My name is Laurie and I’m an ingredient junkie.
I’m hopelessly attracted to unusual food items. Some people like to shop for shoes, others for jewelry, and others for tools. For me, the only shopping I truly enjoy is for ingredients.
When we go on vacation, visiting local grocery stores is always one of the highlights. I wander the aisles, my eyes scanning the shelves, and my heart skipping a beat when I find interesting regional specialties.
After a trip to Nashville, I came home with White Lily soft wheat flour. In Victoria B.C., locally made blackberry port took pride of place in my luggage. On our last trip to Italy, truffle cheese and Castelluccio lentils from Norcia in Umbria were my favorite purchases.
My family feeds this addiction on birthdays and holidays. Aged balsamic, specialty salts, salumi, and imported cheeses are some of the presents that helped expand my gastronomic horizons.
My sister-in-law recently sent a bottle of Italian saba. It was labeled as “saba dressing” and “condimento alimentare balsamico agrodolce.” I understood this to mean the bottle contained some kind of sweet and sour dressing, but exactly what it was, I had no idea. It was the perfect present: an ingredient I’d never heard of and had no idea how to use.
When I shook the packaging, I was relieved to find a multilingual descriptive pamphlet, with recipes. I learned saba is grape must syrup and, according to the manufacturer, was popular with early Greeks and Romans. Aha. My mind clicked into gear. Saba is the Italian equivalent of petimezi, Greek grape must syrup and a specialty of the island where we have a home.
I took out a jar of petimezi and tasted it side by side with saba. Both have the consistency of light maple syrup, and both are made exclusively with grape must. Their flavors differ slightly: saba is a little sweeter than island petimezi, which is sweet, but with a welcome hint of subtle bitterness.
On the island, petimezi is traditionally served with homemade noodles or used to make cookies, cakes, puddings, and preserves. Sometimes it is eaten with yogurt in lieu of honey. All these dishes highlight petimezi’s sweetness.
The pamphlet recommended using saba with onions, beans, meat, or vegetables, in addition to sweets. My mind started racing with possibilities for using petimezi in savory foods. I’ll investigate this intriguing concept when next we’re on the island to find out whether there are any traditional savory uses of petimezi.
In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with saba and petimezi; the two ingredients are interchangeable. One of my most successful experiments was adding must syrup to braised lentils, a dish I like serving with salmon. The syrup’s sweet and tart flavors provide a lovely contrast to oil-rich salmon.
Thyme-Braised Lentils with Petimezi and Pan-Fried Salmon (Φακές με Πετιμέζι και Σολομός στο Tηγάνι)
For the vast majority of people who don’t have grape must syrup in their pantries, thyme or other strong-flavored honey can be successfully substituted. The recipe calls for salmon fillets, which I prefer serving when entertaining. But my favorite bits of salmon, shown in the photograph, are the trimmings left after filleting a whole salmon. The flesh close to the bone is full of flavor and, because the small pieces cook quickly, remains moist and juicy. For anyone with access to whole fish, this is a wonderful way to use up parts of the fish that are too often thrown in the garbage. If you have leftover lentils, add vegetable or chicken stock to make a wonderfully flavorful soup.
12 ounce salmon fillet
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 cup lentils, preferably beluga or Puy
1 cup diced shallots, 1/4” dice
1/2 cup diced carrots, 1/4” dice
1/2 cup diced celery, 1/4” dice
3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
3 Tbsp. minced thyme
1 cup dry red wine
1 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 Tbsp. petimezi or saba, or 2 tsp. thyme honey
1/4 cup minced parsley
Wash the salmon and dry it well. Using needle-nosed pliers, remove as many pin-bones from the fillet as possible. Skin the fish, if necessary, and cut it into 4 even pieces. Lightly season the salmon on both sides with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Stir in the lentils and cook for 15 – 20 minutes, or just until the lentils soften, but are not cooked all the way through. Drain and reserve.
Sauté the shallots, carrots, and celery, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, in 2 Tbsp. olive oil until the shallots soften and begin to turn golden. Stir in the thyme and red wine and cook, stirring, until the wine is almost absorbed. Stir in the stock and petimezi, saba, or honey, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 20 – 30 minutes, or until the lentils are tender, but not mushy.
Heat the remaining 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a pan until it is hot, but not smoking. Turn the heat to medium high, and add the salmon. Cook for 3 – 5 minutes, or until the pan side of the salmon is lightly browned. Turn over and cook for 1 - 3 minutes, or until the salmon is done to your taste. The exact length of cooking time depends on the thickness of the fillet; keep in mind that salmon tastes better slightly underdone than it does when it's overdone. (If you’re using salmon trimmings, the fish cooks in 2 minutes total.)
To serve, put some lentils on a plate, top with the salmon, and sprinkle with minced parsley. Dried black olives and crusty bread are terrific accompaniments.
This is my entry for Heart of the Matter #13 Party Food, a collection of heart-healthy recipes, organized by Joanna of Joanna's Food, Michelle of The Accidental Scientist, and Ilva of Lucullian Delights.