Polenta Muffins with Smoked Salmon

When we were living in Paris our daughter Catherine was studying for an Arts-Law degree at the Australian National University in Canberra. She rang one day and said “Hey Mum, I’ve been thinking, when again am I going to have the chance to learn French with free accommodation in Paris?” Always a good negotiator it seems she had it all worked out. Within a month Catherine joined us in our apartment on the 8th floor of the Embassy building in the 15th arrondissement, having arranged to take a semester off uni.

A few days later the Ambassador’s butler Thierry rang. He had heard our daughter was in Paris and wondered if she would like to work at a cocktail party. We found a suitable black skirt and a white blouse and off she went to their apartment on the top floor of the building adjacent to ours.

Matthew and I were attending the party and when we arrived Catherine was busy handing out canapés to the guests. Having worked in several Canberra establishments, including Tilleys in Lyneham, she looked quite at ease. We were chatting in a small group, which included the Ambassador, when Catherine came past again with some delicious hot canapés. As Matthew reached out to take one she whipped the tray away, adding in a stern voice “You’ve had two already!”

The Ambassador was mortified and apologised profusely to Matthew. He said he had never seen this waitress before and she would never be hired again. When we explained who she was we all had a good laugh. The reason she was keeping a close eye on what we ate was because we had been on a diet for a week in an attempt to lose a couple of kilos. Daughters take their duties very seriously.

After a three week intensive course at the Alliance Française Catherine landed a job in a restaurant called Ze Kitchen Gallerie in the Latin quarter. I thought they would give her an easy job filling water glasses and bread baskets, but she was thrown in at the deep end with ten tables to serve each night. She survived and lived to tell the tale – in French!

If you need something quick to make when friends pop round for a drink, these savoury muffins take no time at all and are delicious filled with smoked salmon or gravlax. Best eaten the day they are made.

Polenta Muffins with Smoked Salmon

1 cup self-raising flour, sifted
½ tsp baking powder
½ cup polenta
1 tsp salt
1 Tbs sugar
1 egg
1 Tbs olive oil
¾ cup milk
To serve:
250g cream cheese at room temperature
1 Tbs lemon juice or lime juice
2 Tbs snipped chives or chopped dill
6-9 slices smoked salmon or gravlax
Pickled cucumber with red onion (see below)

Preheat oven to 180°C. Mix all ingredients for muffins and use to fill mini-muffin trays. I used silicone ones which don’t need greasing. Amount per muffin will depend on the size of the trays. Mine hold about a heaped teaspoon of batter. Bake for 10-15 mins or until golden. Cool.

Mix cream cheese with snipped chives or dill and lemon juice. Cut muffins in half and spread about half a teaspoon of cream cheese on the bottom half, then a small piece of smoked salmon or gravlax and some pickled cucumber and onion, drained and patted dry with paper towel. Spread a little more cream cheese on the lids and stick back onto the muffins.  If preferred leave out the pickled cucumber and onion altogether, or substitute a slice of commercial gherkin or a couple of capers. Arrange on a serving tray and garnish with a few more herbs. Best eaten fresh on the day they are made.

Makes about 30

Pickled Cucumber and Onion
Thinly slice one or two Lebanese cucumbers or half a Telegraph cucumber and layer in a jar with a small, thinly sliced red or white onion. Add enough vinegar and water to cover – about half of each – about a tablespoon of sugar and half to one teaspoon of salt. Shake then marinate for several hours before using. Keeps in the fridge for up to a week.

Figs with Smoked Salmon

From Paris a rural drive incorporating a few villages, a château and a good lunch is a delightful way to spend a Sunday in early summer. Or any time of year for that matter. Our friends Lynne and Brian were visiting from Australia and staying with us at the Embassy complex. We booked a table for lunch at La Vanne Rouge in Montigny-sur-Loing, about an hour’s drive from Paris. After a pleasant drive via the Château de Fontainebleau we arrived in the small village of Montigny-sur-Loing. Lynne, Brian and I went to find the restaurant while Matthew parked the car.

The restaurant appeared to be set up for summer in the courtyard, accessed through high timber double gates. There didn’t appear to be any other way in. The gates were locked so I rang the bell and we waited. After a few minutes I rang again. No response. Through the keyhole I could just make out a few tables, but I couldn’t see any staff in order to draw their attention. We had been waiting for more than 10 minutes when Matthew arrived to find me jumping up and down in an effort to be seen by someone inside. I rang the bell again, this time long and hard.

