Leftovers, I often think, represent one of the home cook’s closest friends and greatest motivators, because respect for the limited resources from which our meals derive is a core moral imperatives for all cooks, and inefficiency and waste are its very antithesis. Of course efficiency in the kitchen saves us time and money, but it’s much more than that: By avoiding waste, we honor the source of our food, we appreciate the simple fact of its presence on our table, and – provided we do so effectively – we get to eat better, more of the time, as a result.
Leftovers also force the cook to think: Like the sonnet or haiku, the inherently limited structure of working with what’s already to hand provides discipline with which to make something new out of something old. A well-designed recipe, supported by a shopping spree, is an exercise in execution; the construction of an entirely new and tasty dish, out of stuff that didn’t get used up last night, depends as much on our creative capacity and our dedication to the implicit compact with the food that we buy than it does on our skill with a pan, knife, or whisk.
At least, that’s what I’m told myself as I inventoried the remains of last night’s dinner: Salmon, pistou (recipe here), and polenta. I had some arugula, too, but I have strict limits on eating raw greens – our table typically sports some sort of inverted Aitkens diet – so no salad tonight. But the point is, I had a couple of nice chunks of salmon, some polenta, and a boatload of the pistou, and needed a way to put it all together without rehashing yesterday. On cue, my middle child, who – bless her culinary soul – believes that few foods are better cooked than raw, sagely observed that, “Hey Dad, it’s all well that you cooked it nicely, but can I have some of that salmon raw?” So we tasted it (this being one of the principle advantages of buying food locally, at the peak of freshness, from people you trust – raw proteins need not be anathema), and sure enough, the kid nailed it – if anything, better raw than cooked (I suppose that’s the nickel version of why sushi is one of the finest cuisines in the history of human civilization; but I digress).
I rummaged around the fridge, found a pack of still-good-but-ought-to-be-used prosciutto, and kids – being in possession of functioning taste buds – love bacon. They don’t, however, appreciate a crispy salmon skin, tragic as that may be, so I figured replace the skin with the prosciutto. (If you’ve not done so already, then please add seafood to the seemingly limitless list of foods that can be immeasurably improved by the addition of cured pork products.) Thus, the genesis of a meal of leftovers: Wrap the salmon in prosciutto before cooking it rare, serve it on top of some creamy polenta, and pair it with a hopelessly naive sashimi cut of the odds and ends of the raw salmon, with just a touch of the pistou for color and contrast.
Wild Salmon Two Ways
- Trim off a few nice sashimi-like slices of the raw salmon using a very sharp knife (wipe the blade with a damp cloth between cuts – and if your knives aren’t sharp, and you don’t know what to do about, we have to talk). You want to end up with a nice, almost cube-like chunk of salmon. I’ve farted on about the pistou for two days now, so I won’t bother again; grab it from the fridge. Put the polenta in a pot to warm, or what the hell, just nuke it before plating.
- Take two slices of prosciutto, and wrap the salmon, first in one direction, then – after rotating it 90 degrees – in the perpendicular direction. Tuck and fold the prosciutto so that it’s all wrapped up snugly, basically a birthday present of wild salmon in a wrapper of pig fat, what more could you one ask for? Except that I suck at wrapping presents. But less so, food.
- The whole key to this is cooking the salmon such that (a) the prosciutto forms a nice crust, and (b) the salmon is cooked uniformly around the edges and rare to the center. On my stove, that means medium-medium-low heat, a few minutes on each side, just enough to brown the pork; but it took me a trial batch, which I overcooked, and asymmetrically at that. The hard truth is, you have to cook it by touch – feel it raw, and keep feeling as it cooks, because once it’s firm in the middle, it’s over done. And you know we feel about overcooking fish.
- Season the sashimi with fleur de sel, plate over a bit of the pistou, and garnish with a basil leave. Slice the cooked salmon and plate over the polenta.