Chef Erick Williams’ brown-sugar salmon showcases his personal take on Southern American cuisine.

By Kelsey Youngman
January 15, 2021
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Credit: Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Menus often change seasonally at restaurants, but at chef Erick Williams' Chicago spot Virtue, the art on the walls changes just as frequently. Williams personally curates the art he shares, all by Black artists, in line with his vision to celebrate Black life in all its facets. Through food, art, and hospitality, Williams has created a restaurant that is more than a space to eat: It's a place to commune. The rooms are warm, inviting, and comforting; his food follows suit. The menu showcases fare from the American South, seasonally highlighting ingredients and dishes such as green tomatoes, gumbo, grits, catfish, and cornbread. In high winter, Williams combats the frigid Chicago winds with this salmon, served with a glossy, citrusy glaze made of fresh orange juice, silky honey, and molasses-tinged brown sugar. Served over tender roasted squash tossed with buttery pecans, the whole meal comes together in just about a half hour.

Roast the Squash While the Salmon Comes to Room Temperature

Williams' recipe is a masterclass in thoughtful, efficient cooking. Quickly roasting the squash at a high temperature (you can use delicata, acorn, or really any thin-skinned winter squash here) gives the slices beautifully browned edges, with silky smooth interiors. While they're roasting, the glaze quickly melts together on the stove, and the salmon loses its chill from the fridge. Don't skip letting the salmon come to room temperature: letting any protein come "to temperature" before cooking it helps ensure even cooking. A chilly fillet will cool down a pan no matter how preheated it is, and cook faster on the outside than the middle. Giving the fish just a few minutes on the counter is both food safe, and results in a more delicious dish. 

Sear the Salmon Fillet Before It Goes into the Oven

Once the salmon has lost its chill, it gets a head start on the stove before finishing in the (already hot) oven. As Williams' recommends, a nicely thick filet will do well here. The stove-to-oven technique gives you a golden brown, lightly crisp filet with perfectly cooked, juicy and flaky centers. Too long on the stove can overdo the outsides, while an oven on its own can't quite brown the top like a hot stove. Combining the two is the simplest way to perfectly cook fish each time. 

Simmer the Glaze with Plenty of Honey, Orange, and Ginger

Back to that glaze. Williams' really layers in the flavor here, and wisely leans on honey. A pinch of ginger and plenty of fresh orange juice keep the taste fresh and bright, without being cloying. Honey lends its natural viscosity to the glaze without a long cooking time, giving body and syrupy richness along with a gentle, floral sweetness. Letting the glaze sit for 10 minutes after infusing on the stove sets that perfect texture; just right for drizzling. You'll notice, too, that Williams' doesn't cook the salmon or the squash in the glaze. The sugar would burn before either was perfectly cooked, so pouring it over each plate is the right move. Don't forget the butter and pecans tossed with hot-from-the-oven squash, either; they add a lovely crunch.

All told, it's an ideal any-night-of-the-week winter meal—it's hearty without being too rich, it comes together quickly without requiring every dish in the cupboard, and relies on seasonal, flavorful ingredients to shine through simple techniques. Oh, and this glaze. Try leftovers on nearly anything, sweet or savory. Personal favorites include: my morning oatmeal, hot roast chicken, and fresh goat cheese.

Get the Recipe: Brown Sugar–Glazed Salmon with Buttery Roasted Squash