Dinner:  October 3, 2007

When Copper River salmon was in season, Mike and I decided to stockpile it. We bought fillets four at a time, and for each two we ate fresh, we chucked two in the freezer for later use. It was a good strategy, ensuring that we’d have a supply of our favorite salmon to get us through until next season, but now that I need to make room in the freezer for stocks, tomato sauce and blanched summer veggies, the salmon has to go. Not all at once, of course, but we do need to start working through it.

I pulled a couple of fillets out of the freezer to thaw, and I spent the better part of yesterday trying to decide how to prepare them. It’s getting dark so early these days that grilling them was out of the question, and my other standard salmon preparations (pan-seared over lentils, or packet-cooked with tomato, olives and capers) weren’t sending me.

I did a search on foodandwine.com for inspiration, as I often do, and came across a photo of these gorgeous little nests of crispy potato, topped with smoked salmon, crème fraiche and chives. Though our salmon wasn’t smoked, the combination of flavors sounded delicious; Mike agreed and so I decided to try my hand at potato-crusted salmon. But I was nervous. Intimidated. Previous attempts at crusting anything have yielded less than stellar results, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, and I thought if it worked, it would be amazing. I had to take the risk.

When I got home I pulled the salmon out, patted it dry and seasoned it on both sides with kosher salt. I set it back in the fridge and got to work on the potato crust, peeling and grating two medium-ish Kennebec potatoes on the course holes of a box grater, and seasoning the mixture with salt and pepper. I wanted to give the potato a little more kick, so I decided to add three generous spoonfuls of Wheelhouse horseradish to the mix. I pulled my salmon out of the fridge and pressed the mixture into the flesh and sides of the fillets, then put them back in the fridge to firm up a bit.

After about 20 minutes, I preheated my oven to 400, got a thin layer of olive oil warming in the cast iron skillet, and opened the fridge to retrieve the salmon fillets. And they looked wet. Really, really wet. The moisture in the potatoes had leeched out forming a soggy puddle around the salmon, and I was a little freaked out, but we had to eat. I pressed forward, placing my hand over the fillets to keep them on the platter and tipping the excess liquid out into the sink. And then it was show time.

I gently lifted the first salmon fillet off of the platter. I had two fish spatulas in play, but I was having a hard time trying to figure out just how to gently get the fish off of the spatula and into the hot oil without losing the whole crust or splattering hot oil all over, so I ended up just taking it in my hands and gently flipping it into the pan, potato side down. It sizzled and popped, but it was in the pan and the crust appeared to be intact. I added the second fillet to the pan, stepped back, and waited.

When I saw that the edges of the crust looked nice and brown and crisp, I took one of the spatulas and tried to scoot it under the fish; every recipe I had seen online said to flip the fillets so the crust side was up before finishing them in the oven, but mine wouldn’t budge. Again, I felt a little wave of panic in my belly, but I decided to just place them in the oven as-is and see what happened. I let them bake in the oven for 5 minutes, then removed the skillet. I shimmied the spatula under the first fillet, and flipped. It was beautiful. I did the same with the second fillet, and I decided to place them back in the oven skin-side down for just a few minutes more to crisp up.

And just like that, the scariest part was over. I pulled it off. I was incredibly nervous that I wouldn’t, but I did, and those salmon fillets, moist inside and enveloped in a crisp potato exterior, were fabulous. I tend not to be a risk-taker in the kitchen or elsewhere, but this is one time I’m definitely glad I went for it.

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