As a kid growing up in Ketchikan, Alaska, the salmon capital of the world, we had a lot of salmon. I mean a lot of salmon. That was the staple of our diet. This meant, as a kid, I was sick of salmon. Yes, I hear you; you wonder how on earth can someone get sick of this great fish?
Well, try eating it three or four times a week when you are growing up, when you really want a hot dog. It also didn’t matter the type of salmon we were eating: King (Chinook), silvers (Coho), reds (sockeye), and humpies (pink) – it didn’t matter. It was salmon.
But there were two things about fish that were fun: Catching them, and cleaning them. Ketchikan was so well known for salmon we would frequently see movie stars come up to fish. John Wayne would bring his yacht up to Ketchikan every year to catch salmon, sign autographs, and has his picture taken with almost every one of the residents there. Nice fellow, big yacht but, hey, how could you respect someone who thought salmon was better than steak? Still, he loved to fish, and we loved the Duke, so every summer we looked forward to seeing him.
Catching salmon in Ketchikan, or all of Alaska, wasn’t difficult. It was more harvesting than fishing. I mean in Ketchikan it was simple; you went down to the shore, cast a line and caught what you needed in an hour (later on they would have “limits” on how many you could catch in a day). Or, if you had a friend with a boat, you went out and trolled a bit to catch some nice fish. Usually it rained so much that it was just easier to go to the shore. Boats, I learned early on, were best if owned by someone else – fun to be in, a pain to maintain and clean.
When it came to catching salmon, they come in different seasons. Most folks think that King salmon (Chinook) are the best. But for me catching silvers salmon was a lot of fun. Those little buggers fought you all the way to the boat. Smaller than most salmon, usually twenty pounds, fought harder than the forty-pound kings (Chinook).
When I went to college in the south I would hear my roommates talk about spending a day fishing and catching one fish. It made me wonder what they used for bait. They had elaborate gear and lures, and poles, and would go hiking off to some hills they called mountains and spend a day and bring back a lone fish. Didn’t make sense to me.
When chatting with a buddy of mine in Chicago about all the salmon I used to catch as a kid, he got all excited and chartered a fishing boat for Lake Michigan to catch salmon. That confused me, most the salmon worth eating that I knew about were in salt water, once they got to the river you had a limited amount of time you wanted to catch them before they turned red and were spawned out. But I thought, hey, drive around a lake in a boat, catch a dozen salmon and call it a day. Well, it was six hours in a boat, with only a nibble. Not that being driven around in a boat wasn’t fun, but just a nibble? Then my buddy blamed me and said, “I thought you were some great fisherman.” They thought that was fishing! Somehow I couldn’t imagine trying to catch fish without catching fish. It made me wonder if all Rachel Carson and her “Silent Spring” was on track, maybe all the DDT ruined fishing in Lake Michigan.
But, as I learned, Alaska was a special place to grow up in, and fishing is something different than in the south.
Returning home – the fish next door
Going back to when I first left Ketchikan to go to college, the last thing I ever wanted to eat was salmon, or any fish for that matter. Growing up we had salmon prepared a thousand ways – grilled, baked, poached, smoked. It didn’t matter – the most common phrase heard in our house from the three brothers was, “Salmon again?” Of course, that whine was often replied to with a quick look – the family look, meaning you eat salmon or you might find yourself on the receiving end of … We were kids, we ate.
Fast forward to my life in the lower 48 states. Now, this book is suppose to be a journey, but to start the journey from Ketchikan isn’t complete without my trip back home, and falling in love with the fish next door. It had been years since I had been back to Alaska for the summer. Not that I avoided Alaska, it just seemed like there was always something to do in the lower 48 that kept me busy — usually my research. Even as an undergraduate I had been involved in doing some research here or there– whether it be about cell growth, or viruses, there was always something that seemed terribly important to me.
But dad had a heart attack, and spent several weeks in the hospital, and it just seemed like a good time to get back to my hometown before dad retired and the folks moved south. So for all those years I had been enjoying all manner of fine cuisine, deftly avoiding fish on the menu, I was headed back to Ketchikan for a summer vacation.
I suppose most folks remember where they grew up as big– probably because it was the world. The plane had to come in low because of cloud cover, so we descended through the turbulent appearing cotton candy the clouds broke and I could see the city. I couldn’t believe how small it was. Ketchikan is on an island, with the inland waterway of Southeast Alaska on one side and mountains rising a mile high on another. The city is described as being a block wide and three miles long.
It looked so small, so isolated, so green, and while the town looked like it had not changed in fifty years (probably because it hadn’t) the mountains and ocean just took my breath away. I had such mixed emotion — the mountains and ocean were vast and expansive — but that tiny outpost of civilization was small and old.
The natural side was the most beautiful canvass of earth, the human side was a bunch of old buildings, small and narrow and in any city would be a place proper folk would never walk. I couldn’t believe I grew up here — I couldn’t believe how small the town was, and I couldn’t believe how beautiful nature was.
The airport is on a different island than Ketchikan, so we had to take a ferry across the Tongass Narrows. This inland waterway is seen from my parent’s picture window at their home, and seeing whales, orcas, and all manner of ships and boats come through this waterway. Why did I take so long to come home?
The streets were now paved, but when I grew up they were all wooden streets set on pilings — I can still hear the thump/thump/thump as the car goes over the boards in the street. As the ferry crossed Tongass Narrows I saw the salmon jumping as they headed up Carlanna Creek to spawn. The first salmon I had seen in five years, and I wanted to grab a pole and catch a few – -just for fun.
