Friday, May 27, 2011

Dinner of Champions: Grilled Salmon with Lentils

Home, sweet home.

Nothing spells summer to me like the short walk from my front door to kitchen, where I throw open the double doors of the refrigerator to behold the stockpile of ingredients inside. My parents are well-intentioned health nuts, and our crisper drawers of fruits and vegetables rarely close with ease. However, with two of four children in college and a third on the way in September, they still have not given up their habit of bulk buying, for which I am grateful. My favorite summer vegetables were at the ready, including a bundle of asparagus stalks that looked like they needed immediate attention.

And one more thing that spells summer: salmon. It’s the epitome of Sunday dinner, eaten outside next to the grill while my dogs try their hardest to snag a taste. Luckily, my mom was at home to help with dinner, and immediately volunteered our favorite fish. Usually, we would grill our summer vegetables at the same time, but I wanted a different twist (and something a little more manageable, for those of us who don’t always have access to a family-grade grill).

I quickly browsed for some recipes which included a cabinet staple of mine at school: lentils. My last delicious salmon experience in Philadelphia was a fillet served over a bed of lentil ‘hash’ at Table 31 (of all places). There was no way I was going to try to recreate the dish, but the pairing served as inspiration all the same. At school, I would typically cook up a salad of lentils with winter veggies (carrots, celery, etc.) and a little chicken stock, top a bowlful with a fried egg (to complement the protein content), and call the whole thing dinner. But not now-- not with family to impress and salmon waiting for the grill.

Most recipes I scanned called for pan-frying or broiling, but with simple seasoning: a brush of olive oil, salt and pepper. Some also included instructions for herb butter and other sauces; unfortunately, chives and tarragon were not in the fridge stockpile. Instead, I opted to lightly season the lentils with mustard and red wine vinegar, a pairing that gives the dish a slight tang without weighing it down.

Finally, I have been itching to try a shaved asparagus salad (this recipe from Smitten Kitchen looks fabulous: However, the stalks I was working with turned out to be too slim to shave with a peeler. After a few attempts, I took the whole bunch and put them in the oven to roast. I did, however, take a few tips from the recipe, adding toasted sunflower seeds for a nutty crunch and a few shaves of Parmesan cheese, as well as a spritz of lemon flavor.

The recipe below serves 6, but can be simplified for fewer portions. Extra lentils can always be saved and mixed with rice or with a cooked egg the next day. The seasonings can be omitted or changed, if you want something a little simpler or heartier (Ina Garten has a lentil recipe that calls for carrots and celery, chicken stock and tomato paste). Creating a sauce for the salmon would also be a great way to amp up the flavors of the dish.

As is, the recipe was a success! Clean plates all around, and many went back for seconds on the lentils. Now, on to tackling the crate-sized container of strawberries I spy in the bottom of the crisper ...

Lentil salad:
¾ cup of lentils (many recipes call for a French green variety, but any kind will do)
4 cups of water
¾ tsp. kosher salt
1 summer squash and 1 zucchini, small dice
1 medium yellow onion, small dice
2 cloves of garlic, diced
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp grain mustard
1 squeeze of lemon juice

1. Bring water and salt to a boil in a small saucepan.
2. Add lentils, reduce heat slightly, and cook for 15 minutes or until al dente.
3. In the meantime, dice the squash and zucchini (these were medium-sized), as well as garlic and onion. A fine dice works better here, to match the size and texture of the lentil grain.
4. Saute the onion and garlic for 2-3 minutes on medium heat, then add the squash and zucchini for an additional 3-5. Cook until tender.
5. When lentils have softened somewhat, drain and reserve ½ cup of cooking liquid.
6. Add lentils to vegetable mix, along with cooking liquid, red wine vinegar, and mustard. Reduce heat to low and simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the lentils have absorbed the liquid.

6 4 oz. portions
2 tbsp olive oil

1. Brush with olive oil, season with salt and pepper.
2. Grill, skin-on, 6-8 minutes per side.
3. Plate the dish with about 1 cup of the lentil mixture, topped with a grilled salmon fillet. I didn’t prepare a garnish, but the dish could always be served with a slice of lemon or a sprig of fresh herbs.

Asparagus side dish:
1 bunch of asparagus
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
½ cup toasted sunflower seeds
2 oz. Parmesan cheese, shaved or grated
1 squeeze of lemon

1. Preheat oven to 425.
2. Prepare stalks of asparagus by trimming woody end.
3. Line a baking sheet with tin foil, arrange stalks, and drizzle with olive oil. Toss to coat.
4. Roast for 8-12 minutes (depending upon your oven’s personality). Check to ensure even cooking, and toss as needed.
5. Once out of the oven, season with salt, pepper, and lemon.
6. Immediately before serving, top with sunflower seeds and Parmesan cheese.

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