Category Archives: Fishing

Upstream On Sale Today

upstreamMy new book, Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table, goes on sale today. Pick up a copy at your local indie book store, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks. It’s also available as a free audiobook with an Audible trial.

The timing of the book’s release has been known for more than a year, but we couldn’t have predicted the socio-political atmosphere it would land in. Wild salmon have survived all manner of tectonic tumult through the ages, from fire to ice, in part because of their genetic diversity and legendary resilience. The human-caused upheaval of land use, economics, and politics is more recent. Even more recent is the acrimony and partisanship that gets in the way of people coming together to solve problems.

Wild salmon face myriad problems today—and so do we. Most of their problems are our problems. We are tied to these fish like no other, and taking a closer look at our relationship with salmon strikes me as a worthy pursuit, especially in light of current events.

A big thank-you to everyone who helped me see this book into print as well as my many readers and supporters. I sincerely hope you enjoy Upstream and find passages that stay with you.

Monday, June 5, I will talk about the book and show slides at Town Hall Seattle, 7:30 pm.

New Book on May 30!

upstreamI’m pleased to announce that my new book, Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table, will be released on May 30. The official book launch will be at Town Hall Seattle on June 5. The night before, on June 4, I will host a four-course salmon dinner at La Medusa restaurant in Seattle with the Field Trip Society, featuring Copper River salmon freshly caught by my friends at Drifters Fish in Cordova, Alaska. Both events are open to the public.

Back to the book. For the past several years, I’ve been chasing salmon—and those who love them—across the greater Pacific Northwest, from the agricultural valleys of California to Alaska’s wild rivers to the inland mountains of Idaho. Along the way I picked nets with commercial and tribal fishermen; snorkeled spawning beds with fisheries biologists; visited the kitchens of salmon-obsessed chefs; and casted a line with hardcore anglers.

Our relationship with these magnificent fish goes back thousands of years in North America, to the arrival of the first humans on a formerly unpeopled continent. Now the question is whether this bond, so vital for so long, will continue.

Here are snippets from early reviews:

From Kirkus: A tale of a species on life support and the ramifications for people, nature, and place… Exposing striking human-salmon parallels, these stories tell of settlement and cultural clashes, of life cycles and migrations, of deforestation and industrial agriculture, of racism and gentrification, and Cook skillfully illustrates the interconnectedness of it all. Seeking the wild in a landscape fraught with man-made alteration and annihilation, the author interrogates the nature of wildness, posing urgent, provocative questions… Blurring boundaries and complicating the oversimplified, Cook provides a moving, artfully layered story of strength and vulnerability, offering glimpses of hope for growing humility and reverence and for shifting human-nature relationships.

From Publishers Weekly: In this insightful book, Cook clearly outlines scientific information, giving details on the salmon’s life cycle, distribution, preferred habitat, and physical appearance. But the focus here is less on facts and research and more on how “Pacific salmon culture in North America is a dance between fish and humanity.” Cook connects with chefs, fishermen, ecologists, fish wranglers, reef netters, Native Americans, and countless others to get their perspectives on the state of dwindling salmon stocks and the impact on them of fish hatcheries, commercial fishing, dam building/removal, and wildlife conservation. In the end, Cook acknowledges that salmon’s recovery, just like its demise, will come from people…this work is a great place to learn what needs to done—and an entertaining view on the positive and negative connections humans have with the natural environment.

From Library Journal: Cook deftly conveys his love of nature, the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and the delectable eating provided by fresh caught wild salmon…passionate and well-written.

From Booklist: Cook’s salmon travelogue easily appeals to anglers, salmon eaters, nature lovers and everyone in between. The Pacific salmon is a great American fish, and by writing about it with such care and curiosity, Cook establishes its ecological importance and tells a great American story.

Ikura

ikura1With nearly 7 million pink salmon forecasted to return to Puget Sound rivers this year, just about everyone I know has been hitting the beaches with pink fever. Earlier in the month I spoke with David Hyde at KUOW about the many charms of pinkies, traditionally the least appreciated of our five Pacific salmon species. Since then I’ve nearly filled my catch card—and the freezer, with a year’s supply of smoked salmon.

