A framed photo sits above my writing space. Three fishermen in their late-20’s crouch on deck, wearing hoodies, rainpants, and matching end-of-a-long-day grins. Team ’77: friends born within several months of each other, together on a troller that shared our birth year.
My gaze drifts up to this photo often. One of my treasures, proof of the enduring nature of friendships forged on the docks. At an early age, boat kids understand the impermanence of seasonal living, the ease with which people can be washed into memories. We grabbed onto each other more than 25 years ago and refused to give in to life’s opposing tides. We still haven’t let go.
One of my beloveds is celebrating his birthday today. Always a trailblazer, he’s the first of us to hit 35. I’m trying to recall two awkward, competitive nine year olds meeting for the first time, but am caught in images from more recent years. Like when I had an ugly break-up, he tucked me into his couch and resisted saying I told you so. Or the full day he spent with a rented rototiller, churning up my yard for a garden I briefly fantasized about but never planted. I don’t call him unless I’ve got a full hour to spare – he’s a chatty one – and no one else’s emails can make me laugh so hard. Time with him and his partner constitutes one of my winter’s highlights.
I’ve been snowbound all week, and didn’t get to the post office to ship off the usual birthday box of mint brownies. But he’s been asking for this recipe for the past month, and today seems like a good day to share it here. What better way to celebrate a lifelong friendship than with a delicious sandwich? So, for you, sweetie, and for you, sweet readers: the Salmon Bahn Mi.
Making Salmon Bahn Mi
Precision-minded chefs will cringe at my throw-it-all-together approach, and bahn mi purists will have their own criticisms. Nope, this isn’t especially authentic, but it’s tasty and works with the limitations of boat life, as inspired by the Vietnamese Shrimp Sandwiches in the fabulous Fishes and Dishes. (If you’re a seafood fan, the Marsh sisters’ fantastic recipes, photos and storytelling make this cookbook a must-have.)
Gather together: wild salmon, soy sauce, sesame oil, olive oil, lemongrass, garlic, a lime, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, ginger root, white sugar, rice vinegar, a carrot, a daikon, mayonnaise, chili paste, red onion, cucumber, jalapeno, cilantro, hoagie rolls.
At least a few hours before dinner, marinate the fish and pickle the veggies.
How much salmon? Oh, enough to fit the rolls. A tail piece of frozen-at-sea coho is perfect for 2. Fool around with skinning it if you must; I’m happy to cook it skin side down and peel the finished product off.
For the marinade, mix 2-3 tablespoons each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and olive oil, with a little squeeze of lime. Chop a couple stalks of lemongrass; add these in along with a spoonful of minced garlic. Grate in some fresh ginger and lime zest, and throw in a few shakes of salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Pour it all over the defrosted fish and stick it in the fridge for a few hours.
To pickle the veggies, mix ¼ cup of water, ¼ cup of white sugar, and ¼ cup of rice vinegar. Peel the daikon and carrot, slice them into thin matchsticks, and soak them in the vinegar mix in the fridge.
At dinnertime, place the rolls in the oven, wrapped in tin foil, to warm. Put a cast iron pan on medium heat, with a teaspoon of sesame oil. When the pan is hot, the salmon goes in, skin side down, with a little marinade spooned in and a lid on top. These are pretty thin pieces of fish, and won’t require much more than 5 minutes.
As the fish cooks, make a plate full of toppings: sliced red onion and jalapeno, peeled/matchsticked cucumber, fresh cilantro leaves. The spread is simple: mix a few dollops of mayonnaise with some chili garlic paste, amount dependent on your spice preference.
The salmon’s done when there’s only a slight bit of translucence left in the middle. Place the fish in your dressed rolls (see how easily the skin peeled off?) and layer with the pickled veggies and all those fresh toppings. Enjoy with a good friend, and afterwards, take a moment to tell me what you did differently to make this even more delicious.