Weeknight Wondermeal: Simple Baked Salmon with Spuds and Spinach

2014-02-16 18.51.03Many of my Harvard kids (I teach and work at the University) complain that they don’t know how to cook.  I mean, why should they?  Their parents have taken care of them up to the point that they arrived here, and once here the dining halls take care of the rest.  But even though we educate their minds, we don’t do such a great job teaching them about the practical logistics of life after graduation.  Since most of them know about my gastronomic pursuits, they always ask me to teach them how to cook; this blog is one avenue for those lessons.  So, kiddos: here’s a SUPER easy one for ya.  It’s got 3 basic ingredients, a few items from the pantry, and requires only a cookie sheet, a pyrex baking dish, and a big ol’ bowl – but it’s delicious, healthy, and pretty enough to serve up to company, like when your parents come to visit you during that gap year to see where all the money they’re sending you goes…

I forgot to take a set-up shot, but here’s what you’ll need:

Simple Baked Salmon with Spuds and Spinach (for 2)

1 lb fresh salmon fillet
12 oz baby spinach
1 lb baby red potatoes
1 lemon
EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), white vinegar
sea salt, cracked black pepper, crushed red pepper, dried oregano

2014-02-16 18.09.55Start by washing your spuds, cutting them in half, and then tossing them with about 3 tablespoons of EVOO and your spices.

2014-02-16 18.11.42Lay those bad boys out, cut side down, on a foil-wrapped cookie sheet, douse with another glug of EVOO for good measure, and throw in the oven on 350 for 30 minutes.

2014-02-16 18.23.42Meanwhile, place your fillet of salmon into a baking dish large enough to hold it (this is an 8″x8″ pyrex).  Cut your lemon in half; squeeze one half of it over the fish, and slice the other half into thin rounds.  Pour a glug of EVOO over the fish, too, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then layer the sliced lemon over the top.  Throw this in the same oven as the potatoes and bake for 20-25 minutes.

2014-02-16 18.26.07Using the same bowl in which you tossed the potatoes (which you needn’t have cleaned out), add your spinach, some salt and pepper.

2014-02-16 18.44.07The potatoes are done when they can be a) easily pierced with a fork, b) their outer skins have gotten all wrinkly, and c) the cut sides are crispy and brown.

2014-02-16 18.45.54Spill these into the bowl over the spinach with all the hot oil which has accumulated on the pan, add a glug of vinegar (about a teaspoon or so), and toss this very well. The heat from the spuds and fat will wilt the spinach.

2014-02-16 18.48.22The salmon is done when it is completely opaque.  The oil and lemon juice will help keep the fish nice and moist; just use a spatula to divide the fillet in half and to slide the fish onto your waiting plates.

2014-02-16 18.51.37And there you have it: succulent, juicy, flavorful, healthy salmon served with creamy-interior, crunchy-exterior roasted potatoes and gently wilted spiced greens.  Serve with or without some crusty French bread, and call it a day.  You will be impressed with yourself, and your guests will think you’re the tops!  All this only takes 30 minutes of cook time, and a mere handful of ingredients.  If you can’t make this, my dear Harvard children, then you should have spent less time planning to change the world and more time tending to your diet.  Lucky for you, I’m here to help you through. You can thank me later, when you win those Nobel prizes and become CEOs of your own Fortune 500 companies.  Don’t worry – I can wait.

Wild Mushroom Risotto, Butternut Squash, Smoked Gouda, Orange Gremolata, Hazelnuts

DSCN4417Working in Harvard Square like I do means I get my pick of some pretty great restaurants for my daily lunch.  But since I’m on a tight budget, I only make it to the fancy-schmanzy places when I’m eating on someone else’s dime.  Luckily, I have generous bosses with great taste, so I get to sample the hoity-toity fare pretty often – as I did last week at Harvest.  The Harvard muckity-mucks flock to Harvest, so it’s a great powerful-people watching joint, and the restaurant is so civilized it’s hard not to feel a little muckity yourself when seated on their fine cushions in front of their roaring fireplace perusing their extensive wine list.  Yet — and meaning no disrespect to head chef Mary Dumont — although the service is impeccable, the location charming, and the food good, I’ve never really been blown away by it.  In fact, I’m usually underwhelmed by the number of menu choices, ambivalent about the way the flavors come together, and disappointed in their serving-size to price ratio (which leans heavily towards price).  I mean, everything is fresh, artfully presented, and prepared with care, but I usually tell myself I could have made the same thing if not better, certainly cheaper.  Granted, Lolita doesn’t have a staff to pay or high rent to shell out, nor do I have the training and skill of the chefs who certainly grace their kitchen.  Still – I decided to test my theory, and recreate my mini-lunch of the other day as a maxi-dinner several nights later.  The menu: wild mushroom (they used the term “foraged”, which I did – through Whole Foods’s mushroom bins) risotto with roasted butternut squash (they used delacata squash, which I could not find), smoked gouda, orange gremolata, and toasted hazelnuts.  Theirs cost my dear benefactor $16 for my dining pleasure, and although I certainly enjoyed it – more than any other dish I’ve had from Harvest – I was left hungry afterwards by the teeny-tiny portion size.  For about $25, I made the same dish for both the husbandman and myself: it looked virtually the same, tasted exactly the same, and this time truly satiated by hunger – and his as well.  So, dear readers, here’s my riff off a high-falutin’ menu item from a chi-chi restaurant prepared by haute-cuisine hands. If you prefer to pay top dollar for your fancy-schmanzy, hoity-toity, muckity-muckity, high-falutin’ haute cuisine, read no further.  But if you have a hankering for all the above on a common-woman shoe-string budget, just make it yourself.  And be both happy AND full afterwards…

