Category Archives: Salmon

Save Bristol Bay

Now is the time to stand up for salmon, grizzly bears, the 10,000-year-old cultures of Native Alaskans, and one of North America’s signature ecosystems.

Please, if you enjoy this blog and what it means to savor our wild places, take a moment to add your name to the many who are trying to save Bristol Bay and stop Pebble Mine.

The proposed mine would be in the headwaters of the greatest salmon-producing watershed in the world, a place of unparalleled natural value and unbroken ecological processes. The rivers that empty into Bristol Bay, Alaska, nurture more salmon than anywhere else on Earth. All five species of Pacific salmon spawn in the system, as well as trout and char. Bears, moose, caribou, and a host of other large mammals thrive here. It’s a landscape of stunning beauty.

Ten billion tons of toxic mine tailings are not compatible with this ecosystem.

Tailings dams bigger than Grand Coulee Dam in the Bristol Bay headwaters, an active seismic zone, are not compatible with this ecosystem.

The EPA recently released its draft assessment, suggesting that environmental degradation, should the mine proceed, is likely, even imminent. The EPA has the authority under 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to put a stop to this nonsense. Pebble Mine supporters are on the ropes. It’s time to knock them out for good. Tell the EPA and your elected officials NO PEBBLE MINE. Time is running out for public input. This is the final week to let your voice be heard.

For more information:

In late May I attended the first public hearing on the issue, held in Seattle. The room was packed, and then the overflow room was packed. In all, I counted more than 400 people in attendance, and according to this summary, more than 80 percent of the speakers supported the EPA and its draft assessment. (More than 90% in the Bristol Bay regional hearings were in support.)

The comment period (2 minutes per person) included testimonies from Native American subsistence fishermen, commercial fishermen from Washington State and Alaska, local businesses and tour operators, and those who simply love our last wild places and want to protect them. The few speakers in favor of the mine could only summon feeble arguments based on speculative profits that don’t take into account the endless years of publicly-funded cleanup associated with the usual mega-mine boondoggles.

It’s time to say NO to greed, environmental devastation, and bowing down at the material altar. Sign this petition to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and U.S. President Barack Obama. If you’re an angler, you can sign this Trout Unlimited petition and let your voice be heard. Haven’t you had enough of these business-as-usual scams already?

Photo at top: Ben Knight

Camper’s Fettuccine Alfredo with Smoked Salmon & Asparagus

Any idea what this is?

Okay, let’s take a step back for a better look.

Yes, it’s my smoker. I think I may be in lurve with it. Smoked food is good food. Smoke up a whole chicken and you might never roast one again. Pork shoulder, brisket, oysters—it’s all good, as the kids say.
And nothing beats smoked salmon. This is how I eat salmon year-round. Brined, smoked, and vacuum-packed. You can keep it in your freezer for a long time, too. Truth be told, we still have a few packages left over from the epic pink run of oh-nine. This year’s run was just as big and I put more poundage away for a rainy day.
The pink salmon is an ideal fish for kids. They’re eager biters and small enough—usually around five pounds—to be landed on light tackle. This year’s run had some noticeably bigger fish. I netted one pushing 10 pounds, and my boy lost a monster at the beach.
One of my kids’ favorite camp meals is Tuna Noodle Surprise. We gussied up this classic comfort meal with pink salmon right out of the smoker, fresh fettuccine, alfredo sauce, and asparagus. 
9oz fresh fettuccine
1/4 lb (or more) smoked salmon, cut into bite-size pieces
1/4 lb asparagus, cut into 3-inch segments
4 tbsp butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup grated parmesan
fresh-ground black pepper
grated nutmeg to taste
Melt butter over medium heat in a small saucepan and whisk in cream. Reduce until slightly thickened. Add smoked salmon and several grindings of pepper to sauce. Meanwhile, cook pasta. Add asparagus to boiling pasta water for last minute or two of cooking, depending on thickness of asparagus. Drain pasta and asparagus. Toss in large bowl with the sauce, salmon, and parmesan cheese. Season with salt and a few grindings of nutmeg.
This can all be accomplished quite handily on a Coleman two-burner camp stove. Heck, you could make it on a single-burner stove. The salmon smokes up easier at home when you have a couple hours to kill and a six-pack of Rainier, but even that task could probably be managed on the camp stove with a sheet of aluminum foil and a few twigs of green alder. Eating well in camp is an art form, after all.

