When one hears “comfort food,” I’d bet most people wouldn’t think immediately of fish. But when I read Ina Garten’s recipe for pan-seared salmon in her latest cookbook, Modern Comfort Food, the photograph illustrating this “pretty-in-pink” dish prompted me to make it.
As Garten explains in her brief introduction to the recipe, the method she uses to cook the salmon is similar to that used in steakhouses for executing prime steaks with that hallmark crispy sear. A piping hot, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is essential to the success of this dish.
As for the dish’s comfort element, I’d attribute it to the medium-rare salmon’s buttery texture, but perhaps even more to its accompanying silky, spicy aioli. The blend of the smoky chipotle in adobo and the piquant roasted bell peppers adds just the perfect amount of spice to the sauce, making it the perfect complement to the mildly flavored salmon.
With the aid of a mini food processor, this dish comes together in no time and the quick cooking makes it perfect for weeknight suppers.
Although, I was cooking for two and using only half the amount of salmon, I made almost the full amount of the sauce, holding back only on the amount of mayonnaise. I also liberally seasoned the salmon with salt and pepper. Finally, to ensure that my salmon wouldn’t stick to the pan after turning it for cooking in the oven, I added just a tad of oil under the fillets.
I chose to serve the fish accompanied by a simple couscous with Moroccan preserved lemons and some buttered peas, two sides that typically accompany my comfort food dishes.
Seared Salmon with Spicy Red Pepper Aioli (from Modern Comfort Food by Ina Garten)
2 teaspoons finely minced garlic (2 cloves)
1 tablespoon (canned) chopped chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (I used a generous tablespoon.)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup jarred roasted red peppers, seeded and chopped
1 cup good mayonnaise, such as Hellman’s
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
4 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless, center-cut salmon fillets
Extra virgin olive oil
1 lime, quartered, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. To make the aioli. Chop the garlic and chipotle pepper together on a cutting board to make a coarse paste. (I made a mistake here and chopped the roasted pepper and the garlic; I don’t think it made a difference.)
3. Place the paste in a food processor, add the lime juice and roasted red peppers, and purée. (A mini-food processor is best for this step.)
4. Add the mayonnaise, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon black pepper, and process until smooth. Set aside.
5. To cook the salmon. Place a large (12-inch), dry cast-iron skillet over high heat for 5 minutes.
6. Place the salmon fillets on a board, pat dry with paper towels, and rub all over with olive oil. (It’s important to dry the salmon well so that the oil will adhere.)
7. With the fillets rounded side up, sprinkle them with 1½ teaspoons salt and ¾ teaspoon black pepper.
8. Place the salmon in the skillet rounded side down and cook over medium-high heat for exactly 2 minutes without moving. (If you move them, they will stick.)
9. Using a large metal spatula, turn the fillets rounded side up, and place the skillet in the oven. (I added just a little oil to the pan while turning the salmon.)
10. Roast for 3 to 4 minutes, until the centers are rare.
11. Cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil and allow the salmon to rest for 3 to 4 minutes for medium-rare or 5 minutes for medium. (I went with 4 minutes.)
12. On heated plates, serve the salmon hot with the aioli and a wedge of lime for squeezing.
Wine Pairing: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir