Bristol Bay Salmon: One Thing Leads to Another

October 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Salmon. It’s what’s for dinner. And lunch. And well, even breakfast. From Safeway to Whole Foods to the local farmer’s market, you can find beautiful, fresh fillets or thick steaks of this healthful, tasty fish in hues ranging from bright orange to almost-red. While salmon is versatile — it holds up well to most cooking methods and pairs with a variety of flavors — the much-publicized health benefits of wild salmon have helped in making it a popular addition to the dining table. (Wild salmon is high in Omega-3’s, making it heart-healthy and an important source of brain-building nutrition.) Oh, and it’s delicious.

Fresh, wild Alaskan salmon fillets, purchased in the 650

Fresh, wild sockey salmon fillets, purchased in the 650

Our Northern California salmon fishing season varies throughout the year, but you’re likely to find a regular supply of fresh, local, wild salmon if you know where to look. Need some ideas? Try Whole Foods, weekend farmer’s markets, or Cooks Seafood in Menlo Park. Not only do we have access to delicious wild salmon caught right off the Northern California coast, but from time to time Alaskan salmon from Copper River and Bristol Bay makes its way down the Pacific coast to our local suppliers.

I am an admitted salmon convert. When I was a kid, the only salmon I knew came in cans. In my limited, kidhood experience, the only difference between salmon and tuna was the color — pink, not grey — and sometimes the texture. Salmon was crunchier because there were usually some small bones ground in. This salmon is what my mother and my aunties used to make an Australian dinner-table staple: fish cakes. (Canned tuna was an option as well, but somehow the salmon version holds a larger place in my memory). Salmon cakes would be the core of a “lighter” cooked dinner — lighter than, say, steak or roast or lamb chops, which, most nights, were de rigueur for dinner. (British influence, much?) The recipe was simple: combine canned fish, egg, breadcrumbs, and a few herbs into patties. Then, coat them in more breadcrumbs and fry those babies in drippings (aka, lard) until the outsides are crispy and dark brown, occasionally brown-black. Serve with mashed potatoes and green vegetables, usually the boiled kind.

Fresh fish was not something my mother cooked. She came from a meat-potato-veg-for-dinner generation of Australian women who knew how to economize while still putting out a well-rounded, nightly dinner. Fish sticks, fish cakes, and Red Lobster shrimp cocktail were the limit of my seafood experience until high school, when I tried lox for the first time. I was well into adulthood when I first tried fresh salmon. I was amazed at what I’d been missing for so many years — a flavorful, healthy source of protein that was pulled right out of our West Coast waters!

If you’ve read this blog for a bit, then you know that I’m an advocate for knowing the source of your food — and better yet, for connecting with the producer of that food. What does that mean? It means starting a conversation — talking with farmers at your weekend market, or the manager at a family-run grocery store, or the person in charge of making food at your favorite local restaurant. But what about something like fish? How do you make that connection? When are you likely to run into a fisherman? I mean, most people buy fish, in a package, at the local grocery store (ok, stop that, by the way). But how do you find out the source of your fish: whether it’s farmed or wild, Pacific or Atlantic, sustainably fished or not, and so on? And do fish have seasons? And what does “local fish” mean? All good questions to ponder.

A new book by Paul Greenburg, American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, examines some of these questions. Greenburg knows his subject matter; he’s a passionate, lifelong fisherman (not just a consumer) and award-winning author who writes about the state of the American fish industry. The book is an important read for anyone who eats seafood, values sustainable seafood sources, or just wants a better understanding of the seafood we’re eating (or not eating) in this country. The third section of the book focuses on Alaska’s Bristol Bay, currently a rich and pristine source of Alaskan wild sockeye salmon. Within the past decade, Bristol Bay has been threatened by mining interests, potentially sending it the way of so many other natural, American wild-fish sources that have been ravaged by industrial interests.