My folks thought I was coming in a few days later, so I walked up the hill to my folks house. It was one of those rare clear days in Ketchikan and my folks were in the backyard with some friends. I walked in like I had been at the store and asked what was for dinner. Mom ran over hugged me, the dog jumped on me, and dad, the reserved one, asked if I got that milk ( the last thing I said to my folks as I got on the jet headed to college was I was going to get a bottle of milk).
Mom said we were going to have salmon. Being the respectful son (not wanting to be embarrassed by my mother’s lightening fast backhand) I expressed my thanks for the thought and quickly offered to take everyone out to dinner. Mom insisted, as only mom can do. I smelled the fresh salmon being baked, and it smelled pretty good, but I was wary.
We sat down, mom had a beautiful spread, and ate. At first bite I didn’t recognize the dish. It was the first salmon I had in years, and I never remembered it tasting so good. I asked mom what she did to make this so good, and she said that it was simply baked (recipe to follow). The salmon was rich, oily, flaked well, and was the best thing I had tasted in five years and three major cities.
I looked up at Dad, and said, “Hey, pop, what do you say we go catch some fish tomorrow?” He smiled, and agreed. As a young kid I never paid too much attention to cleaning the fish, because when you weigh as much as the fish you are pulling in you just don’t think that taking guts out of the fish has any value. But now I was older, and it was my turn to clean what I caught.
Dad caught the first salmon that day, a nice 20 pound King. I watched my dad flay salmon with a single swipe of a sharp knife. With four quick gestures of the hand the salmon was gutted, filleted, and the best parts (the head and tips) kept in a special place. That was cool. Just as I was about to ask him about how he was so good a salmon ran into my lure, and I pulled it in. I asked dad how he could do that so well, and I took a bit — so dad showed me the few basic moves. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. It took practice with the knife before I could repeat dad’s swift and sure gestures. In fact I slaughtered about twenty salmon (which means we canned them) trying to imitate doing a quick slit down a salmon to separate it from the bone.
When surgeons talk about the learning curve in advanced surgery they talk about twenty cases, meaning that if you watch someone do a surgical case and you try to do it, it takes about twenty cases before you can repeat what they do – for some operations it might be less than that. But when it comes to carving fish, that is more impressive to me than any surgery – and it takes a lot more to learn. If, when you clean the fish, you don’t do a great job, then you can always can those fish. This was my first introduction to what later became a love affair with the fish and the knife. Being handy with a knife always impressed me. Perhaps that skill with the knife made surgery a natural transition – but, that was never my intention.
Baked Salmon with Dressing:
Ok – this was a staple at our house. At least once a week we had baked salmon. I grew tired of it, until I didn’t have it anymore, and now I think it is probably one of my favorite dishes that brings back great memories.
Select a small salmon, about 6 or 7 pounds. Wash and dry the fish. Salt (Kosher) and pepper (ground) inside and out.
With a sharp knife cut cashes on the top of the fish (the skin).
Dressing: 3 cups cubed, white bread
6 tablespoons of melted butter
1 cup chopped celery
salt and pepper (you know, kosher salt and ground pepper)
3 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped onions.
Mix all the ingredients.
If dry, add a little hot water.
Stuff the fish and bake in a moderate (325 F) oven 1 1/2 hours. Serve with lemon wedges.
The next morning dad and I went to Mountain Point, a bit south of town, to catch a few salmon. The tide would come in and we could see the salmon in the water, catching our limit took an hour. Dad could still fillet fish faster than anyone else I knew, so I thought I would try my skill with the knife. As I picked up a salmon to fillet and dad said, “That is a beautiful fish, we might want that one for dinner tonight,” which was his way of gently reminding me of how many salmon potential fillets ended up in cans or smoked.
So I took a smaller fish we were planning on canning to practice my skill. Instead of a fine fillet it looked like I cleaned the fish with a chain saw. But after a couple of salmon I was keeping up with dad. The next night – I asked for salmon again. This time, poached. A nice humpy caught that day, placed on ice and later mom pouched it. How was it that of all the fine restaurants in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York no one could make poached salmon like this?
Poached Salmon (another easy recipe):
Salmon fillets about 1 1/2 pounds
1/2 cup of white wine (in those days it was Gallo, and I have done this recipe with every type of white wine from the finest Montrachet to Sauvingnon Blanc — and while the Montrachet works, it is a bit pricey. Use a dry wine, as the sweeter Rieslings don’t work as well)
1/2 cup of good water (in Ketchikan this is tap water, in Phoenix use Vos bottled water – don’t use tap)
Thinly sliced onions (yellow. You can also use chives here, which is what Mom had growing out back — we used one handful – or a challot)
Some sprigs of fresh dill (again, mom grew it. It also works with some dried dill seasoning)
Fresh chopped parsley (we grew it, and we put it on about every fish there is)
Black pepper (grind it yourself, don’t buy ground pepper — it gets stale easily)
Put everything into a frying pan except the salmon and pepper. Bring to a medium heat where it is all simmering nicely. Once it is simmering put the salmon in (always skin side toward the heat). Cover. For one inch fillets it should take about five minutes. Don’t overcook salmon — good salmon you can eat raw (but a bit of heat brings out great flavor, too much heat ruins it). Sprinkle on the pepper and serve. Some lemon will help if the fish is good and oily — or other citrus.
