Seared Fennel Salmon with Pasilla-Spiced Pumpkin Basmati

So I have somehow gotten myself involved in a cooking challenge. Food blogger and med school student Joanne from “Eats Well With Others” was hosting a little recipe-making competition sponsored by Marx Foods, and in a stroke of wild abandon I entered my name as a potential participant. I’ve never done this before, and I was scared crapless. Yes, I can cook a delicious meal. Yes, I’ve fine-tuned recipes and even created many from scratch. But am I the wildly inventive person who in a stroke of genius adds an entirely unexpected ingredient such as caviar mousse or onion confit to a bread dough, resulting in the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten?

Well . . . no. And then I got an email saying I had been selected. I took a deep breath. I took another deep breath. I got up, reheated my coffee, sat down again. I had visions of some kind of historical culinary disaster going down in my kitchen. Then I had visions of a gigantic personal culinary success. Then the disaster. Then the suceess. The two visions arm-wrestled each other for a while, until I was like “Enough you two! Just take it down a notch! I am going to make the best friggin, gosh darn, friggin fantastic thing I can, and whether I win or lose I will at least make something friggin delicious for dinner that my husband and I will friggin devour like wild hyenas!” And then I shouted out an extra ‘friggin’ just for good measure.

Now I could just jump into the recipe–but this is a blog! And that means you get to hear every single one of my thoughts (evil cackle). Hey! Get away from that scroll button!

The challenge was to create a recipe with the following conditions:

1. One of the main ingredients must be orange winter squash (any variety–acorn, pumpkin, butternut . . .). Apparently, Joanne’s goal this season is to eat enough squash to turn herself orange. This is our way of helping her achieve that goal.

2. You must use two of the eight ingredients mailed to you in a box by Marx Foods.

3. The recipe must be original (i.e. of my own brilliant or horrific creation).

How hard can this be? I asked myself with a furrowed brown in the days leading up to the receipt of the box. I could go the Thai curry route . . . the Indian curry route . . . perfectly seared salmon on a bed of rice and squash . . . I could do a risotto, or a salad with roasted pumpkin, avocado, pine nuts and other delights . . . I could do some kind of complicated gnocchi or ravioli . . . or even some kind of one-dish breakfast bake in my iron skillet. Or a quiche! Tacos! A spicy Pozole-inspired stew with a mole-style drizzle!

There was a frenzy in my brain. How would I ever decide what to make??

And then I realized how to simplify it. The question came down to: what did I want to eat? Which imaginary dish did I want to dig my fork into? If I were at a restaurant, which of these dishes would I order hands down?

The answer was clear: a piece of perfectly cooked salmon on a pile of rice. Oh, and a delicious rich Thai curry. So there were two answers. And they were both equally clear.

Yes, I decided to make both of my recipe ideas and simply submit the one I liked best. So my friends, without further ado, let’s get this show on the road. Let’s make that salmon, which is my official submission. The ‘freebie’ curry recipe, also delicious, will be posted later this week . . . or next week. We’ll see how cozy I feel like getting with Photoshop in the days to come.

I’m using sugar pie pumpkin, and the two ‘mystery’ ingredients I chose from the box are dried pasilla negro chilies and fennel pollen. I know the recipe name is long and complicated–but the actual instructions couldn’t be easier. It’s basically a piece of fish with a rub that sits on a pile of rice (rice-cooking method courtesy of Pastor Ryan) with some goodies tossed in. Do not fear the process.


(Serves 4)

For the rice:

2 c basmati rice

4 c water

2 TBS butter

1 tsp ground pasilla negro chili

1 TBS turmeric

1 tsp salt

1 c frozen peas

Cilantro (optional garnish)

For the pumpkin

4 cups sugar pie pumpkin cubes (from 1 medium sized pumpkin)

2 TBS butter

2 tsp dried ground pasilla negro chili

2 tsp brown sugar

1/2 tsp cumin

1/4 tsp ground black pepper

salt to taste

For the fish:

4 salmon fillets, skinned (about 0.3 lbs each)

3 TBS olive oil

2 tsp fennel pollen

salt (generous amount)

black pepper

Before anything else, grab a large pasilla negro chili:

Grind it up in a spice mill or coffee grinder.

I used our coffee grinder on the ‘espresso’ setting and got a lovely, finely ground pile.

Should I taste it?


I’m a huge proponent of tasting your ingredients–you’ll get a much better sense of how to combine different things if you take a chomp, or in this case, a lick.

If you’ve never had pasilla negro chili, you’re in for a treat. It has a spicy, raisin-like, almost chocolaty flavor that is very unique. And it’s not fiery hot either, so don’t worry about incinerating your tastebuds.

