You almost never hear the words “microwave” and “slow food” in the same sentence unless someone’s casting the two as opposites with an easy sneer. The one and only time I’ve read anything about microwaving by a Real Restaurant Chef was Tony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential when he mentioned something about hitting a plate gone cold with some “Radar Love” before sending it out. He meant it as a dirty back kitchen secret.
Gourmet cookbooks (other than Barbara Kafka’s Microwave Gourmet, a scarily extensive tome from 1987) never call for microwaving anything more exciting than butter or chocolate chips, and none of the Food Network shows do either. It’s a shame. Can you see Giada De Laurentiis microwaving? Mario Batali? No–it would probably zap the studio camera or melt Mario’s clogs or something. And it would ruin the vicarious glamor of slow cooking. But it would be fun while it lasted, wouldn’t it?
Some things, let’s face it, don’t do incredibly well in a microwave–deep fat frying (Kafka claims you can in small quantity, but I’m scared of sloshing hot oil around a small box), birthday cakes (though Kafka has found a reasonable way to do cake layers and her recipes get good reviews), an entire raw turkey (stuffed or un-)…. And fish? That may be the trickiest of all, since fish goes from almost cooked to shoe leather in 20 seconds if you’re not careful, and it still won’t brown nicely.
For example, take the lowly, farm-raised salmon fillet. Now I know it’s not wild, I know it’s not King or Sockeye, it’s not elegantly 2″ thick–but it’s also not $17.99/lb and up. And it can still be pretty good, especially grilled.
Only it’s summer in L.A., and the last thing I want to do in my townhouse with a distinct lack of outdoor grilling facilities is heat up the house or cook the salmon long enough under a broiler for the edge fat to start sending acrid smoke up the stairway.
But combine the microwave’s ability to cook things through with a quick browning technique like pan-searing, and suddenly you have a strategy for some nice main dishes that taste better than they should in a lot less time, and don’t heat up the house. Incidentally Kafka mentioned this method in passing while discussing the fact that microwaves don’t brown food. She then proceeded to ignore it completely, don’t ask me why.
Most restaurant chefs insist they can’t get a good sear on anything with a nonstick pan, but that’s not entirely true (plus I hate washing dishes any more than I have to, and I’m really determined, so nonstick it is). I’m borrowing from Martin Yan on this one–it’s a technique I saw him do for a stir-fried shrimp recipe on PBS, sometime way, way back in the 1980s, and it works surprisingly well here.
You can either brown some onion or scallion slices in the pan before putting in the salmon (or mahi mahi, or tuna) steak, or (Yan’s trick) you can sprinkle a small pinch of sugar on the fillet just before it goes in. Or both. The onions and the sugar do the same thing: when they hit the hot oil, they caramelize in the pan and then the salmon picks up the browning and grilled flavor (minus the charcoal/kerosene overtones) and sears nicely without sticking disastrously.
You pan-grill the salmon just enough to sear it on each side, and stop before the fat starts smoking up the kitchen. Then you microwave it covered for a minute or two to cook the center. You want it just opaque, and a fork should go all the way through easily, but it should still be moist, firm and a little glossy inside, not stringily overcooked like canned tuna, leathery at the edges, or (almost worse) mushy.
A final note: Because you’ve already supplied the caramelization, you don’t have to draw out the juices and caramelize sugars from the salmon itself to sear it nicely. So you don’t actually need to salt the hell out of it just to get it to crust (take that, Food Network chefs! Oh, and Michael Ruhlman too. I’m taking ’em all on, today). And a pinch of sugar’s only about half a gram of carbohydrate, a grand total of 2 calories worth. Much better health-wise than adding the same amount of salt.
“Grilled” Salmon for an L.A. Summer
Serves 2-3 moderate adult portions (about 3-5 oz cooked weight each, something like 1.5″ x 5″ x 3/4″ thick). Scale up as desired–I don’t recommend fish for 100 in your home kitchen, but this method should work pretty well for whatever will fit in your frying pan in a single layer.
- 3/4-1 lb. fresh or fresh-frozen salmon fillet, thawed, skinned, rinsed, and any pin bones pulled out (check by feeling the thawed fillet at the thickest part)
- 1/2 t. low-sodium soy sauce (Kikkoman or Yamasa at 500-600 mg/tablespoon; for this recipe it adds about 200 mg sodium total or <100 mg/portion)
- 1 sm/medium clove garlic, mashed, minced or grated
- pinch sugar
- few drops of toasted Chinese sesame oil
- 1/4 yellow onion or 2-3 scallions, chopped, optional
- 1/2 t grated fresh ginger, optional
- 1-2 t. olive oil for frying
On a plate, rub the salmon fillet with the soy sauce, garlic, sugar and sesame oil on both sides. Heat the olive oil in a nonstick pan on medium or med-high and add the onion or scallion and/or ginger. When they’re starting to brown, about a minute in, slide in the salmon fillet, pinker side down. Let it sear undisturbed for a minute or so, until you start to see the cooked part reaching about 1/8-1/4″ from the bottom edge. Shake the pan to loosen the fillet and gently flip it over. The top should be browned and a bit crisp.
Fry the fillet on the 2nd side a minute, then turn off the heat before the fat begins to smoke. Slide the salmon onto a microwaveable plate. Cover it with an inverted plate, nuke it 1-2 minutes (2 if it was mostly raw out of the pan, 1 if it was cooked halfway through) and let it rest a few minutes to let the residual heat spread. Then check doneness and if it needs a bit more time, go 20-30 seconds (at most!) at a time and check again.
This is good on top of a salad or a bed of arugula dressed with oil and vinegar.
My fervent thanks to Mr. Yan and my local PBS station of yesteryear.
Filed under: cooking, Microwave tricks | Tagged: Anthony Bourdain, Barbara Kafka, indoor grilling, low sodium, low-salt cooking, Martin Yan, microwave cooking, Microwave Gourmet, pan grilling, salmon |