Tandoori-spiced grilled salmon

A spice rub of cumin, coriander, paprika, turmeric and cayenne teams with fresh ginger and garlic to create an aromatic marinade.

Blue Kitchen
Turmeric, a spice used in almost all curries, adds an intense yellow-orange color to this rub used on grilled salmon.

For no good reason I can think of, I often consider grilling a peculiarly American cooking method. It is, of course, not. The basic technique was pretty much born when early man learned to build a fire, and just about every culture has embraced it and created its own spin on it.

But perhaps no other culture has embraced grilling quite like we have. From May through Octoberish, just about every holiday, event or family gathering practically demands outdoor cooking. And so it was this past Memorial Day, in spite of horrendous heat and dire threats of major storms, I planned to fire up the grill for the first time of the season. 

Something that truly is peculiarly American (and not just imagined as such by me) is our cheerful willingness to borrow from other cultures, particularly in the kitchen. Search the pantry of any home cook worth his or her salt (kosher, sea salt, fleur de sel…) and you’ll find ingredients that would be at home in kitchens in Italy, Mexico, China, France, Japan, India….

Which segues nicely into this recipe. Strictly speaking, a tandoor is a clay oven used for cooking and baking, usually with wood or charcoal in the oven itself. It is particularly popular in India and Pakistan, where meats are marinated in yogurt seasoned with an array of fragrant (and often fiery) spices.

In the West, tandoori has come to mean a blend of spices creating a certain flavor. The most common mix for tandoori spice rubs generally includes cumin, paprika, turmeric, coriander and cayenne pepper. Powdered ginger is often used too, as is garlic powder. I left them out of my version, adding fresh ginger and garlic to the marinade instead.

Turmeric, a spice used in almost all curries, adds an intense yellow-orange color to the rub, to foods you cook with it and to mixing bowls as you prepare them. It is also intensely flavored and can take over dishes, so I used a modest amount for my spice rub.

I used indirect grilling to cook the salmon, giving it a nice, smoky flavor, but no charring. The spice rub provided plenty of appealing color for the finished fillets.

Tandoori-spiced Grilled Salmon
 Serves 4

For the tandoori spice rub (makes about 6 tablespoons):
 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
 1 tablespoon cumin
 1 tablespoon coriander
 1-1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
 1 teaspoon turmeric
 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the salmon:
 4 6-ounce salmon fillets, preferably with skin on
 3 tablespoons tandoori spice rub (reserve the rest for next week’s recipe)
 3 tablespoons olive oil
 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
 2 cloves garlic, minced

Prepare the spice rub. Combine the ingredients in a small bowl and stir until thoroughly mixed. A quick note – if you have whole cumin seeds and coriander seeds, so much the better. Toast them in a dry skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, stirring frequently, cool them and grind them in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. The flavor will be phenomenal.

Marinate the salmon. Pat the salmon fillets dry with a paper towel and arrange them in a glass baking dish in a single layer. Mix the spice rub, olive oil, ginger and garlic in a small bowl. Spoon, brush and/or rub the mixture on the tops and sides of the fillets. Cover the baking dish with plastic wrap and marinate the salmon for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours in the fridge.

Grill the salmon. About 1/2 hour before you’re ready to grill, remove the salmon from the fridge to let it come to room temperature. I did this when I lit the charcoal, using a charcoal chimney. Prepare your grill for indirect grilling; with a charcoal grill, I arrange the coals on one side of the grill. Make a tray of two layers of aluminum foil to hold the salmon (it won’t begin to support the weight, but that’s not its job). Just before cooking, season the fillets with salt.

When the coals are hot, place the foil tray over the section of the grill without the coals. Pierce it in numerous places with a knife tip to allow smoke to circulate through it. Brush the foil tray with olive oil. Transfer the fillets to the tray, brushing the skin sides with oil as you do. Using tongs, slide the tray of salmon fillets over the coals and cover the grill with the lid (all vents top and bottom should be open). Grill for 2 to 3 minutes, then slide foil tray off the coals, cover the grill and cook for another 10 to 12 minutes, until an instant read thermometer registers 125 degrees F. (for medium rare) to 135 degrees F. (for medium).

Using a spatula and tongs, transfer fillets to a platter and serve.

Related post on Blue Kitchen: Salmon with Arugula Bacon Salad

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