Salmon, spinach and cream cheese bake

I like to play a kind of “six degrees of separation” or association game with cooking ingredients, linking different ingredients through a chain of flavour pairings that seem to naturally go together e.g. lemon to ginger to pork to hoisin sauce etc.  You don’t have to get six in a chain, just think of the first thing that pops into your head when you say an ingredient, then do the same for that ingredient (picking something different to the first one).  Sometimes the flavours at either end of the chain do not work together but other times you connect things in one dish you wouldn’t have necessarily put together off the top of your head.  For this recipe I really started in the middle of the chain: I have just discovered vegan creamy cheese (I use VioLife creamy but I’m not here to promote particular products so I’m sure any other brand will do a similar job, as will non-vegan cheeses) and really love its melty creamy texture when you heat it so was trying to think of as many ways to cook with creamy cheeses as I could.  Smoked salmon cream cheese bagels are a staple in my mums family so of course the first thing I thought of was salmon, but then I also thought of ricotta and spinach cannelloni and spinach made me think of Florentine pizza.  I put these together and came up with a salmon, spinach and cream cheese bake, with layers of tomato sauce inspired by the pizza.  The cream cheese melts beautifully into the spinach to give a gorgeously gooey texture, layered with soft flakes of salmon and richly umami tomato sauce.

Salmon, spinach and cream cheese bake

Cooking time: 15 minutes preparation, 15 minutes baking

Dietary info: dairy-free (if you use vegan cheese), gluten-free (if you serve without bread or with a gluten-free bread), vegan option available in “twists”

Serves: 2 (easily doubled or bulked out – see “twists”)

  • 2 salmon fillets
  • 350g chopped frozen spinach.  You can use fresh spinach if you prefer if you are prepared to chop if very finely
  • 50g vegan cream cheese cut into thin slices,  or if you don’t want to make a dairy-free version you can use normal cream cheese or mozzarella for a more gooey texture (which is really nice)
  • Lemon juice, salad/vegetables and crusty bread to serve (optional)

Tomato sauce

  • 300ml passata
  • 1 tsp dill seeds
  • 1 tsp mild chilli powder
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • Juice of ½ a lemon
  • ½ a fish stock cube, crumbled
  1. Put the salmon fillets in an ovenproof dish and bake at 160C for 10 minutes until cooked through (they should flake easily and be opaque all the way through).  Flake the cooked fillets with a fork. I remove the skin, but if you like the skin you can keep it on, or crisp it up under the grill and then chop it up and include with the rest of the salmon.
  2. Combine all the ingredients for the tomato sauce and heat for 2-3 minutes in a saucepan or the microwave until the stock cube has fully dissolved and the sauce has come to the boil.
  3. Steam the spinach for 6-8 minutes until cooked and hot all the way through.
  4. Put a third of the spinach into an ovenproof dish and spread it in a thin layer. Sprinkle over a third of the salmon flakes, drizzle with 2-3 tbsp of the tomato sauce and top with a third of the thinly sliced cheese (or spread a thin layer of cream cheese on top if it is too runny to slice easily).
  5. Repeat the layering process two more times.
  6. Bake at 160C for 15 minutes until the cheese is melted and the bake is hot all the way through.  Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice, steamed vegetables or salad and crusty bread if you want.

A few tips to prep ahead:

  • Make the tomato sauce and keep in a sealed container in the fridge for up to a week.
  • The salmon can be cooked ahead of time, or you can buy ready cooked and flaked salmon if you want to save time.
  • The whole bake can be assembled in the ovenproof dish and kept, covered in the fridge for 1-2 days (depending on how fresh the salmon is – check its use by date), then you just need to bake it on the night.  As you don’t want to keep fish too long so this makes a good Monday night dinner.

Some tasty little twists…

  • To make a vegan version, replace the salmon with chickpeas, butter beans or cannellini beans and replace the fish stock cube with a vegetable stock cube.  If you can get hold of some seaweed flakes then you can sprinkle them over the beans to give it a more savoury, fish taste.
  • To stay true to the smoked salmon bagel origin, replace the crusty bread with toasted bagels.
  • To make the bake more filling, cook 100g dried (or 200-250g fresh) pasta shapes according to the packet instructions, mix with enough tomato sauce to coat and put in the bake instead of the tomato sauce layer.  You could also use cooked quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, butter beans or cannellini beans instead of the pasta.
  • Replace the salmon fillet with other fish, such as mackerel, trout or smoked haddock.  You could also replace it with smoked salmon to make get a kind of lasagna layering effect, with the smoked salmon acting as a (far more expensive!) pasta.
  • Turn this into a pizza (a nod to the Florentine pizza inspiration) by spreading the tomato sauce on a pizza base, pitta bread or tortilla, topping with a layer of spinach, then salmon flakes, a drizzle more tomato sauce finally the cheese and baking for 15 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and going slightly golden.

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