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.

Roasted Game Hens, Brussels Sprouts, Tiny Potatoes, Bacon Hollandaise, Poached Egg

DSCN4633Besides being a full time college administrator and a part-time blogger, I also help teach writing intensive classes in English Literature at Harvard, and this semester we are studying Darwin’s theory of evolution (in terms of the impact On the Origin of Species had on the 19th century novel).  Perhaps that fact, along with a small plate of sprouts I enjoyed at Michael Schlow’s new joint, The Sinclair, the other night, inspired this chicken/egg creation: a partially de-boned Cornish game hen served with roasted Brussels sprouts and tiny wee potatoes, topped with fried onions, bacon hollandaise sauce, and a poached egg.  This was NOT an easy dinner to prepare!  De-boning the hens still takes me a while, making hollandaise sauce while poaching eggs requires a Doctor Octopus-like physiology, and there were a lot of little component parts that had to be executed all at the same time in order to serve everything hot together.  But, dear reader, was it worth it!  My tender, juicy hen covered in the runny golden goodness of cousin yolks paired with the earthy herbaceousness of caramelized baby cabbages, white potatoes, and flash fried onions was the perfect offering for a chilly, windy, and wet late winter’s dinner.

DSCN4619

Roasted Game Hens, Brussels Sprouts, Tiny Potatoes, Bacon Hollandaise, Poached Egg

2 game hens, breast and back bones removed
2 small whole sweet onions, peeled, trimmed, and boiled in water until tender
20-3o Brussels sprouts
10-20 tiny white potatoes
4 slices bacon
1/2 cup diced white onion
4 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1 1/2 sticks butter
EVOO
flour, sea salt, cracked black pepper, white wine vinegar

DSCN4622I’ve presented de-boned game hens once before on this blog (check it out here), when I went into great detail about how to remove the back bones and breast bones of these little beasties – but today I didn’t have the time to take all the pictures.  There are some good tutorials on YouTube, too – which I refer to each time I go through this procedure.  I’m still not as efficient as it as I’d like (read: it takes me a long time, and I cuss like a sailor throughout the whole process), but the results have been wonderful each time.  By removing these portions of the skeleton, you are making these otherwise difficult to eat birdies a breeze!  The only bones left are in the legs and wings, but one can carve right through the body of the bird with a delicate knife to gather up rich, whole mouthfuls of succulent, juicy chicken.  However, once those bones are removed, you are left with a rather deflated critter, so I like to give it back some shape by stuffing something yummy and roundish back into the chest cavity.  In this case I did so with tiny sweet boiled onions, which I’d peeled and trimmed (leaving them whole by keeping just the butt of the bulb intact) and cooked until easily pierced with a fork.  Then I trussed up the birds with some twine so they’d maintain their shape.  After rubbing them down with salt and pepper, I set them aside until I was ready for them.

DSCN4624I neglected to add these important components of the meal to my set-up shot, so here’s a little something for you now.  I only need about a 1/2 cup of diced onion, and I fry the slices of bacon until crispy.  Oh, and when I said tiny potatoes, I meant TINY — these bad boys are about the circumference of my thumb, and no more than a knuckle long.  And I’ve got baby hands, people.

DSCN4625These I partially peel…

DSCN4623… and the sprouts I trim and halve, keeping the really small ones whole.

DSCN4628I’m able to spread both veggies out on the same baking sheet – which is good since they’ll take about the same amount of time to cook.  They’ve all been doused in EVOO, salt, and pepper, and the sprouts I lay cut-side down.

DSCN4629The trick to a meal this complex is having everything ready to go at the same time.  On my back right burner, I’ve got a water bath set up to double-boil my hollandaise sauce, which starts with a stick of butter melting in the small bowl resting on my tongs. On the right I have a large pot with several inches of water set to a simmer to poach my eggs.  The front burner has my largest fry-pan, a couple glugs of EVOO, and some more butter which I heated to a foaming mass before gently placing my birds within.  I meant to put them both breast side up at first, but their floppy, skeleton-less anatomy confused me, so one’s face up and the other is face down.  No harm done.

DSCN4630“The lost art of the arroser.”  I had the pleasure of discovering this term in print just when I needed to find it – since I engaged in said art when preparing tonight’s dinner.  This refers to the technique of spooning hot fat oven the up-side of a protein searing in a pan, so it can gently cook on both sides at the same time.  I’ve seen this on Iron Chef and other cooking shows, and I’ve mimicked it to great effect in the past, but I’ve never known what it was called.  Thanks, New York Times.  Anyway, given that it takes two hands – one to tilt the pan, the other to spoon the butteroil – I couldn’t take a good shot of me in action, but suffice to say that as my birds sizzled, I basted them continually with hot golden deliciousness for about 5 minutes of sear time before flipping them.

