I’ve paired salmon and fennel several times in this book and there is a reason for it: they make a gorgeous marriage of taste, texture, and color. Here the fennel is thinly sliced, partnered with peppery arugula, and tossed with a lemon vinaigrette. A quickly pan–seared salmon fillet sits on top of a mound of this slawlike salad. A quick garnish with fennel fronds and you have a main-course salad worthy of company, yet simple and easy enough for a family meal.
4 salmon fillets (about 5 ounces each), skin on and scaled, pin bones removed, skin dried by wiping with a knife (see Notes)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil for sautéing
TO MAKE THE VINAIGRETTE: In a small jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine the extra–virgin olive oil, lemon zest and juice, garlic, sugar, salt, and lots of pepper. (Several good grinds of pepper make the vinaigrette taste robust, a perfect complement to the fennel.) Cover tightly and shake vigorously to blend. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Set aside.
Chop the fennel fronds and measure out 1/3 cup. In a large bowl, combine the fennel, ¼ cup of the fennel fronds (saving the rest for garnish), and the arugula. Toss lightly to mix and set aside.
Season the salmon on all sides with a little salt and pepper. Place a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When the skillet is hot, add the 3 tablespoons of olive oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the salmon, skin side down, and cook until the skin is crisp, about 4 minutes. Carefully turn the salmon and cook until the fillets are almost opaque throughout, but still very moist, or an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 125° to 130°F, about 4 minutes more. Transfer to a warm plate and set aside while you toss the salad.
Shake the dressing vigorously again and then toss the salad with it. Arrange the salad on 4 dinner plates. Place a salmon fillet in the center, on top of the salad, garnish with the remaining fennel fronds, and serve immediately.
Removing Pin Bones
Run your fingertips along the flesh side of the fillet until you feel the pin bones. Using either clean needle-nose pliers (I keep a pair in the kitchen precisely for this use) or fish tweezers, grasp the end of each bone and pull it straight out and away from the flesh to remove it. If you try to pull them upwards or backwards it tends to tear the flesh.
I learned about this technique for achieving crisp-skinned salmon several years ago from an article by Thomas Keller (owner of the famed French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California) in the Los Angeles Times food section. He writes, “The skin of many fish is exquisite, never more so than when it’s crisped to a delicate wafer-thin crunch accompanying the sweet, soft flesh. Crisp fish skin should taste clean and fresh, with the concentrated flavor of the fish itself. Its colors and design are vivid on the plate. the fork clicks on its surface. It cracks brittlely beneath a knife.” The critical technique is to remove as much water as possible from the skin of the fish before cooking it. Keller writes: “Remove some of the water mechanically, by drawing a knife blade back and forth over the fish, the way a wiper blade moves across a windshield. The pressure compresses the skin and squeezes the water to the surface, and the knife blade carries it away. Repeat this until no more water rises to the surface.” Periodically wipe the knife blade clean with a paper towel to remove what looks like grayish scum. Suggested wine: Champagne; domestic sparkling wine; Rhône white