Smoked Trout Salad (With Preamble)

The easiest thing about cooking is the actual cooking. You find a recipe and follow it; you learn, from experience or from teachers, how to navigate the difficult bits; you figure out how to get a complete meal on the table, with everything served as hot or cold as it ought to be, and at the right time, too. You put in a lot of hours acquiring all this experience, and then, voilà, cooking is no big deal. The cooking itself, I mean. 

The hard part is finding out where cooking fits in your life. Perhaps you’re a professional — that’s one simple answer. Here are some others: Perhaps you’re a weekend chef, or someone who does the occasional feast, whether a carefully-planned dégustation involving days of planning before a single egg is cracked, or a groaning board assemblage of hearty dishes that you can prepare without opening a cookbook. Maybe you’re a housewife who’s got the time, energy, and skill to feed your family interesting fare every day. Maybe you’re a bachelor who only cooks for girlfriends, with a repertoire of recipes for two that involve expensive ingredients. (Word to the wise, guys: this works.) 

Maybe you’re none of the above. 

Maybe you’re the husband of a securities lawyer whose hours are wildly unpredictable — hers, that is. Your own hours are yours to do with as you see fit, which is great except for the cooking part. When cooking is not conditional — when it is not the invariable response to a certain signal (showing up for work at a restaurant, seeing that it’s five o’clock in the afternoon, planning a special night) — it’s often difficult to get going. And of all the things that we do, eating is probably the least forgiving if you’re one of those spirits who likes to wait until you’re in the mood. Wait until you’re in the mood to cook, and you’re probably already too hungry to wait for anything to cook. 

All I have to say today is that I haven’t found where cooking fits in my life. I know only that I have to find a place for it. I’ve tried giving it up, and I’ve tried making it regular. Neither campaign was successful. 

One thing that helps, though, is having a thick sheaf of varied recipes, and I’m happy to have just added a new one to mine. Let me tell you about it. 

The other day, seeking to offset the richness of a richly-sauced chicken sauté, I worked up a simple salad of six ingredients, all but five of which are staples. I cut up half of a smoked, fileted trout into bite-size pieces, and tossed them with cut up sun-dried tomatoes, pitted and halved niçoise olives, and steamed haricots verts that I’d cut into short lengths. I drizzled olive oil over these ingredients and then tossed them all in the juice of a half lemon.Served shortly thereafter, the salad was a vivid array of vibrant flavors, harmonious but distinct. A few days later, the flavors had melded, and the salad had developed a pleasant taste that didn’t betray its constituents. So the same recipe yields two results, or more, depending entirely on timing. 

The next time I make this smoked trout salad, I’m going to combine the olives, the tomatoes, and the olive oil a day ahead of time, throwing in the fish about an hour or two before serving, and the beans and the lemon juice at the last minute. I seasoned the salad very lightly with salt and pepper, but gave dried herbs a pass. I might sprinkle some fresh tarragon, or perhaps some snipped chives, if I had them on hand.  I expect that the dish could be plumped up with white beans or some other canned variety.— always, however, bearing in mind that the simplicity of this salad is an illusion: three of its ingredients — the trout, the olives, and the sun-dried tomatoes — have complex flavors. (The smoked fish is doubly complex.) That’s why I think the haricots are essential: they’re green, they’re crunchy, and they’re bland. (And they’re green only if you’ve just steamed them; after a day in the fridge, they turn rather drab.) 

Last night, when we had the leftovers, I hit upon the perfect complement, a cheese soufflé. The light pillowy texture of the soufflé, with its understated backing of gruyère and parmesan, made a perfect contrast to the salad. It’s curious, but an equivalent omelette would be much, much heavier in this combination, even though you’d of course omit the cup of béchamel. 

Altogether, it was a meal that was easy to prepare, and comprised of a small number of ingredients (most of them, as I say, things that I had on hand); but it packed a lot of interest, and it left us feeling satisfied but not stuffed. 

You may be wondering where the recipe is. It’s in your head: you know better than I do what the ratio of fish to tomatoes to olives to beans out to be. You do! That much I do know.