Today I searched this blog for a salmon caviar recipe and was surprised I’d never posted one. I’ve been curing salmon roe for years, ever since my pal Beedle (of Fat of the Land fame) showed me how more than a decade ago. Alas, it’s been a year since my last caviar session and Beedle’s notes have gone missing, so I took to the Web—and I’m glad I did.

I found this post by someone named Marc at No Recipes. To separate salmon eggs from their skeins, I’ve always used the warm water method. Though it works, it’s messy and time-consuming, and the act of picking out all those nasty little bits of skein deserves to have its own ring in Hell. Instead I gave Marc’s method a try…and I’m here to tell you it works. I found a wire cooling rack, the sort you might use for cookies hot out of the oven, and placed it over a large mixing bowl. Next I opened up the skeins and ran them back and forth over the rack. The eggs fell easily into the bowl. Besides doing the job quickly with minimal wastage, the process is an object lesson in the durability of salmon eggs. They’re tough! Nature takes care of its own, if we let it.

After separating the eggs, I rinsed them in a wire mesh strainer with cold tap water and then adapted Marc’s recommended ikura recipe rather than making my usual salt brine. Because I was using smaller pink salmon skeins, and because I didn’t have any sake on hand, I halved his recipe and used aji-mirrin in place of sugar and sake.

3/4 cup dashi *
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp aji-mirrin
2 tsp kosher salt
2 small skeins salmon roe

* For making homemade dashi, see my post on Oyster Mushroom Udon.

1. Peel open egg skein with fingers. Separate salmon eggs from skeins by rubbing the open end of the skein across a wire cooling rack.

2. Mix curing ingredients together in a bowl and add the eggs. Refrigerate overnight, curing from 12 to 24 hours.

3. Drain. Ikura will keep in a refrigerated glass jar for several days.

I’ve eaten variations of salmon caviar and ikura made from every species of Pacific salmon. They’re all good. Chum salmon eggs are especially beloved in Japan, but pinks have their own merits. The briny goodness of cured salmon eggs popping in your mouth is one of the great culinary delights—and a good reason to go catch a salmon.

Bouillabaisse, Northwest-style

halibut3Fish stews—bouillabaisse, cioppinochowder, bisque, fish head soup, and so on—are some of my favorite meals. Don’t let the authenticity police scare you into passing on such hearty and satisfying fare. These dishes are meant to be simple, to let the ingredients speak for themselves, even when we gussy them up with pretension.

In Marseilles, partisans have been arguing over the ingredients and presentation of a proper bouillabaisse for as long as anyone can remember. Ignore the guy who tells you you’re doing it wrong if you don’t use a freakin’ rascasse fer chrissakes. (The rascasse, also called a scorpionfish, is a Mediterranean species often used in bouillabaisse…in southern France.) Nor do you need to serve it in two courses, with rouille.

The point of dishes like bouillabaisse or cioppino is to use whatever is fresh and on hand. In fact, I’d bet the origin of these dishes is probably less palatable than many would like to believe. The fish were probably those left unsold by the fishmonger or on the verge of being…shall we say…less than perfectly fresh. Perhaps they were bycatch on the boat, the sort of fishes that wouldn’t earn the fishermen any money. Into the stew pot they went, along with whatever else was lying around: onions, garlic, tomato, maybe a fennel bulb.

Since it’s the 21st century and most of us won’t be cooking this dish on board a fishing vessel at an ungodly hour in between sets, we needn’t worry about making use of deck flotsam. We should try to find the best, freshest fish available wherever we live. I happen to live in the Pacific Northwest, not on the Mediterranean, so it makes sense to use local Puget Sound shellfish and cold-water finned fish from the North Pacific. I was in Cordova, Alaska, last week for opening day of the Copper River salmon season. Instead of bringing home a box full of sockeye or king like everyone else on my Alaska Airlines flight, I nabbed me some halibut, which yielded four beautiful fillets and a carcass begging to be used for stock. (The salmon was too valuable as income for my hosts to give away.)

