Taylor bit into the silver, sparkling skin of the herring and ripped off its head with his teeth. He looked up at us, wiped the dribble from his chin, and spit into the frigid Alaskan waters. Several more less than bashful spits followed. I had to choke back my laughter.
“How’d it taste?” I asked, knowing what the answer would be.
“Like raw herring,” he replied matter-of-factly before turning his attention to the rods we had hanging off the edge of his boat. “Now c’mon, fish!”
Taylor, our tanned and spirited captain for the day, told me that there were only two superstitions he subscribed to on his vessel: (1) there are absolutely no bananas allowed on board the boat at any time and (2) any time you’re not having a successful day with the salmon, someone on board has to bite off the head of a raw herring and toss it into the ocean. “It usually works,” he said with a hopeful grin.
We were all hopeful. I’d proudly reeled in our first salmon of the day just twenty minutes prior, and in case you can’t tell from the shit eating grin on my face in these photos, I was insanely giddy about it. But Taylor was bound and determined to get all four members of our group to catch a salmon and so, after some waffling, he took a generous bite of slimy herring head. All for our benefit.
Unfortunately, the luck of the herring head didn’t happen for us that day, and we left the voyage with just the one 20-pound salmon in tow, which we had flash frozen and over-nighted to my house in Portland. Since then, my husband and I have been eating salmon – and I do mean a lot of salmon – every which way we can imagine. Smoked and smeared on bagels with cream cheese; pan-seared and served alongside roasted potatoes; even cured in beets with gorgeous hues of orange and magenta. You get the picture. Salmon – all day, every day.
But one recipe – a warm bread salad – has become a kind of staple in our house this season thanks to its easy preparation, filling qualities, and use of versatile early summer produce. Plus its flavors remind me of a traditional bagel with lox, only piled high with vegetables and served in salad form—always a good thing as far as I’m concerned. For this particular recipe, I drew inspiration from panzanella, a classic warm bread and tomato salad that hails from Tuscany, but rather than serve it with raw tomatoes, cucumbers, and a vinaigrette as is traditionally done, I’ve paired it with roasted tomatoes, zucchini, and hot smoked salmon.
The roasted vegetables, which can also be grilled if your house is just too hot to cook inside, lend a deeper flavor profile to the dish while the hot smoked salmon gives it a distinct meatiness. The dressing, a creamy dressing made with dill, champagne vinegar, and crème fraîche, adds bright notes and a bit of silky richness.
Ordinarily, I’d say I would never bite into a raw fish just to score a catch. I’ll leave that up to daring captains like Taylor. But then again, if the outcome of it is a whole summer filled with this bright meaty salad, I might just have to eat my words (and apparently some herring head, too.)
This recipe is part of a collaboration between Chocolate + Marrow, Columbia Winery, and Food52. Head over to Food52 for more on how to plate, serve, and pair this hearty summer salad with a beautiful red wine!
- 1 tablespoon of champagne vinegar
- 4 tablespoons of crème fraîche (or greek yogurt)
- 2 tablespoons of dill, chopped finely
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 6 slices of thick-cut rustic bread
- Extra virgin olive oil, for coating bread and vegetables
- 1 pound of zucchini (about 2-3 zucchinis), stemmed and sliced into 3 parts each lengthwise
- 2 cups of cherry tomatoes, about 1 pint
- 8 large green onions, sliced in half lengthwise
- Sea salt, to taste
- 8 ounces of hot smoked salmon, broken into bite-sized cubes
- Dill, for garnish
- Whisk together the vinegar, crème fraîche, dill, salt and pepper in a small bowl until incorporated. Slowly whisk in olive oil. Set aside.
- Preheat your oven (or grill) to 325 degrees F. Brush your bread with a thin coating of olive oil and cut into bite-sized cubes. Spread bread on a baking sheet and bake on the middle wrack of the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until golden and crisp on the edges. The bread should feel like croutons in crispness, though you can certainly adjust to accommodate your tastes if you prefer a softer, soggier bread salad. Remove crisped bread and set aside.
- Increase the heat of your oven (or grill) to 450 degrees F.
- Brush the zucchini, tomatoes and onions with a thin coating of olive oil. Spread zucchini on a baking sheet; spread the tomatoes and green onions on a wire wrack set over a separate baking sheet. Sprinkle with sea salt. Place the green onion and tomato in the upper third of your preheated oven and the zucchini in the lower third of your oven. Occasionally nudge the tomatoes and onions as you cook and remove each ingredient once it’s reached its desired doneness. Remove the green onions once you notice the tips begin to turn slightly golden and the bases become tender, about 7 minutes, and set aside on a cutting board. Remove the cherry tomatoes once you notice nearly all of their skins have broken open, about 12 minutes. Place the cherry tomatoes in a large bowl and set aside. Finally, remove the zucchini once it’s fully cooked through and tender and once its edges have browned slightly, about 15 minutes. Add the zucchini to the cutting board with the onions.
- While you’re waiting for the vegetables to cool, rewarm the bread in the oven at 450 degrees F for 2-3 minutes.
- Once cool enough to handle, slice the zucchini into roughly uniform ½-inch pieces and add to the bowl with the tomatoes. Slice the green onions into 1-inch long pieces and add to the bowl. Add the salmon and bread and use your hands to massage all of the ingredients with 3-4 tablespoons of the Dill Crème Fraîche dressing, adding a little bit of the dressing at a time until it reaches your desired consistency.
- Garnish with fresh dill and serve immediately.