THIS ANCIENT COOKING method was imagined centuries ago and can be found in numerous cultures. Tightly wrapped in the fragrant fig leaf and encased within the clay, the salmon literally drinks up the seasoning, in this case the lemony sumac and piquant piment d’Espelette. As the heating vessel hardens, the fish cooks slowly and consistently, producing tender, luscious flesh.
Every year during fig season (usually between July and October), when Alaskan wild king salmon makes its way to our kitchen, we offer this wonderful preparation as a special. Several years ago, I was invited to cook for a birthday bash on Lake Tahoe, and I decided to bake a whole fish in a similar fashion. The combination of flavors was a hit!
Preheat the oven to 275°F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and set a bowl of ice water on the side. Trim and weigh 4 ounces of the fennel stalks with their leaves. Boil the stalks and leaves until very tender, about 3 minutes, and chill in the ice water. Strain and squeeze dry.
Cut the bulbs into thin slices and place in a medium saucepan. Add 1 cup of the cream with 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, or until the fennel is tender. Scoop the fennel with a slotted spoon into a blender; reserve the cream. Add the boiled fennel stalks and leaves and puree with enough of the hot cream to form a smooth, thick puree. Measure 2 cups into a bowl. Whisk in the remaining 1 cup cream, the eggs, fennel pollen, 1 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper until well combined.
Spread the butter on the inside of an 8½ × 4½-inch loaf pan and line with parchment paper on the bottom and sides. Pour in the mixture and wrap with plastic wrap; poke 3 small holes in the plastic wrap. Transfer the loaf pan to a roasting pan and fill the roasting pan with enough hot water to reach the level of the fennel mixture. Transfer to the oven and bake for 40 minutes, or until set. Cool at room temperature for 10 minutes, remove the pan from the water, then chill in the refrigerator. Run a knife around the inside edges of the pan and flip the royale onto a cutting board. Peel off the parchment paper and cut with a 1-inch-diameter ring mold into at least 12 cylinders or other desired shapes. Transfer to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet and reserve, chilled.
For the Salmon Wrapped in Clay
With a large knife, cut the clay in half. Place each piece on a flat surface between two 2-foot-long pieces of parchment or wax paper. Roll the clay between the papers to form ¼-inch-thick sheets. Set aside.
Season the salmon on both sides with the fennel pollen, sumac, piment d’Espelette, fleur de sel, and pepper.
Remove the paper from the surface of 1 clay sheet. Arrange the fig leaves on top, with their ribbed sides facing up, in a slightly overlapping layer large enough to wrap around the fish. Place the salmon in the center of the leaves and wrap the leaves around it to fully enclose. Lightly brush the edges of the clay with water.
Remove the paper from the surface of the second sheet of clay and flip it over onto the fish to cover. Peel off the remaining paper and press the clay around the fish to seal. Trim the edges to form a 1-inch border.
With a paring knife, score the clay around the perimeter of the salmon fillet to aid in lifting the top once baked. Decorate the surface of the clay as desired. Transfer to a foil-lined baking sheet and store, chilled.
For the Baby Fennel Salad and Confit
Pick the baby fennel fronds, wrap in wet paper towels, and reserve, chilled, for the salad. Trim the remaining stalks from the bulbs. Using a mandoline, shave 2 of the fennel bulbs lengthwise into ice water and set aside.
Slice the remaining fennel in half lengthwise; combine with the olive oil, fennel pollen, and salt in a small saucepan and warm to 185°F over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, or until the fennel is tender. Keep warm.
For the Red Wine and Fig Sauce
When ready to serve, in a small saucepan, bring the syrah reduction and heavy cream to a boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter a few pieces at a time until melted. Add the vinegar and figs and season with salt and pepper. Keep warm but do not simmer.
Preheat the oven to 390°F. Rest the salmon at room temperature for 30 minutes. Bake the salmon for 12 minutes, or until the center of the fillet reaches 120°F. Turn off the oven, remove the fish, and rest for 10 minutes. Place the fennel royale in the oven for 3 minutes, or until just heated through.
Brown the butter in a small sauté pan over low heat. Add the figs cut side down and cook undisturbed until caramelized, about 3 minutes. Add the vinegar, turn the figs over, season with salt and pepper, and swirl to coat.
Cut the clay along the scored line and lift off the top. Peel away the top layer of leaves from the fish and, with a sharp slicing knife, carve it into 6 portions.
For each serving, transfer a portion of salmon to a warm dinner plate and arrange 2 pieces of fennel royale, 2 pieces of confit fennel, 2 roasted fig halves, and a few pieces of shaved fennel and fennel fronds around the fish. Spoon the sauce around the salmon.