Now the salmon cooks pretty quickly, so I like to get the rice squared away first. Grab your rice cooker: dump in the basmati rice, water, butter, turmeric, ground pasilla negro chili, and 1 tsp salt.

Press ‘cook’! That was easy. Unless you don’t have a rice cooker. Then you’ll have to fend for yourself and make it in a pot on the stove, like a real man.

Your #1 mission is now to halve that sugar pumpkin. This is without a doubt the most difficult and dangerous part of the recipe. I was very afraid I would stab my own hand, or possibly lop my head off.

It looked so friendly, and innocent, and orange, and small . . .

But it proved to be a worthy and tough opponent.

I swung it around the kitchen a few times just for good measure.

Just kidding! Please don’t do that at home. You could really do some damage. Just keep working at it patiently and carefully. Once I got a cut made, I wedged my knife sharpener in the crack and forced the pieces apart.

Of course, a woodsman with an axe would have come in handy. But no woodsmen were patrolling my Chicago neighborhood that evening, so I battled it out. The triumph was sweet in my mouth.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt moved to pose with an ingredient before. I also seem to be looking particularly freckly. Hmmmm. Trick of the light, trick of the light.

Scrape out the seeds and innards. If you’re a motivated person you’ll save the seeds and roast them later for a delicious snack. I was lacking motivation that night and simply threw them away.

Now, microwave the halves for 4 minutes each. This will make the pieces much more tender and easy to cube.

Cut the pumpkin into small cubes and discard the rind.

You should have about 4 cups of cubes.

Heat 2 TBS butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Once the butter is fully melted and bubbling, add the pumpkin cubes, spices, and sugar.

If you cook the cubes for too long, you’ll end up with pumpkin mush instead, which is not what we’re going for here, so just fry them for 3-4 minutes, taste and adjust the seasoning.

Try not to eat all the pumpkin cubes at this time. I stopped after only 6, and I was quite proud of my self control.

Set aside the pumpkin cubes, and let’s get that salmon underway so that it’s done by the time the rice is ready.

Preheat the oven to 450, then heat an oven-proof pan (I used my trusty cast iron skillet) over high heat for 4 minutes. Rub both sides of the salmon fillets with olive oil and season the tops with salt, pepper, and the fennel pollen.

Go GENEROUS with the salt, and I’m talking generous. Once you think you’ve been generous, go ahead and salt it a little more. Use your fingers to spread the spice across the fillets evenly.

We’re keeping it simple here with the seasoning, and lemme tell ya–the flavors really shine through. When the pan is hot, place the fillets spiced-side down . . .

. . . and don’t touch them for at least 2 minutes.

Seriously! Get your mitts away from that pan! The underside should turn a gorgeous shade of brown. Now turn the pieces over gently (I recommend using a spatula).

Slap that pan into the oven and cook that fish for 5 to 7 minutes, then remove. Would you look at that perfect, beautiful sear? Would you look at that tender flesh? Oh my.

I should also drive home the fact that if you overcook your fish, doom and despair await–so make sure you take it out when it’s still tender!

Just in case you were curious, I cooked 2 salmon fillets and 2 steelhead fillets, which look very similar to the salmon. My fishmonger didn’t know what the difference was, and I needed to know. Answer: the salmon is 50 times more delicious, fatty, and luxuriant. The steelhead was more lean and stringy. The salmon was also twice the price. It presents a difficult dilemma in my life.

By now the rice is bound to be done, so simply stir in the frozen peas and pumpkin.

Serve the salmon on top! Garnish with some cilantro and if you want, lemon juice.

The balance of spices is perfection, folks. My husband even used the phrase “restaurant quality”–with no prompting from me!

There is nothing, and I repeat nothing, like a piece of perfectly cooked fish.

I’m sorry that I can’t seem to stop taking pictures of this salmon.

The pumpkin is feeling ignored and alone. Let’s give it a bite too. No one gets left out on this blog.

Oh joy. The orange stuff is divine.

Please send help fast.

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35 Responses to Seared Fennel Salmon with Pasilla-Spiced Pumpkin Basmati

  1. You daredevil you! I think you came up with something totally original and delicious–great job! And I, personally, think your freckles are cute.

  2. Kay Heritage says:

    Mmmm…beautiful, Jenna! And I love the reflection of you on the ss bowl! Too funny! Holding the knife in the pumpkin with your left hand and camera in your right hand, doing a balance act! :)

  3. Sherri says:

    Sounds sooooo good. Going to try it, for sure.

