Thursday, June 10, 2010

salmon nicoise and a love story

In December of 2000, I made my very first trip to Europe.  It wasn’t just any trip.  I went to see a boy, a Dutchman whom I had first encountered seven months earlier in an Irish Pub.  He lived in Delft, a college town in Holland, where he was pursuing his masters degree in industrial design.  I was working three jobs and going to school in Juneau, Alaska.  When we met, we were both living in Seattle.  I longed to see the world.  He was already 5,000 miles from home. 

When the Dutchman asked me to spend Christmas in Holland, I unflinchingly accepted his invitation.  In the days that followed, I purchased a plane ticket, expedited a passport, and packed my bags with enough clothing to last a month.  On the plane, I was seated next to a hunky microbiologist on his way to visit his girlfriend and her family in Spain.  We spent ten hours swapping stories about our respective partners; how we met them, our plans for the holidays and so on.  While I easily conversed with the hotty biologist, who was not only good looking but also amicable and intelligent, I realized I was in love.  Not with the guy next to me but with the handsome, kind, brilliant guy who would be waiting for me when the plane landed. 
Nothing could have prepared me for winter in Holland and I had just come from Alaska.  Also known as the Netherlands, the country was built under sea level and its cities are made up of streets with interlocking canals.  The cold is made more more penetrating because the air is damp from water flowing through the many canals.  I remained chilled to the bone despite my efforts to bundle up in layers; but as Billie Holiday once sang, “The snow is snowing, wind is blowing, but I can weather the storm.  What do I care how much it may storm?  I’ve got my love to keep me warm.”

The day after I arrived was Christmas.   The Dutchman and I took the train from Delft to Drachten, in the northern part of Holland, where his parents awaited us at the station.  The Dutch celebrate two days of Christmas, December 25 and 26.  Although American customs are gaining in popularity, Christmas trees are not as common nor is the exchange of gifts.  In Holland, the holidays are focused on family and food.  Fortunately, my overall state of culture shock eased the absence of familiar traditions.

Christmas dinner was delicious but simple fare.  I was slightly off-put by stewed prunes and golden raisins in my meat dish but tried to discreetly eat around them.  With a furrowed brow, the Dutchman’s mother asked, “Do you not like the fruit?” 
…to which I smiled and replied, “No, no, it’s delicious!”
His father then cheerfully remarked, “She’s saving the best for last!”
I can’t say that I loved the sensation of those warm, slippery sweet prunes as they slithered their way down; but I was not yet aware that the straightforward Dutch prefer honesty over flattery.

After a few days in Drachten, we traveled back to Delft where we would share a post-Christmas dinner with one group of university friends followed by a New Years’ Eve dinner with another group.  For most American students, standard college fare consists of delicacies such as  ramen noodles, jarred spaghetti sauce, pizza and takeout.  There are exceptions but ‘cheap’ prevails, thanks to bloated tuitions and a lack of government funding.  Dutch students, like their American counterparts, are familiar with eating on a budget.  The difference is that they are accustomed to cooking for themselves because dining out is much more expensive than in the States. 

The group dinners were comprised of around a dozen college friends who either worked alone or in pairs to create a seven-course meal.  They printed menus, put out their finest china and linens, lit glowing candles and dressed for the occasion.   For the first dinner, I assisted the Dutchman and his roommate in preparing stuffed mushrooms, the evening’s starter.   As the evening ensued, I was awestruck by these sophisticated students and their ability to seamlessly collaborate and create an elegant dinner party.

