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April 1, 2006

Sauce for the Salmon

Filed under: Fish,Japanese Food,Mr. Henry — Mr. Henry @ 11:38 am

Richard Ginori La Scala Gravy Boat with StandMr. Henry is not one for sauces.

After three forkfuls of even the finest sauce, he longs for the pure and free flavor of the meat, fish, or fowl. Here in the home of the brave, the cradle of individuality, are not sauces an Old World affectation? Have US Customs agents been vigilant about their importation? Does the National Security Agency monitor wine reductions, veloutés, or Catalonian foam?

In case they are monitoring him, Mr. Henry wants to say he believes law enforcement authorities are doing everything necessary to protect our values. Heck of a job, guys.

Prairie American virtues include bristling at authority, a feisty disregard for convention, and a consequent culinary approach characterized by rugged unfussiness.

Ours was not a nation constructed on false sauces!

Isn’t our most fundamental right the right to be left alone? And doesn’t that extend equally to the evening entrée?

Mr. Henry rests his case.

To be sure, he can imagine the Founding Fathers enjoying a side of cranberry relish, a shining illustration of American ingenuity. And then, of course, there is gravy, that quintessential English invention, one that survives contentedly today in the South.

A Mr. Henry dictum: Gravy is not sauce.

Shall we move on?

The topic of salmon is broad. At the local fishmongers Mr. Henry found Norwegian wild salmon, Norwegian farmed salmon, Norwegian farmed organic salmon, and his special favorite, Norwegian double-smoked cured salmon. The choices, you will admit, were overwhelming and he hadn’t even left Bergen.

Wild SalmonWest Coast and Alaskan salmon have a wild, weedy, sharp flavor that Mr. Henry has always found off-putting. But then Mr. Henry gets lost in the wild weeds of San Francisco, both physically and metaphorically. There is something out there he just doesn’t get – proper highway directions, for example, or the general tenor of conversations. The scenery is too beautiful, the harvest too bountiful.

He is reminded of a warm morning once spent in the souk of Meknes choosing bunches of the most aromatic mint on earth. Ahhhh, Mr. Henry’s memories are long. Best to stick to Norway. You can’t really get lost driving in the hinterland there because the country is entirely composed of coastline.

In serving dinner to old friends who had not graced their table in a decade or more, Mrs. Henry and her obedient consort decided that for the entrée broiled Norwegian organic salmon seemed a safe bet. It is fresh and plentiful in the market, reliably palatable, and attractively colorful. Unlike pale monkfish that belly-flops across the plate, salmon stands up smart and pink.

The Korean grocery on the corner offered asparagus, super-model thin, which after tossing with a touch of olive oil and coarse salt we placed under the ceramic radiation broiler for two minutes. The result was an irresistible finger-food — a slightly crisped, succulent, nutty sweet grass.

Our wine was a delicious Austrian grüner veltliner by FamilieBauer, refreshing, inexpensive, and cold.

A sourdough French baguette amply satisfied our limited demands for starches. Broiled baby Brussels sprouts offered roundness and verve. The meal now demanded a theme, both in flavor and in color, and the decision of sauce for the salmon loomed large.

A fresh dill sauce hurriedly purchased from the deli counter turned out to be a verdant horror. Its principal ingredient was mayonnaise and the shocking intensity of green color made Mr. Henry shudder even to try it. His old standby yogurt and sour cream dill sauce, although perfectly tasty, always had a disappointing tendency to roam around the dinner dish as though seeking converts to its particular belief system. This evening’s grilled asparagus were each too, too perfect to permit the joy-ride of an uninvited dill sauce.

It is at times like these that Mr. Henry shows the stuff of which he is made. Grit and education, abrasion and lubrication in equal measure, led Mr. Henry to re-imagine sublime salmons of yesteryear. There had been no fresh dill in the market. The salmon was out of the oven awaiting its flavor accessory, its organizing theme.

Only minutes before serving time he seized upon a new solution –- pure, unadulterated, organic, grass-fed, Natural by Nature sour cream — straight from the tub.

After all, what goes better with smoked salmon than sour cream?

[Philadelphia cream cheese is a horror. Mr. Henry is sorry to have to say it, but there it is. In the long run it does no good to sweep these things under the rug. Mr. Henry strongly believes that it is best to be open and honest about processed cheese spreads of any distinction. They are a national embarrassment, a cultural character blemish, and he cannot say this often enough.]

And if sour cream is the perfect accompaniment to smoked salmon, could it not also work with fresh?

It could, and it did. Its working-class sourness suavely partnered the rich sweet fish.

Was the serving of “plain,” if you will, sour cream seen as a failure of the imagination? Ha! On the contrary. This particular sour cream with every homespun, handmade bona fide, with deeply rich texture and the perfect blend of tartness, sweetness and umami could not have been bested by Escoffier’s Army of the Republic. American sour cream was triumphant.

De l’audace! Encore de l’audace! Et toujours de l’audace!


  1. Sauce is really a French thing, hence your separation out of gravy which is English. Producing the great gravy joke from Tony Hancock as he looks at his flatmate’s attempt to make a Sunday lunch – ‘My Mum’s gravy moves around the plate.’

    The Italians have sauces in a way, but they are properly called salad dressing.

    Gravadlax should be served with a dill sauce which is a vinaigrette with lots of dill in it – but god, not mayo, absolutely not.

    Comment by furlagirl — April 3, 2006 @ 6:04 am

  2. It is indeed a French thing – I remember years ago, as I was reading an old edition of the Larousse Gastronomique, and I came to the same conclusion: the French will eat anything they can nap with a sauce – bears paws, “animelles” (sheep testicles – served in three’s!), ortolans (tiny birds the size of a parakeets – you eat them bones and all) – honestly it made me think twice about the position of French cuisine as one of the world’s greatest.

    Comment by Phyllis — April 3, 2006 @ 5:58 pm

  3. I probably would’ve gone with Dijon mustard, but I can see a very good sour cream working quite well.

    I’m writing, though, to defend Philadelphia Cream Cheese, without which cheesecake cannot be made. Although come to think of it, I could probably make something specatcular with marscapone.

    Now you’ve given me something to think about!

    As for sauces in general: less is more. The main problem with most sauces is the abundance with which they are ladeled over the plate. If I wanted soup, I’d order it.

    Comment by Joan — April 3, 2006 @ 9:22 pm

  4. Without which cheesecake cannot be made? What do you think they used in the Polish shtetels from whence all cheesecake originates in Platonic form?

    Comment by furlagirl — April 4, 2006 @ 12:20 am

  5. I have to just say, I am hungry and craving salmon from merely reading your description. I’m looking forward to reading more of these entries! 😀

    Comment by Sarah — April 4, 2006 @ 10:16 am

  6. Furlagirl: I’d guess a soft yogurt-type cheese, or possibly drained cottage cheese? Ricotta would be lovely, too. I was only semi-serious, you know.

    Sadly, my Polish mom never made cheesecake! But she does love mine.

    I confess I don’t understand Mr. Henry’s horror of Philly cream cheese. It’s not a “cheese spread“, it’s just a soft cheese. Is it the vegetable gum that they add? I don’t get it. We’re not talking about CheezWhiz here. Cream cheese is actually, you know, cheese.

    Comment by Joan — April 4, 2006 @ 2:26 pm

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