Maple Bourbon Cedar-Wrapped Salmon

If you were to scroll through your collection of recipes, I wonder which ones are most overlooked, and I wonder why. We all have recipe cards that hang out in the back of the box—either because they no longer suit our taste (which makes them ripe for a makeover), or they are specific to a season or holiday, or the ingredients are too pricy or difficult to find. Sometimes, though, I believe recipes get passed over because they seem complicated or intimidating.

My own “bucket list” of culinary challenges includes items from all those categories, but after recent conversation with various friends and acquaintances, I have noticed one standout category of food that seems to hold an air of mystery to a lot of people: seafood. It seems that most people enjoy seafood, but many are reluctant to make it at home. It’s no wonder seafood restaurant prices are what they are, and that’s a darn shame when some of those dishes are perfectly manageable for a home cook.

Every week or so, I peek at the activity insights offered by WordPress, where Comfort du Jour is hosted, and this helps guide me in deciding what to make next, and what to share with my foodie friends. I can see at-a-glance the number of views and downloads each page has had to date, and overwhelmingly, the recipe with the highest numbers of both is this one:

Really? Mahi Hemingway is the most popular recipe on Comfort du Jour.

It surprises me to see that Mahi Hemingway is so interesting to others, because it happens to be one of the simplest recipes to make, both from an ingredient standpoint and one of skill level. I developed my own version of that recipe because I couldn’t make sense of the $30 price tag on a similar dish in a local restaurant, which I expect points to another reason home cooks shy away from making their own seafood. If it’s so expensive in restaurants, it must be expensive and hard to make, right? Wrong!  😉

Most seafood is surprisingly easy to make, and I’m about to prove it again with this easy-and-done recipe that is cooked on the grill. The salmon fillet portions, which are easily found in most larger supermarkets, take an afternoon bath in a simple marinade of real maple syrup, bourbon and Dijon mustard. The marinade infuses flavor into the fish during this phase, and becomes a flavorful glaze later, when the fish is grilled. If you prefer, you can also make this in the oven, and the cedar wrap is entirely optional, but I believe it is worth the extra expense. I found these in the grilling section of the supermarket , but you might also check your hardware store, Walmart or Target. Cedar wraps impart an aromatic smokiness to the fish, without the extra time and fuss of cedar planks. The wraps are also less expensive than planks (only $10 for eight of them), and they don’t take up much storage space.

I have garnished the salmon with chopped soy-wasabi almonds, which is a great complement to the maple and bourbon flavors, and the wasabi echoes the horseradish that spikes the easy buttermilk mashed potatoes underneath, the same potatoes I made at St. Patrick’s Day for the Bangers & Mash.

You can begin prep for this meal a few hours ahead, and cooking time is less than half an hour, including the mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus. This meal is beautiful, tasty, quick and easy—collectively giving it a good chance at moving to the front of the recipe box.

I’ll bet this plate would be at least $24 in a seafood restaurant.

Two servings, easy to double.

Ingredients

I cut two portions from this whole fillet of salmon for this recipe. A larger chunk went on the smoker when we made our pastrami, and the rest went to the freezer.

2 Atlantic salmon fillets, about 6 oz. each* (see notes)

3 Tbsp. real maple syrup, preferably dark*

3 Tbsp. bourbon

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/8 tsp. Boyajian maple extract*

2 cedar wraps, soaked at least 5 minutes* (optional, see notes)

Small handful of wasabi & soy sauce almonds*

*Notes

The salmon fillets may be skinless or skin-on; it doesn’t matter because the skin will remain on the cedar wrap after grilling, which makes plating this dish super simple. If your seafood market has steelhead trout or arctic char, they would also be delicious in this recipe, but adjust your grilling time. Both are usually thinner and would cook more quickly.

For the love of good taste, please do not use a fake “maple-ish” syrup from the grocery store. Real maple is the best, and totally worth the expense. There are plenty of resources for good quality maple products; I order mine online from Big Tree Maple in Lakewood, N.Y. Why? Because I grew up under the shade of those lovely trees and they know me.

The maple extract, which is optional, amplifies the flavor of the syrup without adding sweetness. Look for it in gourmet specialty stores, or online at King Arthur Baking Company.  Another product I like for this purpose is maple-infused balsamic vinegar, which is easy to find in one of the specialty balsamic shops that have popped up all over the U.S. If you substitute with the balsamic, use about 1/2 teaspoon.