The second dinner was held on New Years’ Eve.  This close-knit group of friends had been dorm mates during their first two years of college and were now in the final stages of their programs.  Their bond was one with which I had no alliance  and I was more than a little intimidated by their easy manner with one another.  I had the acute sense of being the outsider, particularly as the effects of the wine overtook their collective efforts to speak English.   I had long since used up my five endearing Dutch phrases.109-0912_IMG Perhaps it was in this vein that I shifted my focus to the food.  I assisted the Dutchman and the evening’s host in preparing the main course.  The host had selected a salmon entree and the final result was picturesque, with seared salmon resting on a bed of  red bell pepper, haricots verts and thinly sliced potato, garnished with black olives fresh chives.109-0971_IMG  We started the evening with mango cocktails in sugar rimmed glasses, prepared by a student who had recently returned from Costa Rica.  The following dishes included  a soup course of vichyssoise, a starter of  thinly sliced chicken breast and pears poached in red wine with a cilantro garnish,  and for dessert, yogurt flan with blueberry sauce.  The meal and the year came to an end as we rang in 2001 with champagne and sparklers on our host's balcony.  109-0973_IMG
On New Year's Day, we strolled through Delft as a light snow began to fall, illuminated by festive lights swagged between centuries old facades.  It was one of those rare moments when time stood still.  I was filled with giddy repose as we walked along, huddled together to stay warm.  We turned a corner and the Dutchman steered me toward an outdoor stand where an intoxicatingly warm, yeasty scent was wafting through the air.  The vendor was selling oliebollen, dainty balls of fried dough, similar to beignets and liberally dusted with powdered sugar.  A puff of steam hit the cold air as I bit into the golden brown exterior, all flecked with snowy sugar.  Inside was subtly sweet with a texture somewhere between cake and brioche.  I fell hard for the ones that were studded with currants.  The word oliebollen sounds better in Dutch than when translated.  It literally means oily balls. 

No visit to Holland is complete without pannekoek, which translates to pancake but is more like the Dutch version of a crepe.  For authentic pannekoek, we  made our way to Stads-koffyhuis, in Delft, where the menu boasted an extensive selection, both sweet and savory.  I ordered the apple version with thin slices of baked apple cooked right into the batter, topped with spicy sweet cinnamon ice cream and accompanied by a generous dollop of whipped cream.  It was sublime but at twice the size of my head, far too much for me to finish.  It’s times like those when it comes in handy to know a Dutchman with a hollow leg.110-1028_IMG

Not too long ago, I discovered an outstanding local resource for wild king salmon and decided to reincarnate the salmon from that New Year’s Eve dinner, long ago.  Because I was at the store when inspiration struck, I had to rely on my memory to recreate the recipe.  In doing so, I deviated slightly from the original but ended up with a dish that is now our family’s favorite.    My daughter, Annabelle, claims that she likes it better than pizza or dessert.  The Dutchman, now my Dutch man, loves it too.


Salmon Nicoise

Serves 4


1 1/2 – 2 lbs wild king salmon filets
(I recommend looking for filets with plenty of white marbling as the fat is good for you and adds flavor and moisture to the fish)
1 1/2 lbs fresh haricots verts or green beans 
1 pint organic cherry or grape tomatoes
1 large handful nicoise olives
1 small bunch organic basil
1/2  large lemon
unsalted butter
canola or extra light olive oil
good quality extra virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt (such as Maldon or fleur de sel) 


First, rinse the salmon and pat dry with paper towels.  Check the fish carefully for bones and remove any that you find.  Cut salmon four pieces.  Season with salt.  Set aside.  

Halve or quarter the cherry tomatoes, depending on size.  Pit and quarter the nicoise olives.  Chop the basil into confetti-like strips.  Cut half a lemon into two wedges.  Wash and trim the haricots verts.  Blanch haricots verts for a few minutes in a steamer basket.  Do not overcook.  They should be bright green and still fairly firm.  Try one.  If it tastes raw, give it an extra minute or two.  Rinse beans with cold water and set aside.

Turn a large skillet on medium high.  Add 1 T unsalted butter and 1 T canola or extra light olive oil.  Once the butter begins to bubble but not quite brown, add the salmon, skin side up.  If the butter browns too quickly, turn the burner down to medium.  Leave the fish to sear for 3-5 minutes.  Using tongs, turn thicker chunks on each side to sear.  Once the exterior is nicely browned, turn the fish skin side down and allow to cook for an additional 3 minutes.  Remove fish from pan with tongs and set on a plate.  

Using the same pan, adjust heat to medium and add the haricots verts, tossing with any remaining juices in the pan.  Add tomatoes and olives tossing again to combine.  Squeeze lemon juice from 2 wedges over the mixture and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.  Mix in the chopped basil.   Season with salt.    Place the salmon in the pan, on top of the haricots verts mixture, and broil in the oven on low for 2-4 minutes, keeping a close eye on the fish. 

Divide the haricots verts between four dinner plates and place a salmon filet in the center of each plate.  Evenly distribute any remaining juices and serve with slightly sour crusty bread such as the rosemary diamante from Essential Baking Company.

Salmon pairs beautifully with red wine.  Try it with the Firehouse Red from Tamarack Cellars, a Columbia Valley red blend.

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