What a week! Things have been a bit upside-down at our house, as my husband and I are now in week five of our master bath remodel. It isn’t clear to me how a room half the size of the kitchen can take longer to overhaul, but we are assured that the end of the month will bring light at the end of the tunnel. I’m sure ready to get back to normal, though “normal” itself is different with the change of season. Can I get an “achoo?”
The weather is warming, my car is predictably covered in yellow pollen, all the flowers are blooming and the bees are buzzing (literally). Yesterday, as I chatted with a neighbor in the warmth of the afternoon, we heard a humming sound that became increasingly loud as we talked. It was not the sound of the nearby wet saw grinding away at the large porcelain tiles that will grace the walls of our new, walk-in shower—no, this sound was much closer and sounded like a chaotic symphony of the natural sort. To be honest, it felt and sounded a bit ominous, as if the wind carried a warning. I finally looked up to realize that an enormous swarm of bees was on the move! In all my years, I had never before witnessed such a sight, and it was something to behold. Thankfully, they kept moving!
Easter arrives this weekend, and for the occasion, I’ll be making a couple batches of homemade Moravian Sugar Cake this evening and tomorrow morning. And then, with the Friday evening arrival of Passover, all leavened baked goods will be “off the table” for a week (plus a day). That is a big test of my willpower, and I will probably try to satisfy my cravings virtually by sharing a previously made bread recipe (or two).
In the meantime, here’s a delicious and healthful seafood recipe that fits the bill for the final Friday of Lent or for a simple Passover meal for the coming week. When I made this dish a few months ago, it was a good reminder for me that a meal does not have to be complicated to seem elegant. The creamy Dijon-spiked sauce has a dual role; first, to coat the salmon during baking (which keeps it delightfully moist) and, second, a reserved amount can be dolloped onto the plate for dipping as you enjoy each bite. I like wild or sustainably farm-raised salmon for this recipe, but arctic char or steelhead trout would be equally delicious, and it only takes 30 minutes, start to finish—perfect at the end of a hectic “here comes spring” week!
Ingredients (serves 2)
2 fillets salmon (about 6 oz. each, skin-on is fine)
Creamy Dijon Sauce
1/3 cup sour cream (or Greek yogurt, if you prefer)
A small handful of fresh, flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Juice of 1/2 small lemon
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
If you will be making this dish for Passover, omit the Dijon, as mustard is not considered kosher for Passover, especially in Ashkenazi Jewish culture. I’m still learning the rules, and though we don’t follow all of them at our house, I would hate to lead someone else astray of acceptable standards. This will be delicious, even without the mustard.
Preheat oven to 350° F. Prepare a baking sheet, lined with parchment or silicone liner.
Pat salmon fillets dry with paper towels. Season each with salt and pepper.
Stir together the sour cream, Dijon, shallots, dill and parsley. Squeeze in lemon juice and stir to combine. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
Spread the creamy Dijon sauce generously over each fillet, reserving a few tablespoons for serving later. Bake for 25 minutes, or until salmon flakes easily.
I’ve lived in and around Winston-Salem for 35 years, and from the day I arrived as a fresh-faced 20-something, I’ve explored every corner and tried every restaurant and sought out all the specialty shops in a quest to satisfy my food-loving soul.
Or so I thought.
A few years ago, some friends of ours made mention of Sea Products, a hidden gem that has been in business three years longer than I’ve been here, and their recommendation has changed my life. OK, that’s probably a bit overstated, but it has definitely changed my seafood game for the better.
I love stepping into this little shop in the West End of my city. It smells like the ocean in the best possible way and is always amply stocked with fresh seafood—mostly from our own coastline, but sometimes from as far as Canada—and all kinds of accoutrements for whatever preparation you have in mind for your fresh catch. Sea Products throws in a fresh lemon with every seafood purchase, and sells housemade tartar and cocktail sauces, side salads in ready-to-go containers, and fresh breads from a local bakery. They even have a small, curated wine selection, and every bottle pairs with fish. It’s a one-stop shop, and I am a proud supporter of local businesses such as this. The selections are always interesting, to the point that I don’t even bother making a shopping list.
