Salmon in a package

salmoninpackage

I admit that nothing sounds less appetizing than salmon cooked in a package. It arouses images of cardboard boxes bound with duct tape, spiders crawling all over it while it is left on the doorstep. Perhaps I should name this recipe Salmon a la Amazon?

But I assure you, no other process is as frugal with flavors as this method. If it makes you feel better think of it the French way:  ‘salmon en papillote’ is what they call it. Whether or not the French make better food, they have certainly cornered the market on making it sound better.

In this method, the salmon or the thing being cooked is wrapped in a package made of foil or parchment paper. Here’s the thing about it:

One, since it is paper, one can wrap the thing being cooked rather tight, and the thing can be very snug indeed. Most vessels are going to have a rather large air space around the thing being cooked — which means, the aromas emanating from it, which one ideally wants to conserve as much as possible of — have a large air space in which to escape to. In contrast when you cook it in a package the aromas stay close to your food, deep inside the package, forming a sort of aroma bomb, waiting to explode when the package is unwrapped at the table. A good sort of bomb, that is.

Two — these are the type of stiff papers than one can crimp into a rough air seal. So not only are the aromas staying close by your food, they aren’t leaking out either. The evidence of that? Most of the time when you have salmon or something baking in the oven, your kitchen gets quite suffused with the smells. Normally one swoons over this, but, as the ‘package’ method of cooking sternly reprimands us — the more suffusing into your kitchen that is going on, the less the aromas are sticking around where they belong — right by your food.

Three — it is not just the aromas, it is the natural steam that leaves the food as it cooks. Normally this creeps out into the aforementioned large air space, drying out the food stuff; but if you cook in a package, the steam is imprisoned inside, and perforce has to suffuse the food, which then remains moist.

Sorry about the analysis but it is nice to know why one does what one does. Or, we could just say ‘en papillote’ and consider the point made.

Cross-section of salmon cooking in a package

Salmon en papillote

In this recipe, I allow the flavors of onion, garlic and basil to combine with that of salmon. These items are tightly wrapped together so they have nowhere to go except into each others’ arms. This recipe makes enough for a dinner for two.

Ingredients:

  • 2 salmon fillets — total about 3/4 lb.
  • half a teaspoon of salt
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced or minced, your preference
  • A few large leaves basil, rolled up and sliced to chiffonade
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Method:

Lay out a piece of aluminium foil 18 inches wide and at least twice that long. Spread a teaspoon of oil on it, then place the fish fillets on, side by side. Spread the rest of the oil on the fillets evenly, then salt them both evenly. Now spread the onion, garlic and basil on the fillets evenly; and then the lemon juice.

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Now make your pouch. I apologize I forgot to take pictures of this process but you basically fold the edges in, then take the long overhang of the foil over, to cover the salmon completely and fold it under to make a sealed package.

Put it in a 400 F oven. In 20 minutes the fish should be done to medium-rare, translucent inside but cooked to a safe 140 F. If you like it cooked more, leave it in for at most 5 more minutes. At this point the fish should be opaque through and through but still flaky.

You will know what I mean by ‘aroma bomb’ when you unwrap the package at the table. Here is our dinner with a side of wild rice and broccoli.

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Pallid halibut. Pallibutt.

It has taken me a long time to get used to American food. And I don’t mean those paragons of American cultural invasion — the pizzas and the hamburgers. I mean the food that actual, real-life Americans eat in their homes; the food that mothers, and increasingly, fathers, cook to feed their families. You know, the protein, vegetable and starch trifecta that graces dinner plates across the nation at 6:30pm, with a basket of rolls by the side. The meal that is etched in my mind in a multiplicity of images: a little sandy-haired boy wearing shorts, leaning over the dining table with his elbows, pushing peas around with his fork. The bright, skirted wife/mother carrying a big roasted bird on a tray. The suit-wearing father with his pipe, wearing a frilly apron as a joke, handing rolls around the table.

An American family at the dinner table

An American family at the dinner table

I don’t know where these images come from (probably from America’s giant lifestyle industry), but you catch my drift.

