Grilled Salmon with Herb, Mustard Sauce

Salmon topped with mustard, herb sauce, 4HB beans and sauteed asparagus makes a nice Sunday night dinner.

Grilled Salmon is a staple around my house.  I’ve gotten pretty good at cooking it over the years and it turns out with just the right combination of crunchy exterior and silky texture.  I got a new cookbook from our friends, Al and Debbie Frank, The Summertime Anytime Cookbook, based on the menus at  Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, California and authored by their executive chef, Dana Slatkin and I wanted to try out some of the recipes.  This is the first one.  Pretty good.

I’m not afraid of using cookbooks.  In fact, I use them all the time.  You’ll notice the page is dog-eared.  There are many pages in this cookbook that I’ve marked for recipes I want to try.  When I get a new cookbook I sit with it and a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning and go through it and mark everything that looks good.  Then I leave it out for a couple of days to remind me that there are dishes to try and when the time is right, yippee, I get to try something new. (I don’t ordinarily say yippee…)

Grilling Salmon is pretty straight forward, though I do use one big trick.  The first step is to dust the fish liberally with seasoning.  I use a mix from Penzey’s called Trinidad.  It is a lemon and garlic mix that has great flavor for seafood.  Since this is going to go on the grill, the Salmon needs to be coated pretty heavily with the seasoning, otherwise it will all burn off.  This recipe called for a sauce made with whole grain mustard, a dry white wine, a shallot, dill and thyme. I didn’t have a Shallot.  I used about 1/4 onion and 1 teaspoon garlic as a substitute since shallots basically taste like garlicky onions.  For this one, since the recipe is in a newly on the market cookbook I’m going to say, if it sounds good, buy the cookbook.  You should.  There are a number of recipes in this cookbook that look really good to me so it’d be worth it.

Now down to grilling the Salmon. Like I said, there is one big trick that I use when I’m cooking Salmon.  Ok.  Well, two or three actually.  The first is pretty simple…  Heat the grill to really hot. You’ll note that my grill temp is over 600 degrees!  I know, I know… That’s gonna burn the fish like crazy.  Only, it’s not.  You’ll see.

The next step is going to sound crazy.  I don’t know when I first tried it.  It would have sounded crazy to me too.  Spray the top of the fish liberally with PAM cooking spray. I know what you’re thinking.  Jim’s gone off the deep end. PAM?  Yes. Here’s why.  It has very little flavor and it is actually formulated to be slippery.  When you put the fish down on the grill, skin side up, you’re going to be glad you did this because you’re not going to want that fish to stick.

Lay the fish flesh side down on the grill for two to three minutes.  Using a large, sharp spatula lift and turn over the fish.  It will be nicely caramelized on the top.  Then close the grill and let the fish cook for four to five more minutes for medium rare.  (6 or 7 if it is thicker). Then, using the sharp end of your spatula, cut the fish off of the skin, leaving the skin on the grill.  (with as much oil as is in Salmon it will quickly catch fire and pretty much burn up (making disposal easier).  Serve on a warm plate with the sauce on the side.

For a much simpler sauce, melt four tablespoons of butter and combine with the juice of one lemon and 1/2 teaspoon of dried basil.  (this can be done in the microwave).  Pour over fish and serve…

You'll want to serve the fish right off the grill. So getting all of your sauce ingredients ready ahead of time will speed the finishing process.

Starting the salmon skin side up will make great grill marks on the top...

Use a sharp spatula to shave the fish from the skin, leaving the skin to burn up on the grill.

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Want Your Food to Taste Better? Get Rid of Old Stuff!

I frequently cook in other people’s houses.  It’s fun.  “Let’s get together on Saturday and cook and have dinner!”  “Great! What time should I be there?”  Even though I’m kind of a knife snob I usually leave my knives at home.  (The exception would be times when I know that a lot of people will be cooking …) It’s just easier to use everything that’s there when I get there …. But there is one thing that drives me batty …

Old bottles of spices, herbs and olive oils.

I know …. Herbs and spices are dry and olive oil is expensive.  I get it.  You want to use it up.  The other problem is that for some unknown reason people decided at some point (probably in the 50’s) that storing their herbs and spices over the stove was a good idea.  It’s close to where you’re cooking, right?  But feel the bottom of those cabinets when you’re cooking and understand that that heat translates into what is stored in those cabinets.  Want your pantry ingredients to last longer?  Get them away from the stove.

Here are two easy to follow rules of thumb with your herbs and spices.

1.  Spices last longer than herbs.  Stored in a dark, cool (but not cold), dry place herbs can last up to three years and spices can last a little longer.  WOOPS!  Forgot I was writing this for guys….  Generally, herbs are leafy greens like basil, oregano, thyme, etc. and spices are ground powders like Cumin, Allspice, etc.  Sometimes it’s better to keep spices whole – this is the case with Nutmeg, which loses its punch quickly once it’s ground but will keep more or less forever as a whole pod.