Salmon circle of life:
Life is a circle, that is what we Native Alaskan’s believe, and so much of our art has the circle of life represented in our art. Often with dancers holding up a circle with various symbols representing our journey in life. There was a bit of modern art of the spirit circle, and off the circle are salmon — and it seemed to be my journey.
The salmon leave their home in the river, going into salt water — and through the oceans may travel thousands of miles. Only to end up back home, the same stream they grew up in, where they spawn and die. Well, I might like the spawn part — but not the other. So back home I came, and the food I grew up, the food that I was tired of, quickly became my favorite dish. That summer was filled with mornings going out with Dad to catch and clean salmon, and mom showing her natural kitchen skills at preparing the fish.
Even living in the southern most city in Alaska (a short 2 hour jet ride from Seattle) we had long days and short nights. This meant things grew and in our yard that meant berries. In our yard we had wild blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, salmonberries, and even rhubarb that mom sometimes would use as a topping for the fish (recipes later) and some great desserts (recipes also later). Now with the poached fish, or grilled fish, or baked fish can come sauces. Everyone has their favorite citrus sauce, but when I came to the lower 48 the idea of putting anything but a fat-saturated cream sauce on fish, or almost any protein, was novel.
Alice Waters and my mom
But we used berries in Alaska because whatever foods we could grow, we tried to put together. Mom, being the scientist in the kitchen, would mix and match the berries she was making for jams and jellies, with sauces for the fish. In Ketchikan besides summer the only other time we had fresh citrus was Christmas-time we had Tangerines imported from Japan. So mom was doing in Alaska, what wasn’t yet being done in the lower 48 until Alice Waters. Alice Waters opened a restaurant in Berkley with the idea of serving things from what was fresh and available, and not using just heavy cream sauces. Now, I only briefly met Alice, but something tells me she had the same mind set as mom — take what you have fresh in your garden, the sea, or anything fresh — and see what you can make of them.In Alaska this was from necessity — we had food, we put it together, we had a meal. In the lower 48 it became a sensation (seems kind of obvious now).
When my friends started to tell me that I cooked like Alice Waters who loved organic food, all I could think of was organic chemistry. But the reason was, that I first heard about Alice Waters after I made dinner for a girlfriends family. The girlfriend’s father was a rancher who had been a biology major at Berkeley. Originally raised on a farm in Illinois he wanted to get as far away from the farm as he could, and did. Only to find he enjoyed growing organic vegetables in Berkeley and selling to Alice Waters. He then remembered the great soil of his parents farm in Illinois — moved back, converted the farm to organic with a ranch, brought with him a wife, who happened to be a butcher and they had a beautiful daughter, who caught my eye one day in organic chemistry class.
Organic chemistry was one of those requirements, and the best part of it was not the lectures (usually given by a Nobel laureate at The University of Chicago) but the lab. All the pre-med students would spend the first half hour meticulously cleaning their glassware so that when they purified their organic ingredient it would be as pure as could be. I am the last person to be a chemist, but as an amateur cook I knew that if things were too clean it actually inhibited the taste of food. For example, you don’t scrub a coffee pot clean, you allow things to build. Not that you are sloppy — never, and not that you are ever unhealthy or unclean, and you would never leave the counter tops anything but sparkling (especially in mom’s kitchen). So I did an experiment — instead of scrubbing out the glassware for organic chemistry I would clean them, rinse them and see how pure my ingredients were compared to others. Shockingly to many of my classmates, my experiments earned the highest marks for purity, while my glassware (especially my beaker) was growing darker by the week. I aced the lab in organic chemistry — always having the purist organic matter as measured by the mass spectrograph’s with the least impurities. It also freed up more lab time to experiment with new recipes (shocking, but in those days we could cook in the lab and eat — today that would probably violate 27 OSHA laws).
My fellow lab mates would clean their glassware and I would cook them lunch, then after eating a hearty meal we would start the experiments. At the end of the semester we were to turn in our glassware. There was some officious person in charge of the lab who had been working on his PhD in chemistry for 19 years (and clearly was only going to ever be in charge of the lab – a fine example of Peter’s principle). When I brought my glassware back for a refund he said he would have to charge me for the beaker (the glass was black as a Cajun style alligator tail). I told him how this beaker had gotten me an A in organic chemistry and only made the purest of all products. He mumbled how rules were rules, and the glass was not as I had received it, so I must pay. I asked how much I had left in my breakage fee — since they assumed all of us would be a klutz and break something — he said I had never broken anything, but he would have to charge me because the beaker was hopelessly ruined. I grabbed the beaker, holding it at arm’s length dropped it to the floor where it shattered into a thousand pieces. “That should take care of my breakage,” I said. “Have a nice day.” Off I walked.
Of course, the professor was contacted and I was summoned to his office. Very stern, winner of a Nobel prize, very strict he told me that insolence was not tolerated at The University of Chicago. I related the above story, and unfortunately he was drinking his tea because when I told him about dropping the beaker and walking out, the tea sprayed from his nose and mouth as he roared with laughter. He reviewed my grade, smiled and said, “There is a reason that little prick never got his PhD — but if you should ever want to get yours, you have a place in my lab.”
But that was not what Alice meant by organic, in fact she meant nothing at all like organic chemistry — but a lot like mom and many Alaskan’s cook. It grows in the backyard, we don’t spray it with organic chemicals, nature takes care of that, all we do is harvest it. In season we can mix and match the berries with the sauces and place them on the fish. Out of season we use the jams and jellies we made to produce a fine sauce for our fish.
