Chef David Pasternak sailed into The Washington Post kitchen last week with the laid-back manner of a touring author who might rather be fishing somewhere. He created a buzz a few years back by introducing American palates to crudo, a southern Italian way of eating impeccably fresh and simply dressed, thinly sliced raw fish.
Simple is how he prefers to handle seafood dishes at Esca, his New York restaurant, and how he has presented the recipes in his first cookbook. The lovely fish he showed us how to make is on Esca's current menu. "I just thought about the sweet ingredients that were in season and played them off the slight bitterness of watercress," he said with a Long Island shrug as he pulled spectacular farmed salmon fillets from Scotland, soft black mission figs from California, olive oil from Sicily, saba from Italy (see TIPS, below) and the washed greens from an insulated bag.
In addition to knowing where to cast a line himself, the lifelong angler has cultivated a range of purveyors to get the best ingredients. "I know a guy..." is the way he started more than a few sentences.
But anyone can order salmon from the places he does, so before you make that next major salmon purchase at a big-box retailer, do some cost analysis on how many neighbors and friends could share an overnight mail order from Browne Trading Co. in Portland, Maine (www.brownetrading.com), one of his favorite merchants. For this dish, at least, it would be a smart investment.
- 2 tablespoons saba or top-quality balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating the fish
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 bunches watercress, rinsed and dried
- 4 6-ounce skin-on salmon fillets (24 ounces total), pin bones removed
- 8 ripe figs, halved
In a small bowl, whisk together the saba or balsamic vinegar and olive oil; season with about 1/2 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper.
Place the watercress in a mixing bowl, add the saba and oil dressing and toss to lightly coat. Divide the salad among individual plates, creating a flattened stack; set aside.
Preheat a large grill pan over medium-high heat.
Rub the salmon fillets on both sides with a little olive oil; season only the flesh (not the skin) with salt and pepper to taste. Cook the fillets, skin side down, for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the edges of the fish begin to turn opaque. Carefully turn the fish over and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. (If the fillets are very thick, turn to cook them for 1 to 2 minutes more on each side as well.)
While the salmon is cooking, place the figs, cut sides up, in the same pan and cook for about 2 minutes, moving them around and turning them over until they just begin to wilt.
Arrange 4 fig halves on each plate, alternating cut sides up and down, around the watercress. Place a fillet, skin side up, on top of each stack of watercress. Drizzle each plate with some of the saba dressing is left in the mixing bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste; serve warm.
Adapted from "The Young Man & the Sea," by David Pasternak and Ed Levine (Artisan, 2007).
Tested by Bonnie S. Benwick.
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