September 25, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Swimming upstream

By |2019-07-18T12:41:09+02:00July 7th, 2019|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Versatile salmon is a fish for all seasons, and habit-forming.

o you eat so much salmon that you feel gills are the next step in your personal evolution process? Do you turn to smoked salmon when nothing else catches your attention on a menu?   Are you always serving smoked salmon canapés with drinks (a personal rut)? In my world, salmon is nearly a member of the family. Not just because it tastes so good, but also because there’s often nothing else at our fish market as easy to prepare — even if the fishmongers are ready, willing and able to de-scale and gut bigger fish.

Salmon has other advantages, aside from sating my palate. Salmon slices are said to contain lower levels of mercury (that odious substance once used in thermometers and now said to be found at potentially harmful levels in all fish except tiny anchovies or newborns). Nobody wants tremors, difficulty breathing, changes in vision and a metal taste in their mouth.

Eating salmon made me want to strike up friendships with fishermen, as if they, too, would head to Alaska and bring me back trophies.

Beyond that, salmon are extraordinary in so many ways. Muscular and determined, they swim against formidable river currents to find a suitable spawning site. Before that, they “vacation” in the ocean to fatten up. They’re also creatures of profound habit. Their original birthplace is also where they return to spawn, no GPS required. Their sense of geography is a lot better than mine.

Most salmon sold in markets are harvested from the ocean, though many species spend the whole of their lives in fresh water locales. I remember my father traveling to Alaska to go salmon fishing when I was a child. He’d pack his pail in dry ice and fly it back to Houston. I still remember the taste of the salmon he brought home to us, which somehow conjured up images of icy rivers and towering mountains and the smell of pine.

Eating salmon made me want to strike up friendships with fishermen, as if they, too, would head to Alaska and bring me back trophies.

Over the years, I have steamed, sautéed, grilled and baked this most perfect of fish. As with most cooking, my advice in preparing salmon is to keep it simple. This is a fish that tastes too good to embroider with other flavors. It takes me just 15 minutes to toss salmon slices in flour, salt, pepper and paprika. Then, in the following order I

  • sauté the fish on each side in olive oil for about 2 minutes,
  • add a little white wine,
  • cover and cook on low heat for another 5 to 6 minutes.

When that’s done, I remove the lid, swirl in a very small spoon of butter, a squeeze of lemon, and my salmon is ready to serve.

Little squares of smoked salmon atop crackers spread with caper butter are my first choice for serving with drinks.  

Our little French seaside town raises salmon locally (what luck!), ensuring the fish are lean and high in the so-called “good fat” your doctor tells you to eat at least once weekly.

This bio-salmon is tough to resist, trust me, plus it’s a good stand-in for those tempting French cheeses we love so much. Little squares of smoked salmon atop crackers spread with caper butter are my first choice for serving with drinks. I mash capers into soft butter, and voilà, no muss or fuss. And there’s always the great pleasure of making your own gravlax from one or two nice, fat filets.

Use a ceramic or glass dish large enough to fit 2 to 3 pounds of filets.

  • Place salmon (the flesh side up) on a sprinkling of raw sugar and salt using about 1 tablespoon of each.
  • Pour 1/4 cup of Cognac over the fish then mix 1/4 cup of raw sugar with 1/2 cup of fine sea salt and a liberal tablespoon of fresh ground pepper.
  • Rub the mix into the filets.
  • Cover with plastic wrap, put something of substance on the filets to weigh them down, and place in the fridge for 12 hours.
  • Turn the filets over in the dish, wrap tight, weigh down, and leave for another 12 hours.

By then, they’re ready to slice, thinly and diagonally. Serve them on toast with butter and lemon slices. Yum.

A final note: Last winter, I discovered that using a chestnut pan (the kind with the small holes in the bottom) can be ideal for seating large salmon filets in the fireplace. First, brush the pan with olive oil. Even big filets will cook far more quickly than on the stove or in the oven using this method. The cooked fish also emerge with an amazing crunchy crust, the skin as crisp as a potato chip.

I admit I was never much of a fish person until salmon came my way. Now, like heading upstream in search of familiar spawning grounds, there’s no turning back.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.