What would it be this day—fresh shrimp, clams or scallops? Pre-made crab or fish cakes? Halibut or grouper? And then something caught my eye from the corner of the case, a fish that I hadn’t seen on previous visits. Black sea bass. The clerk described it as “mild and flaky, similar to snapper but a touch sweeter.”
I am always interested in trying new fish, and thought it made sense to pair the unfamiliar black sea bass with flavors we already knew. OK, I thought, piccata sauce. It’s light enough to let the flavors of the fish shine, and both my husband and I like the balance of brine and tartness, softened by the butter that’s swirled in at the end of cooking. Piccata was the plan, at least, until I opened the fridge. As I shuffled jars to reach the capers, my eyes locked in on a taller jar of pimento-stuffed cocktail olives. Ooh, a martini would be nice right now, I thought.
And then, hmmmm.
I could not help but wonder what would happen if I made the olives an understudy to the usual capers. And because savory olives work so nicely in a martini, what would happen if I substituted gin and vermouth for the white wine in my piccata? Well, this happened!
Technically, the alcohol infusion I’ve used here is what a bartender would call a “reverse martini,” because the ratio of gin to vermouth has been flipped. This seemed the right thing to do, not only because my husband is decidedly not a gin lover, but also for the fact that gin is much higher alcohol by volume than white wine. Dry vermouth, on the other hand, is on par with wine, alcohol-wise, and it would be a better flavor choice to highlight the olives without over-boozing the fish. Finally, my splash of olive juice was far more generous than I’d ever drink in a cocktail (I used a full ounce of it), so a bartender would probably declare the drink infusion to be a “filthy reverse martini.” Filthy indeed.
So, those are the flavors and here comes the technique. If you have ever marveled at the elegance of a butter sauce on fresh seafood, you may find it surprising to know that it is simple to make. The trick is to remove the pan from the heat as soon as the juices are reduced, and to swirl cold-from-the-fridge pats of butter into the sauce, one at a time. This easy technique transforms the otherwise liquid leavings in the pan into a silky, rich sauce.
Come, join me in the kitchen!
2 fillets fresh black sea bass (or other mild, flaky whitefish)
1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. canola or other neutral oil
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (a rich, fruity one is great)
1/2 medium onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
1 reverse filthy martini* (see note below)
1 heaping tsp. pimentos from a jar
3 Tbsp. completely cold butter (for swirling in at the end)
Small handful of fresh parsley, chopped (for serving)
Lemon wedge (to squeeze at serving time)
Reverse martini ingredients are 1.5 oz. dry or extra-dry vermouth, .5 oz. gin, 1 oz. olive juice, 3 olives. Do not shake or stir the martini with ice, as you would for drinking. Just combine the ingredients in a glass or measuring cup at room temperature. Chop or slice the olives and set them aside.
If you don’t care for gin, swap it for vodka or omit it altogether.
Friday fish fry. That was the thing in my upstate New York hometown, and it didn’t have to be Lent. There were a few places that everyone flocked to on Friday nights for a heaping plate of beer-battered haddock fillets, deep fried and served up with cole slaw and French fries—or cottage cheese, if it was lunch. You couldn’t order it any other day of the week. Just Friday. The “fish fry” is one of the foods I really do miss from my younger years, and I have never seen it served that way anywhere else. There are plenty of places I could find battered-and-fried cod, but it just isn’t the same.
I need to get better at deep frying before I try to make a Friday fish fry myself. Until then, I’ll satisfy my fish craving with a few other favorites, baked rather than fried, that I’ve developed on my own over the years. During the Lenten season, there’s an uptick in searches for interesting seafood recipes because observant Christians abstain from eating meat on Fridays—at least for the 40 days leading up to Easter. Here’s one that is delicious and easy to prepare. I hope you enjoy it, regardless of your religious observance.
My recipe for pecan-crusted trout has evolved over the years, and the flavors and textures are all front and center in this one. The trout fillets are brushed with an easy blend of mayonnaise, Parmesan and Dijon mustard, and then I press them into a mixture of panko crumbs, more grated Parmesan and finely crushed, toasted pecans. 20 minutes later, dinner is served! This is easy enough for even a busy weeknight, and you can prepare your sides while it bakes.