High Tide Soup

Recently I had the pleasure of hanging out with a couple mad scientists of the kitchen in Washington’s San Juan Islands. Eric (besides being an ’80s pop aficionado and rapper-in-training) is a sous chef at Blueacre Seafood in Seattle and Scott is a software developer by day and the proprietor of the restlessly inventive Seattle Food Geek blog the rest of the time. It was my job to supply these two gastronomic alchemists with foraged wild foods so they could do their culinary magic.

If you’re a regular reader, you know I’m mostly about comfort food, the kind you can make in your own kitchen without an arsenal of specialized tools and exotic ingredients. I don’t pretend to be a trained chef or a molecular gastronaut. But I like to eat, and I’m open to all forms of eating. On Lopez Island Eric turned me on to a soup he likes to call High Tide because it evokes the sea with all its shifting flotsam and jetsam.

Despite the “high concept” appearance, this dish is right in my wheelhouse. First of all, it takes the principles of nose to tail eating, which we generally associate with landed livestock, to the oceans, where most of our prey is still wild yet diminishing. The backbone of the soup, so to speak, is the backbone of a salmon, the sort of leftover piece that usually gets chucked in the trash if not used for crab bait. Not in my house. It was the backbone of a silver salmon that supplied the meat for the risotto Hank Shaw made at my house, and my Salmon Head Soup distinguished itself enough to be included in the Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook.

This time around the salmon was a pink, or humpy, as it’s also known, and its backbone was the key ingredient in a satisfyingly complex salmon broth. A quick word on pinks: at one time, when the rivers of the Northwest teemed with salmon, the pink was reviled in comparison to its more toothsome cousins, the chinook, sockeye, and silver. Now it’s the most plentiful wild salmon species in Puget Sound and demands our gustatory attention. Though not as versatile as its fattier relatives, pinks are still worthy with the right preparation.

The “meat” of the soup was entirely vegetarian—and terrestrial at that. Looking like weird sea creatures washed in by the tide, the leek bottoms and carrot tops, like the salmon backbone, are the sort of things that usually get tossed away. Shaved red cabbage completed the picture. I butter-poached these vegetables in clarified butter for a good 20 minutes or so, until the carrots were tender and the leeks and cabbage slightly caramelized with hints of brown.

It’s impossible to overstate how impressed I was by this soup. The tidal broth was a hit of umami—not too fishy, with an earthy balance of leek flavor—while the sea creatures within absolutely bursted with flavor from the butter-poaching. The carrots tasted like the best sort of stewed carrot and the leek bottoms had a toastiness that was almost as unexpected as the chewy texture of the tentacles…err…roots.

This will be a dish that I serve at the next dinner party.

The Tide

2 small to medium salmon backbones (or 1 large)
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
1 tbsp olive oil
3 leeks, just green tops, chopped
1 handful parsley, chopped
1 quart water
salt and pepper, to taste

Saute the onion, carrot, and celery in olive oil until softened. Add water and heat to a low simmer. Add the salmon backbones, leeks, and parsley. Do not allow to boil. Cook at least 2 hours. Adjust seasoning. Strain soup through colander and again through fine mesh and cheesecloth, until clear. Return to pot. Add thinly sliced rounds of leek bulb and keep warm until ready to serve. Cooking the broth at low heat will prevent it from being too fishy, while the leeks—both the green tops and white slices—will balance the flavor, amplifying the wonderfully comfortable umami.

The Sea Creatures

1 stick butter
3 leek bottoms, with roots, rinsed
4-5 carrot tops, with green nub
1 handful shaved red cabbage

Clarify the butter, then in a small sauce pan butter-poach the leek bottoms, carrot tops, and red cabbage for 20 minutes or so, until the cabbage is starting to brown at the edges and the carrots and leeks are tender. Use tongs to turn the vegetables periodically.

Plate the butter-poached vegetables in bowls and ladle broth. Serves 2.

This was just one of 10 courses that Eric prepared with Scott’s help in the islands. I’ll be posting more on this extraordinary feast in the future, when the video treatment is edited.

