Cumin, paprika and a mango and tomato salsa give grilled salmon plenty of flavor with no spicy heat. Recipes below.
Okay, here’s something just about every cook occasionally faces. Guests’ food restrictions. One of our friends who joined us for Memorial Day dinner can’t eat spicy food; the other simply doesn’t. Now, I know as menu limitations go, this is pretty minimal. But I was in the mood to be cooking, serving and tasting the kinds of big flavors often accompanied by a spicy kick.
We happily cook and eat plenty of non-spicy meals here. We embrace subtle dishes—watercress vichyssoise, coq au Riesling, green tea shortbread cookies… But we’re equally big fans of powerful tastes that pack heat. So when thinking about what to make for our heat-averse guests, I challenged myself to bring the flavor without the fire. Turns out it was easy.
I started with the idea of grilled salmon. We love salmon and don’t cook it often enough, especially when it’s too chilly to open windows (as much as we like to eat salmon, we don’t care to smell it three days later). Then I thought about herbs and spices that offer the most taste bang for the buck without adding any heat. Fresh salsas are another good way to add flavor, and they don’t always require a spice kick.
Grilling the salmon gives it a nice smokiness (although you can also pan sear this dish—and that was my backup plan if the threatened thunderstorms appeared). Cumin’s bold taste is found pretty much around the world, playing starring roles in Indian, Asian, Latin and Middle Eastern cuisines. And for all its liveliness, it is heat-free. Sweet paprika (we favor Hungarian at our house) delivers the sweetness of peppers, also without the heat. And finely chopped cilantro adds its own fresh note.
The ingredient list will tell you how much the salsa brings to the party: mango, tomatoes, cilantro, chives and lime juice. My mouth just started watering as I typed this. Not kidding. And it’s beautiful spooned over and alongside the salmon fillets.
Not afraid of a little heat? It’s easy to spice things up with this dish. Just add a little chili powder or cayenne pepper to the spice mix for the salmon. Or add some cayenne pepper or a finely chopped jalapeño or Serrano pepper to the salsa.
Grilled Cumin Salmon with Mango Tomato Salsa
For the salmon:
4 salmon fillets, preferably with skin on, about 6 ounces each
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet paprika (not smoked paprika)
1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 generous tablespoon finely chopped cilantro leaves
For the salsa:
1 large, ripe mango, peeled, pitted and cubed (about 2 cups)
1 to 1-1/2 cups halved grape tomatoes (or quartered cherry tomatoes or chopped tomato)
3 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons snipped chives
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
special equipment: grilling tray (see recipe for substitute)
Prepare your grill for indirect grilling. About 1/2 hour before you’re ready to cook the salmon, take it from the fridge to let it come to room temperature. I did this when I started the coals.
Make the salsa. Combine the ingredients in a large bowl and set aside to let flavors to combine.
Just before the grill is ready, mix cumin, paprika and olive oil in a small bowl. Brush over the tops and sides of the salmon fillets. Season generously with salt and pepper. Sprinkle finely chopped cilantro over fillets and press gently to help it stick. If you have a metal grilling tray, lightly coat it with oil and arrange fillets on it with space between them. If you don’t, make a tray of two layers of aluminum foil large enough to hold the salmon, folding up the edges. It won’t support the weight of the salmon, so place it on a baking sheet; lightly oil the improvised tray and arrange the fillets on it.
Place the tray of salmon on the section of the grill not over the heat source. If you’re using the improvised tray, simply slide it from the baking sheet onto the grill and perforate it in several spots with the point of a knife to let the heat and smoke circulate. Cover the grill and cook for about 10 minutes. Check the temperature with an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a salmon fillet. Your goal is 125ºF. If it’s not quite there, cover the grill and cook for a few minutes longer and check again.
Transfer cooked salmon fillets to a platter or individual plates and serve immediately, passing the salsa at the table.