DSCN4631Damn they look good.  I do the same technique for the flip side of each bird before I get them both settled, breast side down (so they’re resting on their “elbows”, so to speak).  This is crunch time: it will take 25 minutes for the sprouts, potatoes, and chickens to roast off in a 350° oven.  The pan with the veggies goes on the bottom rack – which is closest to the heat source in my oven – and the chickens go in their pan onto the top shelf to finish baking through.  I now have 20 or so minutes to get everything else done before I need to plate.

DSCN4626First, I toss my onions in flour, salt, and pepper before…

DSCN4627… frying them in some oil until crispy and brown.

DSCN4632Now it’s egg time.  The trick to making both hollandaise sauce and poached eggs is to have everything ready in advance.  Water should be at a low simmer for both preparations; the back, smaller burner for the sauce, and the front larger burger for the eggs.  Given that I was under pressure to get everything out on time, I didn’t take pictures of each process, but for the hollandaise sauce you can check out this previous posting, which goes into great detail, and for the poached eggs I actually followed Kenji’s most recently posted procedure from Serious Eats.  The eggs only take about 4 minutes to poach, and the hollandaise takes about 10 minutes from start to finish.  After the 10 minutes prep it took to get everything ready, by the time my sauce and eggs are ready, it is just about on the minute I need to pull out my chicken and veg from the oven.

DSCN4634The roasted sprouts and potatoes form the bed for this little baby chicken, while the oozing yellow yolk and sauce act as its blanket, with a little scattering of fried onion bits for contrast.  After cutting the trussing strings, I am able to disengage a leg from the bird with the gentlest of tugs – which, of course, I do daintily with my pinky finger extended in polite form.  But once the succulent, tender, and steaming meat makes it to my tongue, all bets are off, and I throw down my silverware and just start sopping and supping with complete abandon.  The richness of the sauce and yolk are offset by the salty bacon and deeply caramelized sprouts, and the potatoes add just the right amount of starch to the plate.  This was a dinner that was lovely to look at, but even better to eat.

Sous Vide Veal Tenderloin, Honey Roasted Carrots, Potato Crisps, Gorgonzola Cream, Demi-Glaze, Gremolata

DSCN4576The reason why we omnivores like veal is because of how tender it is.  Yes, the little critters are confined to a very small pen which keeps them from moving around a lot, which keeps their flesh meltingly soft by preventing the development of tougher muscles, which many people think is sad (or atrocious, depending upon your ilk).  I have no such scruples: I am gluttonous for foie gras; I revel in veal; I love lobsters boiled live; hell, I’d enjoy an ortolon if I ever got the chance to eat one.  If you consider me inhumane because of my eating habits, I certainly respect your opinion… but I’ll likely not invite you over for dinner when I’m pulling out all the stops.

All this is just preamble, though.  I bring up the tenderness of veal for one reason: to say that it’s even MORE tender when cooked sous vide.  Although not a particularly old technique, sealing foods in air-tight bags and cooking them in a water-bath set to the temperature at which the food should be served  is optimal for several purposes: by cooking the food in this manner, there is no risk of over-cooking, and there is no drying out of the surface layers of proteins by virtue of the much higher heat needed to bring the internal temp to the right degree; something magical with collagens and proteins and cellular stuff happens at a lower heat held for a long time — tissues turn to gelatin, and juices stay locked in place; and meats need only a quick browning on a hot pan at the last minute before service. But sous vide cookery generally requires the purchase of a prohibitively expensive and very space-consuming piece of equipment, since since money and space are two things I don’t have, I thought I’d have to struggle with maintaining the temperature in a saucepan on my stove, which I’ve done successfully once before, but which took lots of time standing by the stove stirring and adjusting the water with flame and ice (figuratively speaking).  Tonight’s technique was MUCH EASIER.  And the results?  Veal so perfectly cooked and tender I could cut it with a sharp glance.  Doused with demi-glaze, served with  potato crisps draped with gorgonzola cream, honey roasted carrots, and a snappy Meyer lemon gremolata, dinner transported me to Nirvana with each and every sweet sweet bite.