Resident Silvers

Over the years I’ve caught most of my salmon while standing either in a river or on a beach—I’m just too much of a cheapskate to hire a charter. Last week, though, with Hank and Holly in town, I took a rare opportunity to fish for salmon while standing on a boat. Here’s the funny thing: I was standing on a boat within sight of a public beach where I sometimes stand with rod in hand for free.

But don’t get me wrong: the action was all offshore. The boat was a charter out of Shilshole Marina in Seattle operated by Captain Nick Kester of All Star Fishing Charters and the beach was Golden Gardens. Though I didn’t actually get a chance to hoist a rod myself, I watched my boy reel in the first of two silver salmon, which was even better.

Just a week before, Riley was building sand castles with his sister a few hundred yards to the east from where we were now trolling flashers and cut-plugged herring. Most of the year the parking lot at Golden Gardens is near empty, but on sun-splashed summer days the park’s sandy waterfront overflows with Seattlites determined to experience the novelty of a day at the beach. I guess I was a little surprised to find out that more than a few salmon charters work the rips right off that beach, too.

The upside of a charter is that your chances of catching fish are about as good as they get; the downside is that you’ll be catching those fish with the aid of down-riggers, which means you’re mostly reeling. At first Riley was baffled by this unfamiliar setup. After the first rod popped and he was called to duty, he saw the plus side. It’s a fact that a guided charter using down-riggers and fishfinders takes a lot of guesswork out of fishing—and it’s also a fact that the live-wire excitement of having a salmon on the line increases exponentially on most days with such advantages.

Resident silvers (aka coho, Oncorhynchus kisutch) are fish that never leave Puget Sound. They hatch in local rivers, rear in the Sound, and return to those same rivers to spawn. While in the Sound they dine on a diet of amphipods and small bait fish, rarely attaining the size of silvers that leave the Sound altogether for the wilderness of the North Pacific. Those silvers, sometimes called “ocean hooknoses,” can be much larger, with the males displaying deeply kyped jaws.

A devoted band of saltwater fly-fishermen pesters the resident silvers for most of the year. Just about any point of land sticking into the Sound can be a possible fly-fishing spot when a combination of tides and currents brings the feeding fish close to shore. The Tacoma Narrows in particular, with its fast-moving currents, is a place where anglers gather to cast from the beach. In spring the resident silvers are trout-sized; as the summer wears on they put on weight and look more like salmon fit for a barbecue, albeit on the small side; by early fall the fish are in a feeding frenzy, a last-ditch effort to fatten up before the spawn. This is when most beach fishermen seek them out. By then the resident silvers are about as big as they’ll get, usually in the four or five-pound range, and the ocean silvers are just arriving, giving the angler a shot at a 12-pounder.

To be honest, fishing for resident silvers with all the advantages of boat, down-rigger, and bait felt a little dirty. In retrospect we probably should have asked the captain to motor a dozen extra miles out to the chinook grounds, where the fish and tackle are more suitably matched. But like a good captain, his first concern was getting his clients—which numbered two Californians prohibited by law in their own state from fishing depleted stocks of silvers—into fish.

That night we ate grilled salmon over risotto in nose-to-tail fashion. Meat from the salmon cheeks went into the risotto, as did the roe. The carcasses made a wonderful broth, some of which we used for the risotto while the rest went into the freezer. Hank had some very nice saffron on hand to tart up the risotto along with white wine, Walla Walla sweet onion, English shelling peas, and lemon zest. A fitting feast after a good afternoon on the water.

Photo at top and second from top by Holly Heyser.

Salmon with Pinot Noir Sauce & Morels

Columbia River spring chinook and many of the Alaskan salmon stocks happen to be running when the land fish—morels—are spawning…err…sporing. No surprise that a fatty, omega 3-laden fish happens to pair very nicely with an earthy mushroom that is equally fleeting in this life.

And that pairing would be fine if we stopped right there, but a red wine reduction—in particular, a Pinot Noir reduction—is just the thing to tie these two spring delicacies together in a dance of earth and water.

I used a Copper River sockeye for this purpose along with morels foraged in Washington’s central Cascades. The wine was nothing special, though one is always told to not cook with anything that you wouldn’t drink, and the rule holds here.

