Wednesday, June 25, 2014

herb-crusted alaskan salmon with roasted lemons

My friend Mera and I have been pals for nearly 10 years.  The story of how we met at a Halloween party, when Mera donned a giant paper mache hamburger costume that she and her mother made while Mera was in elementary school, has left an indelible mark on my heart and is mentioned in one of my favorite posts on this blog.  We've seen each other through love, heartbreak, new homes, new jobs, children (hers), and puppy terror (mine). 
Mera and her best friend Katie recently started a new blog called Red House West (they both have red houses, one in Oregon and one in Alaska.  How cute is that?!) which contains wonderful, inventive, budget-friendly design ideas and projects for the home.  I love it, and it's getting a ton of online buzz. 
Look!  It's me!  In the kitchen!  Credit to Mera for the beautiful photos, and the beautiful apron she made for me.  LOVE.
Initially, we hatched a plan to do a blog post together while I was scouring a local furniture store for new bedroom furniture.  After texting her several pictures of different pieces, I was hoping she would just tell me what to buy and then design my bedroom for free.  And frankly, I'm still hoping she will do that. 
But Mera had a different idea, and invited me over to cook a Summer Solstice dinner last weekend featuring an Alaskan staple: frozen Alaskan salmon.  And even made me a beautiful new apron to mark the occasion, which now holds the top spot in my extensive apron collection (formerly held by the apron her mother-in-law Katy bought for me.  A girl never has too many aprons, or too many shoes.  Amen.)
For the record, I will continue to pester Mera for free design advice on my bedroom.  For now, I give you the recipe for the most perfect company-friendly salmon you will ever make.

Deciding what to make for our Solstice dinner was easy.  During spring and early summer, Alaskans engage in a traditional pastime known generally as Cleaning Out the Freezer.  Many, if not most, Alaskans pack their freezers during the months of July and August with our abundance of red ("Sockeye") and silver ("Coho") salmon.  So naturally, when many of us still have large stocks of frozen salmon fillets in the months of April, May, and June, we go to work coming up with as many creative ways to cook salmon as possible so as to empty our freezers for summer's replenishing bounty.
Think Forrest Gump, but with salmon instead of shrimp.  Salmon skewers, barbequed salmon, salmon cakes, salmon salad, roasted salmon, salmon curry, grilled salmon, salmon dip...
A beautiful silver salmon fillet from the waters of Prince William Sound,
thanks to my Dad's boat and a great salmon run!
My sister Holly originally told me about this recipe.  She was looking for a fast, no fuss salmon recipe to serve for company.  Her guests LOVED it.  And it's no wonder why: it's packed with flavor!  The combination of tangy Dijon mustard, bright and fresh parsley and dill, and crunchy panko bread crumbs provides a perfect accompaniment to the unique, delicately-bold flavor of Alaskan salmon.
There are so many aspects of this dish that I appreciate.  For starters, it's easy, but it looks elegant and impressive.  These two qualities make it the perfect dish for entertaining.  In addition, it doesn't need to be served piping hot.  The salmon is just as delicious at room temperature, which simplifies timing for dinner parties.  And, like most recipes in my arsenal, the measurements are forgiving.  When making this, I don't even measure the mustard, the bread crumbs, or the herbs anymore (although I was a little heavy-handed with the parsley this time- I will use less and chop it more finely the next time I make it).

Just about the only thing you need to worry about with this recipe is the length of time it spends in the oven.  NO ONE likes overcooked salmon.  Not even people that think they like overcooked salmon.  (They just don't know any better.  Bless them.)  I used a rather thin fillet of silver salmon, and 15 minutes in the oven was perfect.  If you have a thicker fillet, say red salmon or King salmon, you may want to add on a couple minutes, or check the salmon by flaking it with a fork in the thickest part of the fillet after 15 minutes.
A rare action shot.  I'm toying with the idea of a Kickstarter campaign for a new camera.  Kidding (maybe).
The dinner was an absolute blast.  Credit to Mera's husband, Chester, for his incredible patience as we photographed nearly every aspect of the preparation.  It was so fun!  Mera's kitchen, which they remodeled several years ago, is a dream to cook in.  So much space!  So much light!  So many nice kitchen appliances!  And did I mention the SPACE?  My God, I've been cooking in a postage-stamp of a kitchen for far too long. 
I had a difficult time editing out any of the pictures that Mera sent to me, so I didn't.  Those of you who have been fans of Chena Girl Cooks for some time now (bless you!) may be overwhelmed by all the photos!  Ol' Heidikins usually just picks a couple of the photos that turn out best and calls it a day.  But this was a special post, and deserved special photographic attention.
We served our salmon alongside (1) whole wheat couscous that I spiked with parsley, dill, lemon zest, olive oil, and plenty of salt & pepper, and (2) a salad with roasted beets and goat cheese gorgeously made by Mera's hubby Chester.
I really hope you try this recipe and leave your comments below!  And I'd love to hear about your favorite salmon recipes, too.  I'm always looking for new, creative ideas for preparing Alaska's most perfect food.  Who knows, maybe it will appear on the blog one day soon.  More importantly, it may grace my table!  Because I still have several fillets of frozen salmon to cook before fishing season begins.  Happy cooking!