Here is the great thing about cooking– you can use this sauce on almost any fish, in almost any preparation. But be careful. A sauce should be something to add to the flavor of the fish, or to accompany the fish in a manner that will bring out all the flavors. The more flavors on your palate the more intense they become the better they taste. But if the sauce overpowers the natural flavor of the fish then you will ruin a good fish. If you don’t know how it will react with the fish, try it — or put a bit on the side. One of the many “reality” television shows have young cooks trying to be “Top Chef” or beat some other chefs and the most common mistake they make is to be too fancy — to try too many ingredients that do not add to the flavor, but will either overpower it, neutralize it, or be the same taste sensation as the fish. Cooking is a combination of chemistry with art. Like organic chemistry class, learn how to mix and match. Understanding the chemical nature of the ingredient, combining it with another ingredient, and knowing the biology of taste buds form the basis of good combination cooking.
This is never so clear as with fish. Most fish, like salmon, are oily. This oil is enhanced with butter, but clearly lost in lard — so fish does well with simple clarified butter and is lost when you deep fat fry it. The fish flavor is contrasted nicely with certain citrus flavors, but can be overpowered if you make the sauce too tart. Balance is the key. If you don’t know balance, then stick with the simplest of all fish recipes and enjoy fish with a bit of salt, pepper, butter, and lemon. If you want to try a bit more, know that you start in incremental steps.
Wild Berry Sauce:
Into a sauce pan place 1/2 cup of chicken stock
1/4 cup of aged (but not reduced) balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon of frozen concentrated juice (the frozen stuff from the can) or you could use 1/4 cup of fresh squeezed orange juice (love Arizona, we grow these in the yard)
1 teaspoon of honey
Bring all this to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.
To this concoction add: Another 1/4 cup of chicken stock into which you have dissolved 1 tablespoon of Cornstarch This will soften it up, and allow it to become a clear sauce as you simmer it. Stir and in one to two minutes it will be nice and clear To this you add one cup of fresh berries. Not frozen (never tried it but it won’t work because the stabilizer in the frozen berries will not work with this). You can use blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, or salmonberries. To keep a bit of tartness or bitterness to this add two tablespoons of freshly chopped chives. This cuts the sweetness down a bit and allows it to not overpower the natural flavor of the fish. You can mix and match the berries and then place this sauce on the side of the fish.
Very strong fish, like salmon do not need much of this sauce, just a hint — but use it to your taste. Salmon wasn’t the only thing we ate or caught that summer. There was a lot of halibut, red snapper, cod, and a few fish they probably haven’t even named yet.
The summer went by too quickly. It was sad for me because I knew my folks were retiring to Oregon and there wasn’t reason to come back to this little town I grew up in. I wondered for all the papers I had published about science were not worth as much as the beauty of Alaska, the great fish, and wonderful berries that I missed out on. Not to mention mom’s cooking– still the best cook I know. Finally I convinced my folks to let me take them to dinner, where I ordered salmon — which the restaurant prepared in a fine Yakatori sauce. I wondered out loud how some of the finer restaurants in Chicago would prepare salmon. Mom warned me that in the south we wouldn’t have the same fresh salmon and to be careful when ordering it in a restaurant (I hadn’t tried because I didn’t think I liked it). She also warned me that if I asked for a salmon head they would likely not know how to prepare it and I would get a funny look. Yes, salmon head — one of my favorite parts, but more about that later. This was before the days of overnight shipping, before any of the well-known carriers were well known. No UPS, no Fed-Ex, the only way you sent anything was by the post office, and something sent overnight was done through special arrangements with the airline and cost the same as a plane ticket. I wanted to send some fresh salmon down and when I found out the price I asked if that was for the salmon to sit in first class.
Leaving Ketchikan was difficult, I wouldn’t get back there for over 20 years, and somehow I knew it. I never appreciated it growing up – while I knew I would continue to enjoy mom’s cooking, and learn how to cook like her, I would miss the natural beauty that is unique to Southeast Alaska. Mom and dad caught the ferry with me to cross the Tongass Narrows. As we were crossing I pointed out the silver salmon that were headed up the creek. “Hey dad, think we could snag a few of those as we cross?” I asked. He laughed, “Son, when you come back someday, they will still be here. We can always catch more salmon, but keep working on your knife skills, it still takes you two minutes to fillet one of them.”
Walking down the jet way I told my folks I was headed to LA to pick up some vegetables for dinner. Mom cried, dad’s eyes got moist, and I worked hard to keep the lump from coming out of my throat.
LA — The beautiful people
Flying over Ketchikan I was still stunned by the beauty of the place. Then I looked at the buildings – and my thought was “What a crummy town to be in such a beautiful part of nature.” I still didn’t believe that I grew up here. But off to LA I went, where the buildings and the people are beautiful. But beauty in L.A. on the outside, truly beautiful people are Alaskans, and in all my travels, in all the cities and countryside I have never met people who are as warm, open and beautiful as Alaskans. Walking down the street in Ketchikan and you will be greeted warmly by everyone — and while they aren’t classic beauties (some of the fishermen have a few teeth) – when they smile it is warm, genuine and not enhanced by Botox.