This recipe is adapted from my friend Becky Selengut’s new cookbook, Good Fish. Becky is always razzing me for using too much butter and cream (and she’s right!) but I notice that she’s rather liberal with the butter on this one. In fact, incredibly, I pared the butter back a skosh. The original recipe is for four servings; this is for two. You can get away with a half-stick of butter, though you may choose to add a bit more. Hey, it’s your arteries.

2 tbsp shallot, minced
1/2 star anise
1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed
1 tsp honey
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups Pinot Noir
4 tbsp cold unsalted butter

1/2 lb wild salmon fillet
olive oil
salt & pepper
1/4 lb morels, halved

1. To make sauce, combine sauce ingredients in large pan and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 30 minutes. Strain through fine wire mesh and return to pan. Whisk in butter over medium heat until sauce is syrupy.

2. Meanwhile pre-heat oven on broil. Brush salmon fillets with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place salmon skin side down on aluminum foil on baking sheet, within 6 inches or so of heating element. The rule of thumb is 10 minutes of broiling per inch of thickness; I usually cook salmon less than the rule of thumb.

3. Saute morels separately in a small pan with butter.

4. Spoon sauce onto warm plate, place salmon over sauce, and shower with morels.

Into the Elwha

Say wha’? The Elwha River Valley, on the north end of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula
Last week I backpacked into the Elwha Basin in Olympic National Park to see the place before it undergoes profound change next year. You see, in 2011 the process of undamming the Elwha will begin in earnest and five species of Pacific salmon will have a chance to re-colonize a river that historically supported large fish runs. Since most of the watershed is within the boundaries the park, the habitat remains in good shape and there are great expectations for filling the river once again with fish.
With this in mind, I decided a trip into the Elwha to see the place before the dams come down would be a good thing, a way to compare the before and after. My timing looked bad, though. Local weather guru Cliff Mass was telling his blog readers that this was a week to stay out of the mountains. A dreaded marine layer was headed our way from the Pacific with a forecast of rain every day for a week. Pigheaded as usual, I hoisted my pack anyway and walked directly into the teeth of the storm. 
The rain held off and that first evening I made it as far as the Lillian River, a major tributary, and a dark, dank foreboding place to make camp. Rodents pestered my tent all night but fortunately, with my food bags hung safely from a bear wire, nothing larger. The next  day I got deeper into the valley, leaving behind the popular destination Elkhorn Camp at the 10-mile mark to penetrate another six miles up-valley to where the Hayes River meets the Elwha. It was around Hayes that I felt civilization’s shackles start to loosen—and here is an important lesson known to serious backpackers: go deep. Your destination may be labeled wilderness or national park, but the essence of the wild doesn’t kick in until you’re suitably removed from the trappings of town. In this case I was 16 miles up a trail and another dozen or so miles inside a national park boundary before the magic of the back-country began to percolate. 
And percolate it did. Beyond Hayes the trees got bigger and the forest took on an enchanted quality. A lush carpet of moss covered everything. Winds whistled down from surrounding peaks carrying with them the sounds of glaciers creaking and melting. The river brawled through steep canyons. A fallen tree across the trail was as tall as me in its prone position; someone had counted the rings and noted them on the cut: 560 years old, this tree was a sapling here a generation before Columbus set sail for the New World. 
On Day 3 I left base camp to hike another 11 miles into the valley, making for a 22-mile day. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the headwaters but the weather finally caught up to me. It rained all day and the mountains remained mostly hidden, socked in with fog. I had to settle for close-in views of the Elwha Basin and a look at a tumbling, roaring river that gouged out its banks and stacked enormous logjams of old-growth Douglas-fir like cordwood. In this way the river looked nearly perfect on the surface. But I knew that deep within those dark blue pools behind the logjams—ideal shelter for salmon fry—the currents were empty of anadromous fish. For now.

At Happy Hollow, the last shelter on the trail before it becomes a climbing route, I ran into three trekkers who had just come down from the Bailey Traverse, a famous bushwhack through a remote range in the Olympics that has never seen a designated trail. The trekkers had a fire going to dry their gear and seemed both exhilarated from their multi-day expedition and glad to be found. They had spent a full day lost in the hills and told me they were two days behind schedule and worried that a search party might be sent after them. I agreed to notify a ranger of their whereabouts on my way out.

