Food: In the pink

Fresh, farmed salmon? If you must. But for a real treat, heed the call of the wild. Photographs by Jason Lowe
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As the toiling chef at Bibendum until four and a half years ago, I insisted that whenever we featured fresh salmon on the menu, it simply had to be the real McCoy: the wild stuff. I saw little point in using the ubiquitous farmed fish, even though it may have seemed the easy option. I mean, there is nothing improper about cooking this carefully controlled, penned-in, terminally bored salmon (I do feel that, however arduous, it must miss its heroic leaps), but then the pleasure gained from eating it is no big deal either. I suppose it is not at all bad when cured for gravadlax, as any trace of flavour the salmon possessed has been bullied into submission by dill weed. At any rate, that's my personal view. The catch, sadly, is that wild salmon is now extremely expensive to buy.

It has been recalled many times before, as an "Upstairs-Downstairs" tale, that a Victorian servant's contract stipulated that they would not be forced to eat fresh salmon more than three times a week during the spring and summer months. (I suppose that if some such demand were to be fixed today it might list such things as pasta, pizza and chicken tikka masala.) And it seems strange, does it not, that now, with such an embarrassment of piscatorial choice available to us - some of which is flown in from all over the world - it is the all-nice-and-neat, unchallenging little rectangle of filleted farmed salmon that is the preferred choice of the masses. So it is little wonder that the sad offerings of skate and mackerel, for instance, at my local branch of Tesco, always looks ready for the bin. They can only be displayed for so long - and far too long I might add. But then pretty well every single supermarket fish counter in this land is a disgrace.

Enough ranting. In terms of cost and a wider choice of sizes, it is best to ask your fishmonger when prime fish are likely to appear in regular supply. A whole fish for a summer Sunday family lunch, for instance, is simply inconvenient if much larger than 8lb or so, even if including cold cuts for salad later. But an entire fish is always so much more appealing than a cut piece. One of my only truly decorative fancies - as well as being good to eat - is when a whole (skinned) cold salmon is "scaled" with thin slices of peeled and vinegared cucumber. Very country wedding, I know, but absolutely delicious when prepared with care.

I guess that it was the Troisgros brothers, of Roanne, France, who unwittingly promoted the "escalope" of salmon. It was most famously sauced with cream and sorrel leaves by these two brilliant chefs, but for those who had not eaten it in Roanne, the dish came to our attention through the writing of the late Quentin Crewe, together with superb photographs by Anthony Blake in Great Chefs of France (Mitchell Beazley, 1978).

That's why, once influenced by the Blake photo of the Troisgros salmon, I thought it hugely chic to neaten a thin slice of the fish into this perfect rectangle for my offering too: en hommage. That was until one evening when Sir Alec Guinness came to dinner at the restaurant Hilaire (where I was cooking at the time; he was a regular then and, I think, still is). Very politely, though with the merest trace of irritation, he suggested that salmon was not really meant to look like that. And I have always thought, since then, that he did have a point. Salmon is best eaten as a thick piece or, even better, cooked on the bone.

Fillet of wild salmon baked in paper with vegetables and herbs, serves 4

In Great Chefs, there was another recipe for a simple way with a piece of salmon. This time, it was wrapped in greaseproof paper and baked in the oven; en papillote. This is a wizard way with all manner of fish, their juices and flavour sealed inside what is, essentially, a miniature double oven.

I must add here, that I was most dismayed to see someone cooking salmon with, of all things, big pieces of parsnip, on prime-time BBC television a month or so ago. Just what is going on here? I mean, in your very wildest dreams, your most terrifying of gastro-nightmares even, or faced with the barest vegetable rack of all time, would you really say to yourself "Hmmm, I think I'm going to cook salmon with parsnips for lunch today. Perhaps with a few turnips too, just for good measure." I just don't get it.

a little softened butter

4 large circles of greaseproof paper

1 small bulb of fennel, very thinly sliced

2 small young carrots, peeled and thinly sliced (you may also like to "channel" the carrot with grooves using a tool especially designed for the purpose, just to pretty the thing)

3-4 spring onions, trimmed and shredded

4 x 125-150g pieces of filleted salmon, skin left intact

tarragon, parsley and thyme leaves

4 thin slices of cold butter

salt and pepper

a few squeezes of lemon juice

a little dry white wine

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C/gas mark 5. Generously smear the circles of greaseproof paper with the softened butter. Place equal amounts of the three vegetables in small piles just to one side of each paper circle, and season. Place a piece of salmon on top of each and also season. Scatter herbs over and around and place a slice of butter on top. Squeeze a little lemon juice over each. Fold the papers over to form half circles and begin to crimp each one by making small folds along their edges, securing well so as not to allow juices to seep out while they are in the oven (see pictures above left). Just before you make the final crimp, spoon about a tablespoonful of white wine into each.

Place on to a large baking sheet and bake in the oven for 25 minutes, after which time the parcels should be puffed up with internal steam and slightly singed in places. Leave for two to three minutes. To serve, snip through one end of the parcel using a pair of scissors and slide the whole caboodle on to a warmed plate. Eat with buttered, small new potatoes that have been boiled with mint.

Wild salmon with green paste, serves 4

One could, I suppose, look upon this dish as an Asian interpretation of, say, some poached sea bass or cod eaten with the verdant Italian ointment known as salsa verde. Now I don't think that the latter, heavily oiled sauce, goes well with such a generously fatted fish as salmon - although many misguided people seem to think it accompanies it at the drop of a toque blanche. And most often, it seems, the salmon here is grilled, to boot.

That latter trend may not seem a bad idea on the surface. But many tastings, savourings and downright enjoyment of boiled food with salsa verde - most notably anointing the northern Italian bollito misto (mixed boiled meats) - have convinced me, that the marriage of those slippery soft meats (or fish) with that slick green lotion, is a true one; hollandaise sauce on a poached egg evokes a similar feeling. Having said that, I know no finer coupling than a crisp chip dipped into mayonnaise. Well, there it is. The following green paste is a real perky partner here, not remotely oily and so good, you'd be more than happy to brush your teeth with it.

1kg wild salmon, cut from a whole fish (a tail piece is perfect, and cheaper)

sprigs of fresh coriander

fresh lime wedges

For the green paste

90g coriander leaves - and roots if possible

40g mint leaves

8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2tsp ground cumin

1tsp sugar

1tsp salt

75ml lime juice

5 small green chillies, seeds removed

100g creamed coconut (sold in blocks)

1/2 avocado pear, peeled

To make the green paste, simply puree all ingredients in a food processor or blender until completely smooth. Spoon into a serving bowl and keep cool.

Either steam or poach the piece of salmon for around about 25-30 minutes. To check to see when it is cooked through, gingerly prise the flesh away from the bone with a small knife, which should reveal luscious, pinkly blushed thick flakes. Peel away the skin with the same small knife and then lift the flesh away from the bone, being sure to discard any prominent bones or cartilage. Arrange upon four warmed plates together with a piece of lime for squeezing over and - depending how frivolous you feel - a few sprigs of coriander. Spoon the sauce alongside and eat with a fork.

(A few thick-ish slices of peeled and lightly salted cucumber, rinsed, quickly dried with a tea-towel and mixed with a little vinegar, sugar and a spoonful of very finely chopped spring onion can, if you insist, make a fitting foil for all those soft textures.)

Note: Under no circumstances allow anyone to tell you that under-cooked salmon is nice. A piece of fish is either cooked, or not cooked. Raw fish is one thing - of which the sliced fatty belly of a gloriously fresh tuna or wild salmon is possibly one of the most delicious things to eat in whole wide world - and properly cooked fish is quite another, the present obsession with rare-grilled tuna is completely lost on me. Anything in between (bits of raw fish adjacent to bits of cooked fish within the same serving) is simply a mistake. Here is a little story to illustrate this.

The first time I ate chez Girardet, in the town of Crissier, Switzerland, the inconceivable happened: the semi-raw piece of sea bass. As mine eyes lifted and swivelled from this worrying plate, searching into the expanse of the dining room for a discreet waiter, who should happen to be pacing by but the man himself. He. (Before you start to get the wrong end of the stick here, He is most surely one of the very greatest cooks that we may ever know.) And as He peered questionably over my left shoulder, I muttered quite well for a few moments to Him: "Look, I have here a really difficult piece of sea bass. I can't eat this. It's clearly not cooked through. You can see that, can you not, you great big stern and very famous Swiss chef?"

Well, of course I didn't manage to say that, but it is very much what I would like to have said, given a moment of bravado. You see, He simply refused to understand that my serving of sea bass - one out of a table of nine servings - was a complete cock-up, even though he must have been able to see that it quite clearly was. And let me tell you, He protested for at least two minutes - which is a long time in a suddenly hushed restaurant - before reluctantly taking my plate back to the kitchen. It was a very long time before a replacement was returned to me. And it was an even longer time before I dared return to Crissier

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