Arriving in LA to visit my best friend Scott and meet up with my girlfriend later that day. I told Scott about my desire for seafood he told me with great flair (as only my flaming buddy could do) that we were going out to the finest seafood restaurant in Los Angeles. Scott was a bon vivant. As a fellow student at The University of Chicago we had dinned at some wonderful restaurants, and enjoyed the great food and wine that Chicago offered, so I was certain that I was going to have a great fish. One of the things I had discovered in Chicago was great restaurants. So I would take dates to these wonderful places like Chez Paul, French Islands, Le Frances — and they appreciated them about as much as if I had taken them to a pizza place. So instead I would go out to great places with Scott, who not only knew all the great places to go, but would appreciate the good food and wine with as fine a palate as anyone I have met.
Before I ordered the salmon I had to quiz the waiter — what type of salmon –
“King, ” replied the waiter.
When was the fish caught –
“Recently.” in a tone that was clearly not amused by my questioning his culinary recommendation.
Was it troll caught, caught in a net .
“Troll caught.” replied the now tired waiter. But I was impressed, this guy either knew his stuff, or was blowing smoke.
Did they have it frozen, or on ice?
“On ice,” he now, rather impatiently replied.
-and how long. Then how was it prepared. The waiter haughtily informed me it was fresh, troll caught and would fit my desires, they only served the freshest fish in the restaurant. My girlfriend was embarrassed by the inquisition. The salmon came, and I could smell that fishy odor that tells you the salmon is old — never a good thing. I sent it back. Salmon should not smell fishy.
The waiter said that it was perfectly good salmon, and I disagreed. My girlfriend ate hers, and said it was good– I could not get it past my nose. Clearly the girlfriend had to go. I ordered the streak — always rough to order a steak in a seafood place, but hey — I wanted a reliable meal.
If you smell fish the salmon isn’t fresh; don’t even taste it. Too often in restaurants people order salmon, and I can smell that “fishy” smell three tables away, I want to walk over and send the salmon back for them, and am often surprised when those patron’s appreciate it. More often people who say they were talked into the salmon and that they don’t like the taste of salmon – and no doubt they have never had fresh salmon. Fresh salmon does not smell fishy.
I was homesick already. Beverly Hills was a beautiful place, it was clean and nice, but I never met people more impressed with what they drove than being polite. Perhaps in Alaska being friendly was part of being a pioneer. Depending on one another, often strangers, was something that Alaskans have to do.
I told this to Scott, apologizing for sending the salmon back and telling him that I wanted to fix dinner for everyone that night, but didn’t know where to get some fresh fish.
He looked at me, with his brow arched, “Oh, lets go to Third and Fairfax.”
Farmers market (no apostrophe I am told) made LA worthwhile. Most are impressed with fine Italian shoes on Rodeo Drive– I was impressed by the fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs at the market — and the fish at Tusquellas Seafoods. What a wonderful place. Talk about a kid in a candy store.
But it was here that I learned about a new, and probably not great trend – farming fish. Fish Farms: In the 1970’s folks in British Columbia began to expand from raising salmon in hatcheries and letting them go to raising salmon in large sea pens. There were a lot of early failures in this regard, and some environmental damage, but these issues were largely fixed. These are called — farm raised salmon, or Atlantic salmon, or British Columbia salmon. All of these fish are raised in pens, given feed, and harvested. There has been a lot of concern in the press that these fish have high content of mercury, and a number of people who say that these are unhealthy. So while these farm raised do not taste like wild, Alaska fresh salmon, their taste is not bad. They have less muscle than wild salmon (they don’t get out much) and more fat. Their color is determined by an additive that the salmon farmers put into their feed (I often thought a purple salmon would be fun).
Alaskans have great pride in our salmon, so we often prefer wild salmon to the farm raised variety. In San Francisco a group of us Alaskans met at a great Italian restaurant. We were there for the fine Italian food, but when the waiter came he said they had a special — a fresh salmon. We asked if it was farm raised or wild. He assured us the salmon was troll caught in the Pacific and we would love it. So we ordered a single fillet as an appetizer. Promising him that we would order more if we liked it. All of us had a bite — and immediately said, “This is farm raised.” The waiter disagreed, saying he saw the fish himself. When four Alaskans tell you it is farm raised, trust me, it is farm raised — much like 90 per cent of the salmon sold in the lower 48. The waiter went to the kitchen, and came back admitted it was farm raised. The fish was fresh, but didn’t have the taste of wild salmon.
All wild salmon are not the same. Depending on where and when you catch them they will be very different. The best salmon is oily and firm — and usually my favorite are either the troll caught salmon, or those salmon who are going up the Yukon River in Alaska. Needing the extra oil to make the long journey up a long river makes the fish have a special flavor. Years have gone by, and wild salmon is available in many fine restaurants, and they can tell you where it was caught, and when.
Salmon has become my favorite food, the circle being made, and I look forward every year to the early runs of salmon. I still enjoy a fine canned salmon in the winter time, and always store some extra smoked salmon to keep my spirits up in the winter time. Mom and Dad moved to Oregon, but bring a fresh salmon to mom’s kitchen and no one can make a finer fish than she can. Dad is still a natural with a knife, cleaning the salmon. For fun they go to their cabin on the Alsea River in Oregon and catch a few Steelhead (a variant of salmon) and enjoy fresh fish.
