From the Vault: Six Ways to Cook a Salmon
How to get every ounce of goodness from your wild Sockeye or Coho salmon
I have fish and frugality on my mind. Fish, because I met a eulachon fisherman in Haines, Alaska a couple of years ago, and at the same time got to know British author Adam Weymouth, who has written a book on the King salmon in the Yukon River. Frugality, because I’m re-reading M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf.
Fisher wrote her manifesto on how to cook in the troubled times just after the United States entered the Second World War in 1942, when food shortages were common and everything from butter to fuel was rationed. In her introduction to the revised edition published in 1951, Fisher remarks that those who “cooked and marketed their way through the war…will feel, until their final days on earth, a kind of culinary caution: butter, no matter how unlimited, is a precious substance not lightly to be wasted; meats, too, and eggs…take on a new significance, having once been so rare.”
The portrait of scarcity she paints is familiar in these modern troubled times, when species disappear daily and the ocean is choked with plastic. We know the stock of wild fish is diminishing worldwide; we hear it in the news every day. Wild fish have become “a precious substance, not lightly to be wasted.”
With the loss of fish comes cultural loss, as Indigenous people living on the Yukon River have experienced. Adam Weymouth paddled the Yukon River from Eagle to Fairbanks in 2016 and from the headwaters of the Teslin River to Hootalinqua to Dawson in 2017, interviewing people in communities from Teslin to Emmonak. He says, “What was most interesting to me, coming from a place where fish is just food, is how important [the King] is for the culture of the communities. People have been feeling the loss of salmon not just as a loss of the food that they used to have, but a loss of the fish camps that used to bring people together to work as a team, where Elders could tell stories to the kids, where people could learn how to cut fish—all of that is being lost as well.” On the river, Weymouth heard that any effort to revive the King must factor in cultural revival too.
Indigenous fisherman Duane Wilson nets eulachon on the Chilkoot River, and he renders the oil in a fish camp on the banks of the Chilkat River just north of Haines, Alaska. The oil feeds the extended family for the winter and serves as a bartering item for black seaweed and venison meat from more southern Alaskan communities.
Wilson welcomes visitors to his traditional camp, happy to explain the rendering process to them, happy to be engaged in a practice so connected to the land, his people, and his history, happy to be providing for his family. He said one of his uncles recently told him, “Take care of the Elder you are going to be.” Wilson seems to be doing just that, in his fish camp by the river, taking care of future generations, taking care of the fish.
Indigenous eulachon fishers in BC aren’t so lucky. Once a staple food up and down the Pacific Northwest and into the interior, eulachon in marine waters near Alaska and in some parts of BC are still in good shape, but in several BC rivers and tidal areas, they are not. Many First Nations eulachon fisheries in BC are closed, and recreational fishing is banned. In those places, the eulachon, like the King salmon in the Yukon, is suffering.
So it's a good time for some old-fashioned conservation to preserve our “precious substances”, and for some old-fashioned frugality in the kitchen, some of M.F.K. Fisher’s “culinary caution”. It’s a good time, when we get a whole fish, to enjoy eating eat the whole fish.
The head and skeleton from one salmon, fins and tail removed. (Try dousing the tail in flour and frying it in butter until crisp. All it needs is a bit of salt!)
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 leeks, green part only
Half a fennel bulb, including stems
2 medium carrots
2 stalks celery
6 juniper berries, squashed
2 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns
1. Melt butter and oil in a large pot over medium heat. Break or chop skeleton in half to fit in pot. Sauté head and skeleton until meat is pink, about 7 minutes. Add cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to the boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Reduce to a simmer before adding vegetables.
2. Wash and roughly chop vegetables and stir into the pot, followed by seasonings.
3. Simmer stock uncovered for 40 to 45 minutes. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve, reserving head and bones for making chowder. Cool stock to room temperature. Remove as much fat as possible from the surface. Store in the fridge for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Makes about 8 cups of stock.
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions
2 medium carrots
2 stalks celery
3 medium potatoes
1 tsp crushed red chilli peppers
4 cups salmon stock
1 cup 35 percent cream or coconut milk
½ cup mixed chopped fresh herbs—cilantro, mint, basil or parsley
1 to 1½ cups cooked salmon
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Wash vegetables and chop into bite-sized pieces. Sauté onions, carrot, and celery in butter and olive oil in a large pot over medium heat until softened, about 7 minutes. Stir in potatoes and chili peppers and add the salmon stock.
2. Bring to the boil, covered, reduce to a simmer and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until potatoes are soft.
3. Add cream or coconut milk, fresh herbs, salt, and pepper and bring to a simmer again. Add cooked salmon last, just to heat through. Serve with crusty bread and butter.
Makes about 8 servings.
I used to brine smoked salmon for 8 hours or overnight, but lately I’m just using a rub—it’s simpler, faster, and tastes just as good.
1 2-lb filet Sockeye or Coho salmon, skin on, pin bones removed
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup kosher salt
2 Tbsp. (30 ml) dried or fresh spruce tips
1. Slice the belly from the salmon filet and cut filet into 4 or 5 pieces.
2. Combine salt and sugar in a medium-sized bowl. Grind spruce tips in a mortar and pestle and add to salt mixture.
3. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on the work surface. Place two pieces of salmon on the plastic, skin side down, and cover with rub, pressing it into the flesh. Sandwich the pieces together, flesh to flesh, and wrap tightly.