Cedar wood, when soaked and grilled, lends a phenomenal flavor to salmon. If you choose planks, be certain they are designed for culinary use. Cedar grilling planks should be submerged fully underwater for at least an hour, but I like the wraps because they only require soaking a few minutes. You could probably also use soaked cedar chips in a smoker box, alongside the salmon on your grill.

The wasabi & soy sauce almonds are a Blue Diamond product, and you’ll find them in the small cans in the snack aisle of your supermarket, alongside cans of peanuts and mixed nuts. I’m crazy about the horseradish-y flavor, and it is remarkably good against the sweetness of maple and bourbon.

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

1 lb. potatoes (I used a combination of russet and golds)

2 Tbsp. salted butter (extra if you’d like)

1/4 cup thick buttermilk

1 tsp. prepared horseradish

Salt and pepper

Asparagus

1 average bundle fresh asparagus

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

Zest of 1/2 fresh lemon (optional)

Instructions

You will want to marinate the salmon fillets a couple of hours, so plan this quick prep for mid-afternoon. I’ll run through the easy steps for the salmon here. For visual direction on the buttermilk mashed potatoes, check out my recent post for Bangers & Mash; it is the same recipe, though ingredient amounts are adjusted here for this dish.

  1. Season the salmon fillets with kosher salt and black pepper. Place them, skin side down, in a glass baking dish.
  2. Combine the maple syrup, bourbon and Dijon mustard in a measuring cup with a pour spout, Whisk in olive oil and maple extract (if using). Pour most of the marinade evenly over the salmon fillets, reserving about a tablespoon of it to drizzle over at serving. Turn the fillets over, so that the fleshy side rests in the marinade, and wiggle them around to be sure the marinade coats the exposed sides of the fish. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour, preferably about two hours.
  3. Peel and cut up the potatoes. Boil gently until they are easily pierced with a fork, then drain over a colander.
  4. Add butter and buttermilk to the cooking pot and stir until butter is melted. Transfer drained potatoes back to the pot and mash to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in horseradish and more butter, if desired. Keep potatoes warm until serving time.
  5. While the potatoes cook, prepare your grill, with temperature at 350° F. Soak cedar wraps and tying twine for at least five minutes.
  6. Remove salmon fillets from marinade. Center them, skin side-down, on the soaked wraps and fold up the sides to enclose them, tying snugly with twine.
  7. Place the cedar-wrapped salmon onto a grilling rack, and cook over direct heat for about 12 minutes, or until fish flakes easily with the twist of a fork. You may need to peel back a piece of the cedar wrap to test the flakiness.
  8. Cut the twine to unwrap the cedar and serve the fish atop a mound of the buttermilk-horseradish potatoes alongside your favorite vegetable. Chop the soy-wasabi almonds into crumb-sized pieces. Drizzle salmon with reserved marinade and sprinkle with almonds.

Make the asparagus concurrently with the potatoes and salmon

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Prep the asparagus by snapping off the trimmed ends. Rinse under running water and roll them around on a paper towel to dry them.
  2. Arrange the asparagus in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and roll them to coat evenly. Season with salt and pepper and roast for about 15 minutes. Finish with a sprinkle of lemon zest. If you slide the asparagus into the oven just before the salmon goes on the grill, it will be done right on time!

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One more thing…

You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀

Terrie

Mahi Hemingway

Friends frequently ask my husband and me how it’s possible we aren’t gaining 10 pounds a week, given all the “rich foods” they see on my blog or his Facebook page. It’s a fair question after you’ve seen the Waffled Mac & Cheese or some of the unconventional creations on my Pizza Party page. But we don’t always eat heavy foods, and sometimes our meals just look more decadent than they really are thanks to presentation. That’s important to remember: If a food looks beautiful, it may be more appetizing, but that doesn’t mean it’s decadent. This Mahi Hemingway—a recipe I’ve adapted from a local restaurant—is a good example.

This dish is deceptively easy to make, and its flavor and presentation both rival the restaurant I “borrowed” it from. The restaurant version has a light and elegant white wine, lemon, tomato and caper sauce, served over delicate angel hair pasta and topped with a pan-seared fillet of fresh grouper. I first tasted it more than 15 years ago, and it’s still on the menu for $30. I’m not going to say it isn’t worth it, but I do know you can make it at home (with exactly the same flavors) for a fraction of that price, and it’s easy.

If you have never tasted capers (first of all, where’ve you been?), expect a briny, pickled flavor—kind of like a tangy green olive, but about the size of a green pea. I don’t use much in any recipe because capers pack a lot of flavor. You’ll see capers in Mediterranean cuisine, especially paired with seafood. I also love to chop and add them to condiments for seafood, such as tartar sauce.

