By Mike Wicks
Salmon is the iconic West Coast fish. Its culinary versatility and species diversity means you’ll find it equally delicious in a fine-dining restaurant, a local pub or a street-side food truck. It is ingrained in coastal culture; what would our lifestyle here be without salmon? Since time immemorial, salmon has been a provider of life, an indicator of prosperity and a staple food source for First Nations peoples of the Northwest coast. It is depicted in their art: in woodcarvings, paintings, jewellery, sculptures and on drums. The subject of many legends,
it is, in short, revered. In nature, salmon provide food for our bears, our eagles and other wildlife — it is vital to the balance of land and sea.
Wild Versus Farmed
B.C. commercial salmon fisheries harvested 17,300 tonnes of wild salmon in 2013. This may sound like a lot of fish, but it’s only 18 per cent of the province’s total harvest of 98,800 tonnes. More importantly, it’s only five per cent of the landed value.
Cultured salmon, the new ‘trying to be more palatable’ name for farmed salmon, is worth over half a million dollars annually to the province, so it economically eclipses its wild cousin. If you buy farmed salmon, it’s most likely Atlantic; only 10 per cent of farmed salmon in B.C. are Pacific salmon. Pacific and Atlantic salmon are not closely related and cannot interbreed. This, of course, may be a blessing.
Finding a chef with a good word to say about farmed salmon is like trying to find hen’s teeth. To quote Dan Hudson of Hudson’s On First in Duncan, “Don’t talk to me about farmed salmon!” In fact, all of the chefs we interviewed were vehement in their dislike of the product. They all purchase wild fish from local fishermen directly, or from sustainable suppliers.
Salmon Five Ways
Pacific salmon are from the genus oncorhynchus, which derives from two Greek words onkos (hook) and rynchos (nose). If you’ve ever seen salmon during mating season, you’ll see the reason for the name: their lower jaw or “kype” becomes extremely prominent.
Here in B.C., the five main species we find in seafood markets, or that we catch, are Pink, Chinook, Sockeye, Coho and Chum. Pinks are the most readily available, making up 75 per cent of the B.C. catch. Averaging four to six pounds (although 15-pound specimens have been caught), they are the smallest species and the only one with a fixed two-year life span.
Many people spurn Pinks, otherwise known as Humpback or Humpies, as being a lesser fish, but most chefs agree that’s unfair. As Dan Hayes at The London Chef says, “It’s fresh, ocean-run, sustainable, versatile, delicious and so inexpensive — why aren’t we using more of it? People should open their minds beyond Coho and Sockeye and embrace Pink salmon.”
At the other end of the spectrum are Chinook, also known as Spring, King or Tyee. These are big fish. An 83-pound Goliath was caught off the B.C. coast a few years ago! Chinooks can be recognized by the small, round spots on their backs, dorsal fins and tails.
For Dan Hudson, White Springs are the ultimate salmon. “… they’re a super, super fatty, firm fish …,” he says. “When you get them and they’re pure, pure white, there’s nothing like it. It’s not something you can buy at the grocery store. It’s like halibut with a suntan — almost opaque. For me it cooks up better than any fish I’ve worked with. You get a nice golden crust on it when you cook it.”
Hudson gets his White Springs from Mad Dog Crabs in Duncan. Owner Scott Mahon says, “Only five per cent of Springs are white and you can’t tell until you cut them open. They come from the Columbia and Fraser rivers and are mostly caught off Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes. They’re called Ivory Springs in the U.S.”
Mahon explains that fishermen used to throw them back as they were hard to sell, but restaurants in New York and Los Angeles began putting them on their menus at a premium; now they are highly sought after. “They are oilier, have more Omega 3s — a nice, tender fish,” he says.
White Springs are not Spirit Salmon; while Spirit Salmon are that rare occurrence where the salmon’s exterior and internal flesh are almost colourless as the result of a recessive gene similar to that of the Spirit Bear, White Springs are thought to have a recessive gene that allows them to process carotenoids (natural pigments found in their diet of shrimp, krill, etc.) differently than normal Springs.
Chef Kunal Ghose, former Top Chef contestant, founder of Red Fish Blue Fish and now chef/owner at Fish Hook, also favours Chinook “… because of its higher fat content, especially in the belly area, it holds up to just about any cooking. I also love Sockeye for its colour and the way it turns out when you make it into lox.”
Sockeye, with their deep blue-green back and silver sides, were the first salmon species to be harvested commercially in the Pacific region. They are probably the fish most people seek out on menus and at markets. Between five to eight pounds, it has deep red, firm flesh and is rich in flavour.
Art Napoleon, former tribal chief, bush cook, singer-songwriter, film producer and star of Moosemeat and Marmalade, says, “Everyone knows Sockeye’s the best.” Napoleon, a Cree from northeastern B.C., told YAM he didn’t know much about salmon until he moved here and became friends with many Coast Salish people. Today, he cooks salmon much the same way as he would trout back home: simply.
