Hello everyone, and welcome to Prix Fixed, Lifehacker’s new menu-planning advice column. Whether you have a hot date, big anniversary, or are meeting the in-laws for the first time, we’ll help you plan an impressive menu suited to your dietary needs and culinary skillset. Will there be hacks? You bet your butt there will be.
To kick off the column and get everyone used to the format, we’re starting with a request from our very own editor-in-chief, Jordan Calhoun:
I have a date coming up and need a dinner that’s both impressive and within my limited skillset. I’m ok in the kitchen, but definitely without the confidence to do anything too fancy that might result in an epic fail. If I had to grade my skills I’d give them a C+. As for dietary restrictions — I’m pescatarian, allergic to fava beans, and don’t drink alcohol, but my date doesn’t have any restrictions or allergies that I’m aware of. In terms of equipment, I have a gas stove, all the pots and pans I need, but limited things for the oven — one baking sheet and two Pyrex baking dishes. Thanks for your help, I’ll let you know how it goes!
Having talked with Jordan about cooking a fair amount, I know that he is a big fan of salmon, and that he is tired of baking it in the oven. The nice thing about salmon is that it can be cooked a lot of different ways to excellent results, but I wanted to have Jordan try his hand at milk poaching — or, in this case, half & half poaching — a simple, forgiving technique that gently infuses your filet with flavour while keeping things nice and tender.
For sides, we’re doing a naked tomato salad and a store-bought French baguette. Peeling cherry tomatoes may seem a little excessive and tedious — and it is — but it’s also easy and impressive, which is what we’re going for here. Removing the skin from the tomato means it melts — rather than bursts — in your mouth. Plus, instead of sliding off the slick skin, our simple little dressing clings to the exposed flesh, resulting in a simple, but special little salad.
OK, before we get into the recipes, let’s look at our shopping list:
- 2 170-280 g salmon filets, either skin-on or skin-off
- 470mL of cooking cream (half & half in the US)
- 1 ear of corn
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 chilli pepper of your choice (I used Serrano)
- A little clamshell of fresh thyme (you want at least 15 sprigs)
- Bay leaves
- 1 bunch of green onions
- 1 lemon
- 1 dry punnet of cherry tomatoes
- 1 baguette
- Your date’s preferred dinner beverage
You will also need some common pantry items. If you are out of any one of these, just add it to your shopping list:
- Olive oil
- Apple cider vinegar (can substitute with another vinegar if you like)
- Dijon mustard (You want Dijon for its emulsifying properties)
- Maple syrup or honey
- Table salt (at least 1/4 cup)
- Sugar (at least 2 tablespoons)
- A pepper grinder (Do not get pre-ground pepper. It does not taste like anything.)
- Extra credit: A box of Maldon flake salt. You may be thinking “Hey, I already have salt,” but this is a finishing salt that adds flavour, texture, and glamour. It will immediately elevate the meal and make it seem restaurant worthy.
About an hour and half before your date arrives (or the night before), make the naked — or nekkid? — tomato salad. To do so, you will need:
- 1 punnet of cherry tomatoes
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar (or other vinegar of your choice)
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup (or honey)
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt
- 6 sprigs of thyme
Start by peeling your little tomatoes. Make a little x on the bottom (opposite of the stem side) of each tomato, taking care not to go too far into the flesh. They should look like this:
Bring a small pot of water to boil, and fill a bowl with ice water. Plunge the tomatoes into the boiling water, working in batches if needed, and let them hang out for 7-10 seconds, until the skin starts to peel away. Plunge them into the ice water bath, and repeat until you have made your way through all of the tomatoes.
Now for the fun part. Gently peel away the skins. If you want, you can set them aside to make tomato salt (though you will need a few more skins to make an appreciable amount). Place the peeled tomatoes in a mixing bowl, then add all of the remaining ingredients to a jar (or any other small container with a secure lid), and shake to emulsify. If you aren’t sure how to go about remove the thyme leaves, pick off the more tender ones at the end, then remove the remainder from the woody stem by grabbing one end with your non-dominant hand and running the fingers of your other hand down the stem.
Drizzle just enough dressing on the tomatoes to coat them (about half of what you made). If you are eating in a few hours or sooner, cover and let the salad hang out at room temperature. If you plan to serve it the next day, cover and pop it in the fridge, but make sure to remove an hour before serving time.
Now let’s talk about the fish. In addition to poaching the filets in creamy, high-fat half & half (fat is an excellent carrier for flavour), we’re going to give them a little quick cure to draw out excess moisture and help them hold their shape while poaching. But first, we’re going to get a mise en place ready, so you don’t feel rushed while cooking. Ingredients-wise, you will need:
- 2 170-280 g salmon filets, either skin-on or skin-off
- 1/4 cup salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 470 mL of cooking cream
- 1 ear of corn, kernels removed and cob set aside
- 1 chilli pepper, sliced in half
- 3 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
- 4 sprigs of thyme, plus a couple extra for garnishing
- 2 green onions, plus an extra, green parts sliced diagonally for garnishing
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 pinch of salt
- 1 lemon for zesting
Inspect your salmon and remove any pin bones by gripping them firmly with tweezers and gently sliding them out. If you are using skin-on filets, score the skin in long, diagonal cuts to keep the fish from curling while cooking. You could remove the skins, but they are packed with fatty acids, so I always leave them on. (Also I’m quite lazy.) Set them aside.
Prep all of your other ingredients. Remove the kernels from the corn cob, smash and peel your garlic, slice your pepper and half, and rinse your thyme and green onions. Mix 1/4 cup of salt with 2 tablespoons of sugar, and sprinkle a little over half of the mixture on all sides of your filets, until they are coated in a sparkling salt-and-sugar crust. Set aside for 15 minutes.
While you’re waiting for your fish to cure, grab the pan you plan to poach your fish in — it should be barely wide enough to accommodate both filets, so that they stay submerged in cream while poaching. Hold the the reserved corn cob vertically in the empty pan, and scrape it with the blade of your knife to extract all those tasty sugars and corn juices. Add the half & half, corn kernels, and all remaining ingredients (except for the salmon and the garnishes) to the pan. Set over medium-low heat. (This would also be a good time to pop your baguette in a 250-degree oven to warm it up.)
Once your 15-minute cure time has elapsed, rinse your fish, blot it with paper towels to dry, and set aside.
The half & half will never quite “simmer,” but it will foam. Once this happens, reduce the heat to low. The half & half should steam, not boil or bubble, though you may see a bubble or two every once in a while. If you see a film start to form, don’t fret, just give everything a little stir. Slide the fish into the steaming dairy bath, and cook for 7-10 minutes, until it firms up and starts to flake in the thickest portion. If the half & half doesn’t quite cover your fish, do not panic, just gently flip it over with a spatula about four minutes in.
Once your fish is cooked to your desired firmness and flakiness — and I’m assuming Jordan has a handle on this since he cooks so much salmon — transfer the filets to shallow bowls and remove the bay leaf, green onions, thyme, and pepper from the poaching liquid. Ladle the corn and poaching liquid into the bowls with the fish, and garnish the fish with green onion, fresh thyme leaves, and lemon zest, then grind some fresh pepper onto the fish and into the half & half. (Never skip the finishing — it’s what makes a meal feel fancy and complete.) Serve with your nekkid tomato salad and crusty French bread, along with a little bowl of that fancy flake salt.
If you’d like a little menu-planning advice, send your request to Claire at [email protected] Be sure to include as much information as possible, including any dietary restrictions, protein preferences, budget, and available kitchen equipment. Please keep in mind that the turnaround time may be as long as a week, so get those requests in early.