TIP ONE — If you can get fresh — get it. Like all good things in life, the secret to good salmon is to have it fresh and wild. Many like the taste of farm raised salmon, but do not let the restaurant fool you — if the waiter doesn’t know where the salmon came from, ask them to find out. Do not be shy about this. Find out when the salmon comes in and plan your meals for that time. Some restaurants have regular shipments of salmon, on specific days so that if the salmon comes in on Thursday, then Thursday night you will have some good fresh fish. With today’s modern transportation systems fish can come from Alaska and be on your plate at your favorite restaurant within 48 hours after it is caught.
King (Chinook) salmon can be troll caught throughout the year, but the typical harvests from Alaska are March to October, with most of the Kings coming in the summer time. Sometimes they are white kings, sometimes red. The other salmon also have seasons, such as the Red Salmon (sockeye) are harder to find in the lower 48, their season is May to July. Reds use to be the most sought after salmon, but have been replaced by the King as the most popular salmon. Silver salmon are not only fun to catch, but taste great. Silvers are typically caught in the wild in late July to September.
There are a lot of rivers in Alaska that salmon come from, and probably the most famous is where my brother lives, The Copper River. Different rivers have provide different characteristics for the salmon. The longer the river, the more oily the fish is, and the oil provides a great deal of flavor. The Yukon River has among the most oily of fish.
King Salmon have the most oil of the fish, followed by Reds, then silvers. Humpback salmon are typically canned or smoked (hard to keep lit) — but sports fishermen bring these back a lot. Farm raised salmon are silver (Coho) as their genetic origin. Farm raised salmon look a bit different than wild Coho, they taste different. For my friends in Alaska that were commercial fishermen, these farmers have almost put commercial fishermen out of business. Over 90 per cent of the salmon sold in the lower 48 are farm raised, but if you find a restaurant that has wild salmon, you will notice the difference. One thing is certain, fresh farm raised salmon is better than frozen salmon. If you are going to buy salmon to cook then buy it the day you are going to cook it.
One of my favorite places in the lower 48 to buy fish is Pike Place Market in Seattle. Anyone who has ever gone there has enjoyed the show of the sellers tossing fish at one another. But they know how to store and keep salmon. Whole fish is kept on ice — this is how a whole salmon should be kept, on ice. But a fillet or steak, or head, or tips should be kept on a plastic tray over the ice (you will see below). If the meat of the salmon is kept on ice it will cause a bit of freezer burn, and that is just tastes nasty.
The only time that salmon should be in water is when they are alive, once you have them caught and they are in storage, water will ruin them. If you buy a whole salmon (the best) then look over the fish and make certain that the skin is intact.
Salmon should smell like the ocean, not like fish. The eyes of the salmon should be clear, the skin intact with moist scales, the gills should be clean. If you look at the eyes and the salmon blinks, then you have a fresh one. If you get a fillet or a steak ask to have the pin bones removed. We accomplished this with a fine needle nose pliers (then discovered that a flat surgeon’s needle holder works better). But, when it comes to salmon, get the fillet not the steak — the fillet is cut lengthwise keeping more moisture in the salmon. Steaks are meant for cows — soon as I see a salmon with horns I will cut salmon steaks.
Cooking on Planks The next tip is to use place your salmon on Cedar or Alder wood. Alaska Natives (my ancestors) used planks to cook the fish on in Alaska because we didn’t have metals to cook salmon with. We did have a lot of wood around, so cutting a plank of cedar or alder was pretty easy to do and putting a fish on it and letting it roast on a fire was easy. That is the basis of the recipe. Also for another axiom with fish — different metals can impart a flavor to fish, so keep the fish in minimal contact with metal surfaces (a grill, some foil, a pan). Which means if you brine it — keep it away from metal. If you cook it, don’t cook it too long, if you grill it– not too long. The worst metal is anything with zinc — do not cook, clean, store, or use any zinc surface. Combine zinc with fish and you will not only have a lousy tasting fish, but spend most of the next ten hours on the toilet. So, using planks, cedar or alder work well. You can go to a fancy cooking store and buy these, but it is cheaper if you go to a lumber yard — or better yet, use your local forest and with a good hatchet you can split a fine plank. A quarter of an inch is all the thicker you need, no more. I was amused when going to a fancy cooking store and they were selling cedar planks for ten bucks each. I mean really, as silly as bottled water. All you need is to split of cedar or alder off, about six or 18 inches.
Still, I don’t understand the folks down here too much, so if you must spend money at the fancy store then go ahead. They will be happy to sell you what we call scrap wood or kindling for more than the fish would cost. The next key is to soak the wood in salt water. When you buy them from the store or a lumber yard they will be too try. Again, avoid metal. Use a plastic tub or bucket, do not soak the planks in saltwater in metal. In Alaska the ocean did this job for us — we took the split planks and soaked them in the ocean for a bit — or if we harvested the plank fresh it was moist enough. Some have a specific amount of time they soak the wood for– two to four hours. The wood will float, and resist the temptation to submerge the wood with cans (metal again). After a few hours of floating the wood will sink a bit, then turn the planks over. If they sit overnight they may submerge, and that is good. If the wood is kept in long enough some material will come out of the wood that is nasty — you can pour that off, and refill with salt water. The moist wood allows it to smoke when cooked, imparting a wonderful flavor to the fish. Wood that is dry will impart no flavor to the fish, and will tend to burn. Now when you discover how fresh this fish is, and the flavors imparted from the wood you will want to do this again.
