Salmon, two ways: one epic, one everyday

Salmon, ready for cooking, with lemon and capers.
Salmon, ready for cooking, with lemon and capers.PHOTO: NYTIMES
A creamy potato gratin with both smoked and fresh salmon.
A creamy potato gratin with both smoked and fresh salmon.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Pan-seared salmon with celery, olives and capers.
Pan-seared salmon with celery, olives and capers.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Recently, I have been spending time simplifying some old recipes. 

“Not everyone has a couple of hours to spare in the kitchen on a school night,” my sister once said to me, voicing a familiar complaint about the time commitment demanded by some of my dishes. 

“I know, I know,” I said and offered my standard response. “But, hey, when you get to taste them – it all makes total sense, right?”

“I guess so,” she conceded, with a lack of conviction reserved for family members. 

Even if I try to let such grievances glide like water over my proverbial duck’s back, they do make me ask myself about the circumstances under which people cook.

Is there a way to deliver the impact I like my food to have – surprising, complex, bold and, of course, delicious – without having to put together 18 ingredients and set aside the two hours my sister cannot spare when cooking for her family?

The short answer is yes, but there is more to it than that. 

In the next few months, I will be using these pages to offer two variations on a theme in each column: one recipe that you can whip up quickly without breaking your back or your bank balance; another one that will be a more involved, special occasion kind of dish in which you will happily invest time and resources.

My hope is that two versions on a common theme will allow you, the reader, and me to better understand the particular conditions under which we cook and the kind of dishes that work best. It will also offer extra-busy people an opportunity to try out the particular ingredients and flavour combinations I get so excited about. 

My focus today is salmon. I am taking inspiration for these two recipes from the two tips of Europe: Sweden at the very north for my “epic” recipe and Sicily in the south for the everyday version. 

I give a traditional Nordic laxpudding, a cosy bake of potatoes, salmon and dill, bright Mediterranean touches from capers and lemon. And a quick pan-seared fillet, that most modern of preparations, benefits from the classic Sicilian contrast of currants, olives and pine nuts.

How the fish is cooked is entirely different in these two versions but, put together, they show the versatility of salmon and how well it adapts to different culinary circumstances.  My sister promises to try it both ways. 

A creamy potato gratin with both smoked and fresh salmon. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Creamy Potato Gratin With Smoked and Fresh Salmon

Generous pinch of saffron
3 large potatoes or 2 celeriac bulbs (about 1.2kg total), peeled and cut into 1cm-thick half-moons
75ml olive oil, more as needed
Salt and black pepper
3 oil-packed anchovies, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
About 500g large leaf spinach, washed, stems and leaves roughly chopped
30g basil leaves, roughly chopped
½ cup roughly chopped fresh dill, more for garnish
50g brined baby capers, drained and patted dry
460g skinless salmon fillets, cut into 2cm to 3cm pieces
150g thinly sliced cold-smoked salmon, cut into 2cm to 3cm pieces
5 egg yolks
1½ tsp cornstarch
1 tsp freshly grated lemon zest
400ml whole milk
100ml heavy cream (double cream)
1 lemon, cut into wedges, for serving

1. Heat oven to 240 deg C. In a small bowl, mix 1 Tbs of boiling water with the saffron and set aside for 20 minutes or longer.

2. Cook the potatoes: In a large bowl, use your hands to mix the potatoes with 2 Tbs of the oil, ½ tsp salt and plenty of pepper. Spread out on two large parchment-lined baking sheets (baking trays) and roast for 20 minutes, or until soft and caramelised. Set aside to cool.

3. Cook the greens: In a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid, heat 2 Tbs of the oil over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the anchovies and garlic and fry just until the garlic is starting to brown for 30 seconds to one minute. Add half the spinach, stir through for a minute to wilt slightly, and then add the remaining half. Cover for one to two minutes to wilt some more, then remove the lid and cook for seven to eight minutes, stirring frequently, until all the moisture has evaporated and the spinach has begun to dry out. Raise the heat as needed to cook off the liquid. Turn off heat and stir in herbs. Stir in half the capers and set aside.

4. Using your hands, mix the fresh and smoked salmon with ⅓ tsp of salt in a bowl, separating the layers of smoked salmon in the process. Set aside.

5. Make the custard: In a medium saucepan, whisk together the saffron and its soaking water, egg yolks, cornstarch (corn flour), lemon zest, ½ tsp of salt and plenty of pepper until smooth. Pour in the milk and cream and whisk until combined. Place over medium heat and cook, whisking continuously to prevent the custard from scorching or sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook for four to five minutes, until steaming and starting to thicken. Remove from the heat and set aside.

6. When ready to bake, heat the oven to 200 deg C. To assemble, start by layering half the potatoes at the bottom of a baking dish. (A 20cm by 20cm square, 22cm round or 20cm by 30cm rectangular dish will work.) Top with half the spinach mixture followed by all the salmon. Top with the remaining potatoes and then the spinach. Pour the custard over evenly and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the custard has set and is starting to brown. (If your custard seems dangerously close to the top of the pan, place it on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch any drips.) Remove from the oven and set aside for five minutes.

7. In a small saucepan, combine remaining capers with the remaining 1 Tbs oil over high heat. (The oil should just cover the capers, so you may need to add a touch more oil, depending on the size of your pan.) Fry the capers in the oil for one to two minutes, stirring frequently, until the capers have opened up and become crisp.

8. Spoon the fried capers over the gratin, garnish with fresh dill, and serve warm with lemon wedges.

Serves six to eight

Pan-seared salmon with celery, olives and capers. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Pan-Seared Salmon With Celery, Olives and Capers

100g currants
Generous pinch of saffron
4 salmon fillets (about 500g total), skin on
100ml olive oil
Salt and black pepper
4 sticks celery, cut into 1cm dice, leaves removed and reserved for garnish
30g pine nuts, roughly chopped
40g drained capers, plus 2 Tbs of their brine
8 large green olives, pitted and cut into 1cm dice
20g parsley, roughly chopped
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp lemon juice

1. Cover the currants with boiling water and set aside to soak for 20 minutes. In a separate small bowl, mix 1 Tbs of boiling water with the saffron and also leave for 20 minutes or longer. 

2. Gently rub the salmon fillets with 2 tsp of the oil, ⅓ tsp of salt and a good grind of pepper. Set aside while you make the relish.

3. Add 75ml of olive oil to a large saute pan over high heat. Add the celery and pine nuts and fry for four to five minutes, stirring frequently, until the nuts begin to brown (watch carefully as they can burn quickly). Turn off heat and stir in the capers and their brine, the olives, saffron and its water and a pinch of salt. Drain the currants and add them as well, along with the parsley, lemon zest and juice. Mix well and set aside.

4. In a large skillet, heat 1 Tbs oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add salmon fillets skin-side down and let cook for three minutes, until the skin is crisp. Reduce the heat to medium, flip the fillets over and cook two to four minutes more (depending on how much you like the salmon to be cooked).

5. Divide the salmon on four plates and serve with the warm relish spooned on top. Scatter reserved celery leaves (if using) and serve immediately.

Serves four