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A crispy rice and fish salad with herbs is a modern way to mark Nowruz

March 21, 2023 at 10:00 p.m.
A crispy rice and fish salad with herbs is a modern way to mark Nowruz. (Photo for The Washington Post by Rey Lopez)

Every spring, Iranians and those of Iranian descent - like me - gather in celebration of the Persian New Year, Nowruz. It's an ancient festival with roots in Zoroastrianism, one of the world's first monotheistic religions, believed to have originated in Persia some 2,500 years ago. Of course, modern Iran is under (corrupt, abusive, sexist, fundamentalist) Islamic rule, so this Zoroastrian holiday is today more of a cultural festival that, at least in my mind, revolves around food and feasting.

Tender green herbs, beans, fish, rice, eggs and sweets feature heavily on the Nowruz table. As I've written before, ash reshteh, a soup thick with herbs and beans, is traditionally served on the eve of Nowruz, as is fish, a symbol of life. There might also be kashk-o bademjan, a rich eggplant dip, deep-green kuku sabzi, herbed rice, crunchy tahdig and baklava. This year, I wanted to create a new recipe for Nowruz, one that honors tradition but doesn't take hours to make. This salad, full of crispy rice, meaty salmon and greens, dressed with a saffron-honey dressing, fits the bill.

You'll start by crisping the skin of 2 or 3 salmon fillets. I like to lightly season the salmon and then place it skin side down in a cold, nonstick pan. Turn the heat to medium-high, and let the fish heat gradually. This helps prevent it from buckling as it crisps and browns. Once that's done - the salmon won't be cooked through just yet - use tongs to transfer it to a plate, leaving any residual oil from the fish in the pan.

Add a little olive oil to the pan, along with some leftover rice. Use a silicone spatula to press the rice into an even layer that covers the bottom of the pan, letting it mix with the oil as you go. Place the partially cooked salmon skin-side up on top of the rice layer and let the whole thing cook for about 15 minutes. The rice will start to turn golden, and the fish will finish cooking in the steam rising off the pan. (If you like your salmon medium-rare or medium, pull it off the rice after 5 to 10 minutes.)

While that's happening, make the dressing: Put a pinch of saffron in a small bowl and add a tablespoon of boiling water - this will "bloom" the saffron, awakening its fragrance and flavors. Whisk in a little vinegar and honey, followed by a thin stream of olive oil to form a vinaigrette. Season it to taste with salt and pepper.

When the salmon and rice are ready, break them into big hunks and layer them on a platter with lots of greens and thinly sliced radishes. Drizzle the dressing over everything, and garnish the salad with plenty of fresh herbs. It wouldn't be a meal fit for Nowruz without them.

Crispy Rice Salad With Salmon and Saffron-Honey Vinaigrette

Total time: 25 minutes

2 to 3 servings (makes about 6 cups)

- Refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 days.

- In place of salmon try this with mahi-mahi or arctic char. To make this vegetarian, use crispy chickpeas or cooked white beans in place of the fish.

- I prefer crispy rice when it's made with basmati but you can use any kind of cooked rice, including brown.

- Saffron is really nice in this, but it's pricey. Skip it if you'd like, or use a pinch of turmeric in its place.

- Instead of radishes feel free to make this with sliced cucumbers, steamed and quartered artichoke hearts, or steamed peas.

2 or 3 center-cut, skin-on salmon fillets (1 pound total), patted dry

Fine salt

Freshly cracked black pepper

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 cups cooked white rice (day-old is preferable)

Pinch saffron threads

1 tablespoon boiling water

1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

2 cups (2 ounces) leafy greens, such as Little Gem lettuce or spring mix

4 small radishes, thinly sliced

Fresh dill, parsley or chive sprigs, for garnish (optional)

Lightly season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper and place them skin side down in a 12-inch nonstick skillet. Set the skillet over medium-high heat. (There's no need to preheat the pan; heating the salmon gradually will help the skin crisp without buckling.) Cook, uncovered, until the skin is browned and crisp, about 6 minutes.

Decrease the heat to medium and transfer the salmon to a plate. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil to the same skillet, followed by the rice. Use a silicone spatula to spread and press the rice into an even layer along the bottom of the pan. Place the salmon skin side up atop the rice and cook, uncovered, until the rice is golden brown, 15 minutes. (The salmon will cook as the rice crisps; remove it after 10 minutes if you like your salmon medium, otherwise it will be medium-well done after 15 minutes.)

Make the dressing: Meanwhile, in a small bowl, crush the saffron threads between your fingers. Add the boiling water and let steep for 1 minute. Whisk in the vinegar and honey and pour in 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil in a thin stream, whisking constantly to form an emulsion. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve, using your hands, break the salmon and rice into large chunks and layer them on a platter with the greens and radishes. Pour the dressing evenly over the top, garnish with fresh herb sprigs, if desired, and serve family-style.

Nutritional information per serving, based on 3. Calories: 513; Total Fat: 25 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Cholesterol: 70 mg; Sodium: 221 mg; Carbohydrates: 36 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 6 g; Protein: 34 g.

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian's or nutritionist's advice.

photo The rice will start to turn golden. (Photo for The Washington Post by Rey Lopez)

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