Suddenly the gate was opened by a tiny elderly lady dressed in black, her hair pulled back into a severe bun. Madame looked us over and demanded to know what we wanted. I explained that we had booked a table for one o’clock and apologised for being 15 minutes late, adding by way of explanation that we had been waiting for more than 10 minutes and had rung the bell several times. “That’s impossible. There’s no need to tell lies” she barked back at me. Then in the same cross tone she shouted across the courtyard to a young waiter “Did you take a booking for these people at one?” Fortunately he confirmed that he had. We were getting pretty hungry by this stage and finding somewhere to have a good Sunday lunch in France without a booking is virtually impossible. We know, we’ve tried.

“Follow me” said our unfriendly hostess. And so we did, feeling like four naughty school children. “Sit here” she said, pointing to a table with nothing on it. Madame proceeded to set the table, plonking everything down noisily and glaring at us all the time. “Is this normal?” whispered Lynne, as we sat in silence like stunned rabbits while Madame finished the table. “Um not really, but it does seem to happen more in France than in Australia” I replied when Madame was out of earshot.

The meal arrived and it was excellent. My starter of figs with smoked salmon was so delicious I have been making my own version ever since. Whoever would have thought that figs go so beautifully with smoked salmon? Their chef had made the smoked salmon into a nest in the middle and cut some of the figs into small dice to scatter around the plate. And their salad leaves were very small delicate mesclun, so it all looked very snazzy. My version as you can see is far less glamorous, but not bad for a quick lunch.

Once the food arrived we relaxed and started to enjoy ourselves. As we were eating, Madame’s three-legged dog appeared and I made a fuss of him. That was it, her attitude changed completely and we were friends for life.

Figs with Smoked Salmon

4 cups small mixed salad leaves
Walnut oil
White balsamic vinegar
4 fresh figs, sliced
6 slices smoked salmon, cut into ribbons
1/3 cup pine nuts (see note below), lightly toasted

Dress salad leaves with a little oil and vinegar then arrange on two plates. Arrange smoked salmon and figs over the salad, sprinkle with the toasted pine nuts and drizzle with a little more walnut oil.

Serves 2

Note: Having made a whole heap of pesto last weekend I had run out of pine nuts so I used chopped cashews which were okay but not quite as good. If you haven’t got walnut oil use olive oil.

Salmon with Couscous and Cherry Tomatoes

Instant or quick-cook couscous is ready in a jiffy and so is salmon, so I often team them up for a week-day dinner. With cherry tomatoes and lemons in the garden I came up with this tasty combination which you can have on the table in 15 minutes.

Any leftover couscous mixture makes the basis of a tasty salad for lunch the following day. Just add any of the following – cubed leftover chicken or other cooked meat, tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese, canned corn, herbs, onion and a dollop of mayonnaise, French dressing or pesto. To stretch if even further, serve on a bed of salad greens and voila, lunch is served. As I write this blog I am eating my leftover couscous salad. I added leftover roast chicken, a diced perfectly ripe nectarine, some cucumber, a teaspoon of curry paste and a dollop of mayonnaise. Delicious.

Salmon with Couscous and Cherry Tomatoes

1 cup couscous
1 cup water
2-4 tsp grated ginger
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 salmon fillets weighing 180-200g (with or without skin, as you prefer)
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 Tbs olive oil
Juice and zest of half a lemon
200g cherry tomatoes, halved
2 spring onions, finely sliced or ½ red onion, finely diced
½ cup chopped coriander
½  to 1 birds eye chilli, to taste, seeded and finely diced

Heat water in a saucepan and when it boils add couscous, stir then cover and turn off heat. Leave to stand while you cook the salmon. Place salmon in a dish with half the oil, garlic, half the lemon zest and juice. Season to taste and turn to coat. Pan fry salmon in a non-stick frying pan over moderate to high heat for 3-4 minutes each side, or until done to liking. There is no need to add additional oil as there is some in the marinade. Fluff up the couscous with a fork and add the ginger, tomatoes, onion, coriander, chilli, remaining zest, juice and oil. Season to taste and add any juices from cooking the salmon. Serve salmon on a bed of couscous garnished with more coriander. The couscous will be warm not hot.