The mayo mixture serves double duty in this recipe. It’s a “glue” to hold the seasoned pecan blend in place, and it also protects the fish from becoming dry during its brief time in the oven. The trout fillets remain soft and moist inside, despite the delicate crunch that meets your taste buds with every bite.
This recipe serves 2; easy to adjust for more servings
2 fresh trout fillets
1 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup pecan pieces, toasted* (see recipe notes)
1/4 cup panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
A few shakes ground cayenne pepper
To toast the pecan pieces, preheat oven to 350° F. Spread the pecan pieces onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, until nuts are fragrant, roasty and slightly shiny. Remove from oven and cool completely. Do this step ahead to save even more time in preparation of the fish.
Preheat oven to 350° F. Stir together the mayonnaise, Parmesan and Dijon mustard. Sprinkle the trout fillets with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Using a food processor or mortar and pestle, pulse or crush the pecan pieces into fine crumbs. Transfer the pecans to a bowl with the panko crumbs and Parmesan. Season with a shake or two of ground cayenne.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spritz it lightly with cooking oil spray. Arrange the trout fillets on the sheet, skin side-down. Use a pastry brush to thoroughly coat the fleshy side of the trout fillets with the mayo-Parm mixture, then press the pecan crumb mixture onto the fish, generously covering every visible area.
Bake the fish for about 18 minutes, or until it flakes easily with a light twist of a fork. If the crumbs are pale, turn on the broiler for only one minute, to finish the fish with a deep golden color.
Comfort foods come in many shapes and sizes, though I usually think of them as rich, creamy sauces or over-the-top pizzas or decadent ice creams. But this entrée, despite being inherently light and healthful, is also very comforting, thanks to the variety of textures and flavors in the mix.
I designed this pretty plate from memory after a brunch with co-workers during the holiday season. It was the farro salad and roasted root vegetables that caught my eye on the menu that day. I loved the tender chew of the farro and the warmth and earthiness given by the sweet potatoes and parsnips. If you are not familiar with farro, please allow me to introduce you.
What is farro?
Farro is an ancient grain that is native to Italy. It is perhaps better described as a category of grain, given that three distinct varieties—spelt, einkorn and emmer—are frequently described as “farro.” In its most basic state, farro is a hard kernel that can either be cooked whole in water or ground into meal or flour. But it may also be partially or fully pearled, meaning that some or all of the bran has been removed. The pearling process results in altered cooking time, but the grain would still be suitable for the same kinds of dishes.
What does farro taste like?
When cooked as a whole grain, farro has a warm, nutty flavor that is similar to that of brown rice. Unlike most conventional wheat grains, farro has not been greatly hybridized from its ancient state, and some people find it more easily digestible for that reason. But as a botanical relative of wheat, farro does contain gluten and should be avoided by people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.
How do you cook farro?
To cook partially pearled farro (the most common form you’ll find in stores), give it a rinse under running water and inspect the grains to weed out any small debris that may have missed screening during packaging. Add the farro to double the amount of water and heat until boiling, then reduce heat and simmer about 20 to 25 minutes for al dente, or longer if you want it more tender. Farro that has not been pearled may take twice as long, and some packaged farro is par-cooked for quicker preparation, so always check the label instructions for recommended cooking time.
What can you use farro for?
Farro is a versatile grain that can be used in pilafs, salads or soups. If ground into flour, it can be used in baking recipes, though the resulting texture would be more dense than baked goods made with typical wheat. If you want to try farro flour in a favorite bread recipe, consider substituting only about one-fourth of the total amount of flour, and increase the amount the next time when you better understand its properties.
The rest of this recipe is straightforward and simple—the sweet potatoes and parsnips are tossed lightly in olive oil and roasted until tender and browned, and the salmon is lightly seared in a skillet with nothing more than salt and pepper. A quick vinaigrette of lemon, garlic and oregano ties the whole dish together with a fat handful of peppery arugula greens.
