Friday, August 31, 2012

Food, Family, Friday: Sockeye Salmon Saltimbocca

I love salmon.  Like most salmon lovers these days, I try to eat it with as little guilt as possible.  Did it roam free?  Is it really just a science experiment with fins?  Were other fish harmed in its production?  They are all meaningful questions.

To eat Sockeye salmon you either need to shop with a GPS and a map of salmon fisheries or trust the people you’re buying it from.  The species has had an up and down time of it in the northern Pacific Rim in recent years.  But, buying it is just the first challenge. 

For me, the guilt does not really begin until after I cook it.

Sockeye salmon is a much drier salmon than your typical Atlantic or even King salmon.  Cooking it is more of a challenge, one that I fail at more often than I succeed.  The margin of error between “done” and “dry” is slim indeed.  Depending on the contours of the fish itself it could be virtually impossible to grill that salmon to an even state of doneness from thick to thin sides.

But, it’s Sockeye time of year, the reports have been more favorable on fish populations and Whole Foods had fish from rivers with more prosperous salmon runs.  I know that because I waterboarded the fish guy at Whole Foods on where the fish came from (my GPS was busted).  So, I decided to buy some Sockeye. 

All of which begs the question: Now what?  Because now that I have threaded this needle of conscience (waterboarding aside), I must face yet another uncomfortable reality: I suck at Sockeye.

My solution was Salmon Saltimbocca.  It’s inspired by a wonderful Italian dish originally made with veal (and you should see the butchers at Whole Foods run when I ask questions about the free range veal).  If you break saltimbocca down to its core elements, it is just a template that can be adapted to whatever protein you have handy. 

In my case this version lightens it up in calories by using salmon rather than red meat.   I also cut back on the butter you would typically have in an Italian restaurant.  Lazy chefs can easily cover up mediocre cooking with lots of butter.


Along with the butter, Saltimbocca is all about: sage, spinach and prosciutto.  Prosciutto is one of those elements that makes everything taste great.  In the Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and brought it to earth.  But, the myth does not report the inside scoop: that fire thing was just a distraction while his Italian cousin Luigi carried off the prosciutto. 

By wrapping the Sockeye in prosciutto, I could protect the delicate flesh from the heat and it would hold its own moisture while marrying its relatively assertive flavor (by fish standards) with the prosciutto.

That was the theory.

Salmon Saltimbocca
~ 1.3 pounds sockeye salmon, skinned
small handful sage leaves, chopped
1 small bunch spinach
a whole bunch of garlic, chopped
~ 1 to 2 tbsp butter (hey, it’s gonna feed four people)

So, first I had to take the fish off the skin.  This is a combination art and science.  Put the flesh side up on a cutting board.  Use the longest, sharpest knife you have.  Now comes the mental part of the task. 

You cannot go into this thinking that you’re cutting the skin off the flesh.  In reality, you are scraping the flesh off the skin. 

Find a spot, usually a corner on the thin end, and make a small cut so that you can get your knife down to the skin but don’t saw through it.  This is a skill you develop by feeling your way and when you get to the skin it will feel different from the flesh.

Get your knife parallel to the cutting board and then angle it slightly so that the blade is lower than the non-cutting edge.  Now saw slowly back and forth with a gentle forward pressure, scraping the flesh up off the skin.  If you started on a corner, you want to work your way so that you are generally centered width-wise on the fish even if you’re still sawing back and forth as you progress.  Peg the skin down with your other hand as you go so that you keep some tension on it.  The goal is to get as much of the flesh off the skin as possible.  You will no doubt sacrifice a little flesh, but however much you leave behind this time, take that as a baseline and do better next time.  This is something that takes practice.

And voila! 

If yours doesn’t look like this the first time, well, mine didn’t either but that was a while ago.

Cut the salmon into pieces for serving.  Wrap the salmon in the prosciutto.  Get thin prosciutto and you can easily mold it to where you need it to be.  Tear some pieces and patch it together to cover it all if you have to.  It will all hold together.  Set the prosciutto-wrapped salmon aside while you get the pasta fixings going.

Wash, chop and get your spinach ready to go.  Chop some sage.  How much?  Depends on how big the leaves are.  Sage is a core element of this dish.  But, a little sage can go a long way.  So, basically, I pull leaves until I think I have enough and then pull a couple more.

If that sounds inexact and unscientific, well heckfire this dish is not supposed to be made with salmon to begin with.  I’m improvising on an improvisation here.

In the same vein, chop as much garlic as you can stand.  Then chop some more.

Boil some pasta according to directions.  Splurge on some good artisanal pasta for this dish.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  You need a skillet which is going into that oven for just a few minutes.

Pour a middling amount of olive oil into the oven-ready pan and heat it over a medium to medium-high flame.  Place your salmon-prosciutto packages into the pan and let them sizzle.  Depending on your stove this is probably three to four minutes, but you want the prosciutto to brown some on the bottom. 

Turn the packages gently and keep them on the stove for just a moment or two, then put the pan in the oven.  Total time in the oven will be another four to five minutes.  Again, you’ll have some color on the bottom and where the salmon is peeking out it will look pink and ready to eat.

Remove the salmon to a plate and keep warm.  Off the heat, add the butter.  Don’t put the pan back on the heat until the butter is melted.  Add the garlic.  Once it is fragrant, add your chopped sage and stir it together.  Moments later, add the spinach and stir it until the spinach is wilted.  While the moisture from the spinach is all swizzled with the butter, add your pasta and combine it all.

Serve the salmon packages on a bed of the pasta.

It was wonderful.  As little guilt as possible.  Sorry about that waterboarding thing. 

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