Updated: Jun 7
Springtime has returned to the chilly northern Pacific...
and mature wild salmon are returning to their
rivers of origin to breed.
Chinook, also known as King, is considered the finest; Sockeye flesh is known for its technicolor red hue and similarly pronounced flavor; and Coho comes in a respectable third, perhaps a tad bland. The other two– Chum and Pink– might best be utilized for cat food.
I'm not sure exactly when I became a full-fledged Grumpy Old Man-Splainer, but it might well have been one summer night about three years ago when Andrea and I were using a gift certificate for dinner at a local restaurant. (Other than breakfast in old-school diners, we NEVER spend our own money on food and wine in restaurants. I'd rather go to the dentist.)
Our waiter was reciting the specials and suddenly started warbling about their "Wild Atlantic Salmon" entree. I patiently and politely explained that the Atlantic salmon was declared an endangered species back in 1948, and that commercial Atlantic salmon fishing has been banned since then... and thus they couldn't possibly (or at least legally) have any on hand to sell. Perhaps he could ask the chef for clarification? Flustered, he disappeared into the kitchen. Two minutes later the middle-aged battle-axe who owned this place was at our table rudely bellowing at us–
"We'd have to charge what– FORTY BUCKS for wild?"
Maybe she would... but think I speak for more than just a few customers in wanting to know what the hell I am getting for the 30% food cost price, gift certificate or otherwise. Fortunately it is now (Alaskan) salmon season, which means that one can avoid such unwarranted abuse AND enjoy a generous 8 oz. portion of wild Sockeye at home, complete with side veggies and sauce, for about $12/person... and it will be way better than whatever hash that waiter was slinging for thrice that amount.
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Salmon occupies a special place in the western culinary canon... quite understandably, given its unique and eye-pleasing ("salmon-pink") hue, its sumptuously delicious and healthy high content of unsaturated fat, and its affinity for flavors such as wood smoke, fresh dill, and/or Sauvignon Blanc. (Pro-tip: any food embraced by both European Jews and Pacific Northwest native peoples that also pairs nicely with a particular wine must surely be wonderful.)
Salmon consumption is not exactly seasonal. Farmed Atlantic salmon– high-quality or low, fresh or frozen– is available year-round. So is previously frozen (wild) Sockeye. Hell, I carry canned Sockeye in my truck for high-energy emergency food. And a tiny amount of Chinook/King Salmon appears in markets as "incidental catch" throughout the year. Intriguingly (more on this later) an outfit named Ora King offers an ultra-premium version of pristinely farm-raised Chinook (a.k.a. King) from New Zealand. But in general, if you want the very best, by which one generally means freshly-caught wild salmon, you have to wait for the onset of the annual salmon season... which is now upon us.
I went shopping just this morning in search of fresh wild salmon, and I was surprisingly quite disappointed. The choices, including Chinook/King from Alaska's famed Copper River, looked old and tired, which often happens when fish-shopping on a Monday. (Copper River– the world's finest salmon! Says so right here at copperriversalmon.org. Furthermore, the price was $50/pound... high, but still less than restaurant pricing for fish of much lesser quality.)
But Dear Reader, if this story didn't have either a catchy plot twist or a happy ending, I probably wouldn't be writing it.
While I was researching top-quality salmon sources, I was simultaneously perusing recipes for gravlax, one of my earliest ventures into fine food preparation and still one of my favorite appetizers to make and then serve with Blanc de Blancs. Gravlax is simply salmon filet cured for a few days with salt, sugar, and (optionally) fresh dill; the Norwegians who invented it knew to first bury the salmon in the frozen tundra for a few days to kill any worms... which kind of renders pointless the quest for the finest FRESH salmon, right?
But then I figured something out– the sushi department at one of my regular stores was serving salmon that was "sashimi-certified," i.e., suitable for eating raw, which meant that it was reliably free of worms. Upon further inquiry, I learned that the sushi/sashimi-grade salmon in the yakiwakumori rolls (or whatever) was indeed the aforementioned Ora King Farm-Raised Salmon from New Zealand. Perhaps they could sell me a piece? Sure, they said... for $40/pound.
An utterly pristine 5 oz. piece of Ora King Salmon from New Zealand...
the most perfect piece of salmon I've ever laid eyes on or tasted.
In the name of due diligence I cooked a test piece for a lunchtime snack. And how was it? You may recall that I recently wrote a piece about "perfection" and whether it was attainable or even worth pursuing. Well, to my lsomewhat earned palate anyway, this piece of salmon seemed pretty darn close to absolutely perfect in every way.
So yeah, it's salmon season. And while it's always fun to buy locally-grown strawberries in July and nearby corn in August, I am delighted to learn and report that what is probably the world's most reliably fantastic salmon is available year-round... even if it comes from the other side of the world.
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Browne Trading Company, a wonderful online source for top-grade seafood, will sell you a whole boneless side of fresh Ora King Salmon for $36.99/pound. This is what I plan to use for my next batch of gravlax. If you prefer to purchase individual portions, numerous other sources will appear in your google search.
Speaking of google searches, there are way too many gravlax recipes out there, and just about all of them are more complicated than necessary. The only VITAL ingredients are salmon, salt, and sugar. Like most people, I also use dill. But then, for all the celebrity chefs out there, that's where the fun seemingly begins– in their signature recipes you'll see booze ranging from vodka to aquavit and additional seasonings ranging from peppercorns to coriander. I recommend starting simply and then choosing your own path as your own personal taste dictates.
When it comes to wine, Sauvignon Blanc seems almost divinely intended to pair with salmon.
And finally... yes, $40/pound might well seem rather spendy at the grocery store... but please keep in mind that a 6 oz. portion of Ora King would be way better and way cheaper than whatever salmon your local restaurant tries to sell you.