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By the Skin of Our Salmon

April 07, 1999|Russ Parsons

It sometimes seems that salmon really is becoming the chicken of the sea. It has been farmed into mass production. It's almost always available. It's always relatively cheap.

And here's one more reason: the skin.

I find skinless chicken a blank place at the center of a meal, and by the same token, I'm having a harder and harder time working up much enthusiasm for salmon as it is usually served.

What once seemed rich and kind of exotic now tastes pretty much like, well, protein. Sure, it stays moist in some pretty trying situations, but since when is playing it safe something to get excited about?

There is something about salmon--even farm-raised salmon--that I dearly love. And it's almost always badly cooked. It's the skin.

Usually, if it gets noticed at all, it's by someone who is scraping it off a filet because, "Ooh, it's slimy." Well, if it is, that's because it was cooked incorrectly.

To see what salmon skin can taste like, order it in a Japanese restaurant. There, they'll serve the skin crisp, like some kind of fish bacon. Or, more to the point, like the skin of a perfectly roasted chicken. Salmon skin is delicious for precisely the same reason that chicken skin tastes so good: It contains a great deal of fat. To be more accurate, in salmon, much of the fat is located just beneath the skin.

I like salmon skin so much I sometimes broil trimmings (the belly parts are the best) skin side up until the skin blisters and turns very dark. This is great on a green salad.

That technique won't work well with a whole filet, but here's how Joel Robuchon does it (in his excellent cookbook with Patricia Wells, "Simply French," [William Morrow, 1991]). Robuchon scores the salmon skin in a diamond pattern, cutting only skin-deep. He then cooks the filet skin side down in a fairly hot pan. At the end, he flips the fish over and lets it finish cooking off the heat.

Scoring the skin lets the fat underneath it render out, keeping the skin crisp. There is ample fat in the meat to keep it moist, so you wind up with a nice, rich piece of fish that comes complete with its own crunchy coating. Cool.

The trick in cooking salmon is to watch the color change on the side of the filet. As the fish cooks, the deep pink flesh will turn pale. The higher up the side the pale color reaches, the more thoroughly cooked is the fish. I like salmon a little on the rare side at the center. I cook it until the color has changed about one-third of the way up. If you like fish well done, cook it until the color has changed halfway up.

Because you're cooking on a fairly high flame, there will be enough retained heat in the pan and in the fish itself to finish the cooking. Don't be tempted to leave the pan on the burner after you've turned the fish. Even salmon can be overcooked.


Crisp-Skinned Salmon on Creamy Leeks and Cabbage

Active Work Time and Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes

Since I learned the technique from Robuchon's "Simply French," I have used crisp-skinned salmon in many ways, particularly on a bed of stewed white beans, but I kept on tinkering with the recipe until I came up with what I thought was the perfect combination. And then I looked at the book again, and found I'd unconsciously worked my way back around to the original Robuchon recipe, which I had completely forgotten. The main difference in my version is the presence of leeks and the cumin, which accent the cabbage's sweetness, and the way I cook the cabbage in stages, to keep some of it fairly crunchy while the rest melts into a near-puree.

2 leeks

1 (3-pound) head cabbage

1 slice bacon

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/4 cup butter

3 to 3 1/2 pounds salmon filets, center-cut preferably, in 1 or 2 pieces

Salt, pepper

2 tablespoons oil

1/4 cup whipping cream

* Trim tough green tops from leeks, leaving only whites and pale green lower leaves. Leaving leeks attached at bottom, slice in quarters lengthwise. Rinse well under cold running water until all sand and mud are gone. Slice thinly crosswise.

* Quarter head of cabbage and remove tough white core. Slice thinly. Slice bacon in thin crosswise strips.

* Toast cumin seeds in dry pan over medium heat, shaking frequently until fragrant, about 5 minutes.

* Combine bacon and 2 tablespoons butter in bottom of large skillet and cook over medium-high heat until bacon is rendered and crisp, about 5 minutes.

* Reduce heat to medium, add toasted cumin and leek slices, then cook until leeks soften, about 5 minutes. Add half of cabbage and cook, stirring, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add half of remaining cabbage and cook until that is soft, 10 more minutes.

* While cabbage is cooking, score salmon on skin-side, cutting just deep enough to pierce skin. Cut salmon into 8 equal pieces. Salt and pepper to taste on both sides.

* Add remaining cabbage to first skillet along with cream. Cook, stirring occasionally, until cream is no longer visible when pan is tilted from side to side. Season to taste with salt. Just before serving, add remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and cook just until sauce thickens, less than a minute.

* Heat oil in wide nonstick skillet over high heat. Add salmon filets, skin side down, and cook until skin has crisped and flesh has lightened about one-third up side, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn filets over and remove skillet from stove to finish cooking off heat.

* Divide leek and cabbage mixture evenly among 8 plates or shallow bowls. Place salmon on top, skin side up. The skin should be very crisp. Serve immediately.

8 servings. Each serving: 358 calories; 201 mg sodium; 80 mg cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 32 grams protein; 1.45 grams fiber.

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