Monday, March 10, 2014

Longing for Spring....Salmon with Asparagus & Peas

I am so hungry for Spring.  Literally.  I love root vegetables....   winter squash and sweet potatoes...    hearty soups and pastas....    meltingly tender braised meats....  But I've had my fill for the season.  I'm ready to say "good-bye" 'til next year.  I'm ready for the green foods of spring.

It started a few weeks ago with the first of the artichokes.  Then just last week—in preparation for a class—I purchased my first asparagus of the year.  I would have passed it by if it hadn't been for the class.  But as it turned out, it was unexpectedly beautiful.  So beautiful that I purchased some extra so we could have it for dinner the night before my class.    

The dish I prepared was one I was teaching the next day: a simple and quick pan seared salmon with a buttery ragout of asparagus and peas.  It tasted really good.  So good I purchased more asparagus so we could have it again for dinner last night.  We enjoyed it the second time with a simple pilaf of farro with herbs...the first time I prepared it, I served it with buttered new potatoes.  It was delicious with both.  I'm sure it would be fine with just about any simply prepared starch.

And "simple" really is the point of this dish.  There are only a few ingredients—it is the techniques that make them shine.  The flavor of the ragout gets a boost from being prepared in the same pan in which the fish is seared (effectively deglazing the pan as it cooks).  The other thing that makes this ragout special is that it is bound with a quick emulsified butter sauce.  You could of course simply toss blanched asparagus and peas with some melted butter and herbs and it would be delicious, but understanding how to take these same ingredients and turn them a light, creamy ragout raises the level of this dish to elegant. 

An emulsified butter sauce is one in which the butter is held in a unified suspension with a liquid.  This suspension is not a natural state—if you simply stir melted butter into a hot liquid, the two components will immediately separate into liquid on the bottom and melted butterfat on the top.  Because this post is about what is essentially a quick and easy weeknight meal, I'm not going to go into a long explanation of emulsified sauces.  Rather, I will simply share what makes this particular preparation work:  If you boil roughly equal quantities of a liquid (water or stock) and butter together, the action of the boil will bind the butter and liquid together in an emulsified state.  You must remove the pan from the heat as soon as the emulsion comes together because prolonged boiling will cause the liquid component to evaporate...which will throw the liquid and fat out of balance.  If there is more butter than liquid (or, more liquid than butter), the action of the boil will cause the butter and liquid to separate. 

Knowing just this small piece of information will allow you to create a quick creamy butter sauce for any cooked vegetable—without a lot of fuss.  The process works whether you are reheating a vegetable you blanched ahead of time, or—as in my asparagus and pea ragout—cooking the vegetables and finishing them all in one step.  If you are interested in a more detailed explanation of emulsified sauces, I can recommend either Jacques Pépin's Complete Techniques or Madeleine Kamman's The New Making of a Cook....both are excellent resources for classic technique.
I love cooking and serving this particular ragout with salmon.  It would however be equally good with a boneless chicken breast...or a pork loin chop...or some other kind of fish or seafood (scallops would be especially delicious).  One of the things I love about the salmon though is the charming combination of the pink of the salmon with the green of the early spring vegetables.  It really is beautiful.  And although I think taste is the most important thing, I like my food to be beautiful too. 

The first time I made this dish I was able to use the tail end of my stash of frozen peas from last year's farmers' market.  Last night I used store-bought...which were really just fine.  But my dwindling supply of stored foods from last season is just one more indication that it's time for Spring and for the new market season to begin.  And as delicious as this was with the store-bought asparagus, I can't wait for the new local crop to come in.

Seared Salmon with Asparagus, Peas & Fresh Herbs

4 filets skinned salmon (4 to 6 oz. each)
Salt & Pepper
olive oil
3/4 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 1-inch lengths on a sharp diagonal

Cutting the asparagus on a sharp diagonal will expose a greater
proportion of the interior--which allows it to cook more quickly
1 c. peas (thawed, if using frozen)
1/2 c. water or stock
4 T. unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 to 3 T. minced chives or parsley...or a combination of chives, parsley and tarragon

Ingredients for two.

Heat a sauté pan (large enough to comfortably hold all of the fish and one with a tight fitting lid) over medium-high heat.  While the pan is heating, season the fish on both sides with salt & pepper.  Add a thin film of oil to the pan.  When the oil is very hot, add the fish, skinned side up.  Cook until nicely browned—about 2 to 3 minutes, regulating the heat as necessary to prevent smoking but at the same time, maintaining an active sizzle.  Turn and cook the fish, until barely opaque in the center

—another 3 minutes or so (reducing the heat further, if necessary).  Remove the fish from the pan and keep warm.

Pour off the oil from the pan and let the pan cool briefly.   Add the asparagus and peas to the pan along with the water and a generous pinch of salt.  Cover the pan and cook the vegetables at a rapid simmer until just tender—2 to 5 minutes, depending on the age of the vegetables.  Increase the heat to high, remove the lid and add the butter and the herbs.  (If the liquid appears to have reduced significantly while the vegetables cooked, add some more water to the pan.  But be careful, the total volume of liquid in the pan before adding the butter should only be slightly more than 1/4 cup.)  Boil, shaking the pan to bind the ingredients together, until the buttery sauce thickens and becomes foamy—20 to 30 seconds.  Remove from the heat. 

Transfer the fish to individual serving plates and divide the vegetables over all along with their buttery sauce.  Serve immediately.

Note:   The timing of the cooking of the fish in this recipe assumes a thin (1/2-inch thick) filet of salmon.  If you have a thicker filet, it will take longer to cook (a good rule of thumb is 10 minutes per inch of thickness)—you may finish it on the stove over a lower heat, or transfer the fish to a 375° to 400° oven to finish (either in the sauté pan, if it is oven-proof...or in a small baking dish of some kind).

(Recipe inspired by "Asparagus Stew" in Jacques Pépin's Complete Techniques)

Buttered Farro with Herbs

Olive oil
1 large shallot, diced
1 c. pearled or semi-pearled farro, rinsed
2 c. water
1 1/2 to 2 T. unsalted butter
1/3 c. minced fresh herbs—a mixture of chives, parsley and arugula (or basil) is nice

Sweat the shallot, along with a pinch of salt, in some olive oil until the onion is tender—about 5 minutes.   Add the farro and continue to cook and stir until the farro is well-coated in the fat, lightly toasted and hot through—2 or 3 minutes. Add the water, along with some salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and cook, until tender but still firm in the center—about 25 minutes. Let the farro rest, covered, off of the heat for 5 minutes.

Drain the farro (if necessary), saving the cooking liquid.  Return the farro to the pan.  Add the butter and herbs and stir until the butter is melted.  If the farro seems tight or sticky, stir in some of the cooking liquid. Taste and correct the seasoning and serve. Serves 4.

Printable Recipe

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