The lemon is straightforward citrus, and it’s crucial (as I declare in most of my recipes) that you choose fresh. Bottled lemon juice is full of weird preservatives and has no place in my kitchen, as long as lemon trees are still alive somewhere on the planet.

The remaining ingredients are petite diced tomatoes (fresh is great, but canned works fine), a splash of white wine, about half a medium onion, your favorite long pasta and a couple of pats of butter. I’ll assume you already have extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.

Lots of great flavor, and all perfectly good for you.

The Prep

I love a recipe that comes together quickly, especially on a busy weeknight, and this one takes only about five minutes to prep. First, cut thin slices of onion, and then dice them small. Cut the lemon in half. Measure out a heaping teaspoon of capers (no need to rinse them). Cut up a roma tomato into small diced bits or use a slotted spoon to scoop about 1/3 cup from a can of petite diced (it’s OK if you also get some of the juice). Put on a pot to boil for your pasta, and salt and pepper the fish.

This is a very simple recipe, including these items plus a splash of white wine. You’ve got this!

About the fish

The restaurant version I mentioned is made with grouper, which isn’t always easy to find. I substituted mahi the first time I made it myself and liked it so much I never looked back. Mahi is a firm fish—stronger in flavor than grouper or tilapia, but not as “fishy” as a sea bass or mackerel. Choose any firm-fleshed fish you like. I keep the skin on during cooking because much of the healthy omega-3 fats are very close to the skin. I’ve found that with most fish, the skin is super easy to remove once that side has been cooked, but this is strictly a matter of preference. If you don’t like the skin, ask the fishmonger (I love that word) to remove it for you.

Mahi is an oily fish, with loads of good omega-3 fats. It’s concentrated in that red line down the middle.

Choosing your pasta

For pretty presentation, choose a “long” pasta—something delicate like spaghetti or angel hair works nicely. Whole grain is an excellent choice, and today, I’m using a new thin spaghetti Les picked up for us. It’s durum wheat (ideal for pasta), and made with spinach, zucchini, broccoli, parsley and kale. We are adding a whole serving of vegetable to our dish, but without extra effort. I’m good with that!

This “super greens” pasta is such a dark green, it almost resembles seaweed!

So far, this recipe is ticking all the boxes—healthful, quick, easy. I’m loving it.

Putting it all together

The fish and sauce will cook quickly, so get going with the pasta first. Remember to use plenty of water and salt it generously.

I use the same skillet for the fish and the sauce. Begin over medium heat, sautéing the onion with a little olive oil until it begins to soften. Move the onion to the edges of the pan, and add the mahi fillets, flesh side down. For the best sear, resist the urge to move it around much. After about seven minutes, it will release freely so you can turn the fish and cook the skin side.

Add the tomatoes, capers, lemon juice and white wine to the skillet, give it a gentle shake to mix the ingredients, then cover and allow it to simmer on low heat until the pasta is cooked al dente. Remove from heat. Transfer the fish fillets to a plate and cover to keep them warm. Add a pat of cold butter to the sauce and use a fork to swirl and melt it. This technique creates a silky richness without a lot of extra fat. Immediately drain the pasta and use tongs to give it a quick swish through the sauce to coat it before plating. Spoon some of the sauce over the pasta, then top with the mahi fillet and the remaining sauce. Sprinkle a little fresh, chopped parsley on top and enjoy!

The slides will give you a visual walk-through of how easy this is to make. If you want to save the recipe for later, there’s a button at the end of the post to download and print for your recipe book.


Ingredients

Makes two servings (easy to double; choose a large enough pan)

2 6 oz. fillets fresh mahi or other firm fish

2 servings thin spaghetti or angel hair pasta

1/2 medium sweet or yellow onion, thinly sliced and diced

1/3 cup petite diced tomatoes, strained from can or chopped fresh

1 heaping teaspoon capers

Juice of 1/2 large lemon

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 Tbsp. cold butter

Fresh chopped parsley, for serving

Every bit as good as the high-dollar restaurant.

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Seared Tuna with Forbidden Rice and Tropical Salsa

This colorful dish proves two points—that eating healthy does not have to be boring or bland, and that you don’t need to be in a restaurant to enjoy a restaurant-quality meal.

When it comes to fresh seafood, I believe in keeping the fish (or shrimp, scallops, crab, whatever) as close to its true state as possible. Trust citrus juice, salt and pepper to bring out the best in seafood and bring in other complementary flavors on the side. That’s what I’ve done with this pretty plate, featuring a fresh-caught ahi tuna steak and a tropical fruit salsa that comes together in about 7 minutes. The most time-consuming part of the dish is waiting for the rice to cook.