4. Repeat with the remaining pieces—tuck the belly flesh-side in against one of the sandwiched filets.
5. Refrigerate for 60 to 90 minutes. Rinse rub off and pat salmon pieces dry. Return salmon to fridge, uncovered, and allow to dry until surface is tacky, from 2 to 4 hours. Meantime, prepare smoker racks by rubbing them with oiled paper towel.
6. Lay salmon pieces on racks with plenty of space between them for the smoke to circulate. Place thinner pieces higher up in the smoker, thicker pieces lower down.
7. Smoke for 60 minutes at 100F, increase the temperature to 160F, and smoke until internal temperature reaches 145F, about 4 hours. (In cold weather this could take much longer and you may want to finish the salmon in the oven, set at 170F.)
8. Cool salmon to room temperature. Pack into re-sealable freezer bags, or into plastic bags with a vacuum sealer. Will keep for one week in the fridge or three months in the freezer.
9. Serve with pickled spruce tips, creamy chèvre, red onions, a squeeze of lemon, and sliced pumpernickel.
Makes enough for 5 or 6 appetizer portions, each serving 4 to 6.
Food safety note: for tartare, use fish that has been frozen at a temperature of -4F
for 7 days to destroy any parasites.
1 8-oz boneless salmon fillet, skinned
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp minced fresh chives
½ tsp crushed juniper berries
½ tsp coarse salt
1 tsp crushed red chili peppers
1 Tbsp minced fresh or frozen spruce tips
½ tsp ground black pepper
Beet, potato or sweet potato chips or sliced fresh daikon radish for serving
1. Freeze salmon for 20 minutes to firm up before slicing. Dice into ¼-inch (1-ml) pieces. Refrigerate while preparing remaining ingredients.
2. In a small bowl, whisk olive oil and lemon together. Grind juniper berries, salt, and chilies in a mortar and pestle. Whisk into oil and lemon mixture and stir in chives. Add chilled salmon and toss to coat. Chill for five minutes.
3. Serve with a bowl of vegetable chips or radish, piling tartare on top.
Makes 4 to 6 appetizer-sized servings.
Crispy Salmon Skin
A crunchy, salty treat as satisfying as potato chips.
Skin from 1 or 2 salmon filets.
1. Coat skins with a light film of olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Score into serving-sized pieces with a sharp knife. Place skin, scale-side up, on one or two baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
2. Bake on the middle rack of a preheated 375F oven for about 20 minutes. Turn over and continue baking until skin is crispy and golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Cool and break into pieces. Serve with grilled or roasted salmon filets, placing a piece of skin on each serving. Or crumble and use to garnish salads, scrambled eggs or salmon chowder.
Salmon Tagine with Chermoula
A few years ago I gave my husband a tagine—a Moroccan cooking pot with a shallow base and a conical top. He became a tagine expert, and this recipe became one of our favourite ways to serve fish, whether halibut, whitefish, char, or salmon. As the food cooks the steam rises to the top of the tagine and condenses, creating a flavour-packed cooking liquid. If you don’t have a tagine use a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid and increase liquid if necessary.
This versatile Moroccan sauce goes with everything from salmon to grilled vegetables to moose steak.
2 tsp pan-roasted cumin seeds
1 tsp pan-roasted coriander seeds
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp coarse salt
juice and zest of one lemon
¼ cup olive oil
1 tsp crushed chilli peppers
1½ cups packed, chopped parsley
1 packed cup chopped cilantro or mint
1/3 cup olive oil
1. Dry-roast cumin and coriander seeds in a cast-iron frying pan over medium heat until aromatic and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Cool slightly and grind coarsely in a mortar and pestle.
2. Place all ingredients except olive oil in the bowl of a food processor. Blend to a coarse puree, add olive oil, and pulse several times to combine.
3. Transfer to a bowl and reserve.
Makes about ¾ cup.
1 lb salmon filet, skinned
1 batch Chermoula
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion
1 red pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
½ cup water
2 medium tomatoes
½ cup Kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
½ cup dry white wine
1. Cut salmon into bite-sized chunks. Stir in half the chermoula and marinate salmon in the fridge for about 2 hours.
2. About 45 minutes before you’re ready to serve, chop vegetables into bite-sized chunks. Sauté onion, red pepper and garlic in the base of the tagine or pot until softened—about 7 minutes.
3. Add potatoes and water, cover, and cook until potatoes are nearly done, about 15 minutes.
4. Add tomatoes, olives, and wine plus the remaining chermoula. Cook for 10 minutes to soften tomatoes. Add marinated salmon and cook for four scant minutes—it’s easy to overcook. Remove from heat immediately.
5. Serve right away accompanied by crusty bread and butter, pasta, or basmati rice.
Makes 6 generous servings.
From the Vault is a series of stories and recipes that originally appeared in Yukon, North of Ordinary Magazine, in my cooking column, Boreal Chef. They have been modified and updated.
Thank you, Archbould Photography, for the wonderful photos.