The mushrooms were just starting to pop and they seemed to grow right in front of my eyes, the shiny red caps of Russulas emerging where there had been only moss just a few hours earlier, and hedgehogs clustering in the darkest patches of forest. I made dinner with a medley of wild mushrooms, including chanterelles, lobsters, and hedgehogs. I also caught rainbow trout and released them back into the river where they will seed the future stocks of steelhead that will hopefully reclaim the river once the dams are gone.
Trips like this got me foraging in the first place and when I reemerged on Day 5 to find my car in the parking lot, the spell of the wild was still on me. I drove back to Seattle in a daze, blissfully unaware of the traffic, neon signs, and hurly-burly of the city, at least for a little while.

Tom Yum with Salmon & Lobster Mushrooms

We’ve been laid low by the lurgies. Even a morning draught of stinging nettle tea couldn’t clear my head…but an evening jolt of spicy Tom Yum with Salmon & Lobster Mushrooms, made from a salmon-head stock, seems to have done the trick for now.

Studies are being done on Tom Yum’s immune-boosting properties and I’m not surprised. Along wih Pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, Thailand’s signature hot and sour soup Tom Yum Goong has been our go-to dinner when la grippe has us in its bony grip. Just inhaling those aromatic and spicy fumes is enough to cleanse the sinuses. Until this week, I had never tried to make it myself.

Tom Yum can be made with water, chicken stock, or fish stock. One recipe exhorts readers to use the shrimp’s head fat to enrichen the soup base—and who am I to argue with such logic? I did this by removing the heads, squeezing their fat—a noticeable orange color, as illustrated in the photo—into the stock, and then tossing the heads into the boil for a little extra umph. But more than that, I got my deep fish flavor from a couple of salmon carcasses. This year I made sure to keep the remains of every salmon I caught and filleted, which means I’ve got a ton of soup heads and backbones in the freezer.

The lobster mushrooms, picked during a hike near the Columbia River Gorge, added extra flavor and chew. I’ve always loved the paddy straw mushroom, a mainstay in Asian soups (and present in this one), but the lobster contributed its seafoody flavor and a texture that’s firmer than the straw mushroom. Together, the two species of fungus added heartiness to the soup.

3-4 cups stock or water*
1 medium-sized lobster mushroom, thinly sliced
1 dozen shrimp in the shell with heads
1 stalk lemongrass, mashed and cut into 3-inch pieces
6 kaffir lime leaves, bruised and de-stemmed
6 slices galangal
6 Thai chili peppers, mashed
3 tbsp lime juice
1 heaping tbsp roasted chili paste
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 can straw mushrooms
1 handful cilantro chopped for garnish

1. Peel shrimp, reserving heads and leaving tail on.
2. Bring stock, lemongrass, shrimp heads, and lobster mushrooms to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes.
3. Meanwhile combine chili peppers, chili paste, and lime juice in small bowl.
4. Remove shrimp heads with slotted spoon and add kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and shrimp. Simmer a few more minutes.
5. Turn off heat just before shrimp are fully cooked and add mixture of lime juice, chili peppers, and chili paste. Season with salt, brown sugar, and fish sauce according to taste.

Serves 2 ballooned-out congested heads.

*For salmon-head stock, brown in peanut oil in a heavy soup pot a couple small to medium-sized salmon heads (along with backbones if you have them). De-glaze with a splash or two of wine (Chinese cooking wine is preferable). Add 1 chopped leek and 2 chopped cloves of garlic. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for several more minutes. Add 8 cups of water and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain. The salmon meat can then be picked from the pot.

The Herding of the Pinks

Every other year at the end of August a bunch of friends get together to fish, laugh, and fish some more. We know each other through that most post-post modern of mediums, the Internet chat group, in this case a fly-fishing forum. Too bad Marshall McLuhan isn’t around to witness and comment on the forging of such connections. If I could pull an Alvy Singer I would.