Serves 2

Salmon with Cucumber & Asian Dressing

Salmon is a delicious protein with minimum waste. We eat it quite often so I always have some in the freezer.

One of my favourite ways to cook salmon is to lightly spray a piece of foil, place it on a baking tray and place the salmon fillets on top. For two portions each weighing 180-200g, mix 2-4 teaspoons each of grated ginger and Thai sweet chilli sauce and spread it over the fish. I use 4 teaspoons, which is equivalent to a tablespoon, because we love ginger! Place in a hot oven at 200°C for 7-8 minutes, if you like your salmon medium-rare. Serve with a salad or green vegetable for a quick, delicious and healthy weekday dinner.

Adapted from one of chef Luke Mangan’s recipes, this Salmon and Cucumber with Asian Dressing takes a little longer to prepare, but it’s not complicated. If you halve the recipe use a very small omelette pan to poach the fish.

Salmon with Cucumber and Asian Dressing4 x 180g-200g salmon fillets
3 or 4 Lebanese cucumbers, depending on size
Poaching liquid:
1 cup white wine
1 small onion, sliced
1 bay leaf
a few peppercorns
enough water so liquid just covers salmon
Dressing:
1 lemon grass stem – core removed and thinly sliced
¼ cup olive oil
2 Tbs rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbs finely grated ginger
3 tsp soy sauce (or more, to taste)
2 Tbs Thai sweet chilli sauce
Herb salad:
¼ cup each Vietnamese or ordinary mint, Thai or ordinary basil and coriander
To garnish:
¼ cup fried Asian shallots (from Asian shops)

Place poaching ingredients in a small shallow frying pan. Simmer for 5-10 minutes then add salmon, cover and switch off the heat. Leave to cool.

Meanwhile make dressing by placing ingredients in a jar with a lid and shaking well. Peel cucumbers, then slice lengthwise with a wide vegetable peeler, going round and round removing the flesh in ribbons and discarding the middle when you get to the seeds. Place cucumber in a bowl and mix with some of the dressing.

When salmon is cool enough to handle, remove from poaching liquid and break into large flakes, discarding skin, bones and the poaching liquid. Wash and dry herbs for salad – just the leaves. Recipe can be prepared ahead to this stage. Keep the individual components covered in the fridge till serving time.

To serve: divide cucumber salad between four plates, forming into a round nest in the middle. Place salmon on top and spoon over some dressing. Mix herb salad with some of the dressing and arrange some on top of the salmon. Garnish with the shallots.

Serves 4

Gravlax

Gravlax is a Nordic dish consisting of raw salmon which has been cured in salt, sugar and flavoured with dill. It’s popular all over Scandinavia and traditionally served with dark bread and a sweet mustard sauce as a starter or as part of a buffet, which they call a smorgasbord.

When we were posted to Copenhagen we ate a lot of gravlax and I acquired the recipe. It’s very easy to make, cheaper than the bought version and can be made ahead and kept in the freezer. Perfect to whip out as needed and serve to guests over the holiday season. Serve as an alternative to smoked salmon, with bagels and cream cheese or in canapes.

My original recipe said to use salmon fillets with the skin on, which is what I have always done. However, I found some very nice fillets in Costco, with the skin and pin bones all removed and decided to see how they would work. They were perfect, with no waste. Removing pin bones is a pain in the neck so all I can say is good old Costco as there are absolutely no bones. If you buy fillets with the skin on that’s fine. People love the sauce so I usually double the recipe. Any left over also goes well with smoked salmon, ham, cold roast beef or chicken.

If two fillets is too much just do one, cut in half, and sandwiched with the salt, sugar and dill mixture.

Gravlax

¼ cup salt
¼ cup sugar
2 whole salmon fillets, skin and pin bones removed, each weighing 800-1200g
1 large bunch dill, finely chopped in food processor or by hand, including stalks
freshly ground black pepper

Mix salt, sugar and and dill. Place about a third in a large ceramic or glass dish about the size of the salmon fillets and spread out evenly. Then place one fillet on top. Sprinkle with another third of the salt/sugar mixture, then place the second fillet on top. Sprinkle with remaining mixture pressing it into the fish. As you go season each layer with freshly ground black pepper. Cover with plastic (I use a shower cap!) place a small chopping board and a weight such as a brick on top then refrigerate for 3-4 days to “cure” the fish. Each day turn the salmon over and rub the curing mixture in.