A mix of fish makes a more interesting bouillabaisse. Along with the halibut, I added Alaskan rockfish, Penn Cove mussels, and shrimp. Other choices in my region might include lingcod, Pacific cod, pollock, flounder, Dungeness crab, manila clams, and spot shrimp. You could use salmon, but the strong and distinctive flavor would overwhelm the other ingredients. My nods to tradition included fennel, saffron, and orange zest, though I didn’t bother with leeks or Pernod (though a licorice fern infusion could have given it that extra touch of anise flavor).

You can use store-bought fish stock or clam juice, but a homemade stock is best—a good excuse for buying that whole fish at the market and saving a bunch of money by filleting it yourself and using the scraps for stock.

Stock

1 (or more) white-fleshed fish carcass (enough to fill bottom of pot)
1/2 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 or 2 celery ribs, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
1 handful parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

Cover fish carcass (in this case, halibut) with water. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add onion, carrot, celery, white wine, bay leaf, thyme, parsley. Simmer together another 20 minutes, until fish flesh is easily separated from the bones. Add more water if necessary. Season and strain. Yield: 1 quart.

Bouillabaisse

2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine (or splash of Pernod)
2-3 cups tomatoes, cut up
1 pinch saffron
1 pinch hot red pepper flakes
2 tsp orange zest
1 quart fish stock (see above)
3-4 lbs assorted white fish fillets cut into pieces and shellfish
1 handful parsley, chopped

In a pot, heat olive oil over medium heat and sauté onion and fennel until softened. Deglaze with a splash of white wine. Add garlic, tomatoes, saffron, pepper flakes, and orange zest. Raise heat to medium-high and cook together a few minutes. Stir in 1 quart fish stock and bring to low boil. Add fish fillet pieces and cook several minutes (depending on thickness). Note: if using a mixture of firm fish and softer fish, add in stages to allow even cooking. Lastly, add shellfish and cover. When the shellfish are cooked, stir in parsley and remove from heat. Ladle immediately over crusty bread (optional: toast bread and rub with cut garlic). Serves 4.

 

Smoked Salmon Candy

candy2Last week I was forced to play the bi-annual standup freezer defrosting game. My freezer cost me zero dollars to haul away from some guy’s basement, but you get what you pay for, and in this case it has a couple dents in the upper left corner that prevent a perfect seal when the door is closed, and though I solved this problem with stick-on insulation strips, over the course of a year or two, ice gathers in this corner until it overwhelms the whole freezer ecosystem and the entire thing begins to accumulate a layer of snowy frost.

The defrosting requires multiple pots of boiling water to steam out the ice and a little chiseling with a claw hammer. Meanwhile, all my wild food waits patiently in four coolers before it can be re-stacked in the freezer.

This is a good opportunity to take stock. I found frozen packages of stinging nettles from 2010; into the trash they went, sadly. The half-quart tubs of salmon stock went happily in the trash; frozen salmon stock is nasty, friends, and the fresh stuff isn’t much better, I’ve decided, with only limited applications.

Speaking of salmon, I’ve got more than a hundred pounds of kings, silvers, and pinks in the freezer, mostly kings from some very successful fishing trips on the Oregon Coast this summer. I went through my vacuum-sealed packages and found a few with air pockets and less than ideal seals. These had developed some frost inside, and I could see the beginnings of freezer burn. Time to make smoked salmon candy.

5 lbs salmon collars, bellies, or fillets cut into strips

Dry brine:

1 cup pickling salt (or regular, non-iodized)
4 cups dark brown sugar

Glaze:

1/4 cup maple sugar
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup Grand Marnier

1. Mix the dry brine. My standard brine is a 1:4 ratio of salt to brown sugar for a 12 hour brine. Often I’ll add a whole head of chopped garlic and fresh ground pepper to this, and sometimes other spices as well. For salmon candy, I keep it simple: just salt and dark brown sugar.

2. Prepare the salmon. Remove pin bones with pliers and cut fillets into strips (with a large chinook, my strips are 2 to 3 inches wide).