Of course if you are spending ten to fifteen bucks on a cedar plank you will want to reuse it. If you reuse it that night, fine but not longer. If you want to keep it around for a while you will have some fishy smelling cedar on your hands. Once the fish is cooked the real use for the plank is to keep the fire going. Of course you can always go back to the fancy shop and spend more money on wood.
Take your plank that has been nicely soaked in seawater. Use a hot gas grill, or charcoal grill (I like The Big Green Egg) and make certain it is to 350 to 450 degrees. You can either use fresh fish you just caught– but if you bought it, then the fish would do well in a brine. A simple brine with some Kosher or Sea Salt, a bit of brown sugar, and let the salmon sit in that for no more than 20 minutes. You can also use this brine to put your planks in. Put the salmon on the wet plank and brush on some butter (or olive oil). Sprinkle on some salt, lightly, and some pepper and squeeze on lemon. Close the grill. Using the five to six minutes per inch of thickness, it will be done quickly. Some folks use the oil, salt, pepper, and lemon as a marinate. I don’t notice the difference, and prefer using rubs more than marinates – the salmon should not need to soak in anything. Some like to add basil, or any one of a thousand herbs in the cupboard — (you can buy recipe books for salmon that substitute one ingredient for another, but you can experiment on your own).
How to Preserve your Salmon
The first rule is that fresh is best. Frozen salmon loses flavor over time. It is still good, but fresh salmon is always preferred. So, keep freezing to a minimum. Preserving salmon before the age of refrigeration was with salt and smoke, but today most folks have freezers. But freezing and thawing salmon is an important step. In reverse order, thawing. Do not thaw and re freeze salmon. Determine how much salmon you are going to consume, and if you thaw out more than you need, invite some folks over.
Thawing salmon should take time. Do not thaw in a microwave, or in warm water, or running water over it. The proteins in salmon are delicate, and cook best about 122 degrees F. Most hot water is over 130 degrees and will cook the salmon. Plan on thawing the amount of salmon over time, in the refrigerator. The salmon is best wrapped in butcher paper, and thawed in the butcher paper with something to catch the drippings.
To store fish in a freezer, again, put it in the butcher paper, then store inside of an airtight container. This helps avoid freezer burn.I use a vacuum sealer for this step. If you are smart, when you freeze the salmon, you freeze it in smaller segments, so you do not need to re-freeze it. Freezer burn on salmon is nasty. It typically happens near the edges of the salmon and can ruin the entire experience. If you see some area of freezer burn (it typically has a white to gray blanch) cut it off. It won’t spoil the healthy part of the fish, but the taste of this part of the fish may ruin your taste for the evening.
Fresh fish, when recently caught, can be kept for a short period of time on ice. This is how most fishermen keep it. We didn’t preserve salmon by freezing when I grew up. The salmon we didn’t eat was either canned or smoked. Not many folks sold freezers in Alaska in the 1960’s — go figure. Canned salmon is quite good — in fact, I prefer this to frozen salmon from the stores. First, the canned salmon is almost always wild salmon. Second, the flavor is preserved with canning, and finally, a lot of canned salmon comes from my hometown. The canned salmon is easy to place in salads, make as an appetizer, or for the main course. This is where someone will say “canned,” but that is metal — well, in Alaska canned means in a jar. But the cans used in canned salmon are safe, and do not impart a flavor to the salmon. There are a number of people who still like to pickle salmon, or to salt salmon. Not something I ever like, and since it is my story we will just leave the salted and pickled salmon to the others.
The Traditional Smokehouse One of my favorite treats is smoked salmon. Smoking salmon was probably an accident — to preserve the fish for the long winters the fish were hung out to dry and fires were built around them to keep the flies away. There are a lot of ways in which to smoke a salmon, but the best is a very slow process, where the salmon is smoked over four days at about 85 degrees. Some of the salmon will become rancid, but the others will have a rich flavor, and almost candy. When I bought a smoker, The Big Green Egg, for my house in Phoenix I was upset because while I could smoke at almost any temperature, in the summer in Phoenix the inside temperature of the smoker was 130 degrees without any flame! So instead, I have to smoke salmon over 36 hours at 200 degrees. Or better yet, I travel to Alaska and my friends there share some of their salmon with me, and I share some fine roasted coffee with them — it is a good trade.
When you have a lot of fish for a short period of time (the salmon runs) you have to learn to preserve it for the winter– and dry-smoking salmon was a key to survival. In Ketchikan most folks had a smokehouse– which looked like an old shed, while it looked slapped together, all those openings were to allow the proper mixture of venting and smoke removal. Some folks would have a used refrigerator with a chimney drilled on the top. How you smoked salmon in Ketchikan was a simple method, but you could do things there I can’t do in Arizona — like smoke fish cold. But smoking has gone from preservation of the salmon so you could eat in the winter, to imparting a flavor to the fish and allowing you to keep it cool, instead of frozen, for a long period of time.
If you have an old a shed, and live in a cooler climate– you can learn to smoke in that shed — two simple things: smoke has carbon monoxide that will kill you (another reason those sheds always have a lot of smoke coming out) and if you smoke in a wooden structure you need a good smoker box – where the smoldering fire will be kept- -someplace you can get to it so that you don’t breathe the material and a place where the smoldering fire won’t get out and torch the shed. Kind of embarrassing when the fire department shows up to put out the fire on a smokehouse — easy to put out, usually ruins some fish, and having them laugh at you for the next few years is, well….. How you cut the fish for the smokehouse depends on how much room you have, and how you build your smokehouse. Ours was simple, we had a lot of room so we could gut the fish, remove the heads and tips (my favorite part) and hang them upside down by the tail. For my friends who converted a refrigerator, and for those of you who get electric smokers would fillet them and place them on the racks. Long cold smoking produces the best smoked fish. It is like eating candy — and is nothing you can buy in any store. The reason is that a lot of fish will go rancid, so it becomes very expensive, unless you live next to the river and have a lot of fish you can catch — it is better so smoke them a bit quicker.