Sous Vide Veal Tenderloin, Honey Roasted Carrots, Potato Crisps, Gorgonzola Cream, Demi-Glaze, Gremolata

1lb veal tenderloin, trimmed
4 tbs butter
1 tbs dried tarragon leaves
1 small bunch slender carrots
3 tbs EVOO
3 tbs honey
1 large russet potato
3 oz gorgonzola cheese
1/4 cup cream
1 Meyer lemon
4 tbs minced parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced
sea salt, cracked black pepper, dried oregano, dried rosemary
1 package Classic Demi-Glaze Gold

DSCN4551Instead of a set-up shot, showing all my ingredients, I shall instead show you the star of tonight’s show: my Igloo cooler.  Based upon Serious Eats’ brilliant life hack article, I now know I don’t need to buy a ridiculously expensive piece of equipment to sous vide – all I need is a $20 cooler.  Y’see, not only do these babies keep things cool, they keep things HOT, too.  For anything that can be cooked sous vide in less than 5 hours and in less than 160° water (these are my approximations), a nice, tight sealing cooler will do the trick.

DSCN4554I start by rinsing, then patting dry, my veal tenderloin.  After rubbing it down with salt and pepper, I put a few pats of butter on the meat, along with the tarragon…

DSCN4555… before wrapping it tightly in plastic.

DSCN4556The whole package then gets set inside a large freezer zipper bag, and using a straw, I get as much air out of it as possible.  I zipped the bag up as close to the straw as I could before I started sucking like a Hoover vacuum cleaner, then I even slightly zipped across the straw while sliding it out of the bag so that as little air as possible would leach back into the bag before it was sealed completely.  SeriousEats points out that one can also submerge as much of the bag as possible in water before sealing to push out all the air, but every time I’ve tried that I’ve always spilled a little water into the bag – and I didn’t want to get my meat wet.  This worked fine.

DSCN4558I thought I would have to use a kettle to get my water hot enough, but my kitchen faucet delivers water at close to 160° – so I actually had to add a little cold water to get my temp to a little over 142° F. I then filled up my largest, heaviest measuring vessel with hot water, too, so it would submerge – which I used to anchor my bag of meat which still wanted to float.  I shut the cooler, and walked away for 90 minutes.

DSCN4559Meanwhile, I used my mandoline set at the thickest setting to slice my russet potato into substantial chips.

DSCN4560I placed them in a single layer on top of a baking paper lined cookie sheet, and then brushed them with EVOO before sprinkling some salt, pepper, rosemary, and oregano on them.

DSCN4561I also trimmed the greens off my carrots, peeled them, and spread them across a ceramic baking dish.

DSCN4562Someone gave me this lovely raw honey, which is very potent and delicious.

DSCN4563The carrots get doused in EVOO, salt, pepper, and honey, and then both they and the potatoes get placed into a 400° oven for about 30 minutes.  At the halfway point, I flip the potatoes and roll over the carrots for even cooking.

DSCN4564Gremolata is one of those condiments that isn’t used as often as it should be.  The traditional mixture of minced parsley and garlic with grated lemon zest adds snap and freshness to tons of preparations, and it goes particularly well with rich meats.

DSCN4565A little salt, pepper, lemon juice, and EVOO gets added to the veg, and all is mixed well.

DSCN4566Ahhhh – gorgonzola.  DSCN4569I melt a tbs of butter in a saucepan, add my cream, and then my gorgonzola to make a cheese sauce.  On another eye, I prepare the demi-glaze with only a few ounces of water (I want a nice, rich drizzle of flavor, and not a gravy) and a dash of minced garlic.

DSCN4568My 90 minutes have passed, and I eagerly reach into my Igloo to see how my veal tenderloin looks.  And it looks MARVELOUS.  It is perfectly cooked to a lovely medium rare – but it admittedly looks a little flaccid and unappetizing all greyish like that….

DSCN4570… which is why I’ve got an oiled, cast iron skillet smoking on one burner.  I sear my tenderloin on all sides, propping up the narrow edges (which make my meat want to roll over) by clipping the tongs in the ‘closed’ position and resting them flat against the edge of the pan.  I sear for about 1 minute all the way ’round – so 6 minutes total.  I’m looking for the Malliard reaction, which is a fancy way of saying I want to brown the outside of this tender morsel.

DSCN4571Perfect.

DSCN4575Just the extreme edges are tantalizingly browned, and the insides are exactly medium rare throughout.

DSCN4577The explosion of flavors on my plate just blew me away.  The sweet carrots, crispy potatoes and sharp, creamy gorgonzola sauce, the rich, garlicky demi-glaze offset by the fresh, green gremolata, and the oh-so-silky-and-tender-and-delicious veal medallions.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to prepare veal any other way, and now I can’t wait to try the same technique with strip steaks and filet mignon, and even eggs for perfect Benedicts.  But now – I EAT!