By Genevieve Ko, The New York Times
Savory-sweet fish, topped with tangles of herbs and bright lemon juice, looks and tastes like a celebration for your pandemic pod. There’s an unexpected inverse relationship between how easy it is to make this dish and how special it feels when it’s served. A four-ingredient, five-minute glaze coats a single slab of salmon, and the whole thing comes together in under 30 minutes.
While it helps to start with the highest-quality salmon, any fresh option will be delicious using this slow-baked technique. It yields tender fish that flakes apart in silky slips and prevents the squeaky dry bites and excess white protein globs of salmon that’s been cooked too hard or too long or both.
In “The River Cottage Fish Book,” Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher explain: “It’s not that cooking fish is difficult. It’s just that overcooking fish is easy.” Baking salmon at a low temperature helps prevent that and yields a balance of opaque and translucent flesh that is sometimes referred to as “medium-rare.” Even though that description is somewhat accurate, it’s confusing to use the same language you’d use for steak with fish. Fish cooks much faster and its ideal internal temperature is 120-130 degrees, which would be very rare in steak.
But you don’t need a meat thermometer to know when salmon is done. You just need to stop cooking it when it feels nearly hot. To test for the right temperature, slide a metal cake tester or thin paring knife into the fillet’s thickest part, hold it there for a few seconds, then press the tip against your upper lip, which is sensitive to heat. It should feel very warm. The salmon will continue cooking on its way to the table and end up hot in the center as it rests while everyone gathers to eat.
The method alone delivers perfect salmon, and the glaze guarantees an impressive main dish. Maple syrup tastes festive with its natural sweetness, and a dollop of mayonnaise ensures richness. Since the salmon doesn’t brown or crisp in low heat, it gets pops of crunch from whole mustard seeds and finely sliced cilantro stems instead. The stems — and roots — carry an intense aroma, echoed by the delicate leafy tops that garnish.
Served straight from the baking dish, this simple centerpiece is as quick to clean up as it is to prepare. It’s the sort of low-effort cooking that leaves you with time for holiday projects — or a well-deserved rest at the end of an exhausting year.
And to Drink …
Salmon can be enjoyed with many different wines, both white and red, depending on how it’s served. This dish combines the sweetness of maple syrup with the pungency of Dijon mustard, along with the natural richness of the fish. It would go well with its classic red and white partners, pinot noir and chardonnay, although I would look for a slightly fruitier pinot noir, say, an Oregon bottle, rather than a subtler Burgundy. You could drink an Oregon chardonnay with this, too, and while we’re at it, how about an Oregon pinot gris? Another good red option would be a cru Beaujolais, maybe a Côtes de Brouilly, Juliénas or Fleurie, though, if you demand consistency, it could be an Oregon gamay instead.
— Eric Asimov
Recipe: Maple Baked Salmon
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 25 minutes
- 1 (1 1/2-pound) skin-on or skinless salmon fillet
- 12 fresh cilantro sprigs
- 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons whole-grain Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Lemon wedges, for serving
1. Remove salmon from the refrigerator. Heat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Bundle the cilantro sprigs by their stems and hold them tightly, then slice the stems crosswise until you get to the leaves. Reserve leaves for garnish. Transfer sliced stems to a small bowl and stir in the maple syrup, mustard and mayonnaise until well mixed.
3. Season the salmon all over with salt and pepper and place in a baking dish, skin-side down if there is skin. Slather the maple sauce all over the top.
4. Bake until a paring knife slides into the center with only a little resistance, 15 to 20 minutes. When you remove the knife and touch the blade to your upper lip, it should feel very warm but not hot. The salmon will continue to heat through out of the oven while in the baking dish. Top with the reserved cilantro leaves, and squeeze lemon wedges all over just before serving.
For 8 servings, buy a whole side of salmon, which usually weighs 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds, and double the glaze ingredients. Bake on a parchment-lined sheet pan until medium-rare, 18 to 22 minutes.
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