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Portland Seared Salmon on a Salad

It was a quick weekend getaway with my wife to Portland, OR. What a great city!

As luck would have it we stumbled into a wine and food festival on the streets near their wonderful art museum. One vendor was preparing fresh Pacific salmon and serving it piping hot on a bed of chilled Romaine lettuce with shredded provolone cheese. Another was selling King Estate Pinot Gris. It was an unforgettable lunch in the park on a picnic table. So simple, so heavenly. I have duplicated the recipe, and even devised a few enhancements.

The concept is similar to when you buy pan roasted fish in a restaurant, and the recipe will work on a lot of firm fish including trout, coho, arctic char, halibut, haddock, bass, and sea bass. In a restaurant the chef sears a fillet of fish in a thin layer of very hot oil in a frying pan until it is golden brown and crispy on both sides. But this is not usually enough to cook it throughout so she puts the pan in a hot oven for a few more minutes. The method is called pan roasting. You can do this at home, but, unless you have a really strong exhaust fan, there is a good chance you will fill the house with smoke and a strong fish smell that can take days to expunge. The solution: Do it on your grill! No fishy smell in the house, and you can sear and roast all at once.

The first key to the plan is a well seasoned cast iron griddle or cast iron frying pan. I like the Lodge griddle linked above because it doesn't have grease grooves like most, so the oil stays on the flat surface. I suppose a regular frying pan will do, but I've never tried it. High heat is another key to this recipe, and cast iron is a great conductor and retainer of heat. If it has been used often, and has only been wiped clean and never cleaned with a scouring pad or strong detergent, it has a non-stick surface called seasoning. Because the flavors of fish can become embedded in seasoned cast iron, you may want to dedicate this griddle/pan to fish. Don't worry, you aren't being extravagant. You will use this recipe so often you can justify this single-tasker.

The second key is good fish. Freshness is paramount. Fish can get pretty stinky pretty fast if they are not stored at ideal humidity and temp. The best method for storing fish is right on ice. And I don't mean in a pan on ice, or on plastic wrap on ice. The ice is wet, the pan is not. When you see a fishmonger storing the fish on ice, you see a merchant who is willing to throw out costly ice every night to insure you get the best.

If you get the fish home and it smells like fresh sea water, if it reminds you of a trip to the beach, you're good to go. If it has a strong fishy smell, that is caused by a chemical that forms when the fish is stored improperly or too long. You can often get rid of it by soaking it in milk for 30 minutes.

Farm raised salmon is common and cheap nowadays, and it can be darn tasty. Because the fish eat a specially formulated feed they don't get the beautiful bright orange color of wild salmon, so often the processors add food coloring. By law this must be on the label. I have no problem with farm raised salmon, but I do have a problem with artificially colored salmon. There's probably nothing unhealthy about it, but the idea just ticks me off. Just sell me the fish!

But for taste and texture, nothing beats fresh line caught wild salmon in spring. The ne plus ultra is Copper River Salmon from Alaska. Be prepared to fork over at least $15/pound and as much as $30. But if you cook it this way, you will not regret the expense.

Seared Salmon on a Salad Recipe

Yield. Serves 2.

Preparation time. 20 minutes.

Cooking time. Depending on the thickness of the fish, about 20 to 30 minutes.


2 salmon fillets (not steaks), as fresh as possible

Table salt


Freshly ground black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

Fresh dill or thyme

2 big bowls of chopped Romaine lettuce

1/4 cup shredded provolone cheese

Italian vinaigrette salad dressing

About the fish. You can do this with any other thick firm fish filet such as halibut. The absolute most important thing in successful fish cookery is freshness. Buy from a store that sells a lot of fish and from a fish monger who will tell you honestly how fresh it is. Develop a relationship. If it is really cheap, it is probably too old. The three things to look for: Clear eyes, red gills, and a briny but not fishy smell.

Variations. You can try this recipe with fish other than salmon. I've done it with a pretty wide variety. I have also had fun varying the seasoning on the fish. Occasionally I have used dried chipotle powder, dried horseradish, breadcrumbs, dried minced onions, dill, thyme, and other green herbs. Use whatever moves you, but do not use garlic (it gets bitter). If you want to add croutons or other ingredients to the salad, knock yourself out. But it's not necessary. The beauty of this dish is its simplicity.

Serve with. Serve with a tart white wine such as an Oregon Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris and garlic bread.


1) Use filets, not steaks. Steaks are usually too thick for this procedure. It's nice to get the skin off before you start if you can so you can get the fish crispy on both sides. Have your butcher remove the skin if possible or you can try to remove it yourself with a flexible filleting knife, a very sharp thin flexible blade. It is tricky, and if you do not feel confident you can do it without wasting a lot of fish meat, leave the skin on. After you cook the skin side, it will peel off easily. If you like fish skin, leave it on and you will be treated to some of the most wonderful crunchy fish cracklins ever. You might want to slash the skin with long cuts in a few places because the skin on some fish, like perch, contracts and can turn a nice thin filet into a tube.

2) Sprinkle the meat side of the fish with a moderate amount of salt, black pepper, and paprika.

3) Prepare the salad by filling two bowls with the Romaine. You can use other greens and veggies, but in Portland it was just plain Jane Romaine, and that's the way I like it too. Pour the dressing on the lettuce, and top with the shredded provolone.

4) Heat the grill as hot as she'll go. Put a cast iron frying frying pan or griddle on the grill until it is as hot as Hades. Pour enough extra virgin olive oil to coat it well (these oils don't smoke as easily as most other oils). Spread it around with your spatula or a silicon basting brush. Wait til the oil is hot, about 1 minute, just when it starts to shimmer. Place the fillets on the griddle with the most curved side down. This is important because you want the meat in contact with the oil to make it crispy, and as it cooks it gets less flexible. Press gently so as much fish as possible is in contact with the hot oil. If you wish, toss some hard wood saw dust or dried herbs on the fire to create aromatic smoke. I often save a few dried oregano or basil plants from last season just for this purpose. And yes, you can use them on a gas grill. They will incinerate thoroughly leaving behind a small amount of harmless ash. Cook 3 to 7 minutes per side until each is dark golden. Use a thermometer or a fork to check doneness. It should be 130 to 135°F and be slightly translucent and flaky. If you see a milky fluid (protein) seeping from the sides, it is probably done. That while milky stuff is just protein and you can eat it, but it's kind of ugly, so you can daub it off with a brush or paper towel if you like. Take the fish off the griddle with a fish tongs or a wide spatula if you have one, and sprinkle with some fresh dill or thyme.

5) Bring in the hot fish, place on top of the salad, and serve.

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