I know that salmon is not native to India.
It is a cold-water fish, native to the northern Pacific, northern Atlantic and the chill rivers where they spawn.
But, it is an awfully tasty fish, and we happened to have quite a few fillets of it in the freezer at Restaurant Salaam, and I needed to do something with it. And, as all of the dinner specials that weekend had an Indian theme, I thought to myself, “You know, the folks in Northern India do a good bit of coating meats and fish in yogurt and either grilling it or cooking it in a tandoor. So, I wonder what it would taste like if I treated salmon that way and baked it?”
Yogurt really doesn’t necessarily sound like it would taste good with salmon. I know that it isn’t the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the pale pink fish. But when you factor in Indian spices, and you realize that the yogurt keeps the fish deliciously moist, then your mind starts to expand with the possibilities.
Because as much as I love salmon, there are a few problems with cooking it. While it is an oily fish, it can dry out quite easily, and that is not a good thing. Dry fish is sad fish, and sad fish makes for sad diners.
And sad diners make everyone sad.
So, in order to alleviate unneeded, unwanted sorrow in the dining room, I am against overcooking or otherwise abusing innocent salmon fillets. The truth is, I am against abusing any fish anywhere, because they are such a delicious, and usually, healthy food to eat, but some people, having eaten badly cooked fish in the past, think they don’t like it. And that makes me sad–so, I set out to change people’s minds, and get them to try fish that isn’t dried out, icky or otherwise unpalatable.
So, back to the yogurt thing.
Yogurt, when used as a marinade for meat, where the meat is coated and allowed to sit in the fridge overnight, acts as a tenderizer. The lactic acid in the yogurt helps denature the protein molecules on the surface of the meat, making chicken or seafood velvety in texture. Lamb marinated in this way is not only tender, but filled with rich flavor that no other marinade can impart.
Knowing as I do that in India, seafood is often marinated in yogurt to tenderize it (shellfish in particular, though never overnight–that would over-tenderize the little guys and give the flesh a mushy texture which is less than appealing), I decided to try the trick with salmon. Not only would I marinate the fillets in yogurt, I would also bake them coated completely in the creamy stuff, which effectively buffers the fish from the dry, hot air of the oven and seals in the natural juices and flavors.
At least, that is what I theorized would happen. I wasn’t quite sure what would happen, really–this is called cooking by the seat of the pants, and since I am such a geek and read about food obsessively and experiment continually, I have a broad data bank in my head for my instincts to work from. So, when I get these seat-of-the-pants ideas, I am almost always right, although it isn’t luck that steers me correctly–it is because I have squirreled away every tidbit about food and cooking from everywhere around the world in my brain to the point that I may not remember exactly where I read something, but I do remember reading it, even if the memory is on a subconscious level.
Anyway, what flavors would I add to the yogurt. Plain yogurt and salmon is not an appealing combination, so I decided I wanted something that I knew would be good with fish, and that would add moisture, have a smooth texture and turn the yogurt into a sauce that would be nice soaked into the basmati rice I was going to be placing under the fish as a side starch.
Coriander chutney, also known at my house and now at Restaurant Salaam as simply, “green” fit the bill.
It also has the virtue of being very fast and easy to make, especially if one employs a food processor.
So, I whipped up some “green” in our faithful whiz-bang food processor, and mixed it up in a ratio of 1:1 with strained Greek-style yogurt, then stirred in some finely diced red onion and an extra squeeze of lime juice, and bathed the salmon fillets in it, coating them with the pale jade-colored mixture. When I set up the individual baking casseroles, I made sure to add extra sauce, coating the fish and the rice completely in it before adding a handful of halved cherry tomatoes to the sides of the fish, atop the sauce. (This added contrasting color and a great flavor–cooking cherry tomatoes in a convection oven on high heat like we do at Salaam results in a velvety texture and concentrates the naturally sweet flavor of the little fruits.)
How did it turn out?
Well enough for me to write about it!
Truthfully, lots of guests raved about the dish, asking how it was made and why the salmon was so tender and juicy. I credited the genius of the Northern Indian cooks who first used yogurt as a marinade generations ago for the idea.
Here it is–a really easy, delicious salmon dish that is pretty much guaranteed not to dry out or taste fishy, with many thanks to the traditional cooks in India whose cuisines gave me the idea for this dish.
(That said, I want to take this opportunity to write, even though I try not to get political on this blog, a wish for peace in India. I know that the attacks in Mumbai last week were not the first nor will they likely be the last terrorist attacks in India, but I also know that everyone I have ever known who is either from India, or lives in India, or is of Indian descent, has been a most loving, compassionate and wonderful person. Every last one of them. So, my heartfelt wishes for a peace goes out to all the people of India, and all the others who were hurt by this tragic attack. Perhaps our prayers from around the world can be felt and help soften the pain and suffering in Mumbai and beyond.)
Salmon Baked in Yogurt and Coriander Chutney
2 cups cilantro leaves and stems, roughly chopped
1 cup fresh mint leaves and stems, roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1-5 green red thai chili, stem removed (Use as many as you like for the heat you like.)
1 1/2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
zest of one lime or lemon
1/3 cup lime juice
pinch ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper flakes
1 tablespoon canola oil
salt to taste (at least one teaspoon)
2 3/4 cups strained Greek-style yogurt (Fage is a good brand)
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
8 salmon fillets (wild caught Pacific salmon is the best here)
canola oil as needed to oil baking pans
3 cups cooked and cooled steamed basmati rice (this is a good way to use leftover rice–or basmati pillau, if you have that)
1 cup washed and halved fresh cherry tomatoes
Fresh cilantro sprigs, lime slices and finely diced red onion as garnish
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Put the ingredients from the cilantro to the salt into the bowl of a food processor with the all-purpose blade and process into a finely chopped, fairly dry green paste. Scrape into a mixing bowl and add the yogurt and red onion, and whisk together until a smooth, pale jade green sauce flecked with purple bits of onion is formed.
Clean your salmon fillets–check for pin bones and remove them with your fingers, tweezers or a pair of pliers. Remove any stray scales, rinse the fish and pat it dry. Layer the fish into a baking pan and pour two-thirds of the yogurt and chutney sauce over it, being certain to coat all of the fish with the marinade. Allow it to sit refrigerated for a half hour.
Meanwhile, lightly oil another baking dish or individual casseroles with a bit of canola oil, and place rice in thin layer of the bottom of the pan(s). Drizzle reserved 1/3 of the sauce over the rice, covering as much of it as possible.
Lay the fish out on top of the rice, so that the fish is not overlapping. Pour the marinade from the bowl over the fish so it is completely covered in the sauce. (This is easier to do in individual casserole dishes, frankly. If you don’t have them make a double batch of the sauce to make certain to have enough to use in whatever size baking dish you have that will fit the fish.)
Sprinkle the tomatoes around the fish, covering any rice that is not covered by the fish fillets.
Bake, uncovered, for about ten-fifteen minutes, or until the internal temperature of the fish fillets registers between 120 degrees F and 140 degrees F, or until the fish flakes easily. (It all depends on how done you like your fish.)
Sprinkle cooked fish with diced red onion, and artfully garnish with sprigs of cilantro and twists of lime, then serve it forth while it is still hot and tasty.
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