3. Pack the salmon pieces with dry brine in a non-reactive (e.g., Pyrex) dish, skin up for a single layer. If stacking fish in more than one layer, place first layer skin down and second layer skin up, so the fish is flesh to flesh, why the dry brine packed between. Brine overnight or 12 hours. The brine will be soupy by the end.

4. Remove salmon pieces from dish and rinse with cold water under tap. Place skin down on wire racks to dry for 2 to 4 hours. Don’t cheat on this step. It’s important to let the fish dry and firm up; the exterior should be tacky, not wet. A pellicle forms, which helps retain moisture and flavor during the smoking process. I speed up this step up with an electric fan, but it still takes at least a couple hours.

5. Smoke the salmon in your usual way, low and slow if possible. I use a Weber Bullet, which is a hot smoker, meaning the heat from the fire and not just the smoke contributes to the cooking and smoking process, so I try to keep my bed of coals fairly small and heavily damped down. The temperature ranged from 125 to 150 degrees for the first three hours, and then 100 degrees for the last two hours. Cherry or apple wood is good (I used apple this time). A long, low smoke is preferable, especially for candy. While the fish is smoking, brush on glaze periodically, once an hour or so.

 

Grouper Sandwich

grouper3One of my most favorite sammies in the world is a flaky yet succulent grouper sandwich, preferably served with fries, cole slaw, pickle spear, and cold beer. To get such a treat you should go to southwestern Florida, where you might be temped by other similar delights…a soft-shelled crab sandwich, say, or even an oyster po’boy. But the crab sandwich can be readily procured in a Maryland clam shack in season, and the oyster po’boy, as the name implies, reaches sacrament status where the term po’boy was invented, New Orleans.

For grouper, you go to Florida.

The thing is, while in Florida you might make the acquaintance of some other flaky, white-fleshed fishies, some of which might even rival the grouper in taste if not name. The place is lousy with good-eating gilled critters.

On vacation recently I met a couple of these other fish that you won’t find on the Mucky Duck‘s chalkboard, or any other bar menu for that matter, and I have to say they were every bit as personable as the grouper. Luckily I had my boy with me, because he’s the one who made the introductions. I could only dredge up one hapless catfish after another, while the kid hooked a whole aquarium of warm-water swimmers in the mangrove-shaded back bays of Naples. We ended up keeping a couple of black drums and a nice sheepshead.

Back at the shack I was disappointed to find a general lack of flour in the cupboards. This was vacation after all. No problem. We put a stack of stale Triscuits into a blender usually reserved for that other Florida specialty, the Planter’s Punch, along with handfuls of Cape Cod potato chips and mixed cocktail nuts, plus a dash of Old Bay seasoning and some salt. Voila. A perfectly acceptable dry batter. Next I cut up the fillets into sandwich-sized portions, egged them, and rolled in the batter before frying in ample butter and finishing with a generous squeeze of lemon. The rest of the sandwich is academic: a fairly soft French roll or poppy-seed bun, shredded lettuce, and thinly sliced tomato. We also whipped up a batch of homemade tartar sauce with mayo and chopped pickle.

I wonder how many Florida natives would have discerned the truth about my homemade “grouper” sandwich. And how many reputable establishments are serving “grouper” with the fry cook’s catch on his day off? If I lived in southwest Florida I’d definitely be one of those guys you curse at while driving the obstacle course that is the Tamiami Trail, one of those guys fishing from a bridge abutment on an already narrow two-lane blacktop lined with traffic hazards like birdwatchers, panther crossing signs, and orchid thieves.

Florida may be overloaded with white shoes and blue hair, but it’s paradise for grouper groupies.

Merry Pinkmas!

photoI wrote about the Pink Invasion in the July issue of Seattle Magazine. Truth be told, since that article first appeared I’ve been too busy fishing for pinks to do much blogging. Fishing…and filleting, brining, and smoking. Repeat. My freezer is rapidly accumulating a two-year supply of smoked salmon.

