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 Salmon and potatoes A simple dish inspired by a fancier restaurant item.
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Salmon and potatoes

For a local magazine article a few years ago, I wrote this brief song of praise to a favorite dish:

"For many of us, dinner at a fancy restaurant implies red meat and plenty of it - a thick steak, a rack of lamb. Or for a change of pace, possibly something like lobster or king crab. Mere fish hardly seems to rise to the celebratory level that we expect of an evening on the town.

"But this simple premise fails to consider the artful turns that a skilled chef can perform on a fish as noteworthy as the noble salmon. A fine example is the innovative hot-smoked and seared salmon in a potato crust at Azalea ... which ranks as one of the city’s best main dishes of any persuasion.

"A work of art on the plate, as appealing to the eye as to the taste buds, this hearty block of delicate, freshly smoked salmon fillet is wrapped in a paper-thin, crispy coating made from potatoes shredded as fine as angel-hair pasta and topped with a garlicky dab of black-olive tapenade. It's plated on a puree of shiitake mushrooms in Chardonnay-laced cream with an architectural design of tender, pencil-thin spears of fresh asparagus."

A great plate. But way too much trouble to try to duplicate at home. That crispy potato coating, hair-fine shreds neatly groomed in parallel strands as precise as a biscuit of Shredded Wheat, looks amazing and tastes delicious but falls well across the line into "too much trouble" territory to make sense for me.

But the other night, confronted with a beautiful block of brilliant orange-red wild Alaskan salmon at the fish counter, I suddenly realized with delight that it might be possible to enjoy the wonderful tastes and textures of Azalea's signature salmon dish without having to borrow a jeweler's toolbox to make it.

Although the beauty of the presentation adds "oomph" to the restaurant dish, it's not really the look but the flavors and textures that count. By skipping the finicky bits, perhaps I could accomplish a dish that tastes as good, even if it doesn't look quite as pretty, by fashioning a skillet full of crispy, tiny-diced home-fried potatoes and onions, then searing the salmon in the same skillet while the potatoes finished. Then substitute a different, simpler but still flavorful accent for the olive tapenade and wild-mushroom-white-wine cream, and we could enjoy a just-as-good dinner with a fraction of the investment in time and effort that the restaurant version would require.

I think it worked. If you try it, let me know what you think.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

12 to 16-ounce fresh salmon fillet
2 medium baking potatoes
1 small or 1/2 medium sweet white or yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
Black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons (30g) crème fraîche (preferred) or sour cream
2 tablespoons mild goat cheese
1/2 teaspoon Japanese wasabi powder


1. Carefully trim the skin from the salmon and discard it. Cut the salmon into two even pieces. Salt and pepper them to taste and set aside.

2. Peel the potatoes and cut them into small (1/4-inch) dice. Put them in a bowl and cover with water so they won't discolor, if you're not using them immediately. Chop the onion into similar-size pieces, and mince the garlic fine.

3. Put the olive oil over medium-high heat in a nonstick or seasoned black-iron skillet large enough to hold all the potatoes in a single layer. When the oil is hot, put in the onions and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until they're translucent and a fiew pieces are just starting to brown. Drain the potatoes, lightly pat them dry with paper towels, and add them to the skillet, stirring until the potatoes, onion and garlic are mixed. Let them fry for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally but then leaving them alone for a few moments so the edges will turn crusty and brown.

4. When you judge that the potatoes are about half done (browning and becoming tender but still crisp), push them to the sides of the skillet and put in the pieces of salmon. Let them sit in place without moving them for 2 minutes or so, then carefully flip them to sear on the other side. Continue to cook, moving the potatoes around occasionally, until the salmon is done, a total of 7 to 10 minutes depending on thickness and how well-done you like your fish. Try not to be squeamish about serving it rare in the center, though. Good salmon is really best when it's still a beautiful rosy vermilion in the middle. Think sushi.

If all went well, the potatoes should be just right when the salmon is done, but if you think they need a little more time, remove the salmon to a warm plate and finish the potatoes over high heat, stirring frequently. Taste for seasoning and serve the seared salmon surrounded by the potatoes and topped with a dab of this very quick but delicious goat-cheese-wasabi cream:

5. Mix the crème fraîche or sour cream and the goat cheese together in a small bowl and stir in wasabi to taste.

MATCHING WINE: Normally, my choice with excellent salmon is Pinot Noir, the classic exception to the "white wine with fish" rule. For this dish, though, an off-dry, aromatic white felt right, and the recently reported Pine Ridge 2003 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc-Viognier from California's Sacramento Delta did the job in fine style. Any richer white - a good Chardonnay, for instance - or Pinot Noir or other non-tannic red should also work well.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Salmon and potatoes."

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

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Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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