One of the highlights of birthday dinners as a child was that we were allowed to pick the menu for our birthday dinner. Dessert was always a birthday cake from the classic Australian Women's Weekly birthday cakes book. I would pore over the book for at least a month in advance, agonising over which cake to choose. Between myself and my two sisters, we managed to get through most of the cakes in the book. My favourites included the piano, with keys made of white chocolate and licorice, and the sweet shop, with dinky little pans filled with jewel-like boiled lollies.
My birthday entree was always prawn cocktail. Mum used her special 1970s glass cups for the occasion. A generous mound of juicy pink prawns perched atop a lining of pale-green iceberg lettuce leaves. The crowning glory of the dish, which lifted it from pedestrian to special was the seafood sauce, a spicy mix of mustard powder, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce.
Seafood has always been one of my favourite foods but usually eaten only on special occasions because of the expense and difficulty of getting fresh seafood when I was growing up in rural Victoria. A highlight of our family holidays in Queensland was the bounteous offerings of seafood at restaurants, from plates of plump oysters to large piles of king prawns or mounds of juicy Moreton Bay bugs.
Now that I live in Melbourne, fresh fish and seafood is more readily available, and more reasonably priced, than it was when I was growing up. When I shop at the Queen Victoria Market, it's always so difficult to choose because of the huge displays on offer. Recipes flash through my mind as I contemplate thick fillets of flake, rockling and blue grenadier, glistening slabs of salmon, fat sashimi-grade tuna steak, green prawns or a special marinara mix that I love to fry up with garlic and mix with chopped mint, basil, parsley, capers, tomatoes and a hint of chilli and serve with spaghetti.
I've recently discovered the delights of Conway, a fresh fish shop in Footscray that is a 10-minute drive from my house (and more accessible at the moment for me, as I have not yet had the courage to tackle the Queen Victoria Market with my nine-month-old son, pram and trolley!) Everything in the shop looks enticing but on my last visit I was particularly taken by the gleaming orange salmon fillets.
When I told Adam that dinner was salmon, he groaned and said "I don't like salmon." I was surprised at this display of fussiness, as we both have fairly robust and healthy appetites, so I persuaded him that he should try it before he dismissed it outright. I mention that I'm trying a new recipe from my Christmas present of Bill Granger's latest cookbook, Every Day and that seems to satisfy him that he should give it a go. I love Bill's cooking, as it's easy and always full of fresh, local ingredients to be turned into delicious dishes with a minimum of fuss.
The recipe I try is "caramel salmon" and is Bill's version of a traditional Vietnamese caramel dish. It is extremely easy to make: the salmon is seared and then coated with a rich, syrupy sauce of brown sugar, soy sauce and fish sauce. Bill tags this recipe as "almost-no-cook dinner for friends", which is an accurate description of a simple but impressive dish that would have your friends putting you in the "superwoman" camp if you were to serve this up to them on a weeknight.
Caramel salmon is an absolute hit with Adam, who immediately demands that I cook it again tomorrow night. "It doesn't taste like salmon I've had before. This one is more flavoursome than fishy," he explains. A happy diner makes for a happy chef and therefore a happy household!
This recipe makes enough for four people; you can successfully halve the ingredients without the final result suffering.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
800g (1 pound, 12 ounces) salmon fillets, with skin, cut into large cubes
1 red onion, sliced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
115g (4 ounces) soft brown sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon lime juice
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over high heat. Add the salmon (you may have to do this in two batches) and cook for two minutes until lightly browned. Turn over and cook for a further minute before removing from the pan.
Reduce the heat to medium and add a little extra oil if needed. Add onion and garlic and cook for three minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in soy sauce, sugar and fish sauce. Return the salmon to the pan and cook for one minute until the sauce is rich, dark and syrupy. Sprinkle liberally with black pepper and stir through lime juice.
Stir with steamed rice, with a little sauce drizzled over the top, and with lime wedges on the side.
From "Every Day Cooking" by Bill Granger