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Recipes and Stories

19 April 2016: Spring Simplicity and Salmon

Sautéed Salmon with Capers

Some of the most welcome sprouts of spring in my backyard are not the wild violets or bulb flowers, but a pair of wild poke sallet plants that have taken over two big terracotta pots by the back door stoop. Even if I didn’t love these greens, I’d still fertilize and nurture them: their bright new leaves bring a smile to my heart every day by reminding me of my grandmother.

Of course, even without those new-sprouting greens, she would still be on my mind: spring and early summer are when I spent the most time with her in the kitchen, and so many other flavors of the season take me right back to those happy days in her sunny little kitchen.

Oddly enough, one seasonal delicacy that I vividly connect with her is spring salmon. MaMa loved salmon almost as much as she loved greens. Unfortunately, she lived her entire life in the hill country of Georgia and South Carolina, and never tasted freshly-caught spring salmon until she was an old woman. The stuff she loved came out of a can.

I can still see her turning out the tall, pink cylinder of fish into a large cream-ware bowl, her eyes bright with anticipation. In those days, the fish was packed skin, bones, and all, so it had to be picked over. Most of the time she hated doing tedious things like that and didn’t do them with a lot of grace or care, but picking over salmon was a different story.

Mostly, she turned that canned fish into lovely pan-fried croquettes (she called them salmon balls), but she was also known to eat it with saltine crackers just as it came from its container.

By the time she could get really fresh spring salmon, she was no longer cooking, so it’s funny how my mind makes the associations. But whenever I’m cooking fresh salmon, I inevitably think of that pink cylinder of canned fish standing tall in that bowl, and I hear all over again the happy murmurs that she made as she began to break it apart.

And I’d give just about anything to be able to share my plate with her.

Sautéed Salmon with Capers

Wild-caught salmon is deeply flavorful and rich, and therefore demands simple treatment. To my way of thinking, it never benefits from complicated preparations or heavy, rich accompaniments.

Serves 2

2 6-ounce wild-caught salmon fillets
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
2 tablespoons clarified butter or 1 tablespoon unsalted butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup dry white vermouth
2 tablespoons nonpareil capers, drained
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small chunks

1. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and season well with salt and pepper. Put the clarified butter in a heavy-bottomed 11-to-12-inch well-seasoned iron or carbon steel, or non-stick, skillet that will hold the filets without crowding them and turn on the heat to medium high.

2. When the pan is hot, slip in the salmon, skin-side-down. Cook 3-4 minutes, or until the skin is well-seared and has released from the pan. Carefully turn and cook until it’s done to your taste, about 2-3 minutes longer. Remove the fish to warm plates and keep warm.

3. Pour the vermouth into the pan and deglaze it, stirring and scraping to loosen any cooking residue that may be adhering to the pan. Add the capers, gently shaking the pan to distribute them, and let the wine boil until it is reduced by half. Turn off the heat and whisk in the cold butter a few bits at a time. Pour the sauce and capers over the fish and serve immediately.

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