Salmon with Spinach Pancetta, Cream Sauce & Butternut Squash

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Can you feel that?  The sense of anticipation in the air?  The overwhelming feeling of expectancy with a slightly foreboding edge?  This can only mean one thing.  Valentine’s Day.  Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays, much like New Year’s, where you feel as if you should be doing something over-the-top.  Your celebration must be of epic proportions, mapping out an evening that is beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, plans fitting of a movie plot – the very same movies, in fact, that drove our expectations off the cliff into a sea of missed-realities.

Let’s shake Valentine’s day of it’s trappings and misgivings and whittle it down to what it is really all about: showing someone special how much you care for them.  I can think of no better way to do this than through cooking.  And while there are an abundance of decadent, delicious restaurant options available for the picking, how about spending an intimate evening at home, chatting over wine and cheese and piecing together a meal worthy of a restaurant’s menu but still simple enough to be of your own, loving creation.

This meal has several parts, adding an impressive air of complication (it’s not at all!) to a dish with varying textures, flavors and elements.  It exceeded all of my expectations upon first attempt, and continued to spoil us more and more with each bite.  This Valentine’s Day, forgo the pressures of society and wrap yourself in the embrace of your own home.  Set out a sampling of cheese and toast the evening with champagne.  Enjoy conversation and connection as you tuck into the silky smooth and lightly sweet butternut squash.  Wilted barely-bitter spinach with a hint of lime are happily tossed with crispy, salty pancetta.  Both elements make a beautiful bed for the simply-seared salmon, bathed in a spicy cream sauce.  It is a sexy, sumptuous dinner and it is your recipe for the perfect Valentine’s Day.

As I mentioned in the opening, there are several working parts to this dish.  Your life will be made much easier if you assemble all of the ingredients ahead of time, setting out each pan (you will need three) and placing the ingredients adjacent to each pan accordingly.  Go ahead and make sure to dice the butternut squash and pancetta before you dive in as well.  Peel, seed and chop the butternut squash into one inch cubes.  You will need three cups of cubed squash for two servings of purée.  Place the squash in a pot and cover half way with water.  Add one quarter tsp kosher salt, bring to a boil and cover, allowing to cook until fork-tender, approximately 12 minutes.

As the squash is boiling, turn to the pancetta.  Place your smallest frying pan over medium heat.  Add one tsp olive oil and allow to heat through.  You will need one half cup of finely diced pancetta (bacon will work as well).  Cook the pancetta through, rendering the fat, for five to seven minutes.  Remove the pancetta to a plate lined with a paper-towel to drain, reserving the fat in the same pan.

Return the pan to the stove and warm the fat from the pancetta over medium-low heat.  We will be using this fat to flavor our cream sauce, a simple reduction of heavy whipping cream with garlic and cayenne for added depth and that beloved kick to the palate!  Add one half cup cream to the pan along with one eighth teaspoon cayenne, a pinch of kosher salt and one garlic clove simply sliced in half (it will be steeping in the cream and discarded later).

Whisk the sauce rapidly, making sure that the oil from the pancetta and the cream blend together.  Allow the cream to come to a boil and then bring back down to a simmer over medium heat.  It will reduce and concentrate, becoming glossy and rich.  Keep an eye on this pan as you move to the other elements.

Your squash should be ready by now, tender enough to be pierced with a fork (the same way you would test a potato).  Discard any excess water and move the squash to a food processor.  If you do not own a food processor then a blender or potato masher will work perfectly fine.  To the squash, add one tbs good honey, one quarter tsp kosher salt, one tbs unsalted butter, one eighth tsp freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.  Blend until smooth and taste for seasoning.  Keep the lid on so the purée will stay warm as you finish off the meal.

Set the same pot you used to cook the squash back on the stove over medium low heat.  Add one tsp olive oil.  Measure four cups of fresh spinach and add them to the warm olive oil.

Toss lightly and sprinkle one quarter tsp salt and one eighth tsp freshly ground black pepper over the greens.  Squeeze the juice of one lime into the pan and mix the spinach to coat.  Allow the spinach to cook for five minutes, keeping the heat on medium low and mixing every minute or so to keep from burning.

As you are prepping the spinach, set a third sautée pan over medium high heat.  Add one tbs olive oil and warm until very hot but not smoking (you will see rings begin to form in the oil).  We’re giving this salmon a healthy sprinkle of salt and pepper and a simple sear.

Timing will vary depending on the thickness of your filet.  My salmon was very thin – about three quarters of an inch at the thickest point – and I prefer for the center to be medium, at the most.

I seared my filets for a total of four minutes, three minutes with the top side down and the final minute on the opposite side.  Adjust your timing accordingly but do try to keep the temperature high, creating a crispy crust while the center stays warm and tender.  As the salmon is finishing, toss the pancetta in with the wilted spinach.