This is a fishery that hardly existed a generation ago in Puget Sound. As such, in this age of general decline, it feels like a special gift. And it’s not too late to get in on the action. Read the article and then check out these tips for smokin’ yer own.

Salmon Head Curry

A hard-won spring chinook salmon is so tasty it would be a crime to leave any scraps of meat uneaten. This spicy Indian curry will have you reconsidering what you do with those leftover salmon heads. Crab bait? I think not…

Salmon heads of all species have plenty of choice bits, including the cheeks and collars. Soup is a popular way to use them. Like whole spot shrimp in the shell, salmon heads can both flavor a stock and add a surprisingly large amount of meat to the meal—and with the help of a fine mesh strainer, you don’t have to stare your catch in the face. But you can also simmer the head in a curry and then lift it out before serving to your more squeamish guests, returning all the fall-off-the-skull meat to the dish, with nary an eyeball in sight.

Fish Head Curry is a popular dish in southern India and elsewhere on the subcontinent and Asia. Recipes for fish curry powder are as varied and fought over as red sauces for pasta. You can mix up your own or use a prepared blend. If the latter, make sure you choose a reputable brand with fresh, pungent spices (it won’t be cheap).

I picked a middle path, using a ready-made curry powder but also spiking the dish with fresh turmeric, fenugreek, black mustard, chili powder, and cumin seeds. I encourage my readers to try this curry. You’ll never toss another salmon head. And the crabs can eat chicken gizzards!

1 medium to large salmon head, gills removed and cut in half
1 tsp black mustard seed (or yellow)
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp fenugreek seed
3 tbsp peanut oil
1 tsp red chili powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 – 3 tbsp fish curry powder*
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 thumb ginger, peeled and minced
2 sweet onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp tamarind paste, mixed with 1/2 cup water **
2 Asian eggplant, cut into 3-inch pieces
1 zucchini, cut into 3-inch pieces
3 tomatoes, cut into sixths
1 cup coconut cream
1 tbsp brown sugar, or to taste
2 tbsp fish sauce, or to taste
cilantro for garnish

* Make your own fish curry powder, or visit an Indian grocery or spice shop for a prepared blend.
** Available at Asian market or Indian grocery.

1. Mix chili powder, turmeric, and fish curry powder with a little water to make a thick masala paste.

2. Heat oil in heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add mustard seed, cumin seed, and fenugreek seed and sauté until they begin to crackle and pop, about a minute.

3. Add masala paste, stirring, until fragrant, another minute or so. Add garlic, ginger, and onions, and cook together until onions are soft.

4. Pour in tamarind mixture and bring to boil. Add tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini. Cook a couple minutes before adding both halves of salmon head. (Add more water if necessary, though note that the vegetables and fish will add to liquid as they cook.) Spoon curry over salmon, reduce heat to medium-low, and cover for 5 minutes.

5. Stir in coconut cream, brown sugar, and fish sauce, careful not to disturb fish. Cook another couple minutes until fish is done yet still tender. At this point, if you’re serving squeamish guests, you can separate the salmon meat from the skin and cartilage. Maybe leave in one eyeball for a lucky diner. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

The King of Salmon

A few weeks ago I made a pilgrimage to the Columbia River to pay my respects to the king of spring.

Not to be confused with those porcini mushrooms also called “spring kings,” Columbia River spring Chinook—or springers—are some of the first returning among the Pacific salmon, and many piscivores consider them the best tasting of all the many races and runs of salmon.

Taste is largely subjective, sure, but there’s science behind this conceit. Salmon spawn in the fall and early winter. Because springers enter fresh water so early and must hold on for months before spawning—without eating—these particular fish have evolved to be especially fatty. They survive on their impressive fat stores, and we all know that fat means flavor, right?

The Columbia River spring Chinook fishery is limited and tightly regulated. Anglers can fish the main stem in a few spots as well as tributaries such as the Willamette and Cowlitz. We fished Drano Lake, one of the better known hot spots for springers. Drano is a manmade lake created by the fill left over from the construction of Bonneville Dam. The Little White Salmon River flows into the lake, making it noticeably colder than the mainstem river, so salmon and steelhead nose into it during their upstream migrations for a refreshing breather. The bulk of the fishery is at the lake’s outlet, near a railroad trestle and highway 14 bridge.

