A Fish Tale...

Growing up, my mother had a certain repertoire of dishes that she drew from. We tended to eat the same handful of dishes again and again, and they were always perfect. Because we also ate out a lot (Mom may have been good at cooking, but she didn't enjoy it), it never became boring. Spaghetti, taco salad, burritos, chili, meatloaf, tuna salad, chicken and noodles, pork roast, and a well-practiced array of potato and vegetable side dishes were the defining flavors of my childhood.

In a way, I think my constant quest to test new recipes stems from an urge to find my own line-up of classics. Dishes that I can make again and again, and always end up with a reliable, delicious meal. Of course, I've adopted a few of Mom's recipes into my regular rotation, and in my roughly six-year cooking career, I've managed to accumulate a few standards of my own, like my pasta with saffron sausage sauce, turkey burgers, cranberry chicken salad, and of course, my beloved recipe for salmon cooked in parchment paper packets in the microwave. Not only was that salmon dish the very first recipe I ever shared here on "The State I Am In," it was one of the first things I ever made for Justin when we started dating. It has a very special place in my heart, just like he does.

Because salmon is one of Justin's favorite dishes, however, I found myself compelled to start looking for other ways to prepare it. Even if my existing recipe was flawless and foolproof, variety is the spice of life, and I didn't want Justin to get bored with plate after plate of salmon en papillote. Though I like salmon, because it is Justin's favorite, I've been scouring the web for recipes that combine salmon with other things Justin likes, and this time, I went with mustard. While I can tolerate mustard in small doses, my mustard collection has increased by a factor of 50% since we started dating; not unlike the exponential growth of my hot sauce collection, which has gone from zero to at least four different types that I can think of off the top of my head. The man likes his condiments.

Tonight's recipe came from Serious Eats, one of my favorite food blogs, and a good source for simple, weeknight recipes, which are woefully lacking from my repertoire in general. While it wasn't quite as quick or simple as my usual salmon, and it dirtied more pans, it was a nice change of pace. The mustard provided an acidic, spicy counterpoint to cut through the richness of the meat, and the technique of lightly buttering the bottom before searing the fish created a gorgeous, golden-brown crust on the bottom. I'm convinced that our broiler isn't working properly, due to a series of less-than-stellar attempts to use it in the past, but tonight, it beautifully browned and crisped the breadcrumbs scattered on top of the meat.

I would definitely consider making this again, even if it will never reach the hallowed status of my salmon en papillote recipe. Those kinds of dishes are rare, and finding them takes time. Until then, I'll have fun continuing to experiment, and in the meantime, I'll get the pleasure of trying new things, like tonight's mustard-baked salmon. I could do a lot worse, I think...

Easy, Crunchy Mustard-Baked Salmon
adapted from Serious Eats

2 slices high-quality white bread, crusts removed and torn into chunks
2 boneless, skinless salmon fillets
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for the salmon, softened
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1. Preheat the broiler to high and adjust rack to 6 inches below the element. Pulse bread in the bowl of a food processor until coarse crumbs are created, about 10 to 12 one-second pulses. Season the salmon with salt and pepper. Set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, mix together the breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon butter, both mustards, and thyme, pinching the mixture together so the butter is incorporated and the mixture sticks together. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Spread the bottom of each fillet of salmon with a thin layer of butter. Preheat a medium skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add salmon buttered-side down and cook without moving until a nice crust has formed, about 2 minutes. Pile the crumbs on the salmon, then transfer to the broiler. Broil until the crumbs are crunchy and browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

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