An Authentic Thanksgiving Dish: Roasted Salmon

I am currently hard at work planning my Thanksgiving day menu and, as usual, trying to fit as much seafood into the day as possible. Swapping out “traditional” fare for seafood is pretty easy for me, considering my proximity to the ocean and my general ambivalence toward turkey. It’s not that I dislike turkey, I’m just not overly fond of the birds. If turkey was on my plate, I would eat it, but I would be much happier if fish was on my plate.

For the main dish this year I’m thinking of serving a large salmon, stuffed and roasted whole. This idea appeals to me partly because I just love salmon, but also because fish was one of the foods served at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Fish was a staple food for both the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. The Wampanoag taught the pilgrims to catch fish, grow crops (pretty much saved their asses) and joined them in their first Thanksgiving feast.

File:Edouard Manet 068.jpg

Still life with salmon, a painting by Edouard Manet

I don’t plan on having an entire historically authentic Thanksgiving meal, but I was curious what that might look like. After doing a little research I discovered that the only foods we know for sure were at that first Thanksgiving feast between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims were deer (five of them to be exact) and fowl (most likely waterfowl like duck, geese, or swans, but possibly wild turkey). It is most likely that seafood (fish, eel, lobster, shellfish, etc..) was served because it was such an important part of everyone’s diet at that time.

Pilgrims (I’ve read) often stuffed whole fish with onions and herbs – a great and timeless combination – but I wanted to take the recipe a little farther.

If you wish to roast a salmon for Thanksgiving this year, seek out the biggest wild fish you can find. An eight pound fish will serve around twelve people. If you can find a fish with the head and tail on – wonderful! Often the head has been removed from the fish before it reaches your grocery store, and that is just fine.

Roasted Whole Salmon

  • A large whole salmon, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 large onion, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
  • 2 lemons, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
  • Bunches of fresh herbs such as dill, parsley, fennel, or basil
  • 3 TBSP butter
  • 2 TBSP lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup white wine

1. Preheat oven to 450°F. Place a sheet of parchment paper or cheese cloth in the bottom of a large roasting pan or sheet pan and place the fish on top. Cut three shallow diagonal slits in the skin of the salmon on both sides. Season the salmon generously with salt and pepper inside its cavity.

2. Stuff as much of the onion, lemon, and herbs (leave them in sprigs or chop them up) into the cavity of the fish as you can. Measure the thickness of the stuffed salmon with a ruler.

3. In a saucepan, melt the butter and add the lemon juice. Baste the outside of the salmon withe the butter-lemon mixture and place on the middle rack of the oven. For every inch of thickness, bake for 10 minutes (for example, if the fish is three inches thick, bake for around 30 min). Click here to read more about this technique. Baste the fish thoroughly every 10 minutes with the butter-lemon. Test the flesh every 10 minutes as well, and take the fish out of the oven when the flesh flakes apart with a fork. If the tail or head are looking too brown or are getting dried out, cover them lightly with aluminum foil.

4. After pulling the pan out of the oven, pour the white wine into the pan to help loosen the fish from the paper or cheese cloth. Carefully slide the fish onto a platter to serve.

If you would like to cook a side dish at the same time – and save room in your oven – roast your salmon on top of a bed of vegetables. Green beans, squash, or potatoes would all work well if you cut them into smaller pieces so they cook quickly. Just toss your veggies in olive oil, lay them in a single layer in you roasting pan, and sprinkle with salt before laying your fish on top of them. You might need to add a few more minutes to your cooking time.

Maybe it’s just me, but I love the idea of presenting a whole fish with the head and tail on. It seems very appropriate for a feast, and a good reminder to be thankful for the bounty that our oceans, rivers and lakes provide. May we keep our waters clean and healthy so they continue to feed us for ever and ever!

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5 thoughts on “An Authentic Thanksgiving Dish: Roasted Salmon

  1. Sounds wonderful. We’ll try it, but I know an eight pound salmon will not be enough to feed 12 in our family! Thanks for the recipe.

    • Ha! Yeah, normally it might not, but on Thanksgiving with all the side dishes and desserts? Or maybe you could cook a turkey and a fish! I know there are some turkey lovers out there who might miss having a big bird on the table…
      Either way, have a great Thanksgiving!
      -Robin

  2. I love this idea, but am afraid of fish skin. I avoid eat it and the scent of it searing ruins my appetite for the fish. Also, if served over a bed of vegetables, wouldn’t that skin flavor transfer to the veggies? not to mention the eyeballs dissolving onto the vegetables if the head were left on?

    • If you dislike fish skin, you probably shouldn’t cook the whole fish. You could buy fish already filleted, or have your fish monger fillet it for you. You could wrap the fish with the other flavoring in a piece of parchment and roast them like that. That’s what I would do!

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