DSCN4387

Wild Mushroom Risotto, Butternut Squash, Smoked Gouda, Orange Gremolata, Hazelnuts

1 medium butternut squash
8oz fresh assorted wild  mushrooms
4 tbs butter, divided
2 shallots
4 cloves garlic
1 cup arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 quart mushroom broth
1 cup smoked gouda cheese
zest from 1 orange
zest from 1 lemon
2 tbs minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup shelled hazelnuts
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper

DSCN4385Whole Foods has some decent pre-packaged blends of wild mushrooms, but I decided to hand-pick some choices through their assortment of loose mushrooms to find some really fun ones to add to this plate.  I’ve got one large portobello (the most mushroomy flavored variety), some shiitake, trumpet, chanterelle, and some weird, rubbery wood ears – which I can only imagine are called that because they truly seem and feel like the fleshy bits of the ear, and not like a fungus at all.  This assortment  represented the majority of my expense for this meal, but it was worth it.

DSCN4391After slicing and chopping my fungi, I add about a third of them to a hot skillet with some browned butter.  Too many mushrooms at once, and they’ll all steam – so cooking them off in shifts to give them the chance to breathe is the best way to do so.  Also, I resist the urge to stir them around a lot; the more they’re moved around, the more water they release, which will also steam them – and what I want here are nicely browned seared mushrooms.

DSCN4393I was surprised to see how the wood ear mushrooms acted in the heat.  They literally blew up into little balloons which popped from time to time.  I caught a decent shot of a ‘shroom-balloon above, right before it exploded, making me jump and splattering my lens with umame goodness.  The rest of the fungi acted more demurely.  I set each batch into a bowl to hold between more additions of butter and ‘shrooms, until they’re all ready.  They reduce in volume by quite a bit – more than half – since they shrink when cooked.  At this point, the house smells heavenly…

DSCN4404If you look back on previous posts of mine, you’ll see that I make risotto A LOT.  It’s really the only way I know I’ll enjoy rice, seeing as I have a Puerto-Rican prejudice against it, having eaten way too much of it way too often in my formative years.  I start by mincing my garlic, slicing my shallots, and measuring out my arborio.  On the back burner of my stovetop, I use a stockpot to heat up my mushroom broth to just simmering.

DSCN4405Using the last tablespoon of butter I measured out earlier, I sauté my aromatics over medium heat until they release their aromas – about 2 minutes.

DSCN4406In goes the rice, which I stir around well to fully coat with the hot butter.   This toasts the grain, making it more receptive to absorbing the liquids I’ll be adding shortly.

DSCN4408The first dousing comes from wine.  I lower the heat to medium low, add my cup or so of chardonnay, and stir well.  This is the beginning of the stirring; there will be more, much much more.

DSCN4407The risotto is ready for the addition of more liquid when the well-and-oft-stirred rice has absorbed all the last liquid added to the pot.DSCN4409Adding about 4 oz (a ladle-full) of mushroom broth at a time, I cook well and stir often…

DSCN4412… until my dragging spoon exposes the bottom of the pan, indicating that that batch of broth has been sucked into the grains, softening them and coaxing from them the thick, creamy sauce risotto is known for.  I keep adding stock in increments, stirring all the while, until it’s all gone.

DSCN4413After about 30 minutes, my risotto is rich and silky.  I test for doneness by tasting a grain; it should be just al dente, a little firm (but not chalky) in the center of the kernel, but otherwise it should be a tender bite.

DSCN4415At this point, I add my mushrooms and my shredded smoked gouda to the risotto, which I mix well and let heat through for about 5-8 minutes to incorporate all the flavors and melt the cheese.

DSCN4403My squash has been roasting whole for the last hour or so, and it’s now soft and ready to carve into.  Harvest’s plating was lovely; the squash formed a sort of angled demi-bowl, out from which the risotto seemed to spill.  I approximated that as much as I could, but not wanting to waste perfectly good squash just to create a pretty form, all the flesh I scooped out of the bowl I layered on the plate below the rice so I could enjoy more of its sweetness and texture than the vessel alone provided.

