"Hey. Are you the same Cinnamon who writes the cooking column for Gapers Block?" a friend of a friend of a friend asks me at a party.

"Yes," I reply. "I am indeed. Do you read it, then?"

"Well, yeah. Sometimes. I like it," he says.

"Wonderful, what have you made?" I ask.

"Well, I'm kinda worried about catching my kitchen on fire so I don't really cook much," he says a bit sheepishly.

Slightly shocked, but far more curious, I reply with "Well, what would I have to write about to convince you to cook?"

"Hmm. Fish," he says. I start to defend my column's honor by telling about the fish dishes I've cooked when he says, "Salmon. Definitely salmon. I like salmon."

And since I didn't think I'd ever specifically written a salmon column, I couldn't argue with him and all my defensiveness disappeared. And as he went off to talk to someone else, I began to plot out how I would write about salmon in a way that would encourage someone to try it for the first time.

Cooking fish in general is very simple and it should be approached from a very simply. You don't have to make time-intensive and complicated French sauces to have a fantastic fish dish. Often times just two or three flavors is all that is needed to get the most out of a fish. Salt, pepper and lemon juice are the holy trinity of fish seasonings. With a good cut of fish, the addition of just these three items should be enough to bring out the flavors in the fish, enhancing them without covering them.

But sometimes something that a little more complicated and flavorful is wanted. Maybe you've got a very flavorful white wine and you don't want your fish dish to disappear. Or maybe, just maybe, you're not a huge fan of fish and want something that will cover up the fishy taste while still letting you enjoy the omega-3 fatty acids and protein and low fat content.

So in the hopes of encouraging someone (and one particular someone) to try their hand at cooking, I'll give you four different methods for cooking a simple salmon steak or fillet. But before I can get you cooking, you have to know what the difference is between a fillet and a steak. A fillet is cut along the ribs, parallel to the spine, but not including it. A steak is often reserved for larger fish and is a cross-section of the fish cut through the spine. Fillets are easier to cook because they are usually around the same thickness. However they often still have the skin, which is unnecessarily intimidating to remove, and often still contain bones. A steak has less skin to remove and fewer bones to worry about, but its odd shape with those two little pieces that hang out make it hard to cook, so the fish isn't unevenly done.

Alton Brown has a great method of cooking fish steaks in a way that makes them cook evenly and makes them great for grilling. But since it is grilling season only for the hardcore (and I'm more marshmallow-like) I'll show you how to use his technique to get well-cooked steaks in the kitchen. His seasoning mix is great on salmon, or even chicken or pork.

And while it does involve dirtying more than one pan, boiling salmon till it is almost done and then applying a glaze while it is under the broiler makes for a dish that can be eaten with your eyes closed while you imagine you're in a tropical location.

And salmon isn't just for eating whole. Sometimes if you ask you might be able to get a package of salmon chunks and pieces from the butcher. These pieces are great marinated and then tossed with vegetables in a stir-fry or served with pasta in a simple sauce.

Simple Salmon Fillet
1 salmon fillet that weighs about 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound
1/2 to 1 teaspoon of oil
juice from 1/4 of a lemon
1/2 teaspoon (or so) of salt
1/8 teaspoon of ground black pepper

Rinse the salmon to remove any loose scales. Try to locate any bones by pressing lightly with your fingers. If you find any, you should be able to grab ahold of them and pull them out. They can be left in, but warn people to be careful while eating. Pat the salmon dry with a paper towel. Drizzle just a little bit of olive oil on the fish and use your hands to rub it into the meat. Squeeze a lemon quarter over the flesh side of the fillet, not the skin side. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place a little bit of oil or butter in a non-stick skillet, or in a regular skillet add a little more oil or butter (about 1 teaspoon). Bring the skillet to medium-high heat. Add the salmon to the skillet with the skin-side up to prevent the skin from curling away from the fish. Let it cook for about 2-3 minutes before flipping it over and cooking it for another 2-3 minutes. Remove it from the heat and let it rest for 3 or so minutes. Once the fish has cooled a bit, grab a corner of the skin and peel back. It should come away from the fish very easily — there is a thin layer of fat between the meat and the skin that melts when it's grilled. Once it cooks it release the skin quite easily.
Serves one. Increase proportionally for more servings.

Broiled Salmon Steaks
(stolen almost completely from Alton Brown)
4 salmon steaks that are 1-inch thick
1 teaspoon of whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon of whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon of dry peppercorns
kosher salt
canola oil
kitchen twine

Preheat your broiler to high and place your broiling pan about 5-6 inches from the flame. Feel the steaks for bones and remove them. You can use a pair of tweezers to help remove bones. Use a sharp knife or a pair of kitchen shears to remove the bones from the cavity side of the steak. Use your pairing knife to cut away about 2 inches of skin from one of the flaps. Roll this flap in toward the center of the fish, then take the other flap and wrap it around the outside of the fish. Tie snugly with kitchen twine, but not too tightly or the fish will pop out of its bodice. Trim extra twine from the knot to prevent it from burning under the broiler.

In a dry skillet over medium heat, add the cumin, coriander and peppercorn seeds. Let them cook for 5-7 minutes or until you can smell the seeds and they seem mildly toasted. If the skillet starts to smoke, turn down the heat. Pour these into either a mortar and pestle or an extra pepper mill and grind. Season the steaks lightly with oil and sprinkle some salt on the steaks. Sprinkle or grind the seasoning mix over both sides of the steaks. (Leftover spices can be stored in an air-tight container as long as they haven't come in contact with the fish.)