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup sliced fresh leeks (or chopped sweet onion)
1 cup cooked farro* (see recipe notes)
A fat handful fresh baby arugula leaves, washed
2 fillets fresh salmon, skin removed
1/4 cup crumbled feta (or goat cheese)
As noted above, some farro products have been par-cooked for convenience. Follow the instructions on your package to cook the farro to “al dente” stage, so that it is soft but still has a bit of chew to it.
Vinaigrette is one of the simplest salad dressings to make at home. I usually make it in a glass measuring cup for easy pouring, but if you want to make it even easier, put all the ingredients into a small jar with a lid and shake the dickens out of it. My recipe for this vinaigrette is included in the downloadable PDF at the end of this post. You’ll need a light vinegar, Dijon, fresh garlic, oregano and lemon, and extra virgin olive oil.
Follow along as I show you how I made this tasty, healthful comfort food. Scroll to the bottom for a downloadable version you can print for your recipe files.
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:
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.
Two servings, easy to double.
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*
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
1 average bundle fresh asparagus
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Zest of 1/2 fresh lemon (optional)
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.
Season the salmon fillets with kosher salt and black pepper. Place them, skin side down, in a glass baking dish.
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.
Peel and cut up the potatoes. Boil gently until they are easily pierced with a fork, then drain over a colander.
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.
While the potatoes cook, prepare your grill, with temperature at 350° F. Soak cedar wraps and tying twine for at least five minutes.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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? 😀
Most every night for the past few months, I have awakened around 3 a.m., for no apparent reason. My insomnia usually lasts at least an hour and a half, during which time I ponder all of the good and evil in the world, or play mindless word games on my smartphone, or venture into the dark corners of our house to find and snuggle our sleeping pets. I’d like to make one suggestion for others who have experienced this phenomenon of waking at 3 a.m.—do not pick up your phone and begin Googling possible causes for said awakenings. The search results are grim, and in a matter of moments, you will begin to question everything from your diet (am I eating sugar too close to bedtime?) to your spiritual condition (what do you mean, exactly, by ‘witching hour?’). My therapist believes I am probably flummoxed over a combination of things, related mostly to work-from-home stress and general pandemic fatigue. Whatever the case, I’m exhausted. Every once in a while though, these sleep interruptions result in something good, and this recipe is a fine example of that.
Out of the blue two weeks ago, I awakened with a start and asked myself why I had never made fish cakes with sriracha and scallions. You might be thinking this is a bizarre question to ask oneself so urgently at 3 in the freakin’ morning, and you’d be correct, but this is my life now. Once I go down that rabbit hole, it isn’t long before I begin dreaming up ideas of just how such a dream dish should be completed, right down to the garnish. Sometimes I pick up my phone and make record of my ideas—and that’s a smart thing, because if I don’t jot it down, my next successful 40 winks may wipe it clean out of my brain. From this particular wide-awake culinary epiphany, I made these exact notes, because I didn’t want to forget what sounded like a great recipe.
It took me a few days to round up my ingredients, and when I got down to it last week, with a few tweaks to my original plan, the result was delicious! These scallion-sriracha salmon cakes were light and fresh, low calorie and easy as could be to make, with just enough heat to make your tongue tingle. I modeled the ratio of ingredients after my favorite crab cake recipe, using only enough mayonnaise and panko crumbs to hold the flaky salmon together with the finely minced garlic and red bell pepper. A little extra panko on the outside before pan frying gave the cakes a terrific crispiness to offset the moist and tender interior.
1/4 cup panko crumbs, plus extra for shaping cakes
2 Tbsp. peanut oil
Fish sauce is a pungent, fermented condiment found in the Asian section of most supermarkets. If you cannot find it, substitute with soy sauce.
The Asian Reds hot pepper flakes are a specialty item that popped up a while back in my hubby’s Facebook feed, and we could not resist ordering a variety of products from this company, though we have no financial incentive from doing so. I like this pepper seasoning because it includes the hard-to-find varieties of pepper that play so well with other Asian flavors, including the sriracha in this recipe. If you don’t want to spring for them, substitute any crushed red pepper flakes, or omit them for less heat.
Here we go with pictures, and keep scrolling for written steps and a downloadable copy for your recipe files!
