Monday, March 11, 2013

Sunday supper; or, I'm going to enjoy myself, dammit

When I was growing up, my mom cooked big old fashioned Sunday suppers. The emphasis here is on big. She grew up in a family of nine, and although our family was only four, she cooked as though we were twice as many.

When my brother and I were called in from the backyard or down the block on Sunday evenings, we would tuck into the dining table set around a beef roast that had spun on the rotisserie, or a whole roasted chicken, or big racks of barbecue ribs, or a glazed ham. There would also be a salad, potatoes, some crusty bread, and, lest we go hungry, at least two kinds of vegetables: green beans, corn, sour-cream cucumber salad, roasted asparagus; the list is long. Sometimes the set-up would be a whole Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing and all the fixings, in June. Forget not the pie, crisp, cake or crumble setting on the counter for after.

Every Sunday, enough food to feed Coxey's army, as my mom would say.

Adam and I have our own version of Sunday suppers now. While we don't always cook bigger on Sundays, we do tend to make something more special that night; most often fish, usually a variety of vegetables, and always a glass of wine. When the clock is ticking ahead and we're slumping toward Monday, it's the best way I've found to keep the anxiety at bay; a small glimmer in what can be an otherwise dark tunnel to the start of a new week.

I like those evenings best when the apartment is quiet and the counter tops clear; I try to clean up as I work through the recipe so there's not much to do after dinner. Adam will ask how he can help, then without pause, fills my wine glass. We sit down to a simple meal, maybe a pan-fried salmon fillet with dill-flecked cucumber salad, a tea light lit in the center of the table and some clothes tumbling in the dryer down the hall. Adam at my side. We cheers to the week ahead.

And we cheers to the night, too, because it's still the weekend, and I'm going to enjoy myself, dammit.

This recipe combines one of my mom's classic sides with one of our regular Sunday night choices: Salmon with Sour Cream Cucumber Salad. The salad has long been one of my favorites - a mellow blend of paper-thin cucumbers, sour cream, red onions and tangy dill. Mildly sweet with an edge of vinegar; of all the roasts and fillets my mom set out on the table, this cucumber salad was always the dish I went to for seconds.

When I made this dish on Sunday, it was my first attempt at pan frying salmon. I typically just pop the salmon into the oven to bake while I prepare the rest of dinner, and I've actually gotten a little tired of salmon because of this - it has started tasting like a chalky pink slab on my plate with little flavor or texture. Inspired by a salmon fillet I had at a British-style pub recently that I couldn't stop gushing over, I wanted to create a crisp, salty edge and moist interior, and figured pan frying was my best bet. I followed the methodology in this great article from Serious Eats. I was worried about the skin fusing to my one and only (beautiful) All-Clad saute pan, and forever scaling any future pan-frying attempts - but this method worked beautifully. The salmon slid out of the pan with just the crisp and moist texture I was hoping for.

Here's to another week. Onward we go!

Pan-Fried Salmon with Sour Cream Cucumber Salad

Note: Tweak this salad with additional sugar, vinegar, dill or sour cream to suit your taste. My mom makes her's quite a bit sweeter, using more sugar and less vinegar than called for below. Mine has been getting more vinegary as time goes on; hopefully that isn't an indication of personality.

1 large cucumber
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 of a small red onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 Tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1/3 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp dill, or more to taste
1 Tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1 salmon fillet with skin on one side (mine was Steelhead, about 2/3 lb)

For the cucumber salad:
Peel the cucumber and slice into very thin slices. If the seeds inside are big, you may want slice the cucumber lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and soft pulpy part with a spoon; discard. (You can see I skipped that step in the photos above because the seeds were fairly small.) Place the thin cucumber slices into a colander or fine mesh sieve set over a bowl. Sprinkle the 1 tsp salt over the cucs, and toss with your hands to distribute the salt evenly. This will seem like an insane amount of salt, but you'll squeeze most of it out later. The salt is going to draw out the extra water in the cucs so you have a more flavorful, less watery salad. Set the cucumbers aside to sweat out the liquid for at least an hour, up to a few hours.

After the cucumber slices have drained most of their extra water, place them in a mess of paper towels and squeeze out as much of the remaining extra water as you can. Dump the cucumbers into a bowl and add the red onion slices. Pour over the vinegar and sugar, and toss to coat. Stir in the sour cream and dill, and finish with a grinding of pepper. If it looks thin, add another spoonful of sour cream - you want a slightly thickened but saucy consistency. Taste here, and adjust the seasoning as you like; add additional sugar, vinegar, salt or dill to suit your fancy. Refrigerate until ready to serve; flavors will continue to meld as it sits.

For the salmon:
Dry the salmon thoroughly on both sides with paper towels; season well with salt and pepper. Set a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium high heat; add canola oil and heat until it's shimmering and very hot. Place the salmon in, skin side down first.

After you set the salmon in the pan, reduce heat to medium-low. You'll cook it most of the way on the skin side - the skin protects the rest of the fillet from cooking too quickly and drying out. Cook for about 6-10 minutes, until salmon is almost done (my fillet was about an inch and a half thick, and took 8 minutes or so on the first side). If your pan was hot enough when you started, the skin will have released from the pan when it's time to flip. Use a spatula to turn the fish over and cook on the other side, another minute to crisp it up and finish cooking.

Salmon should cook to 120 to 140 degrees; of course, 120 degrees will render more of a rare to medium-rare fillet, and closer to 140 for a medium-well, but still light and flaky, bite.

To serve: I like this meal with a bed of jasmine rice, the salmon fillet set over, and cucumber sauce scooped on top.


  1. I love the idea of Sunday Suppers. Your rendition of it is particularly lovely! Quiet, simple pleasures- a glass of wine, candlelight, a nice meal with your sweetie- hard to think of a better start to the week.

    1. Thank you for the nice comment, Junita :) I just read your Valentines Day post about spaghetti and meatballs - now there's another tradition I could get behind. Brilliant!