“I like to bake it whole. I wrap it in tin foil and I put butter, onions and whatever else in the cavity and wrap it up tight, throw it in the oven for 40 to 50 minutes at 350°F. It keeps all the juices inside.” He says the key to preparing any fish is to cut the gills out right away, otherwise the meat is tainted.
“When people forget to cut the gills out, they will spoil the fish quicker than the guts.”
Coho, also known as Silvers, are favourites with sports fishers for their fighting spirit, and with foodies for their vibrant red-orange firm flesh, offering both flavour and good texture. They average seven to 11 pounds, but can reach 36 pounds. This is a fish that takes well to grilling, as it doesn’t lose its vibrant colour.
Probably the least favoured of all the species for eating are Chum salmon, also known as Silverbright and sometimes less flatteringly as Dog salmon. They have less fat than other species, which gives them a milder flavour. Chum range between 10 to 20 pounds, although larger ones have been caught. Chum are the preferred salmon for cold smoking due to their low fat content.
The best place to get salmon is undoubtedly straight from a fish boat, preferably one on which you have just spent several hours fishing for your own.
If you’re at the local grocery store, however, and looking at the display, avoid salmon that looks brownish at the edges. Look for firm flesh — ask the person serving you to press the flesh and watch to see if it bounces back easily. If it looks mushy or it’s breaking up, avoid it. Buy fresh, not frozen, although “frozen at sea” is fine. When buying a whole fish, the secret is to look for clear, not cloudy, eyes.
There are many ways to cook salmon: poaching (in water, broth or even olive oil), baking, pan frying, broiling, grilling, barbecuing, or even sous vide (cooking in an airtight plastic bag in a water bath).
Whatever your preference, one of the biggest mistakes people make when cooking salmon is to overcook it. In the past, many of us were taught to cook our fish all the way through, but salmon especially should be served medium rare. Once that white, gunky, foamy stuff starts to seriously ooze from the salmon, you’ve overcooked it, or you’re cooking it too fast. The white stuff is albumin, a protein forced out of the muscle fibres of the fish. You may not be able to stop it altogether, but following Chef Hudson’s advice will minimize it.
“Depending on the thickness,” he says, “I try to sear salmon two-thirds to three-quarters on one side to crisp it up … so it’s primarily cooked on one side, and not too fast. Then I flip it at the last minute and baste it with a bit of butter and lemon, maybe add a few herbs. If it’s a really thick piece, once it’s seared, I’ll throw it in the oven for two or three minutes.”
Hudson says Sockeye and Coho have their own cooking gauge. “You see the ‘cook’ coming up the side … it goes from red to opaque, once it’s two-thirds to three-quarters up the side of the fish I flip it, turn off the heat and leave the residual heat to finish it off.”
Pan-frying fish is a scary business for many home cooks. Hudson points out his team doesn’t use non-stick pans, as it’s harder to get a decent sear on the fish. They use stainless steel pans and make sure they’re good and hot. The secret is to not be tempted to move the fish.
“It’s like any protein,” he says. “Leave it to do its thing and it’ll come off on its own accord … get a nice hot sear, then turn the heat down a bit … not so low you’ll stew the fish, not high enough to burn it.”
Cooking on the barbecue is another test for many people, as the fish tends to stick to the grill. Here’s how chefs handle it. Ensure the barbecue is hot, but not at full temp. If you’re cooking a fillet, slash the flesh side with a sharp knife and push lemon zest, garlic and whatever herbs take your fancy into the incisions. Rub both sides with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper — heavier on the skin side, as a lot of it will burn off. Place the salmon skin-side down and then leave it — really leave it. Don’t be tempted to prod and poke; just leave the blessed thing alone until the skin is crispy, about four minutes. Then carefully flip and cook the other side for a couple of minutes. If you enjoy crispy salmon skin — a real delicacy — ease it off the fillet while the flesh side is finishing cooking and place the uncooked side on the barbecue to
A Symbol of Determination
We are blessed to have an abundance of salmon; they are amazing creatures and deserve the reverence our First Nations people bestow on them. They migrate from the ocean to freshwater to reproduce, sometimes swimming as far as 3,000 miles, homing in on the place where they were born and where most will die, returning life-sustaining nutrients to the coastal ecosystem. The epitome of West Coast spring and summer flavours — the guest of honour at many glorious summer barbecues.
With that in mind, here are some recipes to celebrate this local delicacy. Here’s to the mighty salmon!
Campfire Salmon, Two Ways
Courtesy of Art Napoleon
1 PAN-FRIED Salmon
Using a metal grill over a fire, heat a cast iron skillet and add any high-temperature oil until it splatters then add salmon steaks or fillets and fry them up with some wild onions or wild celery cut into 1-inch diagonals. If you are not a forager, thyme sprigs and a bit of butter added to the oil adds a nice flavour. Cooking over medium-high heat, the salmon steaks/fillets only take about two minutes per side depending on thickness. Baste with the oils in the pan while frying. Serve hot over wild rice.