2.  When in doubt, pour a small amount of an herb or spice into your hand and smell it.  Grind it a little with your thumb.  The smell should be pretty strong.  (and it should smell like what it is – Basil should smell like basil, not garlic…)  If it is then the ingredient is fine and you can keep using it. If it isn’t do everyone a favor and throw it away.  I know the jar is full.  Next time don’t buy the big bottle of celery seed to satisfy 1/4 teaspoon in a recipe.  Buy the little plastic container the first time so you know you like the dish. (you’ll also save about $4).

Oils go bad much more quickly.  As a rule I never buy the big bottles of olive oil.  Once opened, a bottle of high end extra virgin olive oil will only last about 3 months.  When they’re closed (factory sealed) they’ll be fine for quite a while – even a year or two, but once they’re opened there is nothing you can do to stop the process of oxidation and rancidity.  If you cook less often, buy smaller bottles of olive oil.   If you want to know if your oil is rancid smell it.  If it smells like anything but olive oil – it can smell nutty, or fishy and sometimes it can even smell like bananas-  it’s gone.  Throw it out.

If you’re inviting me over to cook, do this before I get there…  Then I won’t complain about your old spices and rancid oils.

Yes, I will complain.  I pretty much say what I think.  I’ve never been able to shut that off.  Not really trying any more.

All Cooking Oils are Not the Same …

It’s funny.  When I first started cooking I used good old Wesson oil or Star olive oil for anything.  Now that thought makes me cringe.  Here is a quick primer on oils.

There are three kinds of Olive Oil.  Light, Basic, and Extra Virgin or EV.  For 80% to 90% of what I cook I use the basic,that is to say, not EV olive oil.  I do not use products called “light” in general.  There is a big difference between the two.  Basic olive oil is typically just marketed as olive oil.  Extra Virgin is marketed as such because it is the first oil to come from a new batch of olive pits.  (Virgin because they have not been previously pressed).  Interesting isn’t it that Olive Oil comes from the pits and not the fruit? Pour a little EV on a white plate next to a regular Olive Oil and you will immediately see the difference (provided it’s real EV).  The EV is much greener in color.  That’s because it has more plant material (and hence, flavor).  The problem with that is that that green stuff burns at a much lower temperature, so the very good EV oils aren’t terribly good for cooking.  This is why I always have each on hand.  The other downside to EV is that that plant material has a tendency to spoil, so the oil goes rancid more quickly.

Regular and EV Olive Oils. You can see the difference.

My favorite high temperature sauteing oil is Grapeseed Oil.  You can buy this in small tins for a fortune or you can buy it in larger plastic bottles for a lot less.  I bought one of each and just refill the small tin out of the big plastic jug.  The great thing about Grapeseed oil is that it is very pure and has very little flavor so it has a very high “smoke point” (the point at which the oil starts to burn).  It also doesn’t add flavor to a dish.  Tim Ferris, in his book, The Four Hour Body, describes eggs sauteed in olive oil as tasting like cat pee, which I’ve always thought was both funny and very accurate.  Cat pee is not a good flavor.

Peanut oil is called for in a lot of recipes for deep frying.  For the most part this oil does not have a peanut flavor, or has only a very mild peanut flavor.  I use it for making fried chicken or for frying Turkeys (which I almost never do anymore).  That’s about it.  While Peanut oil can be saved I do not recommend this because it goes rancid very quickly after it’s been used.

Many asian recipes call for sesame oil.  Again, this is made from pressing the seeds.  The higher end sesame oils are made from roasted seeds and have a strong sesame flavor.  If you buy sesame oil buy a small amount in a container that does not let in any light.  Store it in a cool, dark place.  It spoils very quickly.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned, vegetable, canola, corn, etc.  That’s because I don’t use these.  They are high in cholesterol, have no flavor and are therefore worthless…  If you must, use them for popping corn.

Favorite Ingredient: Kitchen Basics Chicken Stock

There are a lot of recipes that call for chicken broth or stock.  They’re different.  I almost never use broth.  It has a very mild and usually watery flavor.  Instead I use chicken stock which has a lot more flavor.  My favorite is this brand which is generally available through any of the major grocery store chains.

Kitchen Basics Chicken Stock

Favorite Ingredient: Sea Salt

I honestly can’t say that using sea salt will make your food taste better.  I just don’t know it this is true.  I don’t think that I could actually taste the difference between good old Morton’s table salt and very high priced French Fleur de Sel.  With that said this remains one of my favorite ingredients.

I keep my salt in a large ceramic box right next to the cook top.  This makes grabbing a pinch very convenient. The reason I love to use sea salt is because the grind is larger than table salt but smaller than kosher salt.  That makes it easier to judge the amount of salt you’ve caught up in a pinch.