If you’ve never seen or cooked with forbidden rice before, here’s a quick list of facts to help you get to know this delicious, somewhat exotic ingredient.

Black rice is sometimes called “forbidden” rice.

Where does black rice come from, and why is it “forbidden?”

Black rice originated across the continent of Asia, and has long been a significant crop in China, Bangladesh, parts of the Philippines, Thailand and Northeast India. The grain is no longer considered “forbidden,” but it was given that distinction in ancient China because of its former scarcity. The cost of this rare food put it out of reach for all but the wealthiest people, and so it was forbidden to everyone else. That has changed, however, as it is now cultivated more widely and available in larger supermarkets or online.

What gives black rice its color?

The rice has a very deep color that looks nearly black in its raw state, but in bright light and after cooking, it’s easier to see that it is actually more of a deep purple. This is because of anthocyanin, a type of plant pigment that also occurs in blueberries, raspberries, purple cauliflower and “blue” corn. Although some websites suggest the anthocyanins have antioxidant properties, scientific studies have so far only shown this to be true in a lab environment—not in the human body by food consumption.

What does black rice taste like?

If you were to close your eyes while tasting black rice, you might think you were enjoying smaller grains of brown rice because of the similar mild, slightly nutty flavor.

What do you make with black rice?

You can use black rice the same way you’d use any rice—in side dishes, pilafs, soups and salads. Also, because of its unusual color, it is commonly used in Asian countries in special dessert dishes, especially rice pudding made with coconut milk.

Ingredients

1 cup cooked black rice

2 portions fresh tuna steak

1 cup fresh pineapple, cut into bite-sized pieces* (see notes)

1 fresh honey mango, cut into chunks*

1/4 red bell pepper, diced (or 1 Tbsp. jarred pimentos, drained)

1/4 cup red onion, diced

1/2 fresh jalapeno, seeded and finely diced (optional to taste)

4 fresh mint leaves, cut into thin strips* (see slides for tips)

1 Tbsp. peach white balsamic vinegar*

1 Tbsp. neutral extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and fresh black pepper

Juice of 1/2 lime

*Notes

Save some time on the pineapple and pick it up pre-cut from your produce department. I don’t recommend canned pineapple for this, but you could probably use frozen (thawed) in a pinch.

There are hundreds of varieties of mango, but usually two at my market—“regular” mango, which is kind of round-oval and darkish green with blushing orange areas, and the one they call “honey” mango, which is usually smaller, deep yellow all over, and (my reason for choosing it) easier to cut up. Use whatever variety is your favorite, or whatever is available. If you’ve never cut a mango, check out the slideshow below for some easy tips.

The peach white balsamic is a specialty product I purchased at a gourmet olive oil and vinegar store. I chose it because it’s soft and fruity, but feel free to substitute any light vinegar you like, especially one that plays well with the fresh tropical flavors in this salsa—think fruity, citrus or mint.

Here’s a visual walk-through of how I put this together, and written instructions appear below.

Instructions

  1. Season tuna steaks with only sea salt and black pepper, and set aside, covered, at room temperature.
  2. Cook black rice according to package instructions. Try not to stir it too much to avoid additional “stickiness.”
  3. While rice is cooking, prepare salsa—combine pineapple and mango pieces, add jalapeno, red onion and red bell pepper. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Use a mini whisk to combine peach balsamic and extra virgin olive oil, stirring briskly until a thick emulsion results. (If your vinegar is not a balsamic, it may be thinner consistency)
  5. Stack mint leaves, then roll them lengthwise into a tube shape and cut across into slices. When unfurled, these will be thin strips.
  6. Pour dressing over fruit salsa blend and toss to coat evenly. Give it a taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Sprinkle mint leaves into blend, gently toss again and set aside.
  7. When rice is ready, sear tuna steak on a medium-hot griddle, grill or skillet, turning to sear other side to desired doneness. Ideally, good quality fresh tuna should be cooked rare, but if you’re squeamish about that, push it to medium-rare.

Plate by spooning about 1/2 cup black rice, then lay tuna steak halfway over the pile. Spoon salsa over the top, squeeze lime over both plates and serve!

It’s light, fresh and pretty!