Herb-Crusted Side of Alaskan Salmon with Roasted Lemons
(Adapted from Martha Stewart)
1 side of wild Alaskan salmon (about 2-3 pounds- I used a silver salmon fillet), pin bones removed
1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
zest of half a lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling lemons
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
2-3 lemons, quartered with seeds removed.
parchment paper
(1) Preheat oven to 475 degrees.  Toss panko, herbs, lemon zest, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil.  Set aside.
(2) Place salmon skin-side down on parchment-lined baking sheet.  Spread Dijon mustard on salmon, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Sprinkle herbed panko evenly on top, patting down gently.  Place lemons around salmon and drizzle with olive oil.
(3) Roast salmon for 15 minutes (or a couple minutes more for thicker fillets).  Once salmon flakes easily, it's done.  Transfer salmon to platter with lemons and serve.
xo H

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

wild alaska! devil's club buds

We all have our quirks.  Some wear an apron while they cook.  Others enjoy Cheez-Its with their PB&J's.  Some still drink Shirley Temples when they're 36.  Many say we "collect" kitchenware as a hobby to cover for our kitchenware hoarding problem.
Whatever...they're quirks!  They make us unique, right?!  (Don't judge- Cheez-Its and PB&J's go together like peas and carrots, just trust me.  Also, I own 4 colanders if you need one.  I wish to God I was joking.  I am not.) 
Freshly harvested Devil's Club shoots

One quirk I embrace: I'm a forager, and I embrace my inner hunter & gatherer.
Now, by "hunter & gatherer" I don't mean to conjure up an image of me in an Elmer Fudd hat with a 30-06 slung over my shoulder ready to field dress a moose.  Although let's all take a moment and do that right now.
That was fun. 

Shoots after they've been blanched in boiling, salted water and "shocked" in an ice bath
No, by hunter & gatherer, I mean I am a woman who enjoys nature's edible bounty in all its forms.  Fish, shellfish, game, and lately wild edible plants.  I mean, they're free!  More importantly, they're delicious!!  Now admittedly I'm still a novice at foraging for wild edibles, although my foraging roots for Alaska's wild seafood go way, way, way back.  (And as my friend Mera reminds me, teeters on the edge of obsessive.  As I like to put it, I have trouble with my "off" switch when it comes to foraging.) 

Currently, my wild edible plant repertoire consists of young cow parsnip (delicious roasted), fireweed shoots (similar to asparagus, and can be eaten raw), fiddleheads (total pain in the a** to clean, but broke down and picked some last weekend-- they're butter, garlic, and lemon's BFF), stinging nettles (just picked last night, still not sure what to do with them), and my favorite so far: Devil's Club leaf shoots, or buds. 
Devil's Club grow all over Southcentral Alaska on many of my favorite trails and hikes.  When fully grown, Devil's Club is a nasty, horrible bane of a hiker's existence.  But when they are buds an inch or two long, they are a tasty, delicate treat.   To me, they have notes of pine, mint, parsley, and resin.  I absolutely love it and have never quite tasted anything like them.  Because of their incredible flavor, they're well worth the effort to harvest!
I learned a lot about foraging for Devil's Club buds from an article written by Laurie Constantino.  Wear long sleeves and plants when picking these suckers.  While the shoots are soft, their thorny stalks are not so tread carefully.  Pick shoots 1 - 2 inches long, when the buds are tender and their spiny undersides are still soft to the touch.  USE GLOVES! (I learned this seemingly common sense lesson the hard way.  OUCH!)  Simply grab the bud, bend it down, twist, and it comes right off.  Discard the inedible outer brown sheaths, wash in cold water several times, blanch in boiling salted water for a couple minutes, and plunge into a cold water bath.  Drain and they're ready to eat as is, or to use in any culinary creation you can dream up.
The first time I ate Devil's Club buds, I simply tossed them with olive oil, salt and lemon after blanching them.  They were delicious!  I still think this is my favorite way to eat them.  I also added curry one time and while it turned out great, the curry flavor was too strong for the delicate flavor of the buds.  In my recipe below, I find the fennel and dill pair wonderfully with the piney/resin-like flavor of the shoots.
I hope you head out and find some buds- the short spring window is about to close!  You can still find many buds at higher elevations around Southcentral Alaska.  Happy foraging!!
Devil's Club Buds with Fennel and Dill
(Adapted from Laurie Constantino)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 large fennel bulb (or one small), cored and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of Aleppo pepper (optional)
3 cups Devil's Club buds/shoots
zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
(1) Clean Devil's club buds by picking out any twigs or leaves and by washing twice in cold water.  Fill a large bowl or sink with cold water and several ice cubes.  Blanch shoots for 2 minutes in a large pot of boiling, salted water.  Drain and plunge immediately into the cold water.  Drain again.  Lay shoots flat on a kitchen towel.  Place another towel on top and squeeze out the excess water, or roll the shoots up in the towel and gently squeeze out excess water. 
{**At this point, if you want to use them for later use, let air dry for a couple hours, then place them in a single layer on a baking sheet and place them in the freezer overnight.  In the morning, put the frozen shoots in a large ziplock bag and store in the freezer.  This is also how I freeze berries for winter storage.}
(2)  In a large skillet, sauté fennel in olive oil for 5-7 minutes, until soft and golden brown.  Add garlic and Aleppo pepper and sauté another 30 seconds.  Add blanched Devil's Club buds, stirring until just warmed through and moisture has evaporated from the buds.  Add lemon zest and juice, and salt and pepper to taste.  Serve immediately.
xo h