2 BOILED SALMON
Simply bring a pot of water or fish stock to a boil in an outdoor cooking pot over the fire. You can use a grill to place the pot on or hang it from a hook. Once the water is boiling, add potatoes cut into halves and boil for five minutes before adding hearty salmon chunks that have been cut diagonally with the bones still intact (approximately three inches thick). A medium-sized Sockeye should be cut into at least six chunks, including the head). Allow to boil over medium heat until salmon is cooked (20-30 minutes). Serve fish with potatoes, salt and pepper. The stock can be used in soups and chowders or frozen for later use. Salmon heads contain delicacies like cheeks and eyeballs so “we do not waste them,” says Napoleon. Long ago, northern peoples boiled fish in waterproof birch or spruce bark vessels and added hot stones.
Home-Smoked Salmon and Watercress Salad with Creamy Wasabi Dressing
Courtesy of Chef Dan Hudson, Hudson’s On First
- 1 side fresh skin-on salmon (any kind will do)
- 50g fresh watercress
- 50g green salad mix
- 100g kosher salt
- 50g brown sugar
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 litre water
- 2 tbsp mayonnaise
- 1 tsp wasabi paste
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp water
Combine the sugar, salt, lemon, water and bay leaves to create brine. Place salmon in the brine and leave for two hours.
Drain fish and pat dry. Smoke for 90 minutes in a hot smoker, using apple chips.
If you don’t have access to a smoker, you can buy a small smoking box and place this in a pan with the salmon and cover with tin foil.
To make the dressing, add all the ingredients together to form a loose mayonnaise that you can drizzle over the top.
To plate, combine greens with flakes of the smoked salmon and drizzle the dressing over the top. At the restaurant we finish with crispy onions, but anything with some crunchy texture will do.
Flash Roasted Wild Salmon Tikka on Charred Gobi Pilau
Courtesy of Chef Kunal Ghose, Red Fish Blue Fish
- 1.5 lb. wild salmon fillet
- 1 tsp canola oil
- 1 tbsp crushed garlic
- 1 tbsp minced ginger
- 1 tbsp minced onion
- 1 tbsp Achiote paste (Mexican or Latin grocery)
- 1 tsp lime juice and zest
- 3 tbsp minced cilantro stems
- 1 tsp pepper, salt
- 1 tsp red chili powder
- 1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 small cauliflower (in smaller florets)
- 1 tsp canola oil
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp minced onion
- 1 tbsp crushed garlic
- 1 tbsp minced ginger
- 1 tsp toasted cumin seed
- 1 tsp toasted coriander seed
- 1 tsp toasted black mustard seed
- 1 can coconut milk
- 4 cups golden basmati rice (cooked or leftover cold)
- 1 cup crispy onions (Asian market)
- 3 tbsp minced cilantro leaves
Food process or hand-blend all Tikka Glaze ingredients.
Preheat the oven to 500˚F on convection (if available) and toss the cauliflower (Gobi) in canola oil, adding a pinch of salt and pepper. Put florets on a baking sheet in the oven and roast until very dark golden, about 15 minutes. Then sauté onion, garlic and ginger with spices in a large fry pan. Add coconut milk, rice and crispy onions. Finish by tossing in dark roasted cauliflower and cilantro.
To finish dish, use already super hot oven to flash-roast salmon, preferably in four thinner fillet portions. Spoon Tikka Glaze over fillets and roast for three minutes or until rare to medium rare. Serve salmon on top of Pilau.
Pan-Fried Salmon with Saskatoon Maple Glaze, Nettle Greens and Wild Rice
Courtesy of Art Napoleon
- 2 large salmon fillets with skin on
- 1 lemon
- 1 tbsp canola oil
- 1/3 cup butter
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1 tsp liquid smoke
- 1/3 cup Saskatoon berries or other
- 1 cup blanched nettle leaves
- 1 cup boiled wild rice
Boil wild rice until it is almost finished (about 40 minutes). Blanch fresh nettles in boiling water for two minutes then strain, pat dry and remove leaves from rough stalks. Squeeze some fresh lemon juice over nettle leaves and set aside.
Heat oil in cast iron skillet over medium-high heat then add salted fillets, skin side down. Nettle sea salt adds a nice touch if you can get it. Add half the butter to skillet for extra flavour.
In another pan, heat some oil and butter over high heat and quickly stir fry the nettle leaves the same as you would spinach or chard. Pull pan off heat leaving nettles in.
When salmon is seared and starting to caramelize, turn over gently and cook the other side. Use any extra melted butter to baste the fillets.
Add the berries, maple syrup, liquid smoke (optional) and rest of butter, and stir fry gently next to the fillets.
Once the salmon is done (do not overcook), immediately plate along with the rice and sautéed greens. Pour the berries over the salmon and the glaze over the salmon and nettles.
Sprinkle a bit more lemon juice over the fish and serve while steaming hot!