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Creamy Spinach & Mushroom Tortellini

It seems like a never-ending battle, trying to evict leftovers from our fridge and stay on top of the new groceries coming in. Four months into pandemic lockdown, I still haven’t mastered the challenges of “shopping for the week.” But my culinary muse has been on some kind of caffeine kick lately, and I’m at it again today with a Meatless Monday-worthy pasta dish, made almost entirely with leftovers. Not to worry, though—I’m sure it would be fantastic with fresh-bought ingredients, too.

This one uses up leftover fresh tortellini from a soup recipe last week, and a few fresh produce items starting clamoring when I opened the fridge, so in they went! Cremini mushrooms, with all their warm, earthy flavor, plus baby spinach, sweet onions and fresh garlic. I happened to have a half bag of sweetly sun-kissed dried tomatoes in the pantry cabinet, and we’re off and cooking. I’m gonna get to the bottom of this cluttered fridge yet!

We are empty nesters, and many of my recipes are designed to serve two people. But doubling a recipe such as this one is easy, as long as you’re mindful about the size of your pan.

It’s creamy, rich and packed with earthy flavor!

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium sweet onion (tennis ball size), cut in half and sliced into crescent shapes

8 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 handfuls fresh baby spinach, rough chopped

1/4 cup soft sun-dried tomatoes*

2 cloves garlic, chopped

Kosher salt and black pepper

1/2 cup heavy cream* (see notes for a lighter option)

1/4 cup dry white wine* (something like Pinot Grigio is perfect)

2 cups fresh cheese tortellini (this was half a large package)

Trader Joe’s umami seasoning, optional

3 Tbsp. parm-romano blend* (plus extra for serving)


*Notes

My sun-dried tomatoes are the soft variety, packed in a zip-top bag. If yours are dry and hard, it’s probably a good idea to rehydrate them for a few minutes in hot water before proceeding. If they’re packed in olive oil, you’re good to go.

Want to lighten this up? Here’s a trick that works great in recipes where the fat of heavy cream isn’t as important as the texture. Swap it out in favor of canned evaporated milk. It is more concentrated than fresh milk, but with a fraction of the fat. Give it a try!

If you prefer, you could substitute a vegetable broth for the wine, plus a squeeze of lemon juice or splash of red wine vinegar. This will make up for the acidity the wine adds to the dish.

We go through a LOT of parm-romano blend at our house, and I mention this ingredient in many of my recipes. Rather than purchasing the pre-grated stuff at the market, we buy parmesan and romano in blocks and grate it in our food processor. It’s terrific to be able to reach into the fridge and have a container of it ready to go, plus it’s fresher and more flavorful with no added stabilizers or anti-caking agents. Did I mention we save money with this method?


I’m a visual learner, and if you are as well, have a look at the slideshow before you advance to the recipe. Fair warning: it might make you hungry!


Instructions

  1. Place a large pot of water on to boil over medium-high heat, for cooking the tortellini.
  2. Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add onion slices to the skillet and cook, tossing occasionally, until softened and browned on the edges.
  4. Remove onions to a bowl, add another splash of olive oil to the pan and toss in the mushrooms, cooking and tossing until they are soft and moisture has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Move the mushrooms to the outside edges of the pan and add the spinach leaves to the middle. Toss them around until wilted then add the sun-dried tomato pieces.
  6. Stir in the heavy cream, then add the white wine and parmesan-romano blend and reduce heat. Return the caramelized onions to the pan. Cover and allow mixture to simmer on low heat a few minutes while the pasta cooks.
  7. When water comes to a boil, season with 2 teaspoons kosher salt (don’t worry—most of the salt ends up down the drain). Add tortellini and stir immediately to prevent sticking. Reduce heat to medium and allow pasta to cook at a low boil for about 5 minutes. It’s OK to undercook them slightly because they’ll cook further in the sauce.
  8. Drain tortellini (or use a large straining spoon, as I did) and add to the sauce mixture. At this point, I tasted and decided it need just a little something. Remember the Trader Joe’s “umami” seasoning we introduced in the Lentil Moussaka? It’s perfectly at home in this dish, underscoring the flavor of the mushrooms already in the dish, and throwing on just a touch of extra savory depth.
  9. Give it a good toss to thoroughly coat the tortellini, then go set the table. It’s a good time to pour another glass of wine, while you’re at it.
  10. Divide the creamy pasta between two pasta bowls, sprinkle with additional parm-romano blend and serve.

It doesn’t look like leftovers and it sure doesn’t taste like it, but I’ve regained some ground on the shelves of my refrigerator. Plus, we ended up with one lingering portion of this dish, perfect for my husband to reheat for a work lunch. And that’s a win-win!

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