Salmon and sorrel sauce is a springtime classic in France, but since this year’s steelhead trout run was so good on the American River, I decided to use fresh steelhead instead of frozen salmon for my version of this recipe. As you may have noticed, I decided to go fancy with it. But fear not: If you are not into fancy, keep reading — how I cook the fish is worth your time.
Updating a classic dish is something chefs do all the time, but putting an individual stamp on it isn’t easy. I actually spent several days thinking about this recipe, mulling colors and flavors, temperatures and textures. I also thought about plating it simply, too. I suppose I could have, and when you make this dish (as I hope you do!) you can plate it however you want. I decided to go “bistro,” fancy enough to stack things, but not crazy Alinea or Eleven Madison Park-style plating. That’s too fussy even for me. Why bother? Because you eat with your eyes first — and for most of you, it’s the only way you’ll “eat” this dish.
Yeah, I admit it: I am a food geek, a restless craftsman. For a while I concerned myself with making arty food, but I soon realized I lack the temperament for that. I am, however, still preoccupied with coming up with new flavors, with dishes that are as original as I can make them. But mostly I want to make food that is mentally unchallenging and damn good to eat.
This dish meets that goal.
The stars are the steelhead (or salmon) and the sorrel sauce. The fish is cooked very simply, but with a technique few home cooks employ; I’ll get to that in a bit. It’s the sorrel sauce that’s tricky. Sorrel, if you’ve never cooked with it, has a wonderfully tangy flavor that pairs perfectly with fish: It’s lemonade in a leaf. Sadly, sorrel goes from pretty green to olive drab in exactly 5 seconds when boiled in salty water. Dealing with an unappetizing green is part of working with sorrel. It is an inevitability.
Only it isn’t. I grow a lot of sorrel in my backyard, so I have plenty to experiment with. What I found is that if you blanch the sorrel for 4 seconds in salty, boiling water and then shock the leaves in ice water, they will stay green when pureed into a smooth sauce. This is the sauce immediately after it is made.
You will notice, however, that the sauce in the finished dish has begun to turn that Army green. I made the sauce around midday, refrigerated it and then served it for dinner that night. Note to self: Make sauce right before you make the dish.
The rest of the dish is a collection of esoterica: Mashed salsify, pickled mustard seeds, preserved garlic and a rue leaf. Wha? Don’t worry about it, you can get somewhere close to this with mashed potatoes, a dot of grainy mustard and a clove of roasted garlic. Still too much? Skip it.
What you should not skip is the fish. The secret to cooking it is to sear it on one side only; if you’ve ever cooked scallops, this is pretty much the same way. The effect is a sexy crust on one side of the fish without overcooking it or having to worry about it sticking. Neat, eh?
Bottom line: I make no apologies for this dish. It is neither quick nor easy. Not everything we cook ought to be. What it offers a balance of smooth and crunchy textures, tangy and tart flavors and is definitely the palette of early springtime. Give it a go, and you will not be sorry.
Salmon or Steelhead with Sorrel Sauce and Salsify
To do this dish as I’ve written it requires a bit of skill and some esoteric ingredients. That said, the basics are not overly tough and the fish cooking method will delight anyone who’s never tried it.
Some substitutes. You can of course use any salmonid for this recipe, from farmed salmon to wild, steelhead to other trout. You do need a block of skinless fillet, however, so you will want a big fish to begin with. As I mentioned in the post, you can certainly use mashed potatoes instead of mashed salsify. I use preserved garlic here, but you can use a clove from a roasted head of garlic. Grainy, country-style mustard is similar to the pickled mustard seeds I use. There is no substitute for rue.
The sorrel sauce is also unique. If you don’t want to go through the process of making my version, this is the classic sorrel sauce the French make. Use that and you’ll get close.
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes, mostly for the salsify
- 1 pound skinless steelhead fillets
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 pounds salsify (or potatoes), peeled and chopped
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup cream
- 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish, or to taste
- 5 ounces sorrel leaves
- 3 ounces parsley
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Preserved or roasted garlic cloves
- Pickled mustard seeds or grainy mustard
- A rue leaf or parsley leaf
- Make the sorrel sauce first. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it well; it should taste like the sea. Set a large bowl of ice water nearby. It is important that the ice water bowl be close to the pot, because sorrel can oxidize in the few feet it takes to get it from the boiling water to the ice water. Holding the sorrel leaves by the stems, boil them for 3 to 4 seconds and then plunge them into the ice water. Do the same thing for the parsley, only boil them for 1 minute.
- Remove the uncooked stems from the herbs and put the leaves in a blender with 1 cup cold water. Puree on high speed in a blender for 30 seconds. Set up a fine meshed strainer over a bowl. Pour the puree through the strainer into the bowl. Let it drip undisturbed for 3 to 5 minutes. Discard the green water in the bowl. Now push the puree through the strainer with a rubber spatula; this will take a few minutes. Be sure to scrape off the puree on the underside of the strainer. Set the strained puree in the fridge while you make the salsify.
- If you are using salsify, have a bowl of cool water with a lemon squeezed into it; you need the acidulated water to prevent the salsify from browning. Peel and chop one root at a time and drop it into the water. When they are all peeled, boil in salted water until tender, about 40 minutes.
- Drain and set the pot over medium-low heat. Return the salsify to the pot and let it steam for a few seconds to remove a bit more water — this makes the mash fluffier. Add the butter and cream and pound with a masher. Add salt and horseradish to taste. I like a full tablespoon in my mash, but start with a teaspoon. Cover the finished mash and set it over very low heat.
- To cook the steelhead, salt it well on all sides. Melt the butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, pat the fish dry with paper towels and set each piece in the hot butter. Immediately shake the pan a little to prevent the fish from sticking. Let them rest now and listen for the sizzle: You want a strong sizzle, but not an inferno. Think frying chicken.
Wait for 1 minute, then use a spoon to baste the fish with the hot butter. Do this constantly for several minutes, until you see a crust form where the fish is sizzling in the pan. How long will depend on the heat of your pan and the thickness of the fish, but count on it taking at least 3 minutes. Use tongs to try to pick up the fish: If it comes away easily, you’re ready. If not, keep it cooking — and keep basting with the hot butter. The net effect is to gently cook the interior of the fish while getting an awesome crust on one side.
- Heat the sorrel sauce very gently. Do not let it bubble. Swirl in the butter one tablespoon at a time.
- To serve, pour some sorrel sauce on the plate. Add the salsify puree and top with a piece of fish, crust side up. Garnish with the garlic, mustard seed and rue leaf.