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Elephants have earned the reputation of being the smartest kid in class. This intelligence is linked mostly with their ability to never forget (though I’m convinced part of the reason is just because, well, they’re cute…damn cute)!

Salmon, on the other hand, are not quite as cute. However, the memory of salmon is nothing short of remarkable. Salmon are born in fresh water streams, swim to the ocean where they stay for 2-5 years, and then swim back to the exact same stream in which they were born to lay their own eggs.

Is that unbelievable or what? That’s like me trying to get back to the village in Vietnam where I was born, on foot and without a map!

So, yes, salmon are smart little suckers. More importantly, they are tast-teeee! We all know the health benefits of this super-food, but what is most appealing is how quickly and in how many ways it can be prepared – raw, smoked, grilled, baked, broiled, steamed, seared – all with lip smacking results. Admittedly, I’m pretty spoiled living in the Pacific Northwest, being so close to the source. This wild Pacific salmon nearly lept into my arms at the market it was so fresh, so I had no choice but to take it home.

pan-seared-salmon

Pan Seared Wild Salmon with Mustard-Caper Butter and Wilted Spinach
Tweaked from Martha Stewart Living, Dec 2006, serves 2

Watch the oven carefully and set a timer. It may get a little smoky with the high heat, plus you do not want to overcook the salmon. It happens faster than you think. I usually like to take it out a minute before recipes indicate since I like it more rare than not.

Also, after learning this technique from Barefoot Contessa, it’s the only way to pan sear. Finishing off the salmon in the oven makes for a restaurant quality cooked piece of fish. Just remember – do not move the fillets – you will be very tempted, but don’t do it. Leaving them alone allows for the nice crust to form in order for you to flip them over. If you move them – trust me, you’ll have a fishy, sticky, mess on your hands.

Music Pairing: Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, Radiohead, In Rainbows

Ingredients
salmon:

  • 2 center-cut wild salmon fillets (7 to 8 ounces each), skin removed
  • Coarse salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Vegetable oil

spinach:

  • 8 ounces baby or regular spinach
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice

mustard-caper butter:

  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tbsp drained capers, coarsely chopped
  • 3 tsp coarsely chopped fresh dill or parsley
  • 1 tsp grainy mustard
  • Zest of 1/2 lemon, plus thin slices for garnish
  • Freshly ground pepper

Method
for salmon:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Rub both sides of salmon fillets with olive oil and season tops very liberally with salt and pepper. Heat a dry oven-proof saute pan over high heat for 2-3 minutes. When the pan is very hot, lower heat to medium and place the salmon fillets seasoning-sides down in the pan and cook without moving them for 2 minutes, until very browned. Turn the fillets and place the pan in the oven for 3 to 5 minutes, until the salmon is cooked rare.

for spinach:

While salmon is in the oven, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add red onions, cook, stirring, 1 to 2 minutes. Raise heat to medium-high. Add half the spinach, and cook, stirring until wilted, about 2 minutes. Add remaining spinach, and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes more. Stir in salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

for mustard-caper butter:
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir to blend. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serving

Place spinach in center of plate and top with salmon fillet. Spread some mustard-caper butter on salmon and garnish with lemon slices. Serve immediately.

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This weekend was one of those weekends where everything felt possible. Piercing blue skies. Bright, warm sun. Crystal clear waters. It was a perfect excuse to head off the Island and spend the afternoon roaming around the ‘mainland’. A few hours later, I had snagged up several pints of gorgeous organic strawberries and my favorite mascarpone cheese. I knew exactly what was next.

Given the delicate and insanely creamy nature of mascarpone, triple cream purists would likely not fuss one bit more with such a splendid gift from all those well-fed cows in Lombardy. But I was feeling quite determined and thought a nice, happy-go-lucky, tart would be just the ending for such a happy day.

mascarpone-strawberry-tart

Mascarpone Strawberry Tart
Tweaked from Sunset Magazine, June 2005, yields 8-10 servings

This recipe cheats a wee bit with the quick crust, so try to get some higher quality wafers. The chocolate combined with the mascarpone and strawberries – they were all made for each other. A plain, butter crust would only be second best (and much more work) next to this fierce combination. You can make this tart up to one day ahead and top with strawberries just before serving. So easy, so delicious!

Music Pairing: Here Comes the Sun, The Beatles, Abbey Road

Ingredients

  • 9 ounces chocolate water cookies, broken into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 8 tbsp unsalted melted butter
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp instant espresso powder
  • 16 oz mascarpone cheese
  • 1/3 cup good honey
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • zest from 1 lemon
  • 2 cups strawberries

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 325°. Place cookies in a 1-quart zip-lock plastic bag and seal. With a rolling pin, crush cookies into fine crumbs. Pour 2 cups of the crumbs into a bowl and mix with melted butter, sugar, and espresso powder. Press mixture evenly into bottom and up sides of a 9.5-inch tart pan with removable rim (if you prefer a thinner crust, use a 10-inch tart pan).
  2. In another bowl, with mixer on medium, beat mascarpone, honey, and vanilla until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in flour and salt.
  3. Place tart pan in a 12- by 16-inch rimmed baking pan (do not, under any circumstances, skip this – the pan catches any drippings from the filling and prevents the crust from overbrowning) and set on center rack of preheated oven. Pour filling into chocolate crust. Bake until filling is pale golden and barely set in the center when you gently shake pan, 30 to 35 minutes.
  4. Remove tart from oven and let cool on a rack about 30 minutes, then chill until cold, at least 1 hour, or up to 1 day (cover tart once cold).
  5. Shortly before serving, remove rim from pan. Rinse, stem, and thinly slice strawberries. Arrange in a circular or spiral pattern on top of the tart, overlapping slices slightly.

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Friday seems like a good day for Top 10 lists. I’m an enormous fan of Top 10 lists of any sort. Top 10 ways to organize your closet. Top 10 Hollywood break-ups. Top 10 movies of all time. But, for me, Top 10 lists that include anything remotely related to eating, drinking, or cooking make my heart skip a beat. These lists are almost immediately bookmarked, scribbled down, ripped out, talked about, emailed to and forwarded on.

cork

To hold true to form, I’m forwarding on a list of the Top 10 Wines under $20, with at least an 88-point score, from the April issue of Wine Spectator:

  1. Bodega Catena Zapata, Chardonnay Mendoza 2007, $9
  2. Wyndham Estate, Shiraz South Eastern Australia Bin 555 2005, $9
  3. Domaine Gayda, Syrah Vin de Pays d’Oc Three Winds 2006, $9
  4. Sterling, Chardonnay Central Coast Vitner’s Collection 2007, $10
  5. Château de Paraza, Minervois Cuvée Spéciale 2006, $10
  6. Louis Bernard, Côtes du Rhône 2007, $12
  7. Domaine des Champs, Fleuris Saumur White 2006, $14
  8. Rodney Strong, Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County Charlotte’s Home 2007, $15
  9. Cambria, Viognier Santa Maria Valley Tepusquet Vineyard 2006, $16
  10. Chateau Ste Michelle, Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Indian Wells 2006, $18

**Insider tip: the editors at Wine Spectator know we all want to try to get our hands on bottles as close to the elusive 100-points as possible. However, they also know that goal is out of reach for most of us. So they explain wines rated just under 90 points often offer the best bang for your buck – great flavors and complexity without breaking the bank.

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