She was never very good with details -- how thinly the onions should be sliced, how long to squeeze the out of season lemon for; the dribble of most meals inevitably on her just cleaned shirt. She peppered a recipe with unanswered questions, prompting me always to ask -- what about the butter, mom? "Oh yes, I forgot the butter. You know about the butter, just add the butter!" Like coming home with a straight-A report card, she'd say, matter of fact: "Good job Audra. Did you make your bed this morning?"
None of that was crucial. Bootstrapping. My mother taught me to pull myself up by my own britches. To know when to add that butter-- or to figure it out myself. To get straight A's for me, and no one else. And so it is with her recipes: filet of salmon, a lemon or two, an onion, & wine (white, of course). Oh, and that butter too. Reading her instructions is like coming home to spawn -- the work has just begun.
The salmon should be firm, with shiny scales, the salt from the open sea washed off by a long run up one of our formerly raging Northwest rivers. They're still a little angry, like mom, on a good day, when three kids and a traveling husband didn't seem quite so overwhelming. She'd walk in the door and greet our after school faces with Skittles, or a trifecta of Charleston Chews -- one double chocolate, one vanilla, and one strawberry. If she was feeling particularly generous, a Mamba bar for each, to goad us into silence with sugar.
I never had a birthday without salmon, rich hollandaise pooled atop, asparagus on the side. Mom would draw out the sweetness of the fish with citrus rounds, and cut it with onion, sliced and sprinkled haphazardly around. Those few nubs of butter would be scattered around atop the fish, and wine poured generously over it -- like the thick crumb of her buttery coffee cake. A final seasoning with salt and pepper and into a preheated oven it went. She'd spend what seemed like just a moment at the stove, cracking eggs, melting butter, squeezing more lemon, and that luscious perfectly viscous hollandaise would be ready for me to spoon over the top. I still marvel at the ease at which she made it; I suppose she has me to credit for the practice.
And I have her to credit for so much else. For giving me the courage to carve my life as I like, not as she, or anyone else wished it to be. To look at a recipe, take notes, add, improvise, question, and take it in an entirely different direction. But also to appreciate the simple things - like baked or poached salmon. The good, solid recipes - or simply someone's technique, sharpened by time and good tasters. For good, wild ingredients. Beautiful, hook and line caught salmon, fished by someone whose care for the fish at sea and aboard shows the utmost respect- for the fish, for the sea, and for the lives of all the people and fisherman who will follow him, also hungry for fish.
So bake on, fry on, sear on, & poach. Like my mother, every night avoiding boxes and mixes, reaching for clippings from the garden, salmon caught by my father, to give us a hot, nourishing, & simple, scratch cooked meal. And when you sit down to eat, pick up your fork, and come home. Even for a little bit, and let yourself be nourished. Cheers to yourself, even if sometimes it seems that no one appreciates you -- they do indeed. The evidence is on their plate- quite empty by now. You'll be ready to pull yourself up again in no time -- just as mom intended.
Spring Herb Slow Poached Wild Coho Salmon
This is the first of three salmon inspired recipes, perfect for spring and all the buds of green in the garden and the market. We're blessed with easy access to world-class seafood, caught sustainably with hook and line in Alaska by Troller Point Fisheries, a family run company based on Orcas. They flash freeze all their seafood within an hour of bringing it aboard- after tediously cleaning and carefully pressure bleeding the fish for the best quality (a method unrivaled by inferior net caught fish and farms). They host dock sales around the region - so if you're Washington local, check them out. If not, they'll happily ship the highest quality 10lb boxes of individually packed filets you can find anywhere, to your doorstep.
These recipes use the more economical Coho 'sides'. These are whole sides of fish filet, perfect for a family or creating an impressive meal for guests. Don't get me wrong, I have a freezer full of perfectly portioned amazing King and Coho filets, great for weeknights, but the sides are my go-to for entertaining. You can leave them whole, or portion them out yourself into filets and use the 'extras' for other recipes (like the Coho Salmon & Chive Farm Egg Quiche I'll show you later this week). You can also substitute wild King salmon if you like, but these are tailored for the slightly more flavorful, less fatty Coho (which means I'm shameless with the butter sauce).