Heat a small, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Pan steam or lightly sauté salmon fillet until just flaky (better slightly underdone than overdone). Cool then refrigerate several hours or overnight.
Combine mayo with sriracha and fish sauce; measure out about 3 Tbsp. for finishing the cakes at serving. I put the reserved portion into a zip-top snack bag (sort of a makeshift piping bag).
Add half of the chopped scallions, red pepper, garlic and spicy Asian Reds seasoning to remaining mayo mixture. Fold in beaten egg and panko crumbs.
Flake fish into large-ish pieces and gently fold into mayo mixture, taking care not to break up the fish pieces too much. Sprinkle additional panko crumbs into your hand and shape mixture into four patties, about the size of hockey pucks, with a light coating of panko on both sides. Place each fish cake onto a parchment lined plate or small baking sheet.
Cover the fish cakes with plastic wrap and chill at least two hours. This gives the mixture time to firm up, and the panko will absorb some of the moisture to better bind the cakes.
Heat peanut oil in a medium, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Cook salmon cakes 3 or 4 minutes per side, until browned and crisp. Serve over rice with your favorite vegetables, top salmon cakes with reserved sriracha mayo drizzle and reserved scallion slices.
There has been a fresh and flavorful shift in our kitchen over the past couple of weeks, and it feels so right! My husband, Les, and I have been eating healthier after the holidays, not for keeping resolutions (we don’t bother with those), but out of simple desire to care for our bodies better after a season of splurging. Seafood has been the star of this menu reboot, and I’ve brought back into rotation one of my favorite all-time recipes, a seared fillet of fish rested on a mélange of tender sautéed fennel with creamy cannellini beans and sweet tomatoes.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll confess right here that I actually did not use salmon this time, but steelhead trout. This is a sweet and creamy fish, similar in texture (and appearance) to a farm-raised salmon, and when I can get my hands on steelhead trout, I love to swap it into favorite salmon recipes, including the salmon in phyllo dish that I shared in December. But steelhead trout isn’t always easy to find, especially while adhering to the best practice standards set by the Marine Stewardship Council (sustainability means a lot to me). The dish is every bit as delicious when made with your favorite salmon, which is usually much easier to find.
It looks and tastes more extravagant than it is, and although I’ve named it “fish with fennel,” it would be better described as fennel with fish, given that the fennel shows up in three different forms—the seeds are ground to a powder for crusting on the fillets, the vegetable is caramelized in the mélange beneath the fish, and the fronds are chopped and sprinkled on top.
Would it surprise you to know that you can have this meal on the table in about 35 minutes, start to finish? It’s true. And Les, who is practically a living nutritional calculator, announced after cleaning his plate that our meal probably checked in at fewer than 400 calories per serving, which is not too shabby for such a flavorful, satisfying meal.
2 portions salmon*, skin removed (see notes)
1 tsp. fennel seed, ground to a rough powder
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 bulb fennel, sliced* (should measure about 1 cup)
1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes (or canned, drained well)
1/4 cup low-sodium vegetable broth + 2 Tbsp. dry white wine* (or all vegetable broth)
15 oz. can cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained and rinsed
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp. fennel fronds, chopped or minced
Any type of salmon (wild sockeye, king, coho, etc.) works well in this recipe, but you might also consider swapping in another fish, such as arctic char or steelhead trout, which I used. If you are not comfortable removing the skin yourself, ask the seafood clerk to do it for you. Learn this task, and you’ll be unstoppable!
Fennel is a less common vegetable, one that you may have passed over in the supermarket for something more recognizable. It resembles something between celery and bok choy, but tastes nothing like either. It is crunchy with a slightly licorice flavor, and it pairs beautifully with all kinds of fish, especially when sautéed or stewed. The seed part of fennel might be more familiar to you. It’s the flavor that makes Italian sausage taste Italian.
If you use wine to deglaze the skillet, make it a dry one, such as pinot grigio. Alternatively, I frequently reach for dry vermouth, given that I always have a bottle open in the fridge. If you prefer to not use wine, just add another splash of vegetable broth, no problem.