It has taken me a long time to get used to this type of meal. Being Indian, I could not understand how meat could be eaten without a lot of spices, or how starch could be eaten just by itself — without mixing in a lot of spicy gravy. And what kind of a way is it to cook vegetables anyway — just steaming? Meat cooked in a plain way is the most challenging — after a few bites, it feels like rubber. This, for example, is what I was used to for the first 24 years of my life:

Indian food image from Wikimedia Commons

Indian food image from Wikimedia Commons

Yes, I have had my challenges with the American meal. But since I married an American he has learned about my cuisine and I have learned about his. Now I can appreciate how the simplest of ingredients, unadorned, can please.

Hence this.

Halibut, cooked with a simple poaching. In milk. Turning it paler than pale. Pleasing my American husband immensely. And — can I admit it? Me too.

Pallid Halibut

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 pound halibut fillet
  • 1 cup milk
  • half an onion, minced
  • 4 green cardamom pods
  • 10 or so whole black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt to taste

Method:

Collect the whole spices and minced onion in a pan. Pour milk over and bring to a simmer. Sprinkle salt over the fish and lay into the simmering milk; salt some of the surrounding milk as well. Keep ladling some of the milk over the fish along with the spices and onion once in a while. In about 15 to 20 minutes, while you keep the milk at a simmer, it should be done.

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So — about done-ness. This is a concept that was new to me from Western cooking. The simplest way to check is to use a Thermapen thermometer to check the internal temperature of the fish — it should reach around 140 F. Another method is just to use a fork to see if the fish flakes easily and is opaque all the way in. Of course, some people like it more translucent.

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Here is my pallid hallibut, the center of our very American meal that evening.

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Interestingly encrusted salmon

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Salmon crusted with cracked black pepper is IN. Open a fancy restaurant, add that dish to your menu, and watch your cash register spin. But what is a few cracked peppers? I pooh-pooh it. Wait, I must catch a breath from laughing. I give you — salmon encrusted with the most interesting crust in the world.

Black pepper does make an appearance. Coriander seeds do as well. And also — that paragon of savoriness — urad dal (Vigna mungo), the platinum-blond lentils that turn red when roasted. Throw in some lemon juice and you have a meal. The fame of this recipe has spread far and wide throughout my home since I came up with it.

The most interestingly encrusted salmon in the world

Ingredients for the spice powder:

  • Half a tablespoon whole black pepper
  • One tablespoon whole coriander seeds
  • One tablespoon skinned and split urad dal

Ingredients for the meal:

  • 3/4 lb salmon steak or fillet
  • salt to taste
  • One tablespoon olive oil
  • Juice of half a lemon or to taste

Method:

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To make the spice powder we need to first roast the seeds. Heat a small thick-bottomed pan on medium heat. Put in the black pepper and coriander seed in one batch. Stir occasionally. In a couple minutes a few will start to pop (stand back). Empty the seeds into a small bowl.

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Next, in the same pan, in goes the lentil. Stir once in a while to ensure even roasting. These will take longer but in a few minutes will redden. Take them off the heat into the same bowl.

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Wait a few minutes for the spices to cool, then grind them up in a clean coffee grinder. The salmon crusting spices are ready. You can save the excess in a clean spice jar, nicely labeled and dated. You will thank yourself later.

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Next let’s prepare the fish. For us, dinner for two consists of a three-quarter-pound fillet or steak of salmon, but feel free to use as much fish as you need. Start the oven at 425 F to preheat.

Place the fish in an oven-safe tray. Make a few deep cuts with a sharp knife. Sprinkle salt to taste. Now spread olive oil over the fish, then lemon juice, taking care to drive some of the salty, oily, lemony mixture into the deep cuts you just made (now you don’t need to wonder why you made them).

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Next comes the spice powder. I use it liberally to coat the fist. Perhaps a tablespoon and a half for a piece this size? The point is really to cover the flesh.

Goes into the oven next. I give it 20 minutes in a 425 F oven, and it comes out medium-well. Your mileage may vary.

This goes very well with patty-pan squash mashed (squashed?) but the recipe for that will come later.