I love this recipe for its flexibility and simplicity. It's also the perfect showcase for flawless, high quality fish. There are no bells & whistles. It's simple, fresh, and can be made ahead of time - making it great for entertaining. You can be flexible with the herbs -- I used what's fresh and growing in my garden, but feel free to play around.
3 cups water
2 bay laurel leaves (dried or fresh)
1 rib celery (preferably an inner rib with leaves)
8 sprigs mixed spring herbs (I used chervil, lemon thyme, and tarragon -- parsley is a nice substitute for the chervil if you have a hard time finding it but it does add a nice anise scent)
1 1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 lemon (juice and zest)
3/4 teaspoon salt plus additional for seasoning salmon
1 1/2 lbs wild Coho salmon side, skin-on (you can substitute filets)
Extra herbs for garnish.
Herbed Butter Sauce for serving (optional, recipe below)
If you have a long gratin dish that is stovetop safe, use it. Otherwise a large dutch oven or deep fry pan will also work. Bring water and aromatics/herbs to a boil in the pan just mentioned. Once boiling, remove from the heat, cover with foil or a lid and let steep for 10 minutes. After steeping, add wine, lemon juice, zest and salt. Allow to cool at least another 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, season the salmon with about 1/2 teaspoon flaked or semi-coarse salt and a grind of fresh pepper. If needed, trim the salmon slightly to fit in your pan. If you're using a side, you can shave off or trim the sinewy layer over the belly fat (or leave as is). Any trimmings you can cook later or set it aside for a salmon scramble the next morning.
At this stage you can either proceed with cooking the fish, or refrigerate the herb stock until you're ready. Either way, start with the stock at room temperature. Slide the fish into the pan, skin side down, making sure it is completely covered with liquid. If not, add additional water or wine. If you add more than a 1/2 cup, add an extra 1/4 teaspoon of salt.
Place the pan with stock and fish over a medium low burner (low if your stove is hot) and very slowly cook the fish - spooning liquid over the top if it becomes unsubmerged. If you start to see white fat right off the bat, turn down the heat. The skin helps to insulate the fish from cooking too quickly -- therefore if you are using fish without the skin, be extra careful to make sure the heat is low and cook for less time. From the time you start the heat to the time the fish is done should be no more than 8-10 minutes (with skin) - but be careful not to overcook if your heat is strong. Do not let the mixture boil - it should be just below a simmer by the time the fish is ready. Keep in mind your fish will continue cooking after you turn off the heat so err on the side of undercooking.
While the fish is resting make the butter sauce using the herb stock. Garnish with a small handful of roughly torn herbs. Serve with cous cous, farro salad, or roasted potatoes, and the veloute sauce on the side .
*Fish can be made several hours or a day ahead and stored in its broth in the refrigerator. Warm gently in the broth over the stovetop prior to serving.
Herbed Butter Sauce
This simple butter sauce, known as a veloute, is as easy as it gets for pan sauce. You're making a simple butter/flour roux and whisking in the leftover stock from cooking the fish. I figure you've already done the work making a gorgeous stock, why not max out the benefits with a sauce. Either way, don't discard the broth -freeze it or refrigerate for a risotto or fish chowder.
1 1/2 cup poaching liquid
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
Reduce the poaching liquid by about half by boiling it over high heat. Meanwhile, warm butter over medium heat in a small, separate pan, then add flour and whisk until smooth. Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes. Slowly add the reduced stock, whisking constantly. The sauce will thicken. Keep adding until desired consistency is reached. If the sauce is too thick, add a little additional stock. Finish with a large squeeze of lemon juice and additional salt and pepper if needed (keep in mind the stock was pre-salted). If plating the fish, serve poured atop each piece. Otherwise I prefer to present the whole fish in its liquid and serve family style. Put the sauce in a warmed saucer so each person can add as much or as little as they like.