Right now it can feel like a sports desert in the Pacific Northwest. About the only thing to watch is baseball, and the Seattle Mariners are cellar dwellers working on what might be a 100-loss season. Football season is a season away! How to pass the time? With a satisfying diversion, of course.
Unlike every other part of the country, here in the PNW we have access to a sacred supply of something delicious to eat and fun to cook. I’m talking, of course, about wild Pacific salmon.
Now I know that the farmed Atlantic stuff is cheaper (there’s even Atlantic salmon farmed in the Northwest, if that makes sense), but don’t settle for it. Get you some of the good stuff. It doesn’t have to be the Copper River, which is often prohibitively expensive. A side or two of generic wild Alaskan sockeye will do just fine.
What do you do with it? A better question might be, what don’t you do with it? It can be baked, roasted, fried, grilled, smoked, cured, poached, and eaten raw. Salmon tastes good hot or cold. It works well as an appetizer or a main course.
How about as a dessert?
Hmmm. You might be better off just serving ice cream.
A good place to start would be on the grill; it is summer, after all. Before you begin, a *cough, cough* piece of advice: If you plan to serve individual portions to your guests, cut the salmon into portion pieces while it is still raw. If you cook a whole side of salmon, you can’t then portion it, since it flakes too much and will fall apart and look messy. Can you just grill it whole and then serve it whole? A wholehearted yes. It makes for a wonderful presentation and is fun to set down in the center of the table for people to pick at. Talk about family style.
What else do you need to do to it? There’s no need to remove the skin, unless you really want to. If so, get a sharp knife. Maybe watch a YouTube video or two of a chef skinning a side. There’s also the issue of pin bones. They’re probably not big enough to choke on, but they probably are too big to swallow. They are annoying, more than anything. How do you remove them? With a pair of pin-bone pliers, of course. Go to a chef shop and buy some, or just use a pair of tweezers or needle nose pliers.
Before you just wrap it in foil and throw it on a hot grill, take a step back and consider a few things. Salmon, like most foods, almost always tastes better when cooked over a wood or lump charcoal fire. Have an endless budget and a desire for something unique? Look into Binchotan charcoal. It will absolutely blow your mind.
Next piece of advice? Try low and slow instead of fast and hot. In her wonderful book, “Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat”, Samin Nosrat calls for slow-roasting salmon on a bed of fresh herbs at 225 degrees. It can take up to an hour, but the texture of the finished product is silky and moist, perhaps unlike any salmon you’ve ever tasted. You can do this on your grill by placing the salmon on one side of the grill and having the heat source—wood, charcoal, gas—be on the other side. Close the lid of your grill and you’ve just created a low-temperature oven.
Another interesting method you might try is to make gravlax. The history of this Scandinavian preparation goes something like this: Fisherman would start at the bottom of the river and fish their way to the top of it. Every time they caught a fish, they would gut it, sprinkle it with a curing salt they wore in a pouch on their belt, then bury it in a “grave” alongside the river. They reached the top of the river after a few days, turned around and walked back to where they started at the bottom, collecting the fish from their graves along the way, during which time the fish had been cured and preserved. You can try it at home by creating an interesting and flavorful cure recipe—some call for Aquavit, while others call for beets of all things—and sprinkling it on a side of salmon and storing it in your refrigerator for a week. Then you pull it out, rinse it off, and slice it thinly with a sharp knife. It will be translucent and look “raw”, though in reality the salt in the cure has preserved it. Serve it to your guests and I promise they’ll gobble it up while you relay to them the interesting history of the dish.
Whatever you do to pass the time this summer, try not to sit around waiting for sports seasons to start. It’s not going to make them arrive any sooner; in fact, it may have the opposite effect. There’s a million and one things to do, but not all of them will also put dinner on the table while simultaneously connecting you the special place where you live. That’s the gift that salmon gives you.
*It is important to consider the state of our salmon population in the Pacific Northwest. It is undoubtedly a depleted resource, a mere fraction of what it was when this region was inhabited by Native Americans, some of whom believed that salmon were supernatural beings who lived in houses under the sea. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a leading resource for seafood sustainability issues, lists Canada Pacific and U.S. salmon as good choices and says to avoid eating Puget Sound Chinook and Columbia River Coho.