Our rallying site adds to the post modern twist: the industrial port of Seattle where the Duwamish River empties into Elliott Bay. Yet this isn’t meant to be an ironic sort of fish slumming. As my friend Nope puts it, this is the most democratic of fisheries. Recent immigrants line the riprap, factory workers come out to throw a line during lunch break, and well-heeled anglers in yachts patrol the shipping channels. It’s not a scenic place to wet a fly in the traditional sense—it’s no Montana as portrayed in A River Runs Through It—but it has its own beauty. This is the grittiest of urban foraging, complete with container ships, trash compactors, big-bellied planes taking off and landing at nearby Boeing Field, cranes swiveling overhead, barges blowing their bullhorns, and a silhouette of stilettoed skyscrapers in the distance. Oh, and the place is a Superfund site.

With pontoons, kickboats, even sketchy rubber rafts, we take to the water armed with flyrods and round up our quarry, the pink salmon. Also known as humpies for the pronounced hunchbacks developed by males in the spawning phase, pink salmon have a two-year life cycle and return to local rivers every other year. Not nearly as esteemed as their bretheren the kings, silvers, and sockeyes, their flesh is less deep red and oil-saturated, so commerically they’re mostly used by the canneries. But pinks are good biters, especially on a fly, and their meat smokes up very nicely.

Besides, the pink is a scrappy fish that seems to have taken to the scraps left behind in our devastated world. They’re our fish, and we love them. Most pinks around Puget Sound average three to five pounds; those heading up the Duwamish to spawning grounds on the Green River run a little larger. We caught several in the six to seven pound range, including especially large dime-bright females.

Fishing the beaches during a large run is productive, but once the fish converge at the tidal mouths of their natal streams the action can get silly. This is the time to lean on the oars. Like fly-fishing for trout, you put the fly in the ring of the rise and WHAM! Fish on. At the peak you can have fish after fish slamming your fly—a notion that runs counter to most of what you hear about fly-fishing for salmon—and each one puts a solid bend in a 6-, 7-, or even 8-weight rod, towing a kickboat in circles before it succumbs to the net. We herders find a likely corner away from the barges and tugs to circle our wagons. Pinks run this gauntlet at their own peril, especially if my friend Bubba is tossing a line. Bubba has dialed in the Seattle pink fishery in the last decade like no one else and watching him fish is a lesson in humility. (A crack photographer as well, he contributed a few of the shots that accompany this post and video.)

BTW, if someone tells you the pink isn’t worth keeping for the table, you smile and nod while you stack that limit in your cooler. I catch enough pinks every other year to take care of all my smoked salmon needs, and the brightest ones hit the barbecue the same day.

Smoked Salmon

It’s easy to get worked up about all the possibilities for smoked salmon. You can use 101 different spices, juices, aromatics, etc. But if you catch fish in quantity, as we do during the pink run, you also gain a new understanding of what hunter-gatherer cultures were up against. For the two weeks I actively fished—about half the run—I lost more than a lot of sleep. Fish, work, fish some more, clean and fillet, put the kids to bed, brine the fish, go to bed, wake up and rinse off the brined fish, then fish the morning tide, work, fish until dark, clean and fillet, put the kids to bed, stay up late smoking the first batch and brining the next, haul stinky garbage to curb, try to clean kitchen before wife goes ballistic, sleep a few hours, get up and fish…and so on.

Notice how during that entire two-day cycle I only managed to smoke one batch. With limits of 4 to 6 fish daily (depending on area), we were drowning in salmon. Not that I’m objecting. So the point? Stick to basics. A simple brine of brown sugar, salt, and garlic is really all you need, with a dry brine being easier and less messy than a wet brine.

4 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup pickling salt
1 head garlic, cloves peeled & chopped
black pepper to taste

Mix the dry brining ingredients. Generously cover each piece of salmon (I cut pink salmon fillets into thirds), then place skin-up in a non-reactive dish. Refrigerate for 6-8 hours. The brine will have become a soupy mess after water has been leached out of the fish. Gently rinse off each piece and allow to air-dry on paper towels for a couple hours until a pellicle forms—the tacky (not wet) outer layer of flesh that is so loaded with flavor.

For the actual smoking I use a Weber “Bullet,” but it’s possible to employ a regular gas grill in a pinch. A water pan is essential for keeping the fish from drying out. For wood chips I like to use fruit trees: apple, or cherry if I can get it. Alder is good too. If not green, the chips need to be immersed in a bucket of water for 30 minutes, then tossed on the coals in handfuls. Everyone has their own theories about temperature and smoking duration. Hot smoking will always be quicker than cold smoking. Because pink salmon fillets aren’t thick, I usually figure on smoking for about an hour, even with a small amount of coals, maybe an hour and a half at most.

