Pan-roasted Salmon with Caramelized Kale and Watermelon Salsa

A few days ago, I posted a photo of this dish on my Facebook. When I cook, I cook using my senses. Very rarely do I follow a recipe strictly (unless it’s baking, a whole different ball game). When I shop, I shop for what looks fresh, is in season, and is on sale. When I cook, I just open my fridge/pantry, look at what I have, and formulate a dish based on what I’m craving and what’s available. I usually don’t measure out ingredients or monitor cook times. Rather, I taste and adjust seasoning constantly, pay attention to how things look, and use touch to check for doneness. Alas, that must change if I am to be a successful restaurant chef that is able to replicate the same dish over and over again. So here goes, one of the first recipes that I have ever typed up in full.

For the Salmon

  • 4 Skin-on salmon filets (4-6 oz each)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Olive oil

For the Kale

  • 1 bunch kale, leaves stripped from the stem and very coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 onion, sliced thin
  • 4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 4 oz bacon (about 4-6 slices), diced

For the watermelon salsa

  • 1 cup watermelon, cut in fine 2 mm dice
  • 2 jalepenos, seeded and cut in fine 2 mm dice
  • 4 tbs chopped cilantro leaves
  • 1 1/2 tbs lemon or lime juice
  • 1 tbs oilve oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. If the salmon is a whole filet and has scales, scale the filet with a sharp knife by holding at a 90 degree angle to the fish and scraping against the grain of the scales. You should see them start to come off. Repeat until all the scales are removed, and then portion accordingly.
  2. Score the skin diagonally at 1 cm intervals, taking care not to cut into the flesh too much. This helps the skin to crisp up nicely, and also helps keep the fish flat (skin tends to want to curl up when cooked)
  3. Pat them dry in paper towels and set aside until ready to cook. DO NOT season the fish until just before it hits the pan, as it will draw moisture out of the flesh.
  4. Prepare the salsa by mixing all the ingredients in a nonreactive bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Cover with plastic wrap and set in the fridge until ready to plate to allow the flavors to meld.
  5. In a pan over medium heat, fry the bacon until the fat has rendered and the bacon is crispy (about 5-7 minutes, again go by eye and feel). Raise the heat to high and add the garlic and onion, cooking until the onion is translucent and starting to brown on the edges. Add the kale and stir. Add a pinch of salt (will help the kale wilt). When the kale has softened and wilted but maintains a nice, crunchy texture, remove it from the pan and set aside while you cook the salmon.
  6. Heat a nonstick frying pan over high heat until almost smoking. Unwrap the filets from the paper towels, drizzle with some oil, sprinkle the top with salt and pepper, and lay the filets skin side down on the blazing hot pan. Cook until the skin is crispy and the sides of the filet start becoming opaque (top should still be translucent), about 3-5 minutes. Using a large spatula (NOT TONGS, which will tear and damage the filet), carefully flip the fish and cook about a minute longer. For medium rare, a fish tester inserted into the fish should feel warm when touched to your chin. Remove, plate, and serve with grain of choice. I served mine with plain brown rice and pickled radishes*.

Why this recipe works: Salmon is a rich fish that typically needs some acid to help balance it out. That can be as simple as a wedge of lemon squeezed on top, but I decided to give it a sweet and sour kick from the watermelon-jalepeno salsa. Bacon, onions, and kale are a delicious combination, and the fattiness and smokiness of the bacon work well with the salmon and also benefit from the sweet acidity of the salsa. I think all these flavors work together to enhance the delicate richness of the salmon, and allow it to shine as the star of the plate. A simple, healthy grain like brown rice or quinoa makes a healthy, easy to prepare dinner that has bold flavor, yet is healthy.

If you like this recipe, please let me know! Even better, if you try this recipe out, I’d love to know how it went. I’m still new to writing up recipes, so if something is inaccurate or isn’t clear, I want to hear about it.

Don’t forget to watch me make my debut on MASTERCHEF! The season premiere is exactly two weeks away, on June 4th at 9/8c on FOX. Follow me on twitter too @michaeljcchen!

*recipe to come later.

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About Michael Chen

A contestant on season 3 of FOX's MasterChef! Tune in on June 4 and 5 at 9/8c to watch me compete in the top 100 home cooks in America!
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4 Responses to Pan-roasted Salmon with Caramelized Kale and Watermelon Salsa

  1. sharon tam says:

    the watermelon salsa sounds like a great idea! i’m always looking for ways to make fish a little more exciting…though i do like plain crispy-edged fish, too :)

    • Michael Chen says:

      Thanks Sharon! A lot of different flavors go well with fish. Some sourness/bitterness is always good to balance out the richness of fish (especially salmon!). Most fresh fruits and vegetables should work well. Just don’t use cheese! Cheese and fish is a big taboo in the culinary world :)

  2. sharon tam says:

    Haha, so what does that make the fish taco? I’m cooking fish tomorrow, so maybe I’ll try some random fruit or vegetable in a salsa over it. Ricky’s mom sent us back w/ bags of homegrown veggies…there has to be something in there…

    By the way, I caught the beginning and end of MC yesterday in between getting the kids ready for bed. I’d never heard of the show before you went to audition. Glad I got to catch the segment with you & your friend Christine in it. It was really moving to hear people’s stories about how much they love cooking. The segment with the basketball player from Alabama was also really touching.

    As for your website, I thought your website was MC3 like MC cubed …to stand for Master Chef Michael Chen… but then I couldn’t think of the 3rd M.C. Then I figured out I was just being too complicated and math-nerdy and it probably just stands for MasterChef Season 3 Michael :P And the picture on your webpage is the one that Ricky took of you guys when you went on a senior guys outing, right? I remember he had scouted out the piano locations beforehand, trying to find the most scenic one. I’ll have to pass on the info to Ricky (he’s off facebook & social media indefinitely); it helps him feel validated in spending time photographing when people appreciate his pics :)

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