Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.
Often when I cook, I send out a prompt via text message to multiple people—something along the lines of “Chicken stock + pasta. Thoughts?”—and compare the ideas I receive. The responses are illuminating (and sometimes amusing).
This week I was cooking salmon. “Dill, butter, flaky sea salt,” said a friend who’d previously worked as a server at Mario Batali's Esca. “Crème fraîche, shallots, olive oil!” said a Francophile. “Pre-cure for three hours, maintain 125˚ F heat in the middle when baking, season with pink peppercorns and butter,” said an enthusiastic Swede. (This response was much longer and detailed, but I’ll spare you.)
But habit and family ties beat out these suggestions. Honey-pecan salmon, a recipe that was passed on to me from family in Birmingham, Ala., has fun, contrasting flavors and is laughably easy to make—as long as you don’t undercook or overcook the salmon and don’t overdo the honey.
Though honey is touted for its benefits (nutritional, medicinal, antibacterial), alternative natural sweeteners, such as agave nectar, will also work in this dish. The key is to not bake the salmon in the sweetener and, of course, to only use a small amount, no more than a tablespoon. The last thing you want is salmon that tastes like a candied apple. Done properly, the fish’s delicate flavor is accentuated by the lightest hint of sweetness.
Pecans in the fall—need I say more? This North American native (and the state nut of Alabama) is more common in sweets and baked goods, but it’s the perfect garnish here. It also seems to be the only nut that works with this dish: Switching out the pecans for a more savory cousin—walnuts for example—won’t work. Only pecans deliver the right taste and that satisfying crunchy texture. Plus, you can use the leftovers in that delicious pecan pie you always say you’ll make. Pecans are prone to rancidity though, so be sure to buy them fresh and don’t keep them too long.
To bake the salmon, place the fillet skin-side down in the foil and drizzle with olive oil or butter, depending on your preference. Keep the foil closed until the fish is almost fully cooked, then add the honey and pecans for the last five minutes. The time from preparation to first bite should be about half an hour.
While the fish bakes, you have a moment to throw together an accompanying salad. I suggest mesclun or spinach, but stay away from arugula or kale, as the stronger flavors can overpower the salmon. Add creamy goat cheese—nothing too tangy—or a young buttery Havarti, olive oil and leftover pecans. If I have them, I like to toss in a tiny amount of alfalfa sprouts, with a sprinkle of chia seeds at the end.
With baked salmon—honey-baked salmon, no less—a white wine was my first choice. With the dish rooted in the United States, I looked abroad to extend my horizons. I tasted an Argentine Chardonnay, a German Riesling and a Greek rosé. I had a fruity Chilean Pinot Noir in my kitchen, so I threw that into the tasting too.
The pecans were fun to snack on with the Chardonnay, which had bright notes of apple turnover and the lightest hint of peach, but the wine fell flat against the honeyed salmon. The rosé was pleasantly dominated by strawberry, but needed more acidity for balance. The Pinot Noir, on the heartier side for the grape, seemed to overpower the fish.
Although I usually prefer dry whites to off-dry ones, the Mosel Riesling immediately became the clear winner in this matchup. Alone, the wine showed pear and sweet apple notes on the nose and honeysuckle on the palate. The acidity kicked in on the lingering finish, and I felt my mouth salivating in response.
After a few bites of the flaky, soft salmon, the Riesling opened up with rich notes of stone fruit and delicate floral aromas. The sweetness of the wine and the honey balanced each other. With its round mouthfeel and spicy finish, this bottle buoyed the salmon’s texture and flavor.
The pecans acted as an equalizer in the pairing—their chalky nuttiness harmonizing with the sweetness of the honey and wine, but not emphasizing it—and helped draw out the salmon’s true fish flavor. With a dish like this, a light touch and careful attention to detail will yield the best results.
Pair with an off-dry white such as S.A. Prüm Riesling QbA Mosel Essence 2013 (88 points, $13).
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Approximate food costs: $20
1. Preheat oven to 300˚ F. Place fillet, skin-side down, in aluminum foil in a baking pan and sprinkle lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper. Loosely close the foil around the fish and place the pan in the oven for 15 minutes.
2. Check the salmon—the color should be turning a soft pink—and use a fork to test the texture. The salmon should yield to your fork in delicate flakes; if it’s mushy, you need more time.
3. After 15 minutes, turn off the oven, pull back the foil and lightly spread honey and pecans over the salmon. This allows the honey to cook into the fish—contributing sweetness and moisture—and develop a glaze that won’t run off. Leave the fillet in the oven for another 5 minutes; the hot oven will still continue to cook the fish. If you want a crispy topcoat, at the end of the 20 minutes, set the oven to broil for 2 minutes, taking care to keep a close eye on the fish. Overcooking is an easy mistake to make. Serves 2.