This salt cellar may still be available through Sur Le Table. It is larger than it looks at about 5"X2.5",

These boxes can be expensive.  Watch the sale racks at Sur Le Table, Williams Sonoma or your favorite kitchen store.  Make sure you get one with a lid.  You don’t want to spray 409 in your salt by accident.  That’s about the only thing the salt can’t kill.  Almost all of my recipes call for a pinch of salt or more and any time you’re cooking being able to season as you go will make your food taste better.

As much as I love Sea Salt I really don’t like compound salts very much.  I have celery salt that I use for Bloody Marys and I have a grinder with a garlic salt that I like to use for a little last minute seasoning, but I rarely use these for anything else.  The reason is because it makes it too easy to over salt your dishes.  There’s nothing worse than ruining an otherwise great dish with too much salt.  (which can actually be cut with vinegar or other acidity).

Favorite Ingredient: Very Good Madeira

You’ve heard of Chicken Marsala.  Think of Madeira as Marsala’s lesser known but much more flavorful cousin.

Blandy's Madeira, on the left, is my absolute favorite. The Madeira on the right has the right markings, but not the great flavor.

Like Vermouth (which I also use a lot of in both red and white (sweet and dry) variants, and Marsala, Madeira is a fortified wine.  There’s a lot to that but basically this is a wine that keeps for a reasonable period of time without changing flavors once it’s opened.  Most Madeiras actually come from Madeira, a small island once used as a waypoint by mariners.  Modern Madeira was actually more or less discovered or invented by Portuguese Sailors who added Rainwater to their wines on longer voyages to make the wines last longer.  For this reason the best Madeiras are called “Rainwater” Madeiras.  (BTW – Some aged Madeiras are actually comparable in price to fine Cognacs).

Don’t buy cheap madeira.  A bottle of decent madeira will set you back about $40.  You use between 1/4 and 1/2 cup most times you use it so it will last you a long time.  The better madeiras have sugars that have had more time to develop in the fermenting process and these sugars will give the wine the “carmel” flavor that can really transform a dish.

Real rainwater Madeiras have a wonderfully rich flavor.

Here’s an easy recipe for Madeira that really shows off what it’s good for.

Sauteed Asparagus with Madeira

  • 1/2 Brown Onion.  julienned.  (Don’t panic.  This just means sliced in thin long strips)
  • 1 tsp minced garlic (from a jar is fine)
  • One bunch of Asparagus.  Cut into 1 inch sections. Florets left intact (not cut) Organic or not is up to you but this is a vegetable that benefits from organic agriculture.
  • 1 tsp lemon zest.  (I have a lemon tree.  You might not.  If you don’t don’t worry about this ingredient.)
  • 1/4 cup Rainwater Madeira
  • 1 tbs butter (IMPORTANT – When I say butter I man butter.  Not some butter substitute.  This dish will feed four people as a side.  You’re eating 1/4 tbs butter. Get over it.)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • Olive Oil (not Extra Virgin) for sauteing.

Heat a large saute (“frying”) pan over medium high heat to reasonably hot.  Add two to three tablespoons of the olive oil and let it come up to temperature (it will do so quickly.  Add the onions and stir or toss to coat with the olive oil.  Reduce the heat to medium and let them sweat until they are soft and slightly browned.  (Brown is flavor…) Add garlic and saute until fragrant.  (Don’t burn the garlic).  Increase heat to medium hot and add the asparagus, reserving the florets (tops) for the first three minutes of cooking.  Stir or toss constantly. Add the florets and stir or toss to coat with the other ingredients and wait one more minute. Add madeira.  It should not flame.  (but it might so be careful – you burn yourself it’s your own darn fault).  When Madiera has reduced by 1/2 add lemon zest.  Let cook for another 30″ and add butter stirring to melt into the sauce.  Reduce heat to very low (the lowest setting on your stove), put the lid on and let steam for no longer than 3 more minutes.  Asparagus should be slightly crisp but tender.  Enjoy.. and thank a Portuguese sailor when you see one.

Favorite Ingredient. Aged Balsamic Vinegar

There are two completely different classes of Aged Balsamic vinegar.  There is the kind you can get in the average grocery store.  Some of these aren’t bad.  They also aren’t especially good. You don’t know what good is until you’ve tried one of the real ones.

Syrupy, with a deep rich flavor, Amazon is the only place I've been able to find this vinegar.

Our favorite is Acetum Santorini Balsamic Vinegar.  It is $37 per bottle.  I never use this in recipes that call for mixing balsamic with other ingredients.  That would be like boiling down a fine bordeaux in a reduction.  I use cheap balsamics from Trader Joes for those sauces.  But when I want to make a vinaigrette or a dipping sauce or just a smear on a plate, I dig this bottle out of the back of the pantry.  It is syrupy in texture and it has a mellow quality that the grocery stores could never match.

Buy some for yourself or a friend for a gift.  It’s that special.  They’ll love it.  You will too and you will never look at Balsamic Vinegar the same way again.