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Salmon is one of those fish that even the fish averse seem to enjoy. Because it’s got so much natural oil in it, it’s hard to screw up, making it a reliably tasty dish even for those who don’t cook much. But it also means that it can get tiresome. Marinating fillets or steaks in a little lemon/olive oil/garlic/herb mixture and running it under the broiler for a few minutes is a tried and true technique. But do that enough and inevitably that will result in yawns. Who wants that!

I recently spent some time in the kitchen with a San Diego chef who showed me a wonderful way to prepare it that I think clients will enjoy–especially since you can leave them with a sauce that is wonderfully versatile. Once they enjoy it with the salmon, they can use it several other ways.

The chef is Jeremy Oursland of Bottega Americano in downtown San Diego. Like some of you, Oursland grew up in the restaurant business. His dad had been a chef at a country club and Oursland started out there as a kid working as a dishwasher. And, like many who start with doing the dishes and sticking with it, he got a chance to cook, first making brunch and breakfast, then dinner. He also learned about catering, banquets, and fine dining during his stint there.

On the new spring menu Oursland showed me the dish he’d be preparing. They just call it Salmon, but it’s a seared salmon filet with caramelized fennel, gnocchi, sugar snap peas, and Swiss chard, dressed with a rich tomato fonduta–Italy’s version of fondue.

Everything was prepped and ready to go when I got to the restaurant. First, Oursland showed me how to make the fonduta, filling a saucepan with half a lemon, wine, garlic, shallot, fresh herbs, peppercorns, and a roma tomato. Cream had been warmed in another pot. Once the mixture was reduced and strained, he added the cream, tomato paste, and butter, which yielded a rich yet slightly acidic sauce. In fact, this makes enough so that you can use some to serve with the salmon and vegetables and have more to enjoy over pasta, other fish, chicken, roasted vegetables, or (Oursland’s suggestion) cheese curds. Or use it as a dipping sauce for bread.

Then Oursland cooked the salmon. In your client’s home, use the stove. At the restaurant, Oursland takes advantage of the searing heat of the pizza oven. First he heated the cast iron skillet in the oven. Then he carefully added some canola oil and slid a salmon filet, skin side down and away from him onto the pan before pushing it into the oven. He also prepared a version on the stovetop.

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Oursland suggests purchasing skin-on salmon from a specialty seafood market or Costco. He prefers wild or sustainably farmed salmon. When prepping it be sure to pat the skin dry so that it will get crispy. And only salt the fish just before you put it in the hot pan. “If you season it and let it sit, the salt will pull the moisture in the fish to the surface and the sear won’t be as crisp,” Oursland warns. He suggested using a fish spatula because its thin edge makes it easy to get under the fish without tearing the skin or the flesh–and it’s easy to clean.

He also makes sure he blanches the vegetables before sauteing them. “This seals in the flavor, adds crunch, and brings out vibrant colors,” he noted. “Make sure all the veggies have a chance to dry thoroughly before sauteing,” he said, adding, “Thomas Keller has a chapter in the French Laundry cookbook about big pot blanching. It’s well written and a fun read. I enjoy preparing vegetables. It can be a little time consuming but if you do so with respect for the product it will show in your dish. I find it very relaxing and rewarding.

“If you pay attention to the minor details it makes for such a better result,” Oursland said.

Salmon with Caramelized Fennel, Gnocchi, Sugar Snap Peas, and Tomato Fonduta

From Jeremy Oursland of Bottega Americano
Serves 4 to 6, depending on portion size

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Ingredients
½ pound sugar snap peas
1 bunch rainbow chard
2 fennel bulbs
3 ounces canola oil for caramelizing the fennel, and sautéing the gnocchi and the salmon
1 teaspoon butter
Kosher salt
6 ounces per person of gnocchi (You can substitute pasta like fusilli or penne.)
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 teaspoons crushed garlic
6 ounce portion per person salmon filet, skin on
1 cup fonduta (see below)

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For Fonduta:
Yield: 3 cups

3 cups white wine-preferably one you wouldn’t mind drinking but not too expensive
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs tarragon
8 garlic cloves
1 large shallot roughly chopped
2 teaspoon peppercorns
1/2 of a lemon
1/2 medium tomato
1 cup cream, slightly warmed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 pound butter, cut into pieces
Kosher salt

Instructions
To make the fonduta, combine the wine, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, garlic, shallot, lemon, and tomato in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half.

Add the cream and whisk in the tomato paste. Reduce by a third, then strain the mixture through a sieve.

Return the sauce to the saucepan and whisk in the butter over medium-low heat. Season to taste with kosher salt. Strain again. Set aside.

For the vegetables:
Prepare an ice bath. Wash the rainbow chard thoroughly in cold water and dry. Remove the stems and dice the leaves into ¼-inch by ¼-inch pieces. Blanch in salted boiling water for one minute and then place in ice bath for a moment to shock them. Remove from the water and set aside.

Prep the sugar snap peas by removing the “string,” grabbing the outer edge where the pea was connected to the vine and pulling it away from the pea. Remove the tip where the pea connected to the vine, too. Blanch and then shock in the ice bath. Remove and set aside.

Cut the top and bottom of the fennel bulbs. Remove the core. (Save them to include in a simple vegetable stock). Julienne the remaining parts of the bulbs into ½-inch strips. Sauté in canola oil over medium-high heat until it has a nice caramel color and becomes soft. Finish with a touch of butter and season to taste with kosher salt. Set aside.

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Blanch the gnocchi, then sauté on medium-high heat in canola oil until golden brown and crispy. Season with kosher salt. (If you’re using fusilli or penne, cook according to directions and skip the sautéing.)

Sauté all the prepared vegetables together in a pan with a little olive oil and crushed garlic. Add the gnocchi or pasta. Season to taste with kosher salt. Set aside.

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To cook the salmon, first pat the skin dry to help the skin get crispy. Heat a cast iron or non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Add canola oil. Season the fish with kosher salt just prior to placing in the pan (again for a crispy skin). Lightly lay it in the pan skin side down and placing it in a motion away from the hand holding the pan to avoid splashing the oil on yourself. Let it cook approximately five minutes. Using a fish spatula, flip the filets carefully, tilting the pan away from you to avoid the oil splashing, and cook another two to three minutes on the other side. Remove from heat and let it rest a couple of minutes before plating.

To plate, place the vegetables and gnocchi on each plate to form a bed for the salmon. Place the salmon on top. Sauce the plate with the fonduta and serve immediately.

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What’s your favorite way to prepare salmon for clients?

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