Now that pandemic restrictions are easing, it’s a sheer joy to gather friends around the table again. After many, many months of distancing, a small dinner party feels every bit like a holiday, a very welcome one.
For a light, flavorful celebratory meal, think fish. For that matter, think wild salmon, a springtime favorite, whose superior taste and brilliant color make an easy choice. Yes, it’s a splurge, but so very worth it.
I’m so infatuated with the taste of wild salmon that I consider it a seasonal treat and don’t bother with the ubiquitous farmed kind. But some prefer aquaculture salmon, with its mild flavor and higher fat content. (It has a higher calorie count, too.) For curiosity’s sake, I tested the recipe that accompanies this column with conventional farmed salmon, organic farmed salmon and wild salmon. I may have been biased, but all of my fellow testers agreed that the wild salmon was the best choice.
Among many wild salmon lovers, a purist approach prevails. For them, the only seasoning is salt, maybe pepper. I take their point, but salmon doesn’t have to go completely naked to be sublime. In fact, judicious seasoning that doesn’t overwhelm adds interest. In this case, crushed fennel seed, coarse black pepper and Dijon mustard lightly coat the fish, lending a nice contrast to the salmon’s innate sweetness.
Since, finally, we are seeing spring offerings at market — after the long pandemic winter, what a balm for the spirit — I made a French-style spring vegetable stew, or ragoût, to accompany the salmon. Asparagus, two kinds of peas, cauliflower florets and scallions are gently simmered with butter and a splash of water. Though it is delicious just as it is, I wanted to give the vegetables a bit of a kick. Employing an oft-used Indian technique, I sizzled brown mustard seeds and chopped serrano chile in a little oil and spooned the mixture over the stew to supply a welcome spicy finish, lifting the stew from ordinary to superlative.
For a first course, I chose a simple arugula salad, mimicking a traditional one favored in Switzerland called nüsslisalat mit ei. Usually, it’s made with clusters of mâche, a.k.a. lamb’s lettuce or corn salad. But arugula is easier to find in the United States. In most grocery stores, it comes packaged and sold as baby arugula or as “wild” arugula, which has jagged leaves. (Larger leaves of garden arugula, baby spinach or a combination would also work.) The salad is topped with hard-boiled egg that’s been sieved, chopped or grated on the large holes of a box grater. Then, the vinaigrette is drizzled over everything. The richness of the egg, the tartness of the vinegar and the boldness of the leaves all play well together, in a harmonious, zesty way. I like to add a few ribbons of sliced prosciutto, too, but that is entirely optional.
Finish the meal with strawberries in red wine, a very simple, but quite wonderful dessert. It is best made with ripe, fragrant berries, which complement the wine’s tannins. Lightly sugar the berries and let them macerate in wine for no more than one hour, or they’ll become unpleasantly soggy.
Serve this dessert in glasses, topping up each with the berry-infused wine. Pass pistachio biscotti to dunk in the wine, a lovely marriage. Either buy good-quality biscotti, or make your own. It’s an easy, fun project, and they’ll keep up to two weeks in an airtight tin — if they last that long.
You might not imagine that sitting around a table dunking cookies in wine with friends would bring such easy smiles and feelings of peace and calm.