Nature is so weirdly fascinating. Just watch the Discovery channel and you'll see. Strange-looking bugs, amazingly intelligent primates, deadly sea creatures, flamboyant birds, exotic vegetation in faraway lands. All with their own distinct characteristics, way of life, way of survival.
Salmon are extraordinary fish. They are born in fresh water streams and continue to develop there, until they are able to survive in salt water. That's when they migrate to the open seas, where they spend as many as eight years sexually maturing and exercising their skills of survival. Their predators are bigger fish and of course us, constantly fishing for them. Guided by their acute sense of smell, they head back to fresh water to lay their eggs, most of them trying to return to their native rivers to reproduce. They swim upstream, for hundreds of kilometers, jumping through waterfalls and navigating through tricky obstacles.
Looking at salmon swimming upstream they seem so graceful and determined. They look like they're doing an elegant dance; and that reminds me of a song I absolutely love and... dance to. The salmon dance. The video is really funny and... aquatic.
I admire salmon for all their persistence and will to secure the future of their species, but you know what else? I love how they taste too. Salmon is one of my favorite fish to eat. It's unbelievably delicious; probably that's why it is preferred even by people who don't particularly enjoy fish. Its firm flesh makes it so versatile. You can grill it, bake it, fry it, steam it or even smoke it and the flesh will remain firm and juicy. It's very difficult to dry out salmon because it's a very oily fish and if yours does dry out, well you're doing something wrong.
Let's not forget that salmon is incredibly good for you. It's highly nutritious, full of vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, proteins and magnesium. But salmon is not always good for the wallet. It's a bit pricey but totally worth it as far as I'm concerned. You're not gonna have it every single day anyway. Especially here in Holland where a good rib-eye steak costs almost double that of a huge salmon steak, it's a good choice. Not to mention a healthier one.
One of the ways I prefer cooking salmon is by simply dry-frying it. Take a non-stick skillet, heat it over medium-high heat, season the salmon with salt and pepper and cook it for five minutes on each side. Since it is so oily, you don't need any extra fat. All you need is a squeeze of lemon on top and you're set. Along with a leafy salad, it's the perfect meal, especially if you're watching your weight.
If, on the other hand, you want to indulge yourself a little, there is another way, a bolder way, a tastier way and ultimately a better way to cook salmon. And that is what I'm offering you here. A mouthwatering recipe involving fish, booze and a veg. Not any booze and not any veg. Ouzo and fennel. I've talked about ouzo before, the traditional Greek spirit with the anise flavor that captures the heart of anyone who tries it. Now pair this with fennel -the mediterranean delight of vegetables that's so aromatic and pungent- and the lovely pink salmon and you get a dish made in heaven.
There is a triple threat of fennel here. Fennel bulb, fennel fronds, fennel seeds. Needless to say that if you're not a fennel fan, now is the time to say goodbye. Or is it? I believe you should try this dish. You might be persuaded and even become a fennel lover. The combination of flavors is superb. You probably think that all you're going to taste is the anise flavor, right? Wrong! I was a bit apprehensive myself about the result but the fennel, cooked in a mixture of olive oil and butter, does not overpower the fish. When the dish is right in front of you, you can immediately smell the delicate liquorice-like aroma of fennel paired with the sweetness of the luscious salmon and then you take the first bite. The mellow oiliness of the firm fleshed fish along with the smooth butteriness of the fennel, make each bite a pure pleasure. After each mouthful, you sense the subtle flavor of anise as an aftertaste rather than a principal savor.
Accompany the dish with a bowl of basmati rice or any other long grain rice you prefer and of course with a small glass of ouzo. I like adding a little water in my ouzo, transforming it from a transparent to a milky color and making it a little lighter.
Pan-Fried Salmon Fillets with Sautéed Fennel and Ouzo
Adapted from Bon Appétit
I rarely cook fish with butter so this is an exception for me. The first time I made this I used only butter but the dish was rather heavy, so the second time I opted for the addition of olive oil and a cut-down on the amount of butter. The addition of olive oil also prevents the burning of the butter so there is also a practical advantage in using it. You can still use only butter if you prefer, just add an extra tablespoon to the recipe.
In case you can't find ouzo, you can substitute with tsipouro, pastis, or sambuca.
Yield: 2 main-course servings
2 salmon fillets, skinless and boneless, 180-200 g each
1 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
45 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tsp olive oil
2 Tbsp shallots, minced
1 large fennel bulb with fronds
2 Tbsp fennel fronds, chopped, plus extra to serve
1/2 cup water
2 Tbsp ouzo
Freshly ground white pepper
Bring salmon to room temperature 10-15 minutes before cooking.
Cut fennel bulb lengthwise into 4 wedges, cut away the root and fronds and then cut the wedges into 0.5 cm-thick slices.
Place the fennel seeds in a large non-stick skillet and dry-fry* them over medium-high heat, stirring them around constantly, until they become fragrant, for about 1 1/2 minutes. Be careful not to burn them. Remove them from the skillet and let them cool. Using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, crush or grind the fennel seeds until they become almost powder.
Place the crushed seeds in a small bowl along with the butter, shallots, 1 Tbsp of the fennel fronds, salt and pepper. Mix well with a spoon until you have a smooth mixture.
In the same skillet that you used to dry-fry the fennel seeds, heat 1 Tbsp of the butter mixture and 1 tsp olive oil over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the sliced fennel bulb and 1/4 cup of water. Cover and cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until fennel is tender. Uncover the skillet and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until fennel starts to brown. Transfer fennel to a plate and set aside.
Rinse salmon fillets under running water and pat then dry. Sprinkle them with salt and white pepper on both sides. In the same skillet, heat 1 Tbsp of the butter mixture and 1 tsp olive oil over medium heat and once butter has melted, add the salmon fillets. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Then turn salmon fillets over and add 1/4 cup of water to the skillet. Cover and continue cooking until the salmon is just opaque in the center, for about 5 minutes.
Slide salmon fillets to one side of the skillet and return the sautéed fennel to the skillet. Add ouzo, the remaining butter mixture and the remaining 1 Tbsp fennel fronds. Stir to heat fennel through.
Take two plates and divide fennel mixture between them. Place the salmon fillets on top and spoon over the remaining butter and olive oil sauce.
Serve immediately, sprinkling with some more fennel fronds.
*Toasting or dry-frying whole spices before grinding them intensifies the flavors.