If you had stepped into our kitchen at around 4 p.m. a few Wednesday afternoons ago, you would have seen our side door, the one that exits to the driveway and our upstairs neighbor’s black iron stairs, flung wide open. You would have seen smoke wafting from the stove through that door, intermingling with the 50-some-degree weather and bright blue skies of Nashville February. And you would have smelled the sea, not the dreamy, refreshing scent of ocean tides, but the pungent, unfortunate odor of smelly, gamey raw fish. Tim and I were testing a recipe.
The idea of fish for dinner is nothing new in my family. My parents eat it once a week, at least. When we take my dad to restaurants, he looks for fish on the menu and asks the waiter, looking the guy in the eye and flashing a smile, if the chef might be able to blacken the salmon? And if you really could do that, boy, that would be great. While it’s true I didn’t grow up sharing my parents’ love of fish—nor their ability to treat perfect strangers as confidantes—thanks to their influence, blackened fish entered my palate early in adolescent life. Turns out, I learned as a teenager, cover something with enough powerful spice and cook it until it forms a crust, and even the fishiest fish tastes halfway okay. Now, as an adult, I freely admit I delight in a blackened, crusted tilapia and the way it sits light in my gut (not to mention, now also, the way that my dad values every waitress, businessperson or child he meets). And as far as how I feel now about fish, I think I like it best of all the meats—and yet, strangely, it is the kind I buy and cook least.
Standing over our smoky, steaming skillet, Tim and I wondered where we’d gone wrong. We’d followed a recipe I’d found on Pinterest, brushing Dover sole filets in lemon juice and coating them in a paprika-heavy spice mixture before sautéing them in oil. The resulting filets were fine, edible even. They were spicy, for sure, practically Cajun and the kind of food to leave you reaching for a water glass. But they weren’t fun to eat. I disliked them as much as I disliked the way our kitchen smelled for hours afterwards.
So that night, discouraged, I emailed my mom.
“Could you send me your recipe for blackened fish?” I typed and clicked send. That was all I said. Our correspondence, which, since I’ve lived in Nashville, relies more on emails than phone calls, typically plays out this way.
“Use whatever spices you like,” she responded. “Cayenne, Old Bay… there’s no real formula.”
“But what about technique?” I shot back. “Any tips?”
Her eventual response wasn’t lengthy—four sentences of instruction at most—but it gave me hope:
Put EVOO and butter in a pan and let it get hot, but not smoking. Place fish in pan and sprinkle on your seasonings. Let the fish get good and cooked, and flip it to the other side. It only taks a short time. Enjoy!
Directions like that imply that even a child could cook salmon well, so two weeks later, Mom’s email open on my laptop, her instructions are exactly what Tim and I followed, and here is the result:
While our dinner wasn’t exactly like my mom’s blackened salmon—less crispy on the outsides—it was light years better than our first attempt, and within 10 minutes, perfectly cooked, ready to be plated atop our garlic parsley mashed potatoes.
Life lesson, Shanna Mallon, age 30: When you can’t figure something out, check with your parents. They were right about being friendly; they are right about fish.
Cajun Salmon for Two (or Three)
Serves two hungry or three more-like-us people
We cooked our entire almost-one-pound $8 salmon filet from Trader Joe’s in one night, thinking we would need the whole thing, but, alongside the mashed potatoes, we and our small stomachs split half and were full. I would guess, however, that most typical couples would be able to finish the entire thing together.
1/2 tablespoon butter
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 wild salmon filet (ours was just under a pound), cut in half
1/8 cup Cajun seasoning blend (*recipe below)
Warm butter and olive oil in a skillet over medium heat on the stove (we used a cast iron skillet). Heat until the pan is hot, but not smoking.
Place first half of salmon filet bottom-side down in the pan (of course, if your pan is large enough to accommodate the entire filet at once, you may skip cutting it in half and cook it in one batch). Cover the top side with half of the Cajun seasoning blend (assuming you’re working in two batches). Cook for about two to three minutes, until you can see the outer pink of the salmon turn white at the bottom and slowly creep up, almost halfway, through the filet. Flip salmon to other side; cook another two minutes or so more. When ready, salmon will be cooked through but still beautifully pink inside. Repeat process with other half.
Cajun Seasoning Blend
Makes about 1/8 cup of spices
You don’t need to make this seasoning blend to make the fish; any combination of spices you like would work. This is just an idea to get you started; feel free to improvise and tweak.
1 tablespoon garlic n’ herb blend (or some combination of garlic and onion powders)
3/4 tablespoon smoked paprika
1/2 tablespoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning blend (or some combination of basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Blend spices together and set aside to use with fish.
Garlic Parsley Mashed Potatoes
9 to 10 small organic gold potatoes, the kind with thin skins
2 tablespoons butter
A few splashes of milk (maybe ¼ cup)
7 or 8 sprigs of parsley, chopped finely
Salt, to taste
Place potatoes in a large pot on the stove and cover them with water and a dash of salt. Bring mixture to a boil and keep on strong simmer until potatoes are fork tender. Once potatoes are very soft, drain the water. Mash potatoes with a large fork or potato masher and add butter and enough milk to make mixture smooth. Add chopped parsley and combine, salting to taste. Optional: puree mixture in the pot with an immersion blender to make it even smoother.