DSCN4398The last two garnishes were very simple.  First, I took my handful of hazelnuts and threw them into a bare pan, which I set over medium high heat.  A few minutes and a few stirs (to toast them evenly throughout), and they were ready.  I cracked them with a mallet to provide more texture.

DSCN4400A gremolata is a wonderful condiment for all sorts of preparations, and it’s usually made from parsley, garlic, and lemon zest.  In this case, I substituted orange zest for the garlic, and mixed everything well.  This imparts a bright flavor to my otherwise rich dish.

DSCN4418A sweet cutaway silo of butternut squash partially encases an earthy, creamy cascade of wild mushroom risotto, sitting on a simple puddle of extra virgin olive oil.  The crunch of the hazelnuts and fresh zip of the gremolata provide textural and tasty complexity to the plate, which oozes warmth and goodness in each rich bite.  Perfect for a cold night, or an elegant dinner party, this dish takes a little effort – both at the grocery store and in the kitchen – but its worth is evident in every grain of rice, from the first to the last.  Enjoy!

Dinner for One: King Crab and Avocado Tian with Antipasto

Clayton’s working tonight, so it’s all Lolita time.  Although he’s a great consumer – as in he eats what I make without (much) complaining – there are dishes I prepare for myself that I don’t seem to ever make for him.  I don’t know why; there’s no real reason or rhyme, frankly – it’s just the way it is.  Tonight’s meal began with the leftovers from some huge-ass king crab legs we enjoyed for last night’s dinner, and a couple of odds and ends I picked up today at Trader Joe’s.  The result? An elegant but simple salad of nutty avocado and tender sweet crab meat, accompanied by an easy antipasti: a light but rich supper as delicious as it is beautiful.

King Crab and Avocado Tian with Antipasto

1 ripe avocado
1/3 lb fresh picked cooked crab meat
juice from 1 lemon
1 tbs mayonnaise
1 handful maché (lamb’s lettuce)
1 boll burrata cheese
2 slices prosciutto di parma, split and rolled into 4 tiny cigars
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper, balsamic vinegar

Whole Foods had a special on King crab legs this weekend – something I’ve had a hankering for for a while now.  We bought 2 pounds, not realizing just how much meat these bad boys were going to yield.  I think we’ve established that we’ve never actually had King crab legs prior to these — likely only snow crab clusters — since neither of us can remember ever seeing such huge unbroken chunks of leg and knuckle meat before.  And it was so dense and packed that the discarded shells weighed next to nothing; we easily ‘harvested’ 30 oz of succulent pink deliciousness.  After gorging ourselves on not much more than crab and butter, we had about 1/2 lb leftover.

I pull my crab meat into nice sized hunks, and mix it with a little mayo and several teaspoons of lemon juice, along with some salt and pepper.  I just want the mayo to bind the crab – not make it gooey; I also just want the lemon juice to cancel out the egginess (eggyiness? eggyness?)  of the mayo – not make it lemony; and I just want the salt and pepper to brighten the salad – not overpower it.  The idea is crab and nothing but that which is needed to ‘hold it together’ for the sake of shaping the tian.

Speaking of which — here is how I’m shaping this “tian” – my stacked, formed salad of crab meat and avocado.  I’m not sure why it’s called a tian — in fact, although I see several examples of this term being used in this context online, traditionally a tian in French cooking is something completely different – either more like a vegetable tart, or an earthenware cooking device.  But when I envisioned this dish, it was as a perfectly shaped cylindrical layered salad.  And when I order a perfectly shaped cylindrical layered dish in a restaurant, it’s usually called a tian on the menu.  Hence my usage of the term.  Anyway, using my kitchen shears, I cut the ends off of a beer can to make a perfect form.  It would have been better to use a soup can, but all the cans I have in the house are designed to stack, so my can opener won’t work on their bottom sides.  (I figured this out only after dumping the contents of several cans of soup.)  Using a beer can just meant I had to be careful not to cut my fingers on the sharp edges.

I start by pressing my avocado, which I’ve blended with a dash of lemon juice, some salt, pepper, and EVOO, into a more-or-less flat 1″ thick layer on the bottom of my can.

Then I layer in the crab meat salad.

I vary carefully slide the can up and off the filling so it maintains its shape, pressing down on the crab meat to keep the filling on the plate.  Oiling the can a bit beforehand helped.

A basic antipasto of rolled prosciutto di parma, burrata cheese, capers, EVOO, and balsamic vinegar, along with some EVOO and lemon juice dressed maché, add extra dimensions to this already sophisticated presentation.  Crab and avocado, although not meant to co-exist in nature, seem destined for each other’s company on the plate: the sweet, tender sinews of crab absorb the buttery texture of the stone fruit’s green goodness, creating a harmonious marriage on the palate unrivaled in the realm of simple pleasures.  Along with a cold glass of sparkling rosé, this delectable dinner is truly a treat – tonight, for one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it for your sweetie whenever the mood strikes you…