Although Piece of Salmon, Lemon and three Vessels is Meléndez’s best-known painting, I initially skipped over the small canvas when selecting the work for this post. The brown area within the oily flesh of the fish was a bother – it does not look particularly appetising which is an issue when it is intended to inspire a recipe. The image was fixed in my thoughts and I kept returning to the painting, even if I was slightly repulsed. My solution was to first not buy a rotting piece of fish, and second, cover the top of the fillet with a crust so that, if there happened to be an unsightly bit, it would be carefully concealed and hidden from view. The crust also enabled the creation of both visual and edible texture – a facet important to Meléndez’s art. The mustard crust appears rough against the smooth coral flesh and provides a bit of crunch among the flakes of fish. I portioned the recipe out for an indulgent dinner for one – the mustard sauce could easily cover two salmon fillets for a less pushy flavour.

Luis Meléndez, Piece of Salmon, Lemon and three Vessels, 1772
oil on canvas, 42 x 62 cm, Museo del Prado

Luis Meléndez is known for a series of still life paintings that were painted during a twenty year period at the end of his life. Piece of Salmon, Lemon and three Vessels was completed in the later half of this twenty year span and exemplifies his attention to detail derived from an early career as a miniaturist. The composition is dramatically lit, emphasised by the long shadow behind the lone lemon. The edge of the table is tilted to the right giving the impression that the lemon and the bowl are rolling along the surface. As is typical with Meléndez’s work, particular consideration is given to the texture of objects – each nick in the table and dent in the bowl is meticulously recorded. The series was commissioned by Charles III, Prince of Asturias for the New Cabinet of Natural History in the Royal Palace and was described by Meléndez as “an amusing cabinet with all types of foodstuffs that the Spanish climate produces”.

{Baked Salmon with a Dijon-Tarragon Crust}

Delicious when paired with a dry white wine or a light beer.

Yield: 1 serving

1 tablespoon dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 salmon fillet 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
wedge of lemon

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a small bowl, combine the mustard, chopped tarragon and lemon zest. Mix well. Pat the salmon fillet dry with paper towel and sprinkle salt on the skin side. Pat the skin with oil and lay skin side down in a hot frying pan or griddle for 1 minute.

Remove the salmon from the heat and place on a baking tray, skin side down. Smear the mustard mixture over the top of the fillet and place in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.

Once the internal temperature of the salmon reaches 120 degrees F, remove it from the oven and serve immediately with a fresh squeeze of lemon juice.