Using a mortar and pestle or electric spice grinder, crush the fennel seeds to a rough powder. Don’t have either? Try putting the seeds into a bag and use a rolling pin to crush them. Season the fish fillets with kosher salt and pepper, then sprinkle the fennel powder onto both sides of the fillets and press to fully adhere it.
Heat a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil. When oil is hot and shimmery (but not smoking), lay fish fillets into pan. Cook about two minutes, then carefully turn fillets to cook the other side another two minutes. Transfer fish to a small plate and keep warm. I usually slip it into the microwave while I make the mélange.
Add fennel pieces to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté, tossing occasionally, until fennel is caramelized and tender, about five minutes.
Add tomatoes, then broth, plus wine. Stir until combined and liquid is simmering.
Add beans and mustard. Toss to combine, reduce heat to low.
Return fish to the pan, resting the fillets on top of the mixture. Cover and simmer on low for about 8 minutes, which is just about enough time to set the table and chop the fennel fronds.
Plate the meal, with fish fillet resting on top of the fennel-bean mixture. Sprinkle the chopped fennel fronds on top and serve.
It happens every time. The start of a new year is filled with good intentions, as everyone makes their resolutions to get fit, lose weight, improve their health. This is the reason for all the TV ads for gym memberships, weight loss products and home exercise equipment. It isn’t a terrible idea, of course, but there are simpler (and more sustainable) things we can do to get back into better habits, and most of them begin in the kitchen.
Along with many other people at the end of holiday indulging, I’m tired of so much rich food and find myself aching for fresher, lighter fare. After the heavy flavors of Thanksgiving dishes, it was spicy that I craved. But after the double whammy of Christmas and New Year’s, and all the sweets and booze that came with them, I just want to eat something—anything—fresh. Oh, and easy would be nice, too!
That’s where this recipe comes in, and there’s plenty to love about it. The dish is light and lemony, with big, juicy shrimp and bright, barely-crunchy asparagus. Piled high on a bed of al dente pasta, it looks like it came from a restaurant kitchen, and it tastes like fresh air after all the decadence we’ve plated in this house over the past six weeks.
Scampi is a simple dish to make, and the main thing to embrace is patience. You will cook the garlic slowly in olive oil over low heat, which allows it to essentially poach rather than sauté. This low and slow approach leads to the soft, mellow garlic flavor that is distinctive in scampi. And yes, it is a fair amount of oil, but remember that extra virgin olive oil is monounsaturated—what nutritionists call “good fat.” The meal will satisfy, and there are health benefits to boot. Sounds good to me!
If you don’t care for asparagus, sub in another crisp green vegetable, maybe some sugar snap peas or fresh broccolini. Or skip the sauteed veggie and serve the scampi alongside a salad. After the holidays, you deserve whatever fresh flavors suit your craving. Make it your own.
Serves: 2 Time to make it: About 35 minutes
2/3 pound fresh or frozen (uncooked) shrimp, 16-20 count* (see notes)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
1/2 medium sweet onion, halved and sliced in crescent moon shapes
1/2 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
A few shakes crushed red pepper flakes, if you like it spicy
The “count” on shrimp refers to its size, and represents the average number of shrimp per pound. The higher the number, the smaller the shrimp. I have no problem with using frozen shrimp, especially because supermarkets often receive the shrimp frozen anyway. For many reasons, including food safety, fair trade and human rights, I always purchase shrimp harvested in the U.S., and my preference is white gulf shrimp. It’s sweet and juicy, whereas some other types of shrimp can be sharp and briny. Check with your seafood department for flavor recommendations, and whatever you purchase, be sure to thoroughly clean and de-vein it (instructions for this at the end of the post).
Place a large, non-stick skillet over low heat. Add olive oil and garlic (plus the red pepper, if using) and leave it alone. When the oil heats very slowly, the garlic gets softer and more mellow, which leads to the flavor we all know in scampi. Rush this step and the garlic will burn, which is definitely not delicious. Expect this low, slow cooking to take about 20 minutes.
