THE KING OF SALMON
“We be salmon, salmon, salmon, salmon…
Hope you like salmon, too.” (NOT Bob Marley)
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Seafood nomenclature is a bitch. That’s because a lot of the names by which we know various species of Neptune’s realm are regional, arbitrary, and inconsistent with their official Latin monikers. Atlantic salmon, for instance, was once nicknamed “the king of fish.” I’ve never eaten wild Atlantic salmon and neither have you, unless you are old enough to have dined before 1948, when the legal fishery for Atlantic salmon was closed due to its endangered status (or if you’ve more recently spent ten grand on a guided fly-fishing excursion to Newfoundland.)
But there is available to us, dear reader, the actual “King of salmon”– Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, in official Latin… King Salmon, to its drooling devotees.
As if to intentionally confuse us, King salmon, naturally, also answers to an alternative name– Chinook. That’s how it is known in my nearby Great Lake Ontario, where it has been stocked (for sportsmen, not commercial fishing) to great success in recent decades. It is also successfully farmed in New Zealand. But for our purposes here, we concern ourselves primarily with the wild Alaskan catch.
A Lake Ontario Chinook… or King… or Oncorhynchus tshawytscha. Too bad you can’t eat them; the government says that Lake Ontario fish this size are too full of poisonous chemicals to consume regularly. They don’t need to tell ME twice.
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The Pacific Ocean has a lot of freakin’ water… enough to dilute and disperse half the world’s industrial and domestic toxic effluence to either undetectable or at least “safe” levels. And so we can confidently consume the wild-caught species of Pacific salmon without fear of ill effects. Good thing, because it is one of the most delicious fishes in the entire world.
Let’s take a trip to your local, high-quality fish market and concentrate on just the pink stuff– salmon. Atlantic salmon, the lightest in color, will invariably be farm-raised, in aquatic pens located in Chile, Florida, Maine. Canada, Iceland, Scotland, and/or Norway. (This list is by no means all-inclusive.) You might also see a selection of “previously frozen” Alaskan salmon, in the species of Sockeye, King, and Coho. Sockeye is the darkest red of them all as well as the most powerfully flavored, rank with overt “fishiness.” For the true believer, Sockeye is seafood heaven, densely packed with the flavors they crave. I personally keep eternally shelf-stable cans of Alaskan Sockeye in my truck for perfectly healthy and tasty emergency meals. But for many others, the strong flavor of Sockeye is halfway to sardines on the skankiness scale. These folks tend to prefer the farmed Atlantic, which has the mildest flavor.
As a farmed fish, fresh Atlantic salmon is generally available year-round. So are the frozen wild Alaskan Sockeye, and sometimes Coho and King. But if you want the absolute best salmon– fresh or frozen– you wait for the spring and summer seasons when the Alaskan species return to their rivers of origin to spawn and find their way into the fishermen’s nets. Fresh Sockeye is fabulous– if you like Sockeye– and the Coho is… well, meh. But the fresh and wild King– that, my dear readers, is truly the King of salmon, and perhaps of the entire universe of all seafood.
Fresh King salmon looks different from all other salmon– it has a uniquely jasper-orange hue and a putty-like opacity. And just as superior wine regions revel in their specificity, connoisseurs of Alaskan King pay close attention to their rivers of origin, and those caught in the legendary Copper River enjoy the same exalted status as, say, Cabernets from the Stag’s Leap District within Napa Valley.
One thing that makes fresh wild Alaskan King salmon so delicious is its naturally high fat content, which also makes it really easy to cook. All you need to do is put the filets skin side down on foil, like this–
Cook them for about 13-15 minutes in a hot (400º) oven, then manually check for “wiggle,” cooking more as needed. (Practicing this technique on less-expensive Atlantic salmon is a really good idea. You ideally want to reach an internal temperature of 120º.) By rubbing the flesh but not the skin with grape seed oil, you cause the skin to conveniently adhere to the foil, allowing you to easily separate the flesh from it with a spatula.
SAUCE, YOU SAY?
As mentioned in previous essays, dill & salmon enjoy a particularly special affinity. Mustard works nicely as well, so a mustard-dill beurre blanc is perfect. (If you don’t know how to make beurre blanc by now, you haven’t been reading my essays. A variety of easy-to-prepare versions can be found here.)
Sauvignon Blanc goes perfectly with salmon for the same reason that dill does. Great versions of Sauvignon Blanc originate in a wide range of wine regions– France, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and California. But you needn’t confine yourself to a single variety– lean and crisp (French) Chardonnays work well, as do Oregon versions of Pinot Gris (the grown-up version of Pinot Grigio.) Hell, on the HMS TITANIC’s last night afloat, one of its dining rooms offered poached Atlantic salmon (surely wild) with slightly sweet and super high-quality German Riesling.
If you gotta go– as we all do, eventually– that would make one helluva last meal, I think.