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SoCal Style / Entertaining

Tried and True

Skip the Surprises and Serve Salmon With Sorrel

November 08, 1998|Nancy Spiller NANCY SPILLER

I don't know what i was thinking. it was the first meal I'd ever made from Alice Waters' first cookbook, and it lives on today as my Chez Panic dinner. I had shopped, invited the eight people the Spring Lamb Ragout was said to serve and, about an hour before they were due to arrive, finally read the rest of the recipe. Marinate the lamb in the refrigerator for four hours, it said. Remove the meat four hours before cooking, it continued.

I blew that.

On to the second part of the four-part, two-page recipe (Alice doesn't believe in cutting corners) instructing me to make a stock from the "bones and trimmings from one spring lamb." Right. Where would I find those--in the supermarket's dumpster? I'd be foraging for lamb remnants just as my guests were tapping on the front door. Even if I found the requisite carcass components, I was still missing the most important ingredient necessary to pulling off the dish--time. Canned beef broth would just have to do. I popped a few extra bottles of wine in the refrigerator, and by the time I delivered the entree to the table shortly before midnight, everyone was too numb to miss the nuances of nouvelle California cuisine.

My advice today is, don't experiment on guests, at least not for the meal's main event. Trial runs are recommended; thorough recipe readings are required. Still, nothing is ever foolproof. Who knows when butter dripping from that old standby, salmon coulibiac, will catch fire in the oven? Maybe a blowtorch isn't the perfect tool for crusting creme brulee. And not everyone embraces your choice of dinner party themes.

Looking back on it, I now admit my Dead Kennedys dinner was totally tasteless. I won't bore you with the details, but, yes, it did take place in late November and both the eponymous punk rock group and Vaughn Meader provided the soundtrack. Back then, I often confused dinner parties with performance art. But at least I wasn't responsible for the pig roast where fistfights broke out among the starving, beer-marinated guests when the pig was finally dug out of its pit and discovered to be black char.

Over the years, my efforts at entertaining have become less disaster-prone, but they're still not without the occasional gastronomic gaffe. Just last Thanksgiving, Someone (as my husband is called when there are only two of us in residence) didn't check the gas level on the grill the day before we had promised turkey to a flock of family and friends. Unbelievably, there was a propane refueling station open that holiday, and Someone went and got the tank filled. Unfortunately, it was the first time Someone had attempted to hook the tank back up to our new grill. Preceded by a large measure of cursing, the turkey finally took its proper place in the kitchen oven. Our guests ate a little later than expected, but at least it was no Chez Panic.

The recipe for salmon and sorrel sauce offered here is one we've cooked often enough to know that it makes for a reliable, relaxing and elegant dinner. Sorrel grows in my garden all year long and is often available in the supermarket or at farmers markets. (If you can't find sorrel, use spinach, along with a squeeze of lemon.) Serve the dish with rice or potatoes and a simple salad, and you've got a meal that's memorable for all the right reasons.

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SORREL-SAUCED SALMON

Serves 6 to 8

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2 bunches fresh sorrel (1/4 pound)

3 tablespoons shallots, diced

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 medium tomato, chopped

Salmon skin and bones from fillets

1 cup half and half

1 tablespoon butter

2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cubed

Salt and pepper to taste

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2 pounds skinless, boneless salmon fillets

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon butter

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3tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

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Sauce:

Trim stems from sorrel, rinse and dry. Cut sorrel leaves crosswise into thin strips to make 2 to 3 cups, loosely packed. Put 11/2 tablespoons of shallots, wine, chopped tomato, salmon skin and bones in small saucepan. Bring to boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Add half and half and simmer 5 minutes more. Drain mixture through sieve, pressing solids with wood spoon to make 11/4 cups of liquid. Heat butter in saucepan, add remaining shallots and cook briefly. Add sorrel, cook and stir until wilted. Add liquid, cubed tomatoes, salt and pepper. Pour sauce into deep platter. Keep in warm oven while preparing salmon.

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Salmon:

Cut thoroughly boned salmon fillets crosswise into half-inch slices. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat butter in skillet, cook salmon until done, 2 to 3 minutes, turning once. As fillets are cooked, transfer to platter with sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Note: If sorrel is unavailable, substitute spinach and squeeze fresh lemon juice on salmon just before serving.*

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