Remove fillets and rinse off salt/sugar/dill mixture under the tap. Pat dry with paper towels. Wrap each fillet in plastic wrap and freeze until needed. I usually cut each fillet into 3 and wrap each piece individually before freezing, but a whole fillet looks more spectacular on a buffet table. Remove gravlax from the freezer and thaw a bit. Slice thinly on the diagonal while still slightly frozen, which makes it easier. Garnish with fresh dill and lemon wedges. Some people like to serve it with a few capers and slices of red onion. If liked serve with dark pumpernickel or rye bread and Sweet Mustard Sauce.

Sweet Mustard Sauce

¼ cup Dijon mustard
1 tsp hot English mustard (powder or ready made)
2 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs white wine vinegar
⅓ cup vegetable oil
3 Tbs chopped fresh dill

Place all ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake vigorously to emulsify. If making ahead add the chopped dill just before serving.

Makes about ¾ cup

Beef Carpaccio

We recently hosted a birthday dinner for our son-in-law, Sacha.  We started off with smoked salmon served on Baba Ganoush – a Middle Eastern eggplant dip recipe – garnished with home-made pesto and dried pink peppercorns. These can be bought from The Essential Ingredient and are not the same as the ones in brine.  They’re slightly sweet and fragrant, rather than peppery and go really well with any salmon dish.  They also look pretty as you can see from the photo.

For the second course I served Winter Beef Carpaccio from Michael Moore’s cook book Moore to Food – thinly sliced beef fillet, garnished with roasted onions and mushrooms, goat’s cheese and micro-herbs and drizzled with roasted black pepper oil. Sacha is a fan of carpaccio and ceviche, which both use raw fish or meat as the main ingredient, so I knew this dish would appeal to him.  Passionfruit Cheesecake made a refreshing end to the meal.

Dill with everything

I learned how to make this Finnish Salmon Pie at a cooking demonstration given by a Finnish diplomat’s wife over 20 years ago.  Back then fresh salmon was not so readily available and everyone used tins.  In fact I don’t think I tasted fresh salmon until I was in my twenties!

The original recipe used two large tins of salmon.  I now make it using a combination of fresh and tinned, which I think gives a good result.  The butter and dill sauce is an optional addition.  Not on the agenda if you’re watching cholesterol levels, but quite delicious.  The cucumber salad is a perfect accompaniment.

If you’re not sure what a Swiss roll tin looks like have a look at these images on Google.  Mine is about 25x30cm.  If your tin is bigger just roll out the pastry to about this size.

Finnish Salmon Pie

Cottage Cheese Pastry:

150g self-raising flour
125g butter
125g cottage cheese (or ricotta)
1-2 Tbs cold water
Filling:
500g fresh salmon
1 x 415g can pink salmon, drained
2 Tbs chopped fresh dill
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
50g long grain rice, almost cooked
3 Tbs cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 egg, beaten

Sauce:
100g butter, melted
2-3 Tbs chopped dill

Pastry: Place flour and butter in food processor and process until it forms crumbs.  Add cottage cheese and process.  As soon as the pastry starts to stick together add just enough water so that it forms into a ball.  Stop motor immediately, tip out, wrap in plastic wrap and chill while you prepare the filling.

Filling: Cook rice and eggs together in boiling water to cover for 10 minutes. Tip into a sieve and allow the rice to drain.  Put the eggs back in the pan, cover with cold water and leave until cool enough to handle, then peel.  Remove skin and any bones from fresh salmon, then cut into 1-2cm dice.  Place in a bowl with the canned salmon (discard skin and bones), the rice, dill and hard-boiled eggs, roughly chopped.  Mix well and season to taste.

Place a piece of baking paper on a Swiss roll tin – not essential but makes washing up easier.  On a floured surface roll out pastry to the size of the Swiss roll tin, then place on the baking paper, folding it to make it easier to move.  It doesn’t matter if the edges are ragged, you won’t see them once the pie is finished. Place salmon filling down centre in the shape of a log or loaf and covering about a third of the pastry surface.  Cut diagonal slits in pastry every 2cm down each side, from the edge of the pastry as far as the filling. Fold in the two ends, then bring up strips from alternate sides, overlapping them slightly, to form a pseudo-plait. Use your hands to push everything firmly into place.  Can be refrigerated at this stage if you like.   Paint with beaten egg and bake for 30-40 minutes at 200°C. Serve warm, cut into slices and drizzled with the sauce.