  4. That looks amazing! I could never do one of those challenges because I am just NOT that creative in the kitchen. You did awesome though. :)

  5. foongfest says:

    Wow Jenna, this looks fantastic. This just inspired me to create something.

  6. Susan says:

    Jenna, thanks for stopping by my blog, because now I have found YOU and I will be back. You have a beautiful display of your cooking procedure and the pictures are excellent.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks Susan! I have a lot of fun taking pictures of the process, because seeing step-by-steps on other blogs is usually what inspires me to make those dishes. I’m glad you’ll be back!

  7. Susan says:

    Restaurant quality is high praise, indeed! We love salmon and this looks like a wonderful and delicious preparation.

    Looking forward to our upcoming wedding in Chicago this weekend and seeing the preview of the Chagall exhibit at the Art Institute!

    • Jenna says:

      Oooh, I’ll have to make it over to that exhibit as well! We have a membership at the Art Institute but haven’t been for a few months. Now that the weather is getting colder, it will be an excellent way to spend a brisk afternoon.

  8. wow I want some of your pumpkin rice!!! Shall I trade carrot rolls for some of your rice? Simply irresistible!

  9. Yum! I love pasilla chiles!

    Thanks for the sweet comment on my site :)

  10. plamarie says:

    Great method for cutting the pumpkin. What beautiful rice!

  11. Pumpkin Basmati?! Brilliant! Good luck with the competition. With a recipe this good, you’ll certainly be in the running to win :) The pictures and step-by-step instructions were fantastic, too.

  12. Veronica says:

    I am so impressed! You totally rocked this competition. When do you find out the results? I hope you win! This meal sounds sooo amazing.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks Veronica! The deadline for the contest isn’t until this Wednesday, and I think there’s going to be a vote on after that . . . I’ll try and keep everyone posted. =)

  13. Andrea says:

    Jenna, you are amazingly talented! The Salmon dish looks so delicious and is very creative. I wish the best as you await the results!

    Many blessings,


  14. rebecca says:

    wow this recipe is first class, really great I added pumpkin to cous cous love your passion thanks so much for stopping by my blog, Rebecca

  15. Twinky Satterthwaite says:

    Great reflection in the door of the microwave, too! Sound totally yummy, although I don-t think i will try it while in Norwalk…. You always do amazing things with salmon. BTW, the pictures on the blue plate are amazing because of the color contrasts between complementaries blue and orange, and of course blue and yellow are always wonderful, much better than the white plate. As you plate your food and photograph it, do keep that in mind to make a picture go from good to FABULOUS! Which was yours and which was Adam’s?

    • Jenna says:

      Believe it or not, the pictures were on a black plate, but the reflections make it look blue. Go figure. =) The black plate was for the ‘nice pix’ and then I dumped the whole shebang in the white bowl at the end to eat. Eating out of bowl just feels more homey to me, what can I say.

  16. Liz in Cape Town says:

    Stunning stuff – looove your blogsite, which was sent to me by my brother in Tasmania – he gave the recipe a whirl – without the salmon (or fennel pollen … don’t know where either of us would get that ingredient) and the entire family demolished it in one fell swoop. Hope we can read results from the competition. (I’m just sorry I’m not in Tassie to get a tasting!)

    • Jenna says:

      Cool! I’ll keep everyone posted with regards to the competition–I don’t think voting opens until Monday November 1st, and I’m not sure how long that will go on. Thanks so much for the kind words! Especially the “demolished it in one fell swoop”–that’s a huge compliment.

  17. Pingback: Day 25 – Mushroom Miracle Grain | WTF Am I Vegan???

  18. brandi says:

    that looks incredible!

  19. Joanna says:

    That looks incredible. Nice job on the challenge! I had so much fun with this one and can’t wait to use up the rest of my ingredients!

  20. Lizziweb says:

    Will have to give this recipe a bash.

  21. Shannon says:

    ooh, great dish!!

  22. This is a good one. I love all your photos!

  23. Sandy says:

    Your salmon dish looks great. Hmm… coffee and pasilla chile? Sounds like a southwest dish! Good luck on the Marx Food challenge!

  24. YUM. Not only does this look amazing, but you are hilarious. I laughed (out loud) several times- especially at the idea of swinging around a large knife with a small squash stuck on it (mostly because I have TOTALLY been there before!). Now I need to go find me a good rice cooker and some fresh salmon.

  25. Summer says:

    Jenna, this is so good , ur fantastic and i jus voted for ya!

  26. flaming says:

    so nice, i will cook at home

  27. claire says:

    i just posted a link here as some of my fav fish recipes! thanks for sharing!

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