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.

Mortadella de Tartuffo Carbonara

2014-02-02 19.18.41Those of us who live in Boston know (or, rather, should know) the gastronomic mecca that is our North End.  And not just for eating — no, the SHOPPING there is epic.  My favorite store, which my dear loyal readers know, is the Salumeria Italiana.  NYC has Eataly, a massive shopping extravaganza where you can select from hundreds of varieties of olive oils and pastas and other delectables, all at varying price points.  But I don’t have that kind of time or money, which is where the Salumeria steps in; their wizened old owner, a clever fella often found wearing his three-piece suit and fedora, wandering his small shop kissing pretty ladies on the cheek, hand-picks only the best products for the shelves on his tiny store, and his handsome chefs will woo you with samples and information enough to know what to buy and how to make it.  They have never steered me wrong.  This past weekend, I sidled up to a group of people all tasting bits of something meaty offered to them from a piece of butcher paper in the hands of one of their incredible staffers, but was leered at by them when I reached for a piece for myself; apparently, they were on a paid tour, and I wasn’t one of them.  (The chef felt bad, and he slipped me a piece when they weren’t looking.  It’s good to be a regular.)  The speckled black slice of pink thin meat I placed on my tongue burst into my consciousness with earthy unctuousness; it was an unusual mortadella: porky, mildly spicy, and — this is the best part — laden with BLACK TRUFFLE.  I immediately ordered half a pound, purchased some pasta, and ran home to figure out how to best to showcase the umame meat-loaf waiting to be eaten in my bag.  I believe simple is best, and this bastard carbonara proved my point.  It was creamy, rich, fragrant, filling, and delicious.  And super easy – which made it all that much better.

Mortadella de Tartuffo Carbonara

1/2lb of Mortadella with black truffle
1/2 onion, finely diced
1 tbsp butter
1 cup half and half
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
2 egg yolks
crushed black pepper
1/2lb of egg pasta

2014-02-02 18.02.38These two ingredients made the meal.  First: the mortadella…

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Mortadella is a type of bologna, but this ain’t your mamma’s Oscar Meyer.  It has the same soft texture, but instead of the traditional pistachios, this lovely cured meat is studded with ample black truffle.  AMPLE.  After 15 minutes in my refrigerator, *everything* smelled like truffle.  There are worse things in this world…

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I rolled it up into a cigar and sliced it thinly – aka: chiffonade.  Then I diced my onion very finely.

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In many ways, it was this brand of pasta that really elevated this meal experience to something truly special.  I was at first daunted by the price – I mean, $9 is a lot to pay for a box of pasta – but after making it, I was converted.  I may never make spaghetti with any other brand again.  It comes in halves, each one nestled in its own paper folder.  Charming.  These noodles only needed 1 1/2 minutes to reach the perfect al dente texture, so I get some salted water boiling on a back burner and wait until the sauce is almost finished before cooking off the pasta.

2014-02-02 18.59.34I first saute the onions in my butter with a healthy dash of black pepper.

2014-02-02 19.00.20Once the onions are just translucent, I add the mortadella ribbons.  I cook this very well, stirring constantly; I don’t want to onions to brown, but I do want the mortadella to leech off all its fats, which will enrich the sauce.

2014-02-02 18.46.03I freshly grate my cheese…

2014-02-02 19.10.06… then add it, and my cream, to the pan, stirring well over medium heat, until the sauce thickens and the cheese is melted.  At this point, I add my drained pasta, and stir well so it can absorb some of the sauce — which this tagliolini does like a champ.

2014-02-02 18.58.11This isn’t a true carbonara, but the egg yolks in the sauce do make it something of a relative.  But it’s easy to screw up an egg sauce by adding the yolks to a too hot pan — they’ll scramble before they can be incorporated into the dish.  So, I remove my pan – with the sauce and the pasta – from the heat, and make a little well in the middle of the noodles.  I wait a few moments for the heat to dissipate ever so slightly before adding my whisked yolks to the pasta with a splash of cold cream (this is called “tempering” the egg, more or less).  I stir this very well, making sure the golden goodness of the yolks blend with the creamy sauce – then I put the pan back on the burner for a few moments (stirring constantly) to reheat through.

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Toothsome, perfectly individualized flat spaghetti noodles drip with thick, aromatic, earthy cream sauce and are entangled with tender morsels of sweet pork perfection.  The onions add texture to the sauce, a dash of black pepper adds a mild heat, and a final sprinkling of cheese takes the place of salt.  This isn’t for dieters or the lactose intolerant, but luckily I am neither of those things – so I dug into my plate with abandon, twirling pasta on my fork before shoving mouthfuls into my gullet.  This can be made with regular mortadella, or even a good quality bologna if that’s all you have, but believe me when I say that with truffle, everything is better.

