Throughout New England, the traditional entree of choice for dinner on the Fourth of July was salmon served with a side of peas. This happy pairing capitalized on the region's seasonal bounty — it just so happened that the salmon were running and fresh peas were at their peak at the very moment America paused to celebrate its birthday.
There are still ways to honor this delicious tradition even though the East Coast is bereft of wild salmon these days. Wild salmon from the West Coast is widely available (if pricey), as is sustainably farmed salmon, which is not so pricey. (Check http://www.seafoodwatch.org/ to find good choices.)
My family has always served whole baked fillets slathered with some kind of butter sauce. But this year I'm moving in a new direction: salmon fillets with crispy skin and a Greekish sauce. I was inspired by the crispy-skin salmon that's become a mainstay on restaurant menus in recent years. The contrast of the fish's crisp and flavorful skin with its moist and flavorful flesh is a knockout.
But it never occurred to me to attempt it at home until now. It turns out that it's really quite simple. You just need to make sure the skin is very dry before you cook it. Not only must it be patted down with paper towels, it also has to be scraped repeatedly with a knife to remove any excess moisture. Then all you need is a hot skillet and some oil with a high smoke point. (While the salmon's cooking, you'll have to press it down frequently with a spatula to prevent the skin from buckling and shrinking.)
The tart sauce is a snap. It's a mix — half-yogurt and half-mayonnaise — flavored with lemon, dill, garlic and pepperoncini. (The last-named ingredients are those Tuscan pickled peppers often used to enliven Greek salads with a tiny bit of heat.) The sauce's tartness provides a welcome contrast to the fish's richness.
Truthfully, now that I know this easy and effective technique, it's how I'm always going to cook salmon — even when it's not a holiday.
Salmon with crispy skin and pepperoncini lemon sauce
Start to finish: 40 minutes
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons minced seeded pepperoncini
1 tablespoon liquid from the pepperoncini jar
1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
Kosher salt and black pepper
Four 6-ounce salmon fillets with the skin
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil with a high smoke point
In a bowl combine the yogurt, mayonnaise, minced pepperoncini and pepperoncini liquid, lemon juice, garlic and dill; add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and chill.
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Pat the fish skin very dry. Scrape the skin with a large knife, at a perpendicular angle, 8 to 10 times to remove any excess moisture, wiping the knife clean each time. In a large ovenproof skillet heat the oil over high heat. When the oil is hot, reduce the heat to medium and add the salmon fillets, skin side down. Immediately press down evenly on the top of each fillet to keep the skin from buckling up. Cook the salmon, pressing down frequently, for 4 minutes or until you can see that the skin is getting crispy and the flesh has lightened about 1/3 — one-half of the way up the side. Season the flesh with salt and pepper, transfer the skillet to the oven and bake for another 4 to 6 minutes or until the salmon is cooked to the desired degree of doneness.
Transfer to plates, skin side up, and top each portion with some of the sauce.
Nutritional information: 446 calories; 251 calories from fat; 28 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 128 mg cholesterol; 349 mg sodium; 1 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 45 g protein.
Sara Moulton is host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "HomeCooking 101."