First-Born Dinner

No #RecipeUpTop for this one; it’s all about the timing of putting together a full meal. In this case: crispy-skin salmon with lemon garlic pasta and caramelized-onion corn.

But you do probably need an ingredient list, so:

For the salmon:

  • Salmon fillet(s), SKIN ON (amount varies by number of desired servings);
  • 1 tablespoon veg or canola oil;
  • Salt (to taste);

For the pasta:

  • 1 package dry spaghetti (or 2 eggs worth of homemade pasta);
  • 4 tablespoons butter;
  • 1 lemon (zest and juice);
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder (or granulated garlic);
  • Salt, pepper, and parmesan to taste;

For the corn:

  • 2 cans of corn (or frozen equivalent, or fresh for that matter);
  • 1 small yellow onion;
  • 1 tablespoon butter;
  • Salt and pepper (to taste);

That’s it. Not a lot of exotica here, and we’ll talk about all of this below.

The Details

Some specific number of years ago, we were late in the process of expecting our first born. This meant everything was on kind of a hold, including grocery shopping, and every night was a beleaguered post-work scramble to get something on the table for (at the time) the two of us and a couple pups.

Well, one night we performed the ritual scrounge through the pantry and fridge and freezer, and it all came together into this meal. The next morning, Mrs. 10Chickens went in to labor, and so began the weightless waterslide of parenthood.

All of that aside, we still make this meal a few times a month, but always as a whole meal. It was created by complete happy luck, but does a few things really well.

First, if we can find good looking salmon at the market (more on that below), we can put the rest of this together from shelf-stable pantry items, which means we’re basically always ready when some really excellent fish comes along.

Second, if you follow the timing here, this can be ready in about thirty (30) minutes, total. It’s built for dovetailing, and frankly that’s an often-undervalued dimension of meal-prep.

Lastly, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. For some reason, these three things go together like the combination to the locker of delicious. I don’t really understand it, but, well, you’ll see.

Step one: put on some music, pour a drink, and get your fish out.

There are a LOT of guides about how to buy fish out there, and feel free to take a look, but I’ve never found any of them particularly useful. My advice for salmon? If it looks good (firm, not mushy, good color, white fat, skin on) and isn’t insane amounts of money, buy it.

And, look, the days of buying “rotten” fish are pretty much over. Buying salmon is more like buying apples. You hope for crisp and juicy, but sometimes you get a little mealy or drab. That’s fine; you just make a pie with those. Same goes for salmon, and soon enough you’ll be able to spot the best of the best from across the market.

As for farm versus wild? I love farmed fish. I just do. The fat content is great; the quality is usually light-years ahead of the wild-caught equivalent unless you’re in restaurant supply or the Pacific Northwest. And, it’s cheap.

Anyway, we also try to avoid pre-cut fillets, and instead buy bigger hunks (like the one above) or even whole sides, if we can get them (using a vacuum sealer and freezing produces almost no loss in quality, so we buy in bulk if we can).

From there, it’s a simple matter of using a sharp knife to cut some portions:

That’s it, and yes there’s a little straggler on the left. But it’s just as delicious, and this ain’t the Ritz. Here’s what I mean about farmed salmon:

Absolutely gorgeous, and I believe this was about $6/lb from a Maine farm.

Liberally salt, and move to a tray in the fridge while you handle the next few steps.

Put on a big pot of water to boil for your pasta now.

Step two: onion corn. In a medium skillet, melt a tablespoon of butter. Meanwhile, dice a small yellow onion.

Throw it in the pan with the butter over medium heat, with a little salt, and saute until nicely browned. Note: this is not a “sweat.” You want higher heat here, and it should look like this:

Nothing burned, but everything has some color. From here, add the corn and boost the heat to high.

QUICK WORD ABOUT CORN: I will admit that 99% of produce is better frozen than canned, but corn is the exception. We’ve talked about it in our recipe for potato chowder, but canned corn is just better. That said, frozen will work just fine.

Add salt and pepper to taste, and then put this on the literal back burner. It’ll hold for showtime.

Turn on your oven to 450F now.

Step three: pasta. The original recipe used boxed spaghetti, which is kind of the gold standard when it comes to fast-and-ready weeknight meals. If you want to bump it up, you can go homemade with our pasta recipe:

Your water should be boiling, so toss in your spaghetti and cook for whatever the box says.

While the pasta cooks, put a big cast-iron skillet over high heat.

We’re going to drain, BUT KEEP SOME OF THE WATER in the pot, about 1/4 cup.

To that, add the butter and incorporate over low heat. Add lemon zest and juice, garlic powder, salt, and black pepper, and bring to a simmer. It should look pretty thin, like this:

Return the pasta to the sauce, toss with tongs, and watch the magic happen:

Just like that, the sauce is both thickened and partially absorbed by the spaghetti. Taste it for salt content, but understand we’re garnishing with lemon, so don’t worry too much about needing additional acid. Put the lid on and put this on the back burner.

Step four: fish. Your skillet should be SCREAMIN’ hot by now, so add a little veg oil, and down goes the salmon:

It’s going to sizzle and pop and spit a bit, so fair warning. The fillets will also contract a bit when they hit the heat, so don’t freak out. It’s not the zombie Sal-Man. At least, not yet, but I’ve said too much.

Keep this over high heat, and you’re probably going to need to open a window or crank up your vent hood, because there will be smoke. How long on the stove top? Well, until this happens:

The very bottom of the fillets will start to turn white as they cook. You’re looking at about three (3) minutes. This is the key to get them into that 450F oven we have going, and another example of the beauty of cast iron which you can just slide in there.

Let the fish cook for seven (7) minutes, then check with a probe thermometer for internal temp of 120F.

The cardinal sin here is overcooking the fish. I love my father dearly, and hate to drag him, but I refused to eat salmon for a very long time due to his crimes against the species. Most notable was cooking it to a dry, teeth-adhesive consistency, then overcompensating with a weird dill-mustard slather that still gives me the shivers. But, I digress. Point is, be sharp with the probe.

A transformation, and we haven’t even flipped the fish. Nor will we. These are done, which is why we used the oven. The multi-directional heat from the hot air did exactly what we wanted, with no extra fuss.

Oh, by the way, the vast majority of the oil in that pan is actually salmon fat rendered from just beneath the skin, meaning said skin should be light and cracker-crispy. If you’ve never had crispy salmon skin before, give this a shot. There’s a reason they make sushi rolls out of the stuff.

Plate up with your pasta and corn, and garnish with some fresh lemon wedges, parm for the pasta, cracked black pepper, and parsley flakes (if you feel like it):

The salty fishy goodness of the salmon, with the acidity from the lemon, meld with the round and sweet carnalized-onion corn and garlic pasta to produce a plate that works together better than Abbot and Costello. Our first complete meal, and our first born.

Give it a try; you’ll see what we mean.

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