Crossing the Finish Line

Recipe 8: Salmon with Chermoula in Parchment
Victories 8, 8.1, and 8.2: Overcoming my reluctance (OK, fear) of cooking seafood, cooking a fish without stinking up the whole apartment, and exploring the potential of small kitchen appliances

Anyone living in a tiny studio with only half a kitchen to speak of understands the dread of cooking fish or anything strong-smelling. I’ve cooked fish in my apartment before. I learned pretty quickly to throw out the container that it came in and any part of the fish that you didn’t use straight away. It stinks up your garbage bin FAST!

I even thought of skipping out on this chapter. But if I had cooked anchovies in here and had successes with fresh fish, then there was no excuse.

The “Shellfish and Fish” chapter of Small Victories was the most difficult chapter to choose from. At first, I was bent on making Greek-ish Grilled Shrimp because I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and learn how to handle shrimp. Plus, I love the Mediterranean flavors—lemon, feta, oregano. But it seems you need a grill to really make it work, and I don’t have that. Also, I don’t like shrimp enough to cook that much of it.

Then while Sascha was still here, I wanted to make us Scallops with Chile-and-Parksley Bread Crumbs, because we both love scallops, but he left before I got around to doing that. The more important issue was that scallop season in Thailand doesn’t start until October.

So for a few weeks, I was divided between Broiled Anything with Garlic and Parsley Butter and Flounder with Roasted Tomatoes and Black Olives. The problem with the first one is that I don’t think my little oven has a broil setting. As for the second one, as delicious as it sounds, I want to expand my flavor profile.

In the end, I chose the recipe I kept skipping over for reasons I don’t even remember anymore.

I’m actually doing a spin-off recipe. The main recipe is with halibut. But nobody in the best supermarkets in Bangkok seemed to have heard of halibut, so I went with salmon. I decided to make this recipe twice, once according to the cookbook using parchment paper, and another time, as suggested by my beloved and creative Sascha, the Thai way using banana leaf.

This recipe is very simple and easy to execute, but it also pushed me to do a few experiments, not just with the material for wrapping the fish, but many other elements in cooking. I made rice to go with the banana-leaf version of the dish. Not just any rice, but jasmine rice steamed with pandan leaves, something I had wanted to try for a long time. I had never cooked fish en papillote, and folding paper has been my enemy since elementary school (I never managed to figure out that origami crane or bothered with the art and craft of paper airplane). But I watched a video and followed along, and everything worked out fine if not perfectly pretty. I learned that the white stuff that comes out of salmon when you cook them is not fat but albumin, and you can minimize that by brining the salmon (half an hour is not enough though). I got to learn the full potential of the small mill that came with the blender, something I never used until this recipe because I had always thought that it was either food processor or food blender, and that little mill is an unworthy alternative to a proper food processor that I still don’t have. This is a new theme in my cooking—to explore the full potential of the small, seemingly limited tools in my kitchen.

I actually really loved and really enjoyed making this dish. It’s so interesting how after a while, improvising and experimenting become part of my cooking habit. It’s like I’m slowly developing a more flexible and creative cooking brain.

When I decided to improve my cooking by cooking from recipes and diligently following instructions, I was worried about never knowing how to become creative. But now, I think that no matter how well-tested a recipe is, we’ll always run into challenges. Sometimes the challenge can be as mundane as the grocery shop is out of the ingredient you need. There might be many perfect recipes out there, but there are no perfect home kitchens equipped with the best ingredients in the world and perfect equipment and utensils. At least mine is far from one. That’s the only way to become creative, not by setting out to break the rules, but by committing to explore full capacities of things, instead of focusing on their limitations.

This is the first version with the parchment paper. You can see that the chermoula is not very smoothly blended. This is because I first tried to make it in a blender before tranferring it to the mill after I saw that it wasn’t working. Maybe if I had pureed it in the mill for a few more minutes, it would have been smoother, but everything seemed to be stuck to the side of the mill at that point, and I thought that was the best the machine could do. I must say that despite the texture of the chermoula, this first version was more delicious—much more moist and tender.
I was very excited to try the recipe with banana leaf.
Notice how this chermoula is more well-blended. I skipped the blender and went straight to the mill and really made sure I got it as smooth as possible.
All wrapped up and ready to go into the oven
Meanwhile in the rice cooker. I have to say it didn’t do much to the flavor or the aroma of the rice. Next time, I’m going to first boil the pandan leaves, then use that water to cook the rice.
All done. It still tasted good, but I overcooked the fish a little. I seriously need to pay more attention to the temperature and cooking time, which means checking the food in the oven from time to time. When I cooked it the first time, 20-minute cooking time was perfect. So the second time around, I thought I could just bring it out of the oven after 20 minutes. The oven was probably hotter the second time. And the banana leaf didn’t have that much of an effect on the aroma or flavor of the fish. Maybe there were a few bites here and there where I got a whiff of the banana-leaf aroma. This means more experimenting and researching is in order!