Jennifer’s dad is a master when it comes to salmon. I can definitively say that I have never had better salmon at any restaurant. His most recent masterpiece was when we were down in Oregon. He had a gas grill, a 1995 vintage that didn’t heat evenly, perched on a small patio with wind howling in off the ocean. He had a very limited pantry, and really no cooking utensils. And he had to cook enough fish to feed 13 people. So, he took his king salmon and cut steaks to each was exactly the same thickness. This was a brilliant technique it which he cut a piece of salmon about four inches wide. Then in the exact middle, he cut through, just to the skin. Then he folded it so the skin was in the middle, and each piece was uniform thickness. He headed outside and after what seemed like 15 minutes tops, he walked into the house with a platter of salmon. I was one of the last people to fill my plate, getting one of the last pieces. I sat down, took a bite, turned to Jennifer and said “I can’t do this.” It was amazing. Juicy and delicious and perfectly cooked. I devoured my piece of salmon and went back for seconds.
So, what does this story have to do with butter poached salmon? It’s pretty much the reason I even try. See, Jennifer has grown up with just perfect salmon, fish that I can’t really match. My thought though is maybe if I can find some different techniques, maybe I can put something out there that’s pretty darn good. I’ve been working with different poaching and seasoning and saucing ideas. I don’t have one that is an “oh my gosh!” type dish yet, which is why I decided to try butter poaching (before you contact your cardiologist, you should know that in butter poaching you cook in the butter, but don’t serve in the butter. Also, you drain it, just like you would oil on paper towels. It’s really not that bad, I promise). I thought it would be a good way to infuse some flavors into the fish, and keep it nice and moist. And so, I concocted my sure to be fool-proof plan.
The menu for the evening was going to be the butter-poached salmon served on top of some fresh heirloom tomato slices and accompanied by a simple risotto and a peas/pancetta dish. It would be full of flavor and delicious, and it would be the new standard for salmon. Ahhh…the best laid plans…
The process started out well enough. I got the cookbook out, laid out all of my ingredients, took a couple of pictures, and started doing some prep work. I sliced shallot and chopped garlic just like I was supposed to. Then I started building the poaching liquid. I juiced the lemon into the pan, and then started juicing the oranges…completely forgetting to do it over a strainer. Seeds and pulp were going right into the pot. Not a big deal, but still. After reducing it a little bit, I went ahead and added the other aromatics, substituting rosemary for thyme because that’s all I had that seemed to make sense. Then I started working in the butter and melting it slowly. I thought I was doing ok, not making too big of a mess. The goal was to get the butter melted and to a nice temperature of 130 degrees.
Once every thing was melted I stuck the thermometer in and it shot up to nearly 200 degrees. I was confused because I thought I had done it slowly enough. It took me a few minutes of cleaning and replace the thermometer to realize I was putting it directly on the metal and not into the liquid. When I did that, it dropped to 150, but still too hot. I took it off the heat to let it cool and went to remove the skin from the salmon. Here’s a rule of thumb…when removing the skin prior to cooking, make sure your knife is sharp. I hacked away at this poor salmon filet with a semi-dull knife, never thinking I should stop and get a different knife. Eventually the skin and a bit of fish came off, and I cut it into two portions. I went back and checked the butter, and it had cooled down to about 120, so I put it back on the heat. While it warmed up again, I went to slice an heirloom tomato with the mandolin. Rather than nice thin slices of tomato, I had nice, squished pieces. I don’t know what I was doing, but it wasn’t right. Finally I just sliced some thicker ones. I turned back to the butter which was once again too hot (see a pattern forming?) and took it off the heat. I let it cool for a few minutes and then put the salmon filets in. I figured I was good for a little while because it said it would take 15 – 25 minutes to cook. Of course that was the cook time for 4 filets, not 2…
While the salmon was poaching I turned to the peas. I could go off on this one for awhile, but since I don’t have pictures, I ‘m going to keep it short. Another lesson to keep in mind…taste your ingredients first. I put this nice pea dish together, crisping up some pancetta, zesting and juicing and orange (yep, forgot the strainer again…) it came out looking very nice, so I was excited. I set that aside and turned back to the salmon.
By now about 20 minutes or so had passed, and I thought it would be good to go ahead and get it ready for serving. I took it out of the butter, put it on the paper towels, and went to prepare my plate. I put down some tomato and then some risotto (which had been sitting for at least 45 minutes), and then topped it with the salmon and a little fresh parsley. I couldn’t really figure out how I wanted to incorporate the peas into the “artful” presentation of the dish, which is why they aren’t there in the picture. I ended up just putting them on the side. I sat down, pulled out my fork, dug in…and every mistake blew up. The fish was dry. I know, seems impossible when poaching right? I poached the moisture right out of that fish. The risotto was cold (I don’t know why I didn’t heat it back up). And the peas were salty beyond belief. Should have tasted the pancetta. The whole thing just fell apart on me.
It’s always unfortunate when a meal doesn’t go as planned, but at least I can take away a few great lessons, and a bit of humility as I was getting a little cocky in the kitchen lately. I definitely did not put together a dish that was that great, and the only reason Jennifer ate most of it was because she was very hungry (it helped that I warmed her risotto and didn’t give her any peas). I’m sure not what Michael Symon was expecting or imaging when he put together that recipe in his cookbook.
Oh well, back to the drawing board with the salmon. I’ll probably do one of the more traditional techniques next time (steamed or grilled), and then try something new. I have to balance experimenting with acceptable. And I’ll keep on cooking, bound and determined to get it right. Sometimes you deliver a delicious dinner, and sometimes the recipe beats you. This time, the recipe won…but I’ll be back to try again!