The last step is vacuum-sealing. I’ve kept properly packaged smoked salmon in the deep freeze for two years without any appreciable loss of flavor or tenderness.

Blackberry Must & Citrus Cured Salmon

Another option is cured salmon. While making blackberry wine with my friend Becky [future post], her chef pal Ashlyn turned me on to a use for the leftover must, the mashed up fruit that settles on the bottom of the barrel during the initial fermentation phase. Once you rack the wine for the first time, the must is discarded. But Ashlyn suggested I use it to cure fresh salmon. So I did.

2 lb salmon fillet(s)
3/4 cup pickling salt
1 cup brown sugar
1 each zest of a lemon, lime & orange
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup blackberry must*

* If you happen to have some blackberry must laying around, by all means use it. If not, the rest of the ingredients make an excellent cure on their own.

Mix all ingredients minus the must in a food processor. Next add the must a little at a time, enough to color the cure but not so much as to make it soggy. Spread a thick layer of cure on bottom of non-reactive dish, up to 1/4 inch. Lay salmon, skin side up, on top of cure, then pack remaining cure on top of the salmon. Cover salmon with plastic wrap and weight down with a few pounds (e.g., cans from the cupboard). Flip salmon in 12 hours. Salmon is finished after 24 hours. Rinse and dry.

The cured salmon will be darker, with an attractive, slightly purple hue from the must, plus there will be a smattering of blackberry seeds that give it extra texture. Slice thinly off the top and eat within a week. I had mine on pumpernickel with a dollop of creme fraiche and chives.

And remember to kiss that first pink salmon of the season. They’re the only species of salmon left in the Lower 48 that gives us a hint of what salmon fishing was once like in the not-so-distant past.

Salmon Head Soup

“When the buffalo are gone, we will eat mice, for we are hunters and must have our freedom.” – Chief Sitting Bull

Wouldn’t you know the day I forget my camera is the day my boy catches his first salmon off the beach—on a Snoopy rod no less. (The photo at left is his second salmon off the beach, taken the next day. He’s looking a little more blasé about the whole thing.)

Riley let out a whoop when the fish hit his lure, and I’m sure I probably thought it was a false alarm, some weeds or a bottom snag. But then I saw the Snoopy rod doubled over. Next came the yelling and screaming and carrying on. Other anglers on the beach interrupted their casts to take notice of the commotion. I ran over and set up a station behind the boy, making sure the fish didn’t rip the rod right out of his grip. He reeled and kept the tip up like a pro. Pretty soon the fish was in the surf and I figured for sure it would break the line. But Riley held on and pulled that salmon right up onto the beach. The kid knows what to do.

We ate the fillets in two sittings. The heads I saved for something special.

My kids are big soup eaters. Because we live near Seattle’s International District, at a tender age they discovered noodle houses and the “subtle yet profound” pleasures of an Asian noodle soup, as one blogger has jokingly put it, parroting cooking shows like “Iron Chef.” These soups are so tasty and cheap that I never really considered trying to make my own before, but after reading Hank Shaw’s post on the “nasty bits” of fish, I just had to give it a shot. Besides, we’re fishermen here at FOTL. When the salmon are gone I suppose we’ll fish sculpin; in the meantime we can do honor to our catch by eating every last morsel.

I haven’t cooked many fish head soups. None in fact. Luckily we have the Interwebs from which to draw on a nearly bottomless well of inspiration. Two recipes in particular, in addition to Hank’s, informed my final improvisation: [eating club] vancouver’s Mama’s Fish Head Soup is home cooking at its best, and gave me the courage to use canned Szechuan prepared vegetables; a column by Steve Barnes from Albany, N.Y.’s Times Union convinced me that the double-strain was the way to go, and that aromatics such as green onions and cilantro would give the broth extra depth when applied after the first straining.

The advice was good. I have to say, if you’ll allow me, this soup was every bit as good as soups I’ve had in the I-District. Those of little faith might get spooked during the proceedings, especially when the salmon heads are rolling around in there with the leeks and other stuff, going to pieces and spraying their bones about willy-nilly. But that’s what the strainer is for. Ever glanced into the kitchen of a back alley noodle house? Not a good idea. But all the crazy stuff going into that bubbling cauldron will eventually get strained out, leaving—yes—a subtle yet profound broth in its place.