Salmon Cooking Tips
Cooking Tips First rule: you can put almost anything on salmon, but keep it light. Salmon has a unique flavor, and does not need other flavors mixed in with it. Salmon does not need strong cheese crusted on it, better to have some simple lemon and butter.
Second rule: do not overcook the salmon. It doesn’t take much to cook the fish, it takes about five minutes per inch of fish to cook
Third rule: skin side down. You don’t need to flip salmon — leave the skin side down (on your plank, or — in foil) and allow the juices to bubble to the top.
I leaned a lot more about barbecue after I left Ketchikan. But this was one bit I learned from my neighbor, Arnold, who was a fisherman. Several of our neighbors fished for a living, and that meant we always had a lot of fish for dinners. In Ketchikan we had about two weeks of summer, when we would break out our grills, and enjoy the warm 70 degree weather. One day we were at the Ludwigsen’s and he was making salmon on the grill and it tasted better than almost any. Heat the coals and when the coals are grey place a bit of green alder, and remove the bark. Put the alder on top of the coals. Remove the bones from the fish. To the fish add salt, pepper, garlic salt, and brown the pink side of the fish. Put the fish on the rack with double duty foil. Turn the fish, then baste the fish with melted butter. Keep the fish moist with butter. The fish will be done quickly. This works the same as an alder plank salmon, and there was a lot of alder around the area. So, instead of having the fish on a plank, the green alder wood smoke serves to “infuse” the salmon with some good flavor.
Salmon is simple — you need salt and pepper, a bit of heat, and some smoke. To balance the oil of the salmon – lemon. Or, berries, or rhubarb.
The Salmon Head:
Yup, for many of us Alaskans the salmon head is the best part. Most southerners simply waste the head thinking it should be thrown out, where in Alaska you will see the natives vying for who will get the head. The cheeks of the salmon have the best flavor.
Fish Head Stew:
3 small salmon heads
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 quart of clams in the shell
1/8 teaspoon thyme
4 medium onions, sliced
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 1/2 quart of whole milk
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons of butter
Simmer the heads for 20 minutes in water — with just barely enough water to cover. Remove the heads from the broth. Cool and separate meat from the bones. Throw away eyes (most don’t like them, I fancy them a bit), skin, bones, etc. Strain the broth and save it. Place whole clams in a pan without water. Heat only until clams have fully opened. Remove bodies and snip off neck. Cut up remainder and add to the fish. Keep the liquid. Saute onion in the butter about 10 minutes. Add the fish and clam broth. Add the seasoning. Heat just to boil. Then add fish, clams, and milk. Heat, but do not boil. When ready to serve, place a pat of butter in the soup bowl and ladle in stew. The flavor is improved if it is cooled and then allowed to stand in refrigerator overnight before reheating and serving. This can be frozen.
The Norske Way: Bring water to a boil. Add on teaspoon of Kosher salt, 2 tablespoons of vinegar and sliced fish. Cook slowly, below the boil for 20 minutes. If you check temperature, keep it well below 140 degrees, prefer 122 degrees. Make brine of 1 tablespoon of Kosher salt, fish broth. Put slices of fish on the platter. Pour brine over for seasoning and serve with melted butter.
The Salmon that caught my wife:
A trip to Alaska for a board meeting in the summer is always nice, but the meetings were over and I was headed back to Phoenix for a weekend when some friends of mine from Tampa asked if I would want to come down there for an “underground dinner.” They had been asking me for months, and I really wanted to meet these nice folks.
Alaska Natives have a tradition, when we are invited we bring food. I had a day, the salmon were running in Ship Creek, a small creek that goes through downtown Anchorage, so I thought- why don’t I just catch one?
I borrowed some gear from a friend, got a license, and in a few minutes caught a beautiful king. With some quick knife work, I cleaned it and then called a friend to help me get it packed. He suggested a commercial place, and they helped me with boxes and ice, and we got this beautiful king ready to go.
I caught the red-eye to Houston, then a quick flight to Tampa. When I arrived there was a voice message saying that Debbie couldn’t pick me up, but April would. I had communicated with April on Twitter, didn’t know a thing about her, but she seemed nice enough.
She showed up with her two-seater BMW, and I put my luggage and the salmon into the trunk. Got into the car, we both took off sunglasses, and looked at her. A bit later we would both recall having the same thought, “I’m in trouble.”
The dinner was delightful, and the salmon was a hit. Two chefs, including Dolce Debbie, did a great job with multiple courses — my salmon being prepared cold. It was delicious. April, who told me she just didn’t like salmon, loved it.
It wasn’t long before I was making weekly trips to Tampa. April and I got married, and had our son, JJ. And what was JJ’s first meat? Salmon – freshly caught in Alaska, of course.
So when you ask about salmon and me? Well, yes, I like salmon, I like it very much.
Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and received his MD. Dr. Simpson, then became a renowned weight loss surgeon, and a leading advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he advocates teaching people to improve their health through their food. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcom Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit www.terrysimpson.com.