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.

2014-02-02 19.18.25

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.

Pork and Beans and Greens and Beer

DSCN5358Wow.  It’s been a month since I last posted a recipe.  It’s not that I’ve become a slackass or anything – quite the contrary, actually.  I started running this summer, so have shaved some width off my volumps, plus I’ve seen a marvelous uptick in my evening social life – all of which are delightful developments I never expected to see in my 40’s.  I mean, I have been cooking; in fact, I’ve got several recipes in the queue, so to speak, that I still need to write up.  But I’m skipping those and going for the meal that I’m still licking off my lips.  It was a crispy baked and breaded thick cut pork chop sitting atop smooth spiced beer-braised beans and melted spinach which filled my belly with just what I needed after a lunch-free day, a couple bike rides, and a quick run around the block.  Oh, and Clayton’s out of town, so I needed comfort food because: lonely. And considering the near-freezing temperature already descending upon Boston, the warmth steaming off the plate was pretty damn welcome for more reasons than one.

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Pork and Beans and Greens and Beer

1 center cut, 1″ thick, bone-in pork chop
1 can cannellini beans
8 oz fresh spinach leaves
6-8 cloves garlic
1 medium white onion
1 tbs butter
3-4 tbs EVOO
10 oz beer
1 egg
4 tbs flour
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
sea salt, cracked black pepper, paprika, parsley flakes, crushed red pepper, Chinese 5-spice
freshly grated parmesan cheese

DSCN5343I start by crushing and peeling my garlic cloves, then dicing my onion.  This I set aside for a few minutes.

DSCN5345I then salt and pepper my chop, then first dipping it in flour…

DSCN5346… then coating it with beaten egg…

DSCN5347… and finally pressing breadcrumbs into the meat, coating it thoroughly.

DSCN5348I heat up an oven-safe skillet and melt my butter and EVOO into it until it foams.

DSCN5349Then I sear my chop on every meat-surface I can.  This means front, back, and the exposed fat “seam” along the narrow edge by holding the chop up by the bone (which I frenched, BTW, to make it a better handle) and sear/rolling it in fat until it crisps to a golden brown.  Then I throw the pan into the oven, which is preheated to 325°, for 15 minutes, flipping once to evenly cook through.

DSCN5350Meanwhile, I’ve sauteed my onions and garlic briefly in another glug of EVOO before dumping the can of beans into the pan.

DSCN5351I had intended to use chicken stock, but alas!  I was out.  So I grabbed one of Clayton’s crappy beers, just to add some depth of flavor.

DSCN5352I add a little more than half the can.  It’s foamy.  I let this simmer on high while the pork chop roasts in the oven, and while I clean and trim my spinach.

DSCN5353Oh, right — and I add spices!  Paprika and parsley and lots of black pepper and a few shakes of crushed red pepper and a dash of sea salt and a smattering of 5-spice.  This all thickens up nicely while the beer boils off.

DSCN5354When I have about 3 minutes left, I press and mix all my spinach leaves into the beanpot.  It overflows at first, but…

DSCN5355… they melt beautifully.

DSCN5359At the last moment, I decide to grate some lovely parmesan cheese off a block onto the whole plate.  My beans and greens are the gravy, and my crispy, crunchy, tender, moist, flavorful, and hearty pork chop is the main course.  I tucked into this plate with complete abandon, savoring every unctuous bite. Frankly, I couldn’t eat it all – but I sure as hell tried.