Nigel Slater: Dish for compliments

Hot salmon leaves me cold. What I look forward to is when the fish turns up on my plate lightly chilled - not frigid exactly, but cool enough - so that its flakes are firm, almost fudgy, and someone has made a bowl of mayonnaise that is mild and not too oily. There should be some cucumber, I think, peeled and sliced or perhaps in a salad with some dill - oh, and some watercress, too. If you get it right, cold salmon, mayonnaise and cucumber is a perfect meal, and not least because you did the cooking earlier in the day, before the sun was up.

Most cooks poach a salmon that is to be eaten cold. I do, too, but lately I have taken to baking it. I find the flesh firmer that way - still juicy if you take care not to overcook it, but with a definite bite to it. Farmed salmon, which is what I can afford right now, needs a careful hand if it is not to be pink pap. I bought a huge piece from the tail end the other day. A tenner, and it fed four of us with a wodge left over for a sandwich for my lunch the next day. We debated the merits of baking over poaching and decided this had the edge.

I do it in foil. The fish bakes, but by tipping in a little liquid - be it white wine, or rice or tarragon vinegar - it slightly steams, and that is what must keep it so moist. The rice vinegar sounds unfamiliar, I know, but is what I use when I have stuffed a few shredded red chillies in there, too, and some coins of ginger to give a faintly Asian flavour. On those days the fish gets served up with a cucumber salad given a bit of punch with lots of mint and a shake or two of nam pla, the Thai fish sauce.

Tightly wrapped in foil or parchment, a 1.5kg piece of fish will take roughly half an hour at 220 C/gas mark 7. Make the seam at the top so you can tweak it open and test the flesh with the point of a knife. It should be almost cooked through to the bone, so by the time it has cooled it will be just, but only just, done. In other words, pretty near perfect.

One time, I brushed the fish with melted butter, white wine and chopped tarragon - lots of it - before sealing and baking. That is about as imaginative as I want to get with a supreme fish. Even a farmed supreme fish. Those that insist their salmon won't be moist enough if it is baked (it will, it will) should stick to the wet method. Rick Stein, who knows his stuff, puts a 1.5kg piece of fish into a simmering broth of water, onion, carrot, bay, pepper and vinegar, then simmers it for 16-18 minutes before serving warm, not hot, with new potatoes, mayo and cucumber. I am sure he is right, though I cook mine for 10, then leave it in the water, covered with a lid, to get cold.

And just how cold should cold salmon be? A lot of people prefer their cold salmon to be at room temperature, so the fish is as moist as it can be. I like mine to be firmer, but not so cold the flavour has been numbed by the fridge. The ideal scenario is, I think, a piece of fish whose flesh has 'set' slightly in the refrigerator, but then is allowed to come up to cool room temperature before it gets on to the plate.

If salmon seems extravagant, then try a trout. Bake or poach as above, but for only a few minutes. An average-sized trout takes only about 15 minutes to bake. Sometimes it needs a bit of extra help, so I put onion, carrot, bay and peppercorns in the poaching water, but serve it slightly warmer than I would salmon, as trout seems to have a firmer flesh.

And should you come across a salmon trout (lucky you), bake it swaddled in foil, with nothing but a slice or two of lemon, some herbs - dill, say, or tarragon - and a glass of white wine. It will be a treat, so elegant and delicate, and needs nothing by its side save some of that cucumber, sliced so thinly you can see through it and a little, just a little, home-made mayonnaise. Some things are just too good to mess with.

Baked salmon for eating cold

I do like cold salmon that has been baked or poached with white wine and herbs, but sometimes I use Asian ingredients instead to add a mildly spicy note. It is not by any means 'hot', but subtly seasoned. I usually serve this with the salad below. Serves 4.

a 1.5kg piece of salmon on the bone
3 or 4 medium-hot red and orange chillies
a thumb-size piece of ginger
12 or more lime leaves
the juice of 2 limes
6 tbsp rice wine
a few sprigs of coriander, roots included
1 tbsp groundnut oil
Lift the salmon on to a large piece of foil or baking parchment.

Shred and seed the chillies, and peel the ginger and cut it into matchstick shreds. Shred some of the lime leaves and leave a few whole. Mix the chillies, ginger and lime leaves with the lime juice, rice wine, chopped coriander and the oil, then season with salt and black pepper. Bring up the sides of the foil and scrunch the ends together so you can pour in the dressing without it leaking. Mix the rice wine into the chilli mixture and pile it on to and around the fish. Scrunch the foil along the top to seal the fish in the foil, so the fish bakes in its own steam.

Lift the whole thing on to a baking sheet and bake at 220 C/gas mark 7 for about half a hour. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the foil. Serve with the punchy salad below.

A salad of cucumber, mint and ginger

A cool, crunchy and punchy salad for the mildly spiced salmon above. Serves 2-4 as a side salad.

1 medium cucumber
juice of 2 limes
1 tbsp white-wine vinegar
2 tsp Thai fish sauce (more or less, to taste)
2 tbsp olive oil
a big bunch of salad leaves - rocket, say, or cos lettuce
about 30 mint leaves
a small bunch of basil
a knob of ginger about the size of a walnut in its shell

Peel the cucumber and cut it into thick matchsticks, removing much of the pulp and seeds from the centre as you go. It simply makes the salad wet if you don't. Put the cucumber in a bowl, sprinkle it lightly with salt, and set it aside for 20 minutes or so, to let some of the water escape - but don't leave it too long.

Squeeze the limes into a salad bowl, add the vinegar, fish sauce and beat in the olive oil with a fork. Chop the mint leaves quite finely, though not like tea leaves, and tear up the basil, then add them to the dressing. Peel the ginger and grate it very finely, so it comes out as a mush, then stir it in, too.

Rinse the cucumber briefly under running water to remove the salt, wringing it out so it remains juicy but not sodden, then add it to the dressing. Wash the salad leaves, tear them up into reasonable pieces - too large is annoying for those like me who eat their salad with just a fork. Check the seasoning - you may still need a little salt.

Toss the leaves gently in the herb dressing and serve pretty sharply, while still crisp and fresh.

Salmon and avocado salad with tarragon

A mild and rather English-tasting salad. What I call garden food. Serves 2.

250g French beans
the leaves of 8 bushy sprigs of tarragon
a few springs of flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 tbsp white-wine vinegar
1 avocado - ripe, but not overly so
3 tbsp olive oil
400g cooked salmon
4 or 5 large handfuls of salad leaves (mache, baby spinach, rocket, little gem)

Top and tail the beans and add them to a pot of boiling, salted water. Remove them when they are tender but still have a wee bit of crunch to them - a matter of 4 or 5 minutes depending on your beans. Hold them in a colander under running water till they are cool.

Remove the leaves from the tarragon and parsley and chop them, then tip them into a bowl and pour over the vinegar. Drizzle in the olive oil, beating with a fork. Peel the avocado and slice it thickly - you don't want the pieces to break up - and add it to the bowl.

Break the salmon into pieces, but nothing too small, and add it to the avocado. Add the drained beans and then season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Divide the washed salad leaves between two plates, then pile the salmon and avocado on top.

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