Arrange the steaks on the broiling pan so there is about an inch of space between them, but keep them toward the center of the rack so they'll be close to the flame. Carefully slide the pan under the broiler. Keep your oven door propped open for airflow and let the steaks cook for about three minutes. Pull the tray out and use tongs to flip the steaks to the other side. Return to the flame and cook for an additional three minutes. Watch them closely and lower them if they start to burn. They should be well-colored on the outside and barely translucent on the center. Use scissors or a knife to cut off the twine, remove the skin and serve.
Serves four.

Tropical Glazed Salmon
For glaze
1/2 cup of honey (or maple syrup)
3/4 cup of pineapple juice
1 1/2 tablespoons of grated fresh ginger
4 cloves of minced garlic
2 teaspoons of horseradish
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Combine all ingredients into a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Once it begins to boil reduce to low and let it simmer until it is reduced by half. Stir occasionally for about 15 minutes. This glaze can be refrigerated for up to a week as long as it doesn't come in contact with any meat juices. It is also good on chicken or pork.

For salmon
4 salmon fillets that weigh about 1/3 pound (steaks will also work, but prepare with twine as in above recipe)
2 cloves of garlic
2 sprigs of fresh dill
1/4 teaspoon of salt

Place salmon in a large skillet or other shallow pan over medium-high heat. Add water and spices until the fish is covered. Bring the salmon to a boil and then reduce the heat till the water just barely simmers. Cover and let the fish cook for 3 minutes. Turn the heat off (or remove from an electric burner) and let it sit undisturbed for 8 minutes. Preheat your broiler to high. Oil the area of the broiling pan where you will be placing your fish. Place the fillets skin side down, an inch apart. Use a brush to baste with the glaze. Slide the broiling pan under the heat and cook for 1 minute. Pull away from the heat, baste with more glaze, and then return to the flame and cook for 1 more minute. There should be a nice golden crust on the salmon.
Serves four.

Quick Salmon with Capers in Cream Sauce Over Pasta
1 pound of salmon bits (or 1 pound of salmon steaks or fillets that have been de-boned and skinned)
1 tablespoon of canola oil
1/2 cup of sour cream (fat free will work as well)
2 tablespoons of capers
Juice from 1/2 of a lemon
1 scallion, finely chopped
3-4 sprigs of fresh dill, stemmed and chopped
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/8 teaspoon of pepper (or several cranks from a pepper grinder)
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1 pound of raw pasta like spaghetti or fettucini

Fill a large pot with water, cover and place it over high heat to boil. With your fingers feel each piece of salmon to make sure there are no bones to be removed. Chop the salmon until it is no more than 1/2" square. Place the canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the salmon to the skillet and stir continuously while cooking for about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and let sit while the water continues to come to a boil.

Meanwhile, pour the sour cream into a medium-sized bowl. Put the capers on a cutting board. Place the flat side of the knife on the capers and smash to prevent them from rolling around while you chop them finely. Add this to the bowl. Squeeze the juice from the lemon into the bowl while being careful to catch any seeds. Add the finely chopped scallion, the chopped dill, the salt, pepper and garlic powder. Stir with a spoon until you have a smooth consistency. Once the pasta is cooked, remove it from the water and add it to the skillet. Pour the sauce over the pasta, and return the skillet to a burner that is set to medium-high. Stir with tongs for about 2-3 minutes or until all of the pasta is evenly coated and the sauce is warmed through.
Makes four servings as a main course and six to eight servings as a side.

And if all of those recipes bore you, you can try your hand at cooking salmon in your dishwasher. I admit I've not had the courage to try it due to knowing that I would be the one to replace a fairly new dishwasher, but I'd love to hear if you have tried it.

Cooking fish isn't hard and salmon is the easiest of all fishes to cook. Its firm texture keeps it from flaking and falling apart easily. The pink color of the salmon changes and it is easy to tell when it is done cooking. This color change is the main thing to pay attention to. The easiest way to screw up fish is to overcook it. But don't be afraid to cut into the thick part of a fillet or the center of a steak with a knife and see what the color is like. And as long as your salmon has been slightly frozen (which is almost a guarantee in Chicago since we're so far from where it is caught) leaving it slightly undercooked is safe and tastes far better than overcooking it.

Hopefully one of these dishes encourages you to try your hand at cooking. And if there is something you've been curious about trying, but still reluctant about, send it to and I'll see what I can do to help you navigate the cooking waters.

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Mary / December 15, 2006 7:38 AM

Great article Cinnamon - i just wanted to say that due to Chicago's central US location and our proximity to O'Hare international, our fish (including salmon, farmed and wild) has the potential to be incredibly fresh, and doesn't necessarily have to be "slightly frozen" in order to be safe to eat raw or undercooked. This time of year we see plenty of farmed salmon from around the world that can be less than 2 or 3 days out of water. Just be sure you have a reputable fish monger (I would reccomend Dirk's) and that you let them know you plan to eat your fish raw or undercooked and they will provide you with an extra fresh piece. Obviously the topic of farmed salmon could lead to a huge discussion on environmental, social and health issues but I am probably about to run out of room and just wanted to offer my 2 cents, not the full 5$ comment.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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