Fionn Mac Cumhaill was a mythological Irish hunter and warrior. One day near the River Boyne he came upon a gnome-like druid and poet by the name of Finn Eces. Eces became his mentor and he, his pupil. Eces had spent years endeavoring to catch the Salmon of Wisdom. As the story goes, a salmon ventured into the Well of Wisdom, so named for the nine hazelnut trees known as the nine sacred hazels of wisdom. The salmon consumed nuts from the trees which had fallen into the well, and subsequently gained all of the knowledge existing in the world. He who ate the salmon, would in turn be the benefactor of all this knowledge. The catch, (you know there’s always a catch), was that only the first person to partake of the salmon’s flesh would acquire the universal wisdom. Eventually Eces caught the sagacious fish and instructed his apprentice to cook it for him. While doing so Cumhaill burned his thumb, reflexively inserted it in his mouth and inadvertently consumed a tidbit of the fish. Armed with the entire world’s sapience, he overthrew his enemies and became leader of his warrior people, the Fianna.
Salmon is a widely popular and richly flavored fish. They are anadromous, i.e., they return to freshwater rivers from the ocean to spawn. True salmon inhabit the the Atlantic and Pacific oceans of the Northern Hemisphere, and the Great Lakes region. First and foremost is the highly prized Atlantic salmon, hailing of course from its namesake. Pacific species include Chinook or King salmon, (the largest of the Pacific ones), Pink or Humpback salmon, (the smallest and most delicately flavored), Coho or Silver salmon, (a favorite amongst Pacific Northwest sports fisherman), Chum or Dog salmon, (which has the lightest color and lowest fat content), Sockeye or Red salmon, (the favorite for canned salmon) and Cherry Salmon, (found in the western Pacific). Sadly, due to pollution, damns, and over fishing, salmon numbers, especially the Atlantic, have dwindled. This has been compensated for with farmed salmon, which comprise about 70% of the worldwide production. Purists will tell you that wild salmon has a deeper flavor than their aquacultured counterparts.
Salmon is prepared whole, cut into steaks, or thinner fillets. Be on guard for the pin bones in the steaks and fillets. Run your finger along the flesh and have a pair of tweezers or small pliers available. You do not need to remove the skin; in fact it’s quite tasty. Salmon, depending on the cut, can be roasted, broiled, grilled, sautéed, poached, braised, or not cooked at all. It takes particularly well to cream based sauces, brightened with acidic highlights, (capers, lemon, mustard, etc.), and finished with herbs such as dill, chervil, or tarragon. However, salmon is amenable to many other flavor profiles.
Smoked salmon is fresh salmon that has undergone one of two types of smoking processes: hot smoked (higher temperature, less time), or cold smoked (lower temperature, more time). Lox is a brine-cured, cold smoked salmon and a favorite with bagels and cream cheese. The Scandinavian classic gravadlax, is raw salmon marinated in sugar, salt, pepper and dill.
Salmon is high in protein and offers good amounts of A, B, and D vitamins. Salmon’s rich taste comes from, of course, its high fat content. But most of that fat is unsaturated and/or Omega-3 fatty acids, the latter of which is reputed to enhance brain functioning. Maybe the Salmon of Wisdom didn’t need the hazelnuts after all?
• 1 lb. salmon fillet
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Vegetable oil, as needed
• 3 oz. dry white wine
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
• 3 scallions, chopped
• Fresh chopped dill, as needed, (optional)
Endeavor to procure a salmon of fillet of uniform thickness so it will cook evenly; ¾ to 1-inch thick is ideal. Leave the skin intact.
Season the fish with salt and pepper and sear, skin side first in very hot oil. Do not use a non-stick pan as they are not conducive to developing a fond, (the intensely flavored caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan that will later be incorporated into the sauce). If you use a heavy bottomed, high quality skillet, allow the oil to get hot enough to just smoke, and place the fish undisturbed in the oil for the first few minutes, it will not stick. Once the first side is fully browned, flip and sear the other side. When the other side is browned remove the fish and keep warm. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping the browned bits off the bottom. When the wine has reduced to about a third of its original volume add the cream.
Simmer and reduce the cream. After a few minutes add the mustard and salt and pepper. Reduce the sauce to almost the desired thickness and volume. Add the fish back in and warm up and coat the fish in the sauce. Finish with the scallions and serve. Fresh chopped dill also makes a nice finishing touch.
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