My Favorite Way to Make Salmon Even Better

Much can be said about salmon. Its life cycle is so remarkable that its sheer survival seems to invoke some odds-defying metaphors. Tenacity, audacity, resilience: If anyone wants to anthropomorphize salmon, its heroic qualities are there for the taking. To get through life’s upstream struggles, we all just need to be a bit “more salmon.”

Just as heroic are those who are calling urgent attention to what we are doing to the planet — and how it affects salmon: industrial pollution of its river habitat; systematic harvesting of wild fish from the sea; fish farming and the spread of sea lice; climate change. The sobering list goes on. In “Salmon: A Fish, the Earth and the History of Common Fate,” Mark Kurlansky links the fish’s fate and the future existence of our world.

“If the salmon does not survive, there is little hope for the survival of the planet,” he writes with knowing and provocative frankness. Salmon holds a mirror to both human heroism and hubris.

But for all that’s written and said, the salmon fact that always hooks me is this: Between being born and reproducing years later, salmon travel many miles, journeying far and wide from the freshwater rivers of their birth to the salty seas. When it’s time to reproduce, they don’t return to the shelter of just any freshwater stream. They return to the same spot where they were born.

Take a moment to really think about that: all the tributaries and rivers that they could have taken, all the time that passed. It is cause for wonder. It’s a bit of a mystery, as well, but salmon are thought to possess highly accurate receptors that, sensing small differences in Earth’s magnetic field, can be used as a homing device. In conjunction with magnetic sense, they also use their sense of smell to identify and find the streams where they were born.

Good things happen when two star ingredients
— salmon and dried limes — share a plate.

The power of smell and its ability to connect us all, fish or not, so directly to our ancestral home hit me profoundly as I opened the oven door to reveal this month’s dish. It wasn’t just the salmon, though. It was the dried Persian lime I’d quickly blitzed and rubbed over the fish before baking. What was already a distinct aroma — citrusy, musty, tangy-sour, slightly fermented and floral all at once — was dialed up with the application of heat. It connected me immediately to the lemon tree in my mother’s garden: a small specimen, really, that with its intense scent looms large.

The salmon might be the hero of this dish, but the dried limes, another culinary expression of the citrus family that I tend to go on about incessantly, should also be granted hero status.

The pleasure I get from cooking with them stretches back to their preparation. Boiled in a salt brine, limes are dried in the sun for several weeks, allowing every drop of liquid to evaporate and leaving a concentrated sour flavor with a sweet aroma that always reminds me of hard candy.

These little balls of flavor can be a transporting secret to so many dishes. They can be pierced once or twice and added, just as they are, to all sorts of stews and soups: They’ll either disintegrate with everything in the pan or can be lifted out before serving, once their fragrance is spent. Blitzing them in a grinder with a few other spices might just be one of my favorite things to do. For anyone who wants to know more about how to cook with these limes — also called noumi basra, black limes or limoo amani — Najmieh Batmanglij’s “Food of Life is the cookbook to get.

After brushing such a mixture over a beautiful salmon fillet, very little else is needed for this dish to be called supper. You could, of course, add more citrusy echoes here — a grating of zest, a drizzle of juice — and I could carry on talking about my favorite subject, lemons and limes. But for now, I will take in the aroma and, like the salmon, connect with the home stream.

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