Thaw the shrimp (if frozen), and then peel and de-vein each one. If you have never done this before, it’s easy but extremely important, and I’ve provided some images at the end of the post to walk you through it. Removing the peel is pretty simple. Next, use a sharp paring knife to make a shallow cut down the outside curved part of the shrimp, revealing a dark stringy thing. I hate to tell you, but this isn’t actually a vein—it’s a digestive tract. Disgusting, but important to know. Slip the sharp tip of the knife underneath this nasty thing and pull it out. Lay the cleaned shrimp on layers of paper towel and set aside for now. If working ahead, cover and refrigerate.
Bring a large pot of water to boil for cooking the pasta. Season it generously with kosher salt and (once boiling) add the pasta, stirring to prevent sticking. Cook until al dente, according to directions on the pasta box. While this is underway, continue with the recipe below.
After the garlic has poached about 20 minutes, turn the skillet heat up to medium. When oil begins to bubble around the garlic, add the onions and asparagus and sauté 5 to 7 minutes, until the onions are translucent and the asparagus is slightly softened but still bright green.
Move the veggies to the outer edges of the skillet and arrange the cleaned shrimp in the center. Cook only long enough for the bottom of the shrimp to become pink and opaque.
Turn the shrimp, season the whole skillet with salt and pepper, and add in the lemon zest. Squeeze the lemon half over the mixture and continue to cook until the second side of the shrimp is cooked. Move all the skillet ingredients to the outer edges.
Using tongs, move the cooked pasta directly to the center of the skillet and swirl it around to coat it with the flavors of the skillet.
Arrange the pasta on serving plates or bowls, hit it with a little parm-romano blend, if you’d like, and top with veggies and shrimp.
For goodness sake, do not skip this important step. As noted above, the “vein” in the outer curve of shrimp is actually a digestive tract, and the gunk inside is what’s left of the critter’s most recent meal (yuck). Food safety experts haven’t expressed serious concerns about eating it, but if it grosses you out (as it does me), grab a sharp paring knife and get that thing outta there!
If you think “elegant” and “easy” cannot co-exist in the kitchen, allow me to introduce you to this moist and flaky salmon, wrapped in layer upon layer of crispy buttery phyllo and dressed with a champagne-and-cream sauce that sends it over the top. As impressive and fancy as this sounds, you may find it hard to believe that it is easy to make. But if you can use a paintbrush and wrap a small birthday gift, you have the skills to do this.
Don’t be intimidated by the delicate, flaky layers of phyllo. This paper-thin wheat dough that is popular in Greek and other Mediterranean cuisine is not as fussy as it may seem. My first experience with phyllo was years ago in a catering kitchen, where I worked part-time during peak seasons, including holidays. The kitchen team wrapped this stuff around nearly everything in those days—appetizers, entrees and desserts—and though I was nervous at first about handling phyllo, I got over it quickly with a few helpful tips. Give it time to thaw overnight before you start, brush or spray every layer with oil or melted butter, and do your best to keep the extra sheets covered so they don’t dry out. Those are the key rules. Get it right and the rest is easy.
There is flexibility in this recipe, too. You can swap out the seasonings, use different fish and even change up the sauce if you want. Once you nail the technique of phyllo (which you will after this), there are many possibilities. Finally, whether you’ll be serving two people or eight, you’ll appreciate being able to prepare these cute little “packages” ahead of time and just pop them in the oven in time for dinner. Yes, so much easier than it looks. But every bit as elegant; the champagne cream sauce can be whipped up while the salmon is in the oven.
For a restaurant quality presentation, here’s a simple trick I learned from pro caterers: place the salmon phyllo packet on top of the sauce rather than smothering it. You’ll want your loved ones and guests to see the full beauty of the delicate phyllo. This little flip is one of the simplest things you can do at home to elevate a meal that includes a sauce. Let the swooning commence.
My recipe is for two adult servings. Adjust accordingly for extra portions.
