The Vin Vivant: Salvation in a Salmon
It was bound to happen. After training myself to craft a meal based on tasting the wine first, it follows that any meal made the "opposite" way – prepare dinner, check the cellar, uncork the closest possible match and sip and sup with fingers crossed – would taste comparatively lackluster.
I decided to put the paddles on my palate with a particularly exciting meal. What better way to revitalize my cooking than with a vibrant wine? If you don't know what that tastes like, you must pick up a bottle of the 2005 Arcadian Fiddlestix Vyd Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir. When I poured it into a glass, it looked and smelled like a much younger wine. The color was bright ruby and consistent to the rim. In the mouth, the wine brimmed with juicy cherry and raspberry flavors with a touch of dried mint. The tannins embraced the sides of my mouth and mid-palate. Tasting this Pinot crystallizes the notion that wine is alive. It breathes, evolves and ages. This one surely has a long life ahead of it.
With a wine this evocative, I went light on food prep to showcase each ingredient's flavors. You can't have two stars on your table competing for attention. To match the wine's vibrancy, I cooked an intensely colored entrée: pan-fried salmon over crisped Chinese bacon and purple yam puree topped with chive buds. The wine could definitely handle a fatty yet still delicate protein, and the scant earthiness from the yams and savory-sweet bacon would nicely offset the Pinot's fresh berry notes.
I got the salmon and cooking tips from my favorite fishmonger, Lewis at Fish Tails in Brooklyn. He suggested that I use only peanut or rice oil for pan-frying fish as they have higher smoke points, and also recommended frying the half-pound steaks I bought for 7 to 8 minutes on the skin side and 4 minutes on the flesh side. His advice was spot on, and the meal came together with minimal active
time after I made the puree. I dusted the salmon with kosher salt and fresh black pepper, and pan-fried it in a cast-iron skillet as the bacon slowly crisped in a pan. When the bacon was done and draining on a paper-towel-lined plate, I flipped the fish and tossed chive buds in the pan that the bacon was fried in to take the raw garlicky edge off.
Maybe it was the puree's pretty hue or the fist-pump-inducing glory of achieving perfectly crisped salmon skin, but I was happy as a pig in a barrel of truffles at the pairing. My cooking groove has returned, just in time for spring vegetables!
Purple Yam Puree
3 medium sized yams (1.5-1.75 lbs.)
1/2 c. whole milk
3-4 Tbsp. peanut oil
A generous pinch of Maldon sea salt
1/2 tsp. chili powder, or more depending on how piquant yours is. The kind I have is artisanal, spicy and potent, a gift from my Lot18 Secret Santa. Thanks, Dan!
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Pierce the yams with a knife and wrap them in foil. Roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Unwrap the yams and cut them in half. As soon as your fingers can handle it, score the skin of the yams lengthwise and peel the skin off, which should come off fairly easily like onionskin. Pinch off the ends of each yam, as they tend to be stringy. Cut the roasted yams in quarters and place them in food processor or blender.
Whip the yams with the milk and oil, adding more or less to achieve your desired texture. Add the salt and gradually add the chili powder and pulse – the mash should just have a hint of spice as the yams are naturally sweet. I have a feeling that this recipe won't work as well with regular yams, so use the purple ones if you find them; I've only seen them used in Filipino and Okinawan cuisines, so they aren't widely available even in Asian grocery stores. The puree comes out amazingly full and thick, almost like a rich dessert. You won't believe how little milk and oil you have to add to this vegetable to achieve this texture. Don't be surprised if tears of joy spring to your eyes.