Sauce: Melt butter and mix with chopped dill.

Variations: use white fish and canned tuna instead of the salmon.

Cucumber Salad with Dill

4-5 Lebanese cucumbers (about 15cm long) or 2 longer telegraph cucumbers
1 medium brown onion
1/3 cup vinegar (cider or white wine)P1060250 - Copy
¼ cup water
1-2 tsp salt, to taste
¼ cup sugar
½ cup thick sour cream
½ tsp hot English-style mustard
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill, firmly packed

Peel onion, cut in half and slice thinly. Slice unpeeled cucumbers thinly and mix with onions. The quickest way to do this is with the slicing blade of a food processor.

Mix vinegar, water, salt and sugar. Pour over onions and cucumbers, mix well and leave for 1-2 hours at room temperature, mixing from time to time. Drain cucumbers and onion in a colander or large sieve. Discard the juices. Put the colander in a bowl, so it continues to drain, then put it in the fridge, covered and leave it there draining till serving time. In a small bowl, mix sour cream, mustard, fresh dill and pepper to taste and refrigerate till serving time.

To serve, mix well-drained cucumbers and onions with the sour cream dressing. Garnish with sprigs of dill.

This salad goes well with most fish dishes, especially salmon. It’s also a good addition to a buffet or BBQ.

Salmon and Asparagus with Preserved Lemon Mayonnaise

This is an easy and delicious recipe from Donna Hay’s book No Time to Cook.  Ready to serve in no time at all, it’s perfect for a mid-week dinner.  The recipe calls for chervil but I substituted dill which is more readily available.

Salmon and Asparagus with Preserved Lemon Mayonnaise

2 x 180-200g salmon fillets, skin removed
1 bunch asparagus – 8-10 spears
1 Tbs olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Baby cos lettuce leaves, washed and dried
Mayonnaise:
½ cup mayonnaise (home-made or bought)
2 Tbs finely chopped preserved lemon (see note below)
1 Tbs finely chopped dill

Mix mayonnaise with remaining ingredients.  Place salmon and trimmed asparagus in a dish and add oil, salt and pepper and turn several times to coat thoroughly.  Preheat a char-grill pan or a non-stick frying pan to medium-high heat and cook salmon and asparagus for 2-3 minutes each side, or until cooked to liking.  Asparagus should be al dente.  The salmon will still be rare inside so if you like it well-done cook for longer.  Arrange some lettuce leaves on two serving plates, then the asparagus and salmon.  Serve with the mayonnaise.

Serves 2

Note: lemons preserved in salt are a Middle Eastern ingredient available from specialist shops.  Remove and discard the pulpy part and just use the lemon rind.

Warm Salmon Salad with Red Nut Dressing

Tonight we had a warm Salmon salad with an invented dressing I’ve called Red Nut Dressing. The salad is adaptable, so use whatever you have on hand, such as baby tomatoes, asparagus, rocket etc. A perfect dish for an early summer evening with a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc.

Warm Salmon Salad with Red Nut Dressing

4-6 cups mesclun (small salad leaves)
1 cup beansprouts, washed and dried
½ small red onion, thinly sliced
1 small red capsicum, seeded and thinly sliced
1 avocado peeled and sliced
2 salmon portions weighing about 180-200g each, skinned and boned
1 Tbs olive oil

Red Nut Dressing
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/3 cup walnuts, blanched almonds or pine nuts
1 Tbs tomato paste
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp honey
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup vegetable oil e.g. canola
¼ cup red wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

To make dressing place all ingredients in a food processor and process until chunky-smooth.  Tip into a jam jar with a lid.  Place salad ingredients except avocado and salmon in a salad bowl.  Meanwhile lightly season salmon and pan fry in the 1 Tbs olive oil until cooked to liking.  It won’t take more than about 3 minutes each side (depending on thickness) and is nicer if still pink in the middle. Cut salmon into chunks.  Shake dressing then add enough to the salad to moisten. Mix well and divide between two individual salad bowls.  Arrange the avocado slices and salmon chunks on top, then spoon over a little more dressing.  There will be some left over.

Serves 2

Notes: the walnuts need to be fresh otherwise they can be bitter.  If in doubt substitute almonds or pine nuts.  If preferred, leave the salmon in one piece and just place it on top.