We got on the water around 5:15 a.m.—and we weren’t alone. The spring king fishery attracts plenty of early risers hoping to put a slab of deep red salmon fillet on the barbecue. Slowly we trolled across the placid waters of Drano Lake, pulling plugs. By 6:30 it was clear that the bite was not on in the lake, so we joined the “toilet bowl” of boats circling the outlet channel where salmon are forced into a narrow channel as they enter and leave the lake.

We switched to bait: cured shrimp and herring, fished at a depth of about 24 feet to avoid snags on the bottom. Though salmon don’t actively feed once on the spawning grounds, they can still be provoked to strike at a bait or lure—whether out of territoriality or some memory of their predatory oceanic life, no one really knows. We settled into the somnolent rhythm of the counter-clock “toilet bowl” slow-dance. The first hit, at noon, startled me out of my seat. I grabbed the rod and tried to keep the fish away from the other boats. It took line at will. When we had it close to the boat the nerve-wracking moment commenced (we saw more than one lost at the boat during the day). The king got a look and spooked. It ran under the boat and I had to fight it in close with a distressingly bowed rod tip. A couple more short runs and we got it sideways and in the net.

Phil at Mystical Legends provided excellent guiding. Though it was a slow day overall, we got another strike a few hours later and boated that fish too, going two for two, which isn’t a bad hook-to-land ratio when it comes to spring kings. Back home, the first taste was simple, as it should be, to allow the salmon to shine: grilled with a little olive oil and a light sprinkle of salt and pepper. With a fish of this caliber you want to savor every last shred of meat from nose to tail. In my next post I’ll have a recipe for Salmon Head Curry that will have you second-guessing your choice of crab bait.

Oven-roasted Salmon with Herb Risotto and Olive-Tomato Tapenade

Fishing for silvers off Seattle has been good for the last couple weeks, and with the larger ocean-going fish now returning to Puget Sound, it’s getting better. I lost a 10-pounder at the boat the other day. Most of the fish are the smaller resident coho, averaging four to five pounds.

Apparently there was some good action for kings earlier in the summer, too—until it got shut down—but I still think of silvers as our bread-and-butter fish. They’re aggressive (i.e. susceptible to a fly or lure), they forage close to shore, and their bright red fillets are perfect for a quick grilling or oven-roasting.

Call me a Homer, but catching salmon within city limits is one of the great things about living in Seattle. It’s a sweet feeling to get up early before work, or knock off work early, and string up the rod. Then, when you come home with a nice fish, you can say you’ve been working—you’re putting food on the table.

For this dinner, I first scanned the garden: tomatoes and herbs were going crazy. I made a simple herb risotto using mostly marjoram and oregano plus a little thyme, and both cherry and roma tomatoes went into the tapenade. The salmon was oven-roasted and served over the risotto with a dollop of tapenade on top.

Herb Risotto

6 tbsp butter, divided
1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 tsp saffron threads
1 cup arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
4 – 5 cups chicken broth
4 tsp fresh mixed herbs, chopped

1. Stir saffron into cup of wine and set aside.
2. Warm chicken stock in a pot.
3. Saute onion and garlic in half the butter over medium heat until translucent.
4. Stir in rice, coating well. Allow to toast for a few minutes.
5. Add wine. Let it bubble up and absorb into rice before stirring.
6. Continue to add a ladleful or two of warm stock until rice is done. It should be both creamy and al dente.
7. Off heat, stir in remaining butter and herbs. Cover.

Olive-Tomato Tapenade

1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 roma tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 tbsp lemon zest
1 tbsp capers
1/4 kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
2 tbsp lemon juice
dash balsamic vinegar, to taste

1. Saute shallot and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until translucent.
2. Add tomatoes and cook until they begin to break down.
3. Add lemon zest, capers, olives, and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper, and add a little balsamic.
4. Reduce to low heat and cook together for a few minutes. Serve warm.