Aspen Times Weekly: The first salmon dish I ever liked |

Aspen Times Weekly: The first salmon dish I ever liked

by Amanda Rae


Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Smoked Skuna Bay Salmon

By Chef Shawn Lawrence, 39 Degrees Lounge at Sky Hotel

Serves 4

½ cup Sugar in the Raw

1 cup kosher salt

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme

½ cup Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7

Tennessee Whiskey

4 5-ounce portions

Skuna Bay salmon

Hickory chips, for smoking

Mix first five ingredients to the texture of wet sand. Rub on salmon. Refrigerate two hours, then rinse. Place in a smoker with hickory chips at 150 degrees for one hour. Alternatively, place an aluminum foil pouch filled with wood chips lightly soaked in water beneath grates on a grill pre-heated to medium. When wood chips start to smoke, lower heat to low (inside grill temperature should be around 150) and place salmon on the grill grates, skin side down, for about an hour.

“Try to seal off any holes in your grill so the smoke stays in longer,” Lawrence says. “A low temp is key. You don’t want to cook the salmon, just smoke it.”

Serve salmon atop steamed, puréed cauliflower with white pepper and fried Brussels sprouts leaves.

EVEN RESTAURANT writers have their food aversions — and they don’t always include exotic bits like duck heads and monkey brains. Former New York Times critic and Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl hates honey. Scott Reitz of the Dallas Observer can’t stomach cottage cheese. When Jeffrey Steingarten settled into his post as food critic at Vogue in 1989, he brought along major distastes for kimchi, anchovies, and swordfish, among other mainstream ingredients.

So I’m not ashamed to admit that every time I see salmon listed on a tasting menu, my heart sinks a little. I know it’s one of the most popular species and everyone’s eating it — therefore reaping myriad health benefits I miss out on — but I’ve never been a fan. Every morsel I’ve sampled — cooked, raw, wrapped in Phyllo — has left a lingering, faintly fishy aftertaste, I swear. And don’t get me started on lox, with its inside-of-a-stale-refrigerator odor and slimy mouthfeel. Apologies to the many chefs I’ve faked out in the past: Not once have I truly, madly, deeply enjoyed a salmon dish.

Until last Tuesday, upstairs at the Sky Hotel, when I scraped clean an entire 5-ounce portion of salmon. In fact, I announced to my dining companions that I adored the dish, and that I would order it again voluntarily, if I could.

Perhaps ironically, this game-changing moment occurred during Women & Whiskey, a four-course pairing dinner sponsored by the Jack Daniel’s Family of Fine Whiskeys. (Initially, I thought a ladies-only tasting of the No. 1 whiskey in the world sounded kind of…sexist…but 30 or so females in the room — including a 39 Degrees bartender — confirmed that Jack Daniel’s is not a popular choice among broads. They also confirmed why salmon typically finds a seat at these kinds of dinners, buoyed by the fact that the omega-rich fish tops the “Best Foods for Women” lists pushed by the media. I digress.)

That this delectable dish of fish was part of a one-time tasting means I won’t find it waiting at 39 Degrees Lounge whenever the craving fails to flee me. Instead, I track down Sky Hotel executive chef Shawn Lawrence — whom I now pronounce “Salmon Whisperer” — to beg him for the recipe (see opposite page).

Not surprisingly, the only salmon dish I’ve ever loved requires two crucial taste-making steps: 1) Marinate Skuna Bay salmon in a rub made of raw Turbinado sugar, salt, and Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey (the infamous black bottle) and 2) Smoke slow and low over hickory wood. The result: a not-quite-cooked, not-quite-raw, very rare piece of salmon a translucent shade of stewed apricot. Each flaky bite tasted sweet, smoky, and reminiscent of apples and bacon — though no fruit or pig made it to the plate. A simple purée of cauliflower with white pepper and a shower of crispy, fried Brussels sprouts leaves made fine accompaniments.

After gushing about the salmon, I ask Lawrence if he has any food aversions.

“As a kid I grew up with a grandmother who had a farm, so I liked all food,” he says. “But having older brothers who didn’t like vegetables, I saw it. From personal experience, just from traveling, every time I have a great dish that has broccoli in it, I definitely note it.”

But no vegetable has undergone a transformation as radical as Brussels sprouts. Once a distant Thanksgiving-dinner memory as waterlogged, grey miniature cabbages, Brussels sprouts —roasted, charred, and topped with bacon or pomegranate seeds now — have grown up to become 2015’s buzziest food. Cooking methods make all the difference.

“Cauliflower is definitely one of those vegetables that surprises people,” Lawrence adds. “You can roast it, you can boil it, you can blend it, you can eat it in soup, you can eat it raw.”

Yet like smoked salmon, you won’t find the cruciferous white knight on the menu at 39 Degrees Lounge, either. “You know, being in the lounge, it’s hard to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got some great cauliflower!’” Lawrence says with a laugh. “But I do play with it. I use it a lot in my private dining.”

A few nights later, I’m at the Cache Cache bar. When my friend offers a taste of her go-to dish —smoked Scottish salmon tartare with sea trout roe — I don’t pull a diva and decline emphatically. Instead, I’m intrigued. I always enjoy chef Chris Lanter’s food, but might I become enamored with another salmon dish in one week? On this night, I do accept more than one potato crisp topped with chopped salmon, Serrano chile crème fraîche, and avocado. It’s a start.

The good news: Studies show that food preferences are learned. In fact, many bizarre aversions are linked to negative experiences, often in childhood. I, for one, have a vivid memory of being shamed into eating a lox-topped bagel at a classmate’s house in pre-K. Our school was at a synagogue, though my family isn’t Jewish. Perhaps therein lay the sociocultural miscommunication: My parents never had Shana’s favorite food — smoked salmon — in our house. It was foreign, and therefore scary, to me.

Another psychological phenomenon explains that exposure to anything increases a liking for it. So food aversions, no matter how deeply entrenched they seem, may be unlearned. Take Vogue critic Steingarten, a former lawyer who originally proclaimed he wouldn’t eat kimchi, anchovies, or swordfish, even if stuck on a deserted island. Ten years and thousands of meals into the gig, he wrote a memoir on his experiences. It’s titled, “The Man Who Ate Everything.”

Against all odds, Amanda Rae might prepare this salmon recipe at home.

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