I finished the book shortly before attending the IFBC conference in Seattle last month, so much of the content — and specifically Bristol Bay’s current issues — were still in my mind. Not to mention the fact that Greenburg made Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon sound so utterly delicious that I was wondering when, if ever, I might have a chance to try it. (You see where this is going, right?) Yep, in a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up experience, Bristol Bay sockeye salmon was featured at the IFBC 2014 opening reception. Seriously.

Three Seattle chefs created dishes that highlighted the versatility and flavor of the fish for attendees to try. Bristol Bay folks were on hand to talk about their salmon, as well as the potential risks to their fishing industry. It was an opportunity to taste this product I’d only read about, meet the people supporting it, and even participate in a little food activism. The dishes created by the chefs were tasty and approachable — not “fancy restaurant food,” but something you could cook and enjoy at home. Unfortunately, no recipes were provided, but you creative/adventurous cooks could probably reverse engineer them on your own.

Chef Kevin Davis’ grilled sockeye with tomatoes, sweet corn, and roasted heirloom chilies was a hearty, flavorful late-fall dish, that I could imagine enjoying with rice and a side salad.

Grilled Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon with dry-farmed tomatoes, sweet corn, and roasted heirloom chilies, prepared by Chef Kevin Davis of Blueacre Seafood, Seattle

Grilled Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon with dry-farmed tomatoes, sweet corn, and roasted heirloom chilies, prepared by Chef Kevin Davis of Blueacre Seafood, Seattle

Craig Heatherington’s peppered sockeye on brioche with a little sour cream is satisfying and elegant appetizer.

Peppered Bristol Bay Salmon on toasted brioche, prepared by Craig Hetherington of Seattle Art Museum Restaurant, TASTE

Peppered Bristol Bay Salmon on toasted brioche, prepared by Craig Hetherington of Seattle Art Museum Restaurant, TASTE

Chef Sean Ellis’ gravlax was probably my favorite of the three. Ok, let’s be honest, I’m not likely to make this one any time soon, but I do love me some gravlax!

Dill & Vodka Marinated Bristol Bay Sockey Salmon Gravlax with tarragon creme fraiche, prepared by Chef Sean Ellis of the Westin Seattle

Dill & Vodka Marinated Bristol Bay Sockey Salmon Gravlax with tarragon creme fraiche, prepared by Chef Sean Ellis of the Westin Seattle

Sourcing was included in the presentation; a sign was placed near each dish, crediting the chef, as well as the provider of the salmon itself. Seattle seafood processor, Icicle Seafood, provided the salmon for the the tomatoes and chilies dish, as well as the gravlax. However, the sockeye for the peppered salmon on brioche was provided by a single fisherman and vessel: Matthew Luck, MegJ LLC dba Pride of Bristol Bay. That’s something I’d like to see more often!

So how do you find out more about the source of the salmon you’re about to buy? Simple: ask. “Is this local?” If not, where is it from? If the guy (or gal) working the fish counter doesn’t know, ask if there’s someone else in the department who does know. I’ve ended up having some really good conversations with the folks working the fish department where I shop. You’d be surprised how knowledgeable your local fish supplier (or butcher, for that matter) can be!

Recently my local grocery store had two kinds of wild salmon in the fish case: king (aka, Chinook) and sockeye. I asked about the source of both, and the fish guy was on top of it: king from the California Coast and sockeye from Alaska. That rich, red-orange color of the sockeye, not to mention the “Best Choice” rating from Seafood Watch, won me over. The fillets were perfect for baking and enjoying over a simple green salad. Next time I’ll have to buy extra and try my hand at those salmon cakes.

Baked Alaskan sockeye salmon, served over a green salad of red leaf lettuce and baby spinach, finished with chopped chives and toasted pumpkin seeds

Baked Alaskan sockeye salmon, served over a green salad of red leaf lettuce and baby spinach, finished with chopped chives and toasted pumpkin seeds

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