Eric Akis: Salmon with mandarin-orange sauce is festive, but not fussy

Eric Akis

If you want to serve a festive fish entrée this holiday season, whether for Christmas or another occasion, you might get hooked on today’s salmon recipe.

It serves eight, features seasonal colours and has a palate-pleasing sweet-and-sour citrus sauce. You can also prepare parts of this dish in advance.

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To make it, salmon filets are seasoned and topped with sliced, peeled mandarin oranges, then baked.

You can get the salmon oven-ready hours before needed and it keep refrigerated until ready to cook. When you want to serve dinner, simply pop the pan of fish into the oven.

You can also make the sauce for the salmon in advance and reheat when needed.

That sauce is made by simmering cornstarch-thickened mandarin orange juice that’s been flavoured with lime juice, brown sugar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and a bit of cayenne pepper.

I squeezed my own juice for the recipe — four large mandarin oranges yielded the one cup it required.

When the salmon is baked, you set it on a serving platter and top it with the sauce.

Now the fish is accented with two seasonally coloured ingredients I like to use at this time of year: ruby-red pomegranate seeds and green-hued pistachios.

When you set the platter on the table, your dinner guests will be wowed by how pretty and tasty-looking this dish is. At the same time, you’ll be calmly smiling because it was pretty easy to make.

I like to serve the salmon with a steamed and buttered green vegetable, such as green beans, asparagus or broccolini, and rice pilaf.

You’ll find a recipe for the latter below the one for the salmon.

Baked Salmon with Mandarin Orange Sauce, Pomegranates and Pistachios

Quick-to-bake salmon fillets adorned with a palate-awakening, sweet-and-sour citrus sauce and colourful garnishes.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Makes: eight servings

For the sauce

1 cup fresh-squeezed mandarin orange juice, plus more, if needed

2 Tbsp lime juice

2 Tbsp brown sugar

1 Tbsp soy sauce

2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 Tbsp cornstarch

1/8 tsp ground cayenne pepper

For the salmon and to serve

8 (5- to 6-oz./140- to 170 g) salmon fillets, such as sockeye or steelhead

2 Tbsp melted butter or olive oil

8 (about 1/4 — to 1/2-inch thick, 2-inch round), peeled slices fresh mandarin orange

• salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1/3 cup pomegranate seeds

1/4 cup coarsely chopped unsalted shelled pistachios (see Note 1)

8 fresh mint or Italian parsley sprigs

Place the one cup mandarin orange juice, lime juice, brown sugar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, cornstarch and cayenne pepper in a small pot and whisk to combine. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer.

Simmer two minutes, until sauce thickens. Remove from the heat, cover and set sauce aside until needed (see Eric’s options).

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Set the salmon fillets on the sheet, leaving enough space between them so they can easily be lifted out. Brush each piece of salmon with butter or olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Top each piece of salmon with a mandarin orange slice (see Eric’s options). Bake for 15 minutes, or until cooked (see Note 2).

Return the mandarin orange sauce to a simmer, adding a bit more juice if you find it too thick or overly reduced. Arrange the salmon in a single layer on a large serving platter.

Spoon the sauce over the salmon. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and pistachios. Garnish with mint or parsley sprigs and serve.

Note 1: Shelled pistachios are sold in the bulk-foods section of some supermarkets and at bulk food stores. If you can’t find them, shell 1/3 to 1/2 cup of in-the-shell pistachios to get the amount required here.

Note 2: When cooked, the flesh of the salmon will become opaque and feel slightly firm, not hard (a sign it’s overcooked) and not soft (a sign it’s not cooked through). When cooked, the fish will also start to separate slightly into flakes and a white protein will seep out from the flakes.

Eric’s options: You can set the salmon on the baking sheet, season and oil, and set on the sliced mandarins hours before needed. Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake. If you do this, the salmon may take a few extra minutes to cook, as it will be quite cold.

You can also make the sauce hours before needed. If you do that, after you simmer it two minutes, let it cool to room temperature, uncovered. When cool, cover and refrigerate until ready to reheat and pour over the salmon when it is baked.

When mandarin oranges are not in season, or if you prefer navel oranges, the latter can be used in place of mandarin oranges and juice. If desired, toasted almond slices could also replace the pistachios in this recipe.

Mixed Vegetable Rice Pilaf

This rice dish contains a mix of five vegetables. Some, such as the garlic and onion, are used more for flavouring.

Others, such as the carrot, red bell pepper and green peas, also add flavour but are included more for their attractive colour.

Pilafs first bubbled to life in the Middle East, where they are typically made with rice or bulgur. To coat them so they separate easily once cooked, the grains are always cooked in butter or oil before any liquids are added.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Makes: eight servings

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

1/2 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cups long-grain white rice

1 large garlic clove, minced

1/2 tsp dried oregano or thyme

3 1/4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 small red bell pepper, finely diced

2/3 cup grated carrot

• salt and white pepper to taste

2/3 cup frozen peas, thawed

Heat the oil in a medium-sized pot set over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until tender, about three minutes. Mix in the rice, garlic and oregano and cook for two minutes more.

Mix in the stock, red pepper, carrot and salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to its lowest setting and cook, undisturbed, for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the rice is tender.

Fluff the rice with a fork, mix in the peas, heat them through for a minute or so, and then serve.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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