It’s time to plate!  Now, as you can tell, the camera and I just weren’t getting along on this particular evening.  The lighting was horrible – which is nearly always the case at night – and my focus just wasn’t cooperating with me.  Please do not judge the tasty elegance of this dish by this awful, at best, photo.

The base is a generous serving of the butternut squash purée, topped with the wilted spinach, hints of lime and lovely bits of crispy pancetta circling through the leaves.  Topped off with our perfectly cooked crispy salmon, a luxurious and slightly spicy cream sauce brings every element together.  It is decadent, beautiful (despite what may appear in this photo!) and hits every point on the flavor wheel.  And the best part?  It tastes even better when enjoyed with someone you love.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

Serves Two

  • three cups butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into one-inch dice
  • one quarter tsp kosher salt
  • one tbs good honey
  • one quarter tsp kosher salt
  • one tbs unsalted butter
  • one eight tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • pinch nutmeg
  • one half cup finely diced pancetta
  • one tsp olive oil
  • one half cup heavy cream
  • one eighth tsp cayenne
  • pinch kosher salt
  • one garlic clove, sliced in half
  • one tsp olive oil
  • four cups fresh spinach
  • one quarter tsp kosher salt
  • one eighth tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • the juice of one lime
  • two salmon filets, six ounces each
  • one tbs olive oil
  • one quarter tsp kosher salt
  • one eighth tsp freshly ground black pepper

Place the squash in a pot and cover half way with water.  Add one quarter tsp kosher salt, bring to a boil and cover, allowing to cook until fork-tender, approximately 12 minutes.
As the squash is boiling, turn to the pancetta.  Place your smallest frying pan over medium heat.  Add one tsp olive oil and allow to heat through.  Add the pancetta and cook through, rendering the fat, for five to seven minutes.  Remove the pancetta to a plate lined with paper-towel to drain, reserving the fat in the same pan.
Return the pan to the stove and warm the pancetta fat over medium-low heat.  Add one half cup cream to the pan along with one eighth tsp cayenne, a pinch of kosher salt and one garlic clove simply sliced in half (it will be steeping in the cream and discarded later).  Whisk the sauce rapidly, making sure that the oil from the pancetta and the cream blend together.  Allow the cream to come to a boil and then bring back down to a simmer over medium heat.  It will reduce and concentrate, becoming glossy and rich.  Keep an eye on this pan as you move on to the other elements.
Your squash should be ready by now, tender enough to be pierced with a fork (the same way you would test a potato).  Discard any excess water and move the squash to a food processor.  If you do not own a food processor then a blender or potato masher will work perfectly fine.  To the squash, add one tbs good honey, one quarter tsp kosher salt, one tbs unsalted butter, one eighth tsp freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.  Blend until smooth and taste for seasoning.  Keep the lid on so the purée will stay warm as you finish off the meal.
Set the same pot you used to cook the squash back on the stove over medium low heat.  Add one tsp olive oil.  Measure four cups of fresh spinach and add them to the warm olive oil.  Toss lightly and sprinkle one quarter tsp salt and one eighth tsp freshly ground black pepper over the greens.  Squeeze the juice of one lime into the pan and mix the spinach to coat.  Allow the spinach to cook for five minutes, keeping the heat on medium low and mixing every minute or so to keep from burning.  Add the pancetta to the spinach mixture.
As you are prepping the spinach, set a third sautée pan over medium high heat.  Add one tbs olive oil and warm until very hot but not smoking (you will see rings begin to form in the oil).  Season the salmon filets with one quarter tsp kosher salt and one eighth tsp freshly ground black pepper.  Timing will vary depending on the thickness of your filet.  My salmon was very thin – about three quarters of an inch at the thickest point – and I prefer for the center to be medium, at the most.  I seared my filets for a total of four minutes, three minutes with the top side down and the final minute on the opposite side.  Adjust your timing accordingly but do try to keep the temperature high, creating a crispy crust while the center stays warm and tender.
As soon as the salmon has finished cooking begin to plate, starting with a layer of butternut squash purée as the base, topped with the spinach-pancetta mixture and then finished off with the salmon filet.  Discard the garlic clove from the cream sauce and give it a final whisk to make sure it is well blended.  Spoon the warm sauce over the salmon and serve immediately.

Lindsey McClave
Lindsey McClave has a deep love for food, wine and travel. While she has no intentions of becoming a chef or a sommelier and doesn't consider herself an expert in any culinary area, she is obsessed with learning.

She says, "the one thing I've taken away from my wine travels is that wine is meant for everyone - rich, poor, and everywhere in-between.” Whatever cooking becomes to you, she encourages you to find that foodie place, embrace it and run with it.
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