Saturday, October 11, 2008

Salmon and Spinach in Coconut Milk

The name of this dish does not do it justice. First, some background, then the details.

In West Seattle, on Alki Beach, amidst fish and chips and nondescript pubs, exists the best restaurant in the world -- Phoenicia. Kim and I just wandered in here one day in search of food, and have been back at least four more times since. The proprietor, and chef, is Hussein, who I have nicknamed the Interpreter of Food desires. The first time we were there, we couldn't decide what we wanted, but as as we were studying the menu, a platter of seafood in a fragrant liquid walked by, we looked at each other and said...."we'll have that please". The next time, we again couldn't decide. His daughter, the waitress, said, "wait....I'll have him come out". And out comes Hussein, talks to us for 10 minutes, and then says..."here's what I'm going to make for you" and proceeds to wow us again. Neither of these items were on the menu. If you don't believe me, read the gushing over it on Yelp.

Both dishes were variations on what he calls Jewels of the Ocean, which is seafood in a fragrant coconut milk. I've asked him what's in it, and he's told me, but I'm pretty sure he hasn't told me everything. I know that he uses tamarind and pomegranate a lot. Garlic. Onions. From there, I don't know.

Last time I was in Seattle, Eleanor came along, and I took her on a pilgrimige, and he did not disappoint. She ordered salmon, her favorite food, after some prodding from me that I was pretty sure we could trust that he wouldn't ruin it by drying it out. He did not disappoint.

Well....Eleanor is home from college this weekend, so I thought some salmon would be nice. And I'd started this blog, so I was into some experiementation, and so far, all I've written about has been recipes that I found online. So, the time was right to take my chances on replicating Jewels of the Ocean in my own humble way. I did a little poking around on the web for fish dishes with coconut milk with a lebanese slant, and got a few ideas. Here's what I did to cook for the two of us, with some leftovers for tomorrow.

1 TBS ginger, minced
1 TBS garlic, minced
1 can (13.5 oz) coconut milk
1 smallish onion, halved, then sliced
1 tsp lemongrass slices
a few flakes of red pepper flakes
a few threads of saffron
a few drops pomegranate molasses
1 tsp tamarind water
5 basil leaves, chopped
a few pinches of salt.

Put all of the above in a pot, and simmer until the onions are soft. Then, add

3/4 lb salmon, cut into chunks
a few handfuls of fresh spinach

Cook until the salmon is tender and the spinach is reduced.

Serve with rice (I used a brown rice mixture) and some nice bread to sop up the remaining sauce. Add a few scant shakes of Japanese shredded salmon and cod roe, for a little additional umami taste. (One of the recipes I looked at called for dried shrimp paste, which I couldn't find, so this seemed like a good idea..and I was right).

This is definitely different from Hussein's master work. I'm pretty sure he doesn't use lemongrass. Virtually certain he doesn't use shredded salmon and cod roe. I wanted to use some tumeric for some color, but somehow, I didn't have any. I was successful at not being too heavy handed with the pomegranate....just a few drops. And not too much on the tamarind....just enough for the sour taste notes. The result was a very flavorful dish, with the mystery of not quite knowing what tasted so good. It may not have been as good as Hussein's but it was plenty good. I know it was good (great) because I didn't want the taste to leave my mouth, and put off a chocolate ice cream dessert for an hour later.

This was easy to make, and worthy of future experimentation. Lessons is not necessary to make everything POW. This was a very subtle dish, with subtle flavors, that worked very well. I would use any kind of firm fleshed seafood, and shrimp would have made a nice addition. Chicken would be good as well.

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