Potato Wrapped Cod with Bacony Garlicky Greens

2014-01-03 19.36.09Happy New Year, my dear blog friends!  I hope you and yours have had a healthy and happy holiday, and that you’ve eaten as well as I have since the last time I checked in.  It’s been a whirlwind couple of months for me – filled with friends and frolic – but I’ve missed sharing with you what Lolita has been making and eating.  I’ll start back again today with an elegant, delicious meal I’ve tried a few times before with limited success.  It’s the technique really; I’d never effectively executed the pan-searing of this lovely piece of scallop-potato wrapped whitefish before, at least, not without the potato slices falling off whenever I tried to flip the fillet.  But I’m not one to give up, especially on a succulent meal, and after doing a little research online about how others have made this lovely spud-swaddled delicacy successfully, I tried it again with incredible results.  A crispy wrapping of thinly sliced potatoes is *exactly* what a plank of cod needs to make it something extra-special, and when served atop a bed of bacony garlic greens, it makes a perfect meal: balanced, light, and helluva tasty, yo.

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Potato Wrapped Cod with Bacony Garlicky Greens

1lb cod fillet
2 slices bacon
1 large russet potato
4 cloves garlic
1 bunch lacinato kale
2 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons EVOO
hickory smoked garlic salt, crushed black pepper, crushed red pepper
freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 qt frying oil
(Ignore those mushrooms and that onion; I didn’t end up using them)

2014-01-03 15.39.10I start by peeling my potato, removing as many surface blemishes as possible.

2014-01-03 15.55.19Using my mandoline’s lowest setting, I slice my potato into the longest wafers I can.  I drop these into a bowl of water to keep them from turning color.

2014-01-03 15.58.20I layer the slices of potato between sheets of paper towel to dry them once I’m finished slicing up the whole spud.

2014-01-03 16.03.02After heating my quart of oil to 375, I drop a few slices of potato into the fat at a time, par-frying them for barely a moment.

2014-01-03 16.04.23Fishing them out with a slotted or mesh spoon, I lay them in a single layer across some fresh paper towels (with a paper bag underneath for extra absorption) to soak up all the excess oil.  This par-frying technique softens the slices by leeching off a good deal of the starch; this makes them easier to wrap around the fish.

2014-01-03 16.18.58Speaking of which: look at that beautiful thing.  I asked the fishmonger at Whole Foods for this mostly uniform sized and shaped plank of cod, so I could cut it into two equally sized pieces – one for me, and one for the husbandman.

2014-01-03 16.20.23Some dear friends of mine (Hey, Montana Palmers!) sent me a lovely care packages of their homemade spices as a Christmas present, and I’ve been working them all into my recipes ever since they arrived.  This hickory smoked garlic salt was just the fit for this meal.  I sprinkle it, and some cracked black pepper, generously over my fish.

2014-01-03 16.23.09After laying down a large piece of plastic wrap, I assemble my slices of potatoes by overlapping them at the very edges and ends to form a “sheet” large enough to accommodate my plank of fish.  It takes 8 slices for each piece.

2014-01-03 16.27.17I place my piece of fish on the center seam of spuds…

2014-01-03 16.27.43… and using the plastic wrap, I wrap one half of the spuds over the fish.  I lay that part of the plastic wrap on the counter again…

2014-01-03 16.28.10… before using the other side of the wrap to lift and layer the other side of the spuds over the fish, overlapping the potato slices already in place.

2014-01-03 16.28.46Then I tightly seal the plastic wrap around the whole package, before repeating with the other portion of fish.  I place these beauties in the refrigerator to chill for about an hour.

2014-01-03 17.52.51Meanwhile, I cut my two slices of bacon into inch long pieces before frying them out in a large pan.

2014-01-03 19.05.27I also prep my kale by removing the stems and cutting each leaf into bite sized pieces.  I also mince my 4 cloves of garlic.

2014-01-03 19.08.19After an hour, my potato slices have adhered to the fish planks nicely, and they’re ready for cooking.  I sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of each “package”…

2014-01-03 19.24.45… and place them in a hot pan in which I’ve heated my butter and EVOO to frothy and sizzling.  I cook these arroser, which means I use a deep spoon (I use a miso soup spoon, actually; the flat bottom is very helpful!) to scoop up the fat from the pan and baste the tops of my fish packets while the bottoms sear on the pan’s surface.  Since I have thick pieces of fresh cod, and I want to make sure any worms are safely destroyed (look it up, people – there are Lernaeocera branchialis in most fresh white fish, but cooking to 140° kills ‘em good), I sear on each side – basting continuously – for about 5 minutes.

2014-01-03 19.26.38Meanwhile, I add my kale to the pan with the bacon and cook until slightly wilted.  Then I throw in all my garlic, a few shakes of crushed red pepper, and some salt, and I stir it around really really well.  I don’t want the garlic to burn or brown, but I do want it nicely heated through and thoroughly blended with the greens.

2014-01-03 19.28.42At the last moment, I remove the kale from the heat, shave some parm on it, and plate it.

2014-01-03 19.29.18My fish is ready when each side of it is nicely browned and crispy.

2014-01-03 19.35.47I mix a little Greek yogurt with crushed black pepper and a little lemon juice, stick that into a squeeze bottle, and use it to garnish my lovely fish.  The crispy, potato exterior is the perfect compliment to the flaky fish ensconced within.  The greens are perfectly wilted – still a little toothsome, but not stringy – and the abundance of garlic offsets the unctiousness of the bacon like a champ.  Each bite of this meal is like warm heaven…