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.
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 can’t spare when cooking for her family?
Here’s one salmon recipe you can whip up without breaking your back; and one more involved, for special occasions.
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Creamy potato gratin with smoked and fresh salmon
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Time: 1 1/2 hours
Generous pinch of saffron
3 large potatoes or 2 celeriac bulbs (about 2.5 pounds), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch-thick half-moons
1/3 cup olive oil, more as needed
Salt and black pepper
3 oil-packed anchovies, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
About 1 pound large leaf spinach, washed, stems and leaves roughly chopped
1 gently packed cup basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh dill (about 3/4 ounce), more for garnish
4 tablespoons brined baby capers (about 1.75 ounces), drained and patted dry
About 1 pound skinless salmon fillets, cut into 1-inch pieces
About 5 ounces thinly sliced cold-smoked salmon, cut into 1-inch pieces
5 egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 2/3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream (double cream)
1 lemon, cut into wedges, for serving
Heat oven to 450 degrees. In a small bowl, mix 1 tablespoon of boiling water with the saffron and set aside for 20 minutes (longer is fine).
Cook the potatoes: In a large bowl, use your hands to mix the potatoes with 2 tablespoons of the oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and plenty of pepper. Spread out on 2 large parchment-lined baking sheets (baking trays) and roast for 20 minutes, or until soft and caramelized. Set aside to cool.
Cook the greens: In a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the anchovy and garlic and fry just until the garlic is starting to brown, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add half the spinach, stir through for a minute to wilt slightly, and then add the remaining half. Cover for 1 to 2 minutes to wilt some more, then remove the lid and cook for 7 to 8 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.
Using your hands, mix the fresh and smoked salmon with 1/3 teaspoon of salt in a bowl, separating the layers of smoked salmon in the process. Set aside.
Make the custard: In a medium saucepan, whisk together the saffron and its soaking water, egg yolks, cornstarch (corn flour), lemon zest, 1/2 teaspoon 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 4 to 5 minutes, until steaming and starting to thicken. Remove from the heat and set aside.
When ready to bake, heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit/200 degrees Celsius. To assemble, start by layering half the potatoes at the bottom of a baking dish. (A deep 8-by-8-inch square, 9-inch round, or about an 8-by-12-inch rectangle will all 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 5 minutes.
In a small saucepan, combine remaining capers with the remaining 1 tablespoon 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 1 to 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until the capers have opened up and become crisp.
Spoon the fried capers over the gratin, garnish with fresh dill, and serve warm with lemon wedges.
Pan-seared salmon with celery, olives and capers
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes
2/3 cup currants
Generous pinch of saffron
4 salmon fillets (about 1 pound), skin on
About 1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and black pepper
4 sticks celery (about 6 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch dice, leaves removed and reserved for garnish
1/4 cup pine nuts, roughly chopped
Scant 1/4 cup drained capers, plus 2 tablespoons of their brine
8 large green olives, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/3 cup parsley, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Cover the currants with boiling water and set aside to soak for 20 minutes. In a separate small bowl, mix 1 tablespoon of boiling water with the saffron and also leave for 20 minutes or longer.
Gently rub the salmon fillets with 2 teaspoons of the oil, 1/3 teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Set aside while you make the relish.
Add 1/3 cup of olive oil to a large sauté pan over high heat. Add the celery and pine nuts and fry for 4 to 5 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.
In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add salmon fillets skin-side down and let cook for 3 minutes, until the skin is crisp. Reduce the heat to medium, flip the fillets over and cook 2 to 4 minutes more (depending on how much you like the salmon to be cooked).
Divide the salmon on 4 plates and serve with the warm relish spooned on top. Scatter reserved celery leaves (if using) and serve immediately.