Armchair travelers that many of us are these days, food is one means to bring back the flavors and scents of our favorite places and people. When I stop in Paris, a French-Vietnamese friend of mine always welcomes me back with a wok filled with his mother’s recipe for Vietnamese caramel chicken, deeply satisfying with hits of chile and brown sugar. Not often a fan of sweet notes in my savory food, this wondrously sticky mess is an exception. And since I’m staying close to home these days, I’ve been riffing on my friend’s recipe with what I have on hand, including lots of wild Alaska seafood. This is an easy version that makes the most of wild salmon, although this same sauce and cooking method jazz up wild cod, sablefish and scallops; just make sure to modify cooking time according to thickness of the fillets. Any leftovers make for a flavorful dip, frittata, or flatbread topping.
Quick caramel salmon
1 1/2 pounds salmon fillet, skin-on (or cod, sablefish, or scallops)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, such as grapeseed, peanut, or avocado
Zest of one lime (about 1 teaspoon); juice of one lime (about 1 1/2 tablespoons juice)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons gochujang or garlic chile crunch or other favorite chile paste
2 teaspoons grated ginger (about a 2-inch piece)
1 medium garlic clove, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
For serving: sliced green onion, jalapeño, steamed rice, cilantro, and basil
Remove any pin bones from salmon; cut fillet into 2-inch pieces and pat salmon dry with paper towel. Heat oil in a large cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Pat salmon skin dry and place, skin-side down into hot oil. Let cook, without disturbing, about 5 minutes until skin begins to crisp and brown. Reduce heat as needed. Check smaller pieces and remove from pan after 2 or 3 minutes; keep in mind the salmon should be only partially cooked, as it will go back into pan after making the sauce to finish cooking. Using a wide spatula, gently remove salmon, keeping crispy skin intact. Remove salmon onto a plate, skin-side up.
Reduce heat to medium. In a medium bowl, combine lime zest and juice, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, ginger, gochujang (or other chile paste), garlic and black pepper; stir to combine. Add to skillet; stir so that gochujang is well mixed in with the sauce; add salmon (skin-side up) back into skillet. Add 1/4 cup water or wine to pan. Baste fillets with sauce and let cook another 2 to 3 minutes or until cooked to desired degree of doneness. Swirl in butter. Taste and add more lime or soy sauce, as desired. Serve fillets with rice, and garnish with green onion, jalapeño, and herbs.