Thursday, January 21, 2010

Winter Salad, Feta and Spinach Stuffed Salmon, Pesto-Tossed Orzo

I was once again feeling spacey and lazy after working a couple nights in a row. It was therefore time for my go-to lazy meal, aka The Salmon Thingy. I love this salmon thingy, and there are plenty of nights where I could certainly summon the energy to prepare a more involved meal, but all I want is my salmon thingy. Remember how I mentioned that I eat the same thing again and again? Yeah; this would be a good example.

What is the salmon thingy, you ask? Well, it's made by Whole Foods, and it involves spinach, feta and pine nuts, which are rolled into a side of fresh salmon and then sliced into individual servings. It is pure deliciousness, and all you have to do is sprinkle it with some salt and pepper, slide it into the toaster oven, and wait about 10 minutes. There's no mess to clean up, it's relatively healthy, and there's no need to prepare a vegetable side as the spinach is adequate.

As an accompaniment, I generally just make some long grain and wild rice, or, if I'm not feeling like too much of a fatty, I'll make some pesto-tossed orzo. Even the pesto orzo requires minimal effort, as I take a little baggy with an individual-sized portion of pesto out of the freezer and let it defrost on the toaster oven.

I would just like to mention that pesto in the depths of winter is a lovely, lovely thing. It can be used in comforting, hearty and warm applications, yet it still gives you a bit of the brightness of summer that you're craving by this time of year. Summer in a bowl. Mmmm.

Speaking of the orzo, do you ever find yourself doing something, and as you're doing it you're thinking to yourself, 'This is probably a really bad idea and I'm most likely going to regret this...?' Well, I do it all the time. Mixing semolina and whole wheat orzo is a case in point.
I only had a tiny bit of semolina orzo left, and while it wasn't enough for the meal, I didn't want it to go to waste. It therefore got cooked with some whole wheat orzo. This was a bad idea for several reasons, one of which is the potential suckiness of whole wheat orzo. As I was putting it in my cart a few hours earlier while in Whole Foods, I kept thinking, 'Why am I buying this? Whole wheat orzo tends to be awful.' And into the cart it went.

Well, I am delighted to tell you that it was delicious, and I may even do it on purpose next time. They cooked in the same amount of time (which is way longer than you think it would take for those tiny little buggers to reach al dente), and the whole wheat orzo added some heartiness to the pasta without contributing the unpleasant graininess that sometimes accompanies whole wheat orzo.

Not only did my pasta experiment not turn into Fail Dish, I didn't overcook my salmon. Yay me! You see, I tend to overcook the salmon, and I hate overcooked foods. Whether it's meat, eggs, fish, or vegetables, I'd rather eat it raw than overcooked. This particular salmon thingy was a perfect medium-rare to medium. The texture was silky-smooth and rich, to the point where it could almost be described as creamy.
Okay, enough of the salmon, because I'm in the Land of Junk Food (the hospital), and I'm starting to crave some more salmony goodness.

Before satisfying my salmon craving, however, I attempted to satisfy my fennel craving. Fennel is yet another food item that had Nick begging for mercy last year. "Umm...Can we maybe do something without fennel tonight?" Fine. But it's a new year, and poor Nick had bronchitis, so he wasn't eating anyway.

Last year the cooking method of choice for fennel was braising. First you caramelize the outside of fennel that's been cut into wedges. You then fill the skillet with equal amounts of white wine and chicken stock, so that the liquid comes about half way up the side of the fennel wedges. This goes into a 325 degree oven for about 40 minutes until it's meltingly tender.

The braising brings out all of the complexities and sweetness of fennel, while toning down the licorice notes that are one of the more prominent aspects of the vegetable. That's a good thing, because licorice and I do not get along. In fact, I just now went into the lounge here at work, saw a bag of black licorice sitting on the counter, and had to resist the urge to vomit. And when I waited tables, a snifter of Sambucca was carried at the full extent of my reach, especially if I was hungover. Braised fennel is obviously fabulous with pork or white fish, but my favorite way to eat it is on some grainy, hearty bread that's been smeared with goat cheese. Oohhhh...more food cravings.

This year, I've been enjoying raw fennel, especially as a light, pre-dinner salad. In this preparation, the scary, scary mandolin is used to very finely slice a fennel bulb.

It is then tossed with very good olive oil, drizzled with a bit of lemon juice, and sprinkled with coarse gray French sea salt. It's the sea salt that really makes it, as the occasional crunchy bits of pure saltiness are just perfect with the tangy fennel and the fruity olive oil. If you've never tried this kind of salt, I insist that you go to the store and get some. Right now.

It used to be that grey French sea salt could only be obtained from stores like Williams Sonoma, and it cost about $15 per pound. However, it can now be found at normal grocery stores like Super Stale, otherwise known by the misnomer Super Fresh. I haven't broken down the cost per pound, but a little tin of it is about $2. This salt has a cleaner, purer taste than regular sea salt, and it's just heavenly on things like baked potatoes, as it retains a satisfying crunch without being overly alkaline.

Back to tonight's salad--it was actually inspired by Ashley from Not Without Salt. She calls it a winter white salad, and it involves using the scary, scary mandolin to create matchsticks of apple, celery root, and fennel, and tossing them with thinly sliced leeks.

The vegetables are then tossed with a very simple creme fraiche vinaigrette, and finished with the aforementioned spectacular sea salt. If you would like to see a nicer picture than the one I have provided, see Ashley's blog.

(Nice presentation, eh?)

I was intrigued by this salad because it sounded delicious, I had some creme fraiche that I needed to use up, and I was curious about the celery root. Celery root is also known as Celeriac, and I have heard of it, but never tried it. It just so happens that Molly Wizenberg of Orangette has an article about celery root in this month's Bon Apetite. I didn't know this at the time, but it's a rather fortuitous coincidence, as she describes the vegetable better than I likely can, so you should see her article if you're interested.

As Molly says, it is an ugly, ugly vegetable.
Poor little guy.

Celery root is related to the celery found in bunches at the store, but it is not the same thing. However, it does taste a bit like celery. Its flavor is more complex and refined, though, and it has a lovely texture that's smooth and porous at the same time. It has none of that stringy ickiness that maligns the already unimpressive celery stalk.

Did I like it, though? Not especially. I'm not a fan of normal celery, and the celery root, while not overly celery-ish, did not do too much to place it in my favor. It was nice, though, with the apple and fennel.In her article, Molly Wizenberg wrote about a salad that combines apples, fennel and celery root, but she tosses them with a hazelnut vinaigrette made from hazelnut oil, lemon juice, vinegar, and Dijon mustard. I still have some leftover fennel and celery root, so perhaps I'll give this a try on my next night off.

Molly also mentioned that celery root makes a good gratin. This sounds lovely, so perhaps I'll try that, as well. I can already hear Nick saying, "Celery root? Again?"
But for now, I'll just eat an apple and pine for salmon, fennel, pesto, cheese, pasta....

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