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RECIPE: A Simple Salmon Dinner & The History Of Oven Cooking

Salmon With Herb Butter

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Poached Salmon

[1] Spoon the herb butter sauce over the fillet. [2] Plated with a butter lettuce salad (recipes below). [3] With kale and baby potatoes (all photos courtesy Good Eggs | San Francisco).

 

Last night we had guests over for a simple salmon dinner. It was an impromptu event: Our fishmonger had a sale on wild-caught salmon and we decided it would be a “salmon weekend.”

We adore complicated recipes in the right hands. When we dine out, it is usually to have food from gifted chefs whose technique to make it surpasses anything we could hope to achieve.

But at home, we tend to keep things simple. The best ingredients, simply prepared to show them off, create the best meals.

While many people say they can’t cook fish well, baking it is pretty fool-proof (as it is tossing a marinated fish on the grill, if you have one).

This easy recipe from Good Eggs, bakes the salmon in a slow oven (see the chart below), to “gently coax out the salmon’s delicate flavor.”

Add a simple green salad and a steamed fresh vegetable and you’ve got a delicious dinner. Everything will be ready in 35 minutes.
 
WINE PAIRINGS FOR BAKED OR POACHED SALMON

The best wine pairings are chosen by preparation, not by ingredient. A classic wine pairing for salmon baked in butter sauce is Chardonnay/White Burgundy. You can also serve rosé or a sparkling wine.

We served a luscious Pinot Gris* from our favorite Alsatian producer, Zindt-Humbrecht, and a Grüner Veltliner (a superb Austrian white) from Pichler. Sauvignon Blanc is another favorite.

Red wine is typically paired with a meatier preparation, such as grilled or blackened salmon. But if you only drink red, a light Pinot Noir/Red Burgundy, Gamay/Beaujolais, or Valpolicello Classico will work.

 
RECIPE: BAKED SALMON IN HERB BUTTER

Ingredients For 2-3 Servings

  • 1 pound fresh salmon
  • ½ cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 handful† basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus more for the salad
  • 2-3 tablespoons red onion, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
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    For The Salad

  • 2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • Butter Lettuce, leaves washed and trimmed (or lettuce of choice)
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • Additional salad ingredients as desired
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    ________________
    *Pinot Gris is a white wine grape now planted around the world, but originally known by the wines from Alsace, France. Pinot Grigio is Italian for the same grape. Pinot Blanc is very similar: Both grapes (Pinot Gris/Grigio and Pinot Blanc) are mutations of Pinot Noir. Alsatian Pinot Gris tends to be a more finely crafted wine. While there are fine Pinot Grigios, much of what is sold in the U.S. is a lighter, mass-market wine.

    †A handful is one of those imprecise measures that says: Use how much you want. More or less of the ingredient is not critical to the recipe’s outcome.

     

     
    Preparation

    1. PREHEAT the oven to 225°F. While it heats, make a simple herb butter by combining the basil leaves with the butter. If you have other herbs in the kitchen—parsley, tarragon, etc.— feel free to add them also.

    2. PLACE the salmon fillet(s) on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Season it lightly with salt and pepper, and scoop a few dollops of herb butter over it. Then bake it for about 30 minutes, until it is just barely firm to the touch. While fish bakes…

    3. MAKE the salad dressing. Place the onion in a bowl, cover it with the vinegar and let sit for about 15 minutes. Then whisk in the olive oil with, a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. When fish is done…

    4. REMOVE the fish from oven and let it rest for a minute as you make the salad. Toss the lettuce with the vinaigrette, sliced avocado and a few torn basil leaves; serve with a big piece of salmon and a glass of nicely chilled wine.
     
     
    THE HISTORY OF OVENS

    When early man mastered the creation of fire, food was cooked in pits dug into the ground, over flame-heated stones, and then—with the invention of cooking vessels—suspended over fires. Cooking was at best imprecise, but so was all of life back then.

    When nomadic man settled into agricultural communities, an outdoor or indoor fireplace could be constructed; an indoor fireplace also provided heat in colder climates. All cooking was still approximate in terms of how large a fire was needed, and how long to cook the food. In those days, food was sustenance rather than cuisine. Fire was used to make tough foods more chewable.

    In earlier times before ovens had sophisticated temperature controls, it was a challenge for cooks to make temperature-sensitive recipes. Even in recipes from the early 20th century, you’ll find directions like “cook in a slow oven for 2 hours or until meat is tender.”

    Today, ovens have precise temperature controls and those general times have been converted to degrees. For example, a “moderate oven” is 350°F to 375°F.

    This history of ovens is adapted from an article in Smithsonian Magazine by Lisa Bramen.

    Before ovens, there was cooking over an outdoor fire (think campfire) or an indoor fireplace and chimney with pots suspended over a wood fire.

  • Ancient Ovens: Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Jews and other peoples baked their bread in a wood-fired stone or brick oven—the same general format used for today’s wood-fired pizza ovens.
  • Cast Iron Stoves With Ovens: Over the centuries, brick ovens were refined to contain a door—the only way to regulate heat. Wood-fired cast iron stoves appeared in the mid-1700s, but still there were no gauges. To bake a cake or other heat-sensitive recipe, ovens were “regulated” by burning the right amount of wood to ash. Bakers stuck their hands inside the oven to feel the temperature, adding more wood for heat or opening the door to let the oven cool to what seemed like the right temperature.
  • Gas Ovens: The first recorded use of gas for cooking was by a Moravian named Zacchaeus Andreas Winzler, a German-born inventor living in Moravia (now the Czech Republic) in 1802. It took another three decades for the first commercially produced gas stove, designed by Englishman James Sharp nine 1834. The stoves became popular by the end of the 19th century. They were easier to regulate and required less upkeep than wood or coal stoves, the ashes of which had to be swept out often—a dirty job.
  • Electric Stoves/Ovens: Home electricity came into use at the end of the 19th century. In 1892, an early electric stove and oven was manufactured by Thomas Ahearn, a Canadian electric company owner.
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    Oven Temperature Chart

    Pot Over Campfire

    Ancient Pompei Oven

    Iron Stove

    [1] Slow oven? Fast oven? Here’s what it means (chart courtesy Wikipedia). [2] After fire was invented, man could have a campfire with a simple spit to hold the food, until flameproof cooking vessels (clay pots) were invented. The oldest pot found is from China and dates to 20,000 B.C.E., at the height of the Ice Age, long before the beginnings of agriculture (photo with a contemporary pot courtesy Tips-For-Camping.com). [3] An oven in Pompei (photo courtesy TrueBrickOvens.Blogspot.com). [4] A Victorian cast-iron oven: still wood-fueled, no temperature dials (photo courtesy Telegraph.co.uk).

  • The Microwave: In 1946, Percy LeBaron Spencer, an engineer for the Raytheon Corporation, was doing research on microwave-producing magnetrons when he discovered that the chocolate bar in his shirt pocket had melted. He experimented further and found that microwave radiation could cook food more quickly than gas and electricity. Raytheon’s Amana division released the first consumer microwave oven in 1967. The high price and [unfounded] fears about radiation took another decade for adventuresome consumers to adopt.
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