Fresh salmon fillet (5 oz. for each serving), skin removed* (see notes)
Salt and pepper
Fresh or dried dill leaves
5 sheets phyllo dough*
1/2 stick salted butter, melted (possibly more if you brush heavily)
Champagne Cream Sauce
1/2 cup champagne (or dry white wine, such as pinot grigio)
1 small shallot, finely minced*
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup half & half (or light cream)
1 1/2 tsp. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
A couple of pinches of white pepper
If your supermarket offers pre-portioned salmon fillets, that’s a good way to go. Ideally, you want the skin removed from the fish (they will usually do this for you at the fish counter, but I will teach you how to do it yourself).
Any kind of salmon (sockeye, king, coho, etc.) works for this recipe, but you may also substitute steelhead (ocean) trout or arctic char. Both are mild in flavor but similar in texture to farm-raised salmon. In the photos for this post, I used steelhead trout and it was delicious.
Phyllo is a paper-thin wheat dough, popular in Greek and other Mediterranean cuisine. You’ll find it in the freezer section near the pie crusts and puff pastry. The brand I buy comes in 9 x 14” sheets, which are very manageable and large enough to wrap two fillets.
If you don’t have shallots, substitute very finely minced sweet or red onion. Do not confuse scallions for shallots. As you can see, they are most definitely not the same. 😊
You’re about to see how easy it is to make this impressive phyllo-wrapped salmon, but first, a few tips for success when working with phyllo:
Use melted butter on every layer of the phyllo. Keep the new sheets covered with a clean towel to prevent them drying out as you work. Use a pastry mat for brushing the phyllo with butter or clean your counter really well before and after. Transfer unused phyllo to a gallon-sized zip top bag and seal, squeezing out as much air as possible. Store it in the refrigerator but try to use it within a week.
Gather up the tools you’ll need, including a sharp chef knife (to remove salmon skin), a pastry mat or clean section of counter space, a heavy-duty baking sheet and a pastry brush for spreading butter on the phyllo layers.
Have a look at the slides first, then keep scrolling for written instructions and a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.
Follow package instructions for thawing the phyllo. It usually requires overnight in the fridge or a few hours on the counter.
Preheat oven to 375° F, with oven rack in the center. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove the skin from the salmon if the fishmonger did not do this for you. Beginning at the tail end with the flesh side up, carefully slide the tip of a sharp knife between the flesh and skin, just enough to loosen about 2 inches of skin. Grab the skin with a paper towel. Position the knife at a low angle, and gently tug the skin side to side, holding the knife firmly in place. Continue to pull the skin until it releases from the fillet.
Cut the fish into equal portions, approximately 5 ounces each. Sprinkle the fillets with salt, pepper and dried dill leaves. Set aside.
Spray a pastry mat or clean section of the counter with olive oil spray. Melt butter in a small bowl. You may need to re-heat the butter as you go. Unroll the phyllo dough so that the sheets are lying flat.
Carefully spread one sheet of phyllo dough onto the counter, gently pressing down the edges to keep it in place. It may tear or fold on itself in some place, but this is OK. The layers will help to hide imperfections so just keep going. Remember to cover the remaining phyllo sheets with a clean towel and damp paper towel to prevent them from drying while you work.
Brush melted butter all over the phyllo sheet, starting in the center, and cover the full sheet all the way to the edges. Repeat with four more layers of phyllo.
Using a sharp knife, cut the phyllo stack in half, creating two smaller rectangle-shaped stacks. Arrange the salmon fillets, face side-down on the center of each new rectangle.
Fold the short end of the phyllo stack up over the salmon, then fold in the sides and the other end. Brush the packet with melted butter, then turn it over and brush the other side. Transfer the packet to the cookie sheet and repeat with the other fish packet. If you are working ahead, cover with plastic film and refrigerate. When you’re ready to bake, remove from fridge while oven preheats.
Bake at 375° for 25-30 minutes, until phyllo is golden brown. Prepare sauce while fish is baking.
Spoon a portion of sauce onto each serving plate. Carefully cut fish packet in half and stack the halves on top of the champagne cream sauce.
Champagne Mustard Cream Sauce
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine champagne and shallots. Cook over medium heat to a light boil, then reduce heat and simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Whisk flour into half & half until smooth. Add to champagne mixture and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly. Stir in Dijon mustard, white pepper and salt to taste. Keep sauce warm until ready to serve.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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