Hank’s Salmon Head Soup is in the Japanese tradition. We like that—but my kids are most enthusiastic about the many varieties of Chinese noodle soup, so I went down to Uwajimaya to see what ingredients I could dig up. Sure enough, they had the sketchy can of Szechuan prepared vegetables (some sort of radish, I think). I also got some udon noodles, our nod to the Japanese style. Here are the ingredients in full:

2-3 salmon heads, cut in half
2 tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)
1 3-inch thumb of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 leeks, tops discarded, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Thai red peppers, thinly sliced
Chinese cooking wine
2 tbsp fish sauce (optional)
rice vinegar (optional)
aji-mirin (optional)
1 can Szechuan prepared vegetable (optional)
1 can bamboo shoots
1/2 head Napa cabbage, shredded
1 handful cilantro for garnish, stemmed, with stems reserved
1 package Asian noodles (e.g., udon, soba, ramen)

Despite the long list and the double strain, this is actually a fairly easy soup to make without the sort of pitfalls that can bedevil other soup recipes.

1. Over medium-high heat, brown fish heads and ginger in oil for a few minutes, turning at least once. De-glaze pot with a splash of wine and add chopped leeks, garlic, and half the green onions and red peppers. Saute together for several minutes.

2. De-glaze pot again with another splash of wine, then add 8 cups of water and optional fish sauce. Bring to a light boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

3. Strain contents, picking and reserving as much salmon meat as possible. Return soup to simmer. Adjust for salt. Add half the remaining green onion and the cilantro stems. (Optional seasoning: Add a tablespoon of each: Chinese wine, rice vinegar, aji-mirin; add a few heaping tablespoons of Szechuan prepared vegetables.) Simmer another 15-30 minutes.

4. Strain soup a second time and return to low heat to keep warm. Dole out reserved salmon meat into bowls, along with noodles, a handful of shredded cabbage, and spoonfuls of both Szechuan prepared vegetables (optional) and bamboo shoots. Ladle soup. Garnish with green onion, cilantro, and Thai red pepper. Serves 4.

Prepared Szechuan vegetables will be hard to find unless you have access to an Asian market. If you can find ’em, I highly recommend. I also recommend the optional seasoning, though you’ll be tempering the fish flavor in the process. A second strain with green onions and cilantro stems (or similar aromatics) is de rigeur; this is where the umami effect really kicks into high gear. If you’ve eaten in a quality noodle house, you know what I’m talking about. How do they do it? I once wondered, savoring every last drop of broth in my bowl.

Now I know.

Salmon Sashimi

We’re taking a break from the forced mushroom march at FOTL to enjoy a stellar lunch of silver salmon sashimi. I caught an immature silver and decided it would be put to better use raw. Normally I toss the younguns back, but this one was bleeding profusely from what looked like a mortal hook-wound, so I added it to the punch-card.

1 cup sushi rice
rice vinegar to taste
1 small salmon fillet, deboned
pinch or two of fresh ginger, minced
pinch or two of toasted sesame seeds
pinch or two of chives, chopped
pinch or two of cilantro, chopped (optional)
1/4 cup soy sauce
ponzu sauce (or make your own: 2 tbsp soy sauce plus 2 tsp fresh lime, lemon, or orange juice, or combination)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp sesame oil

Make the sushi rice. While it’s cooking, wrap your salmon fillet and place in freezer for five minutes. Prepare minced ginger, chopped chives and cilantro, and ponzu sauce (if necessary). Remove salmon from freezer and using very sharp fillet knife, slice into sashimi strips, cutting in one direction (no sawing). Season rice with vinegar, wet hands, and form two hockey puck-sized patties, and set aside on plates. Place salmon strips in bowl with soy sauce. In small saucepan, heat oils until smoking. Drain salmon and pile on top of rice patties. Sprinkle with ginger and chives. Spoon a tablespoon or so of hot oil over salmon to sear it. Spoon a tablespoon or so of ponzu sauce over salmon. Garnish with cilantro and sesame seeds. Serves 2, with rice to spare.