I have ranted in the past about my feelings for salmon. Oh, when I pull a 15-pounder out of the Pacific off of Mendocino, drive home, have it filleted by a fishmonger friend, and then grill it for dinner? It’s great. But it gets boring after a while. So I decided to cast caution to the wind, work without a net, go out on a limb and, mostly, wing it. I skinned a salmon fillet and sprinkled some of my justifiably famous barbecue dry-rub on it. Not as much as on pork ribs, but enough to coat the fish. After a few hours in the refrigerator the salmon had absorbed the rub and looked pretty good for a chunk of raw fish covered in red powder. One of the difficulties with cooking with sugar based spicing is the tendency of sugar to burn. So I had to be gentle with the heat, but still get some caramelization. I decided to sauté the salmon for a few minutes on each side, and then finish it in a warm oven. This is becoming my favorite technique, because it is just too difficult to figure out how long to cook the fish in the pan. The oven heat is much more even and doesn’t dry the surface as much. I also chose to use a dry pan which, in retrospect, was not a good plan. Not catastrophically stupid, but not perfect. The fish stuck just a bit on the first side; I didn’t use oil because I was worried that I wouldn’t get any browning over medium heat, rather than my default blazing hot pan.What? That doesn’t make much sense? You are correct. This was not the first time that I didn’t think through my cooking plans, and it certainly won’t be the last.
In spite of my stupidity the salmon turned out really well. Not overcooked at all, and the rub added some complexity to the flavor of a fish that usually seems a bit monotonal. The slight browning that it got in the warm pan brought out the flavors of the spice rub without being overwhelming. I was happy that I didn’t overdo the rub — just a dusting of the surface was all it needed.
I am going to explore the idea of heating spices like this. I have seen lots of recipes that call for sautéing the spices to bring out their flavors, but it was driven home by this dish. I’m not sure why it seemed different than barbecuing a spice-coated piece of pork, but that’s part of the fun of cooking; finding new flavors created by technique rather than ingredient.