19 January 2007

Dinner with me

Yea, I know... it's 10:30pm and I'm about to embark upon the enthralling story of making myself a dinner alone... in New York City... on a Friday night. In case you haven't guessed, I didn't have a hot date (or even a lukewarm one, for that matter) and actually, I'm okay with that. If given a choice between going to a bar and drinking alone, or a nice catch-up on my television shows (Medium, John Stewart and Earl, please), and an actual healthy dinner, I'd pick the latter. Well, I'd pick it probably half the time. No, it's not very "SATC", but my mother would be proud.

My game plan was to make pan-seared salmon, porcini mushroom risotto, and a baby spinach salad. For some reason I've recently started enjoying salmon, especially if prepared well. Organic from Fresh Direct (they have good stuff, I tell you), I was ready to go with a gorgeous salmon fillet that I didn't want to screw up. That's the problem I have with food... it's a one-shot deal, and at times, only a matter of seconds that determine whether you'll end up with food on your plate, or the fire department at your door.

Before we go any further, I suppose I should pause and take a moment to explain to you that when the world jokes about those sad, sad people who can't even boil water when they try to cook, realize that I actually personify that. Literally. Once upon a time, in one of my teenage attempts at learning to use a burner, I filled a pot with water, put the pot on the stove, and turned on the stove. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Water should then begin to boil, and one can then add pasta (say the directions) and stir, and let it get soft and such. Except when I turned around to check on the progress of my "bring water to a boil", there were flames. Not small flames... open, flickering, orange flames jumping about 2 1/2 feet above the stove top. I had (and I say this with great embarrassment, since it brings me almost as much pride as the story of when my cousin peed on my leg when I was 5 during a car trip) turned on the wrong burner. The burner I had turned on high was now topped not with a pot of boiling water - which was sitting cooly on anther burner - but the flaming remnants of a pot holder.

I put out the fire. Poured out the water. And called for pizza.

That was just about the last time I tried to cook anything except cookies and brownies.

So in my "new life", I have decided that I needed to know more about food preparation and eating more healthily (plus, the fact that I know Mee's Chinese Food's phone number by heart is truly disheartening. 212-888-0234) Salmon was my next challenge. And I relied heavily upon the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook to guide me through the cooking of a fabulously perfect fillet of skin-on organic salmon that I got from Fresh Direct. The recipe had four ingredients: Salmon, salt, pepper, and vegetable oil. Not too hard, you say? Remember the boiling / flaming pot of water? That was ONE ingredient. See why I'm nervous?

1. "Pat the salmon dry with paper towels." PHEW! No burner required for that. So far, so good. Salmon patted. And dried. With paper towels. Check.

2. "Season with salt and pepper." Again, no heat, so I'm good. I put on salt. Oh hey, can there EVER be too much salt? I put on more salt. I flip it over to do the other side. And then (because it's been expertly patted dry) figure that the first side's salt all fell off, so I flip it back over and put on more salt. (Did I mention I like salt?)

3. "Heat 1 Tbs vegetable oil in skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking". Okay, boys and girls, here's where the fire department gets nervous. Heat. I've watched plenty of America's Test Kitchen shows, where the most excellent Chris Kimball and his staff have apparently spent far too much of their time staring at and scientifically analyzing the behavior of oil in a pan. There's the 'shimmer' stage, where the oil gets, well, shimmery. And then - right after that - there's the 'just smoking' stage where wisps of smoke just start peering off the oil's surface. Now, to me, "just smoking" usually means "oh shit, the smoke detector's about to go off." So before I even turn on a burner, I take the battery out of the smoke detector, turn on the ventilation fan and dial "911" into my cell phone with my finger hovering above the "Send" button. (Hey, this is ME playing with FIRE you're talking about... you can't be too careful.)

So okay, here we go... oil's in the pan, and the gas goes on... we're cookin' with gas!!! The oil gets shimmery quickly enough, and then it's time to look for 'wisps of smoke'. I wait. And wait. And it's like watching water boil... it's just not happening. I even change my angle of view, and still... no smoke. It seems like 20 minutes of watching (but unlike a pot, I refuse to turn away, for fear that flames will erupt again) and whoof! There's a WISP!!!! Yay!

4. "Gently lay the salmon skin-side up in the skillet and cook until well browned, about 5 minutes." Okay, pick up salmon, lay in pan... OIL SPLATTERS AND SPITS ALL OVER THE NEWLY CLEANED OVEN. Oops. The oil didn't LOOK that hot... Oh well. Keep on truckin'. But 5 minutes seems like a long time, I think. But I leave it on, for 5 minutes, and during that time, the oil splatters and spits all over my entire kitchen (not hard when it's only about 3 square feet.) After 5 minutes it's time to flip the puppy over. "Gently flip the fish skin-side down and continue to cook until all but the very center of the fish has turned from translucent to opaque, about 3 minutes." That seems like an awfully long way of saying "Flip fish and cook 3 more minutes," but hey, it's my first fish and I don't write cookbooks, so who am I to say anything...

The flipping sounds easy enough... except that my salmon sticks to my pan. And the flipping turns to scooping, prying, scraping, sawing, salmon splitting, more scraping, swearing, and "flipping" that quickly deteriorates into slinging... which leads to more spitting and splattering of oil as I turn the fish skin-side down. PHEW. It's not pretty, but it's flipped, and the side that was on the heat before is actually BROWN!!! How exciting! I should have changed out of work clothes.

The whole skin stuck to the pan when I brought the poor fillet out of the pan. But I pried and scraped the skin off the bottom, because hey, that's where all the yummy salt was! It was delicious, I have to say. Simple, easy enough (though surprisingly messy), and absolutely perfect. The center was juicy, moist, and the seared outside was brown and crispy (and slightly salty - yay!) When combined with a side of porcini mushroom risotto (from a box, sorry) and a baby spinach salad with homemade dressing (made with olive oil and lemon juice shaken together in a Ziploc bag because I couldn't think of anything else to mix it in) with Craisins and raw almond slivers on top (basically I made all that up in my head... I mean, you can put ANYTHING on raw spinach and it HAS to taste better, right?)

Overall, it was a surprisingly good dinner. And I didn't screw it up. Or set anything on fire. And nothing exploded. Or burnt to a crispy. Here's what it DIDN'T look like:

Next time, it's maple-glazed roast pork loin with parmesan focaccia and caesar salad. Or maybe the cold sesame noodle from Mee's Chinese (212-888-0234). After all, I probably shouldn't push my luck... or the fire department's... quite yet.

p.s. Special thanks to the folks at ATK for giving me the inspiration to cook, as well as giving me more knowledge of oils than I possibly needed. And to James, for showing me how stupidly easy a really good salad dressing can be to make. Tomorrow - the tale of my first adventure with my new mostest-favoritest-thing-in-the-whole-wide-world: the Edge-Only brownie pan...

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