Wild Alaska salmon is a gift of spring

Alaska's salmon fishers often harvest from small skiffs. / Photo

Salmon fishermen ply the water of Alaska’s Cook Inlet. / Photo courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

When the sockeye are running in Bristol Bay, fourth-generation salmon fisher Melanie Brown sometimes launches her skiff in the dead of night. But she doesn’t mind.

“It can be really exciting when the fish are running and splashing,” she says.

Brown and her 70-year-old mother, Katherine, sometimes haul 20,000 pounds of fish a day. / photo credit

Brown and her 70-year-old mother, Katherine, sometimes haul 20,000 pounds of fish per day.Photo courtesy of Melanie Brown

Brown belongs to a rarified club, the roughly 24,000 Alaska anglers who help supply the country’s second-favorite seafood (shrimp is No. 1). Over the next few weeks, they are expected to haul more than 1 billion pounds of pink-fleshed fish over their gunnels, driving a roughly $1.5-billion industry that dates back to Native Americans. More than 90 percent of the country’s wild salmon comes from Alaska.

With fresh salmon available year round – most of it the bland pink stuff farmed in the Atlantic – it’s easy to forget that there is actually a salmon season, and human beings who harvest it. Wild Alaska salmon is a different beast from its Atlantic counterpart, comprised of five different species, each with its own unique flavor and attributes. From now until mid-October, people like Brown will be sending us buttery king salmon, red sockeye, flaky coho, pinks and keta, fresh from the icy cold waters of the 49th state.

Wild salmon swimming upstream. / photo credit

Wild salmon swimming upstream.Photo courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Brown, 46, fishes the same plot of ocean that her great-grandfather began fishing in 1937. During the months of June and July, when salmon season peaks and the waters of Bristol Bay flash with silver-skinned fish, Brown and her 70-year-old mother Katherine Brown will drive the family skiff against the current and into the tide to where their nets lay waiting.

During the peak, the Browns fish and sleep, fish and sleep, six hours on, six hours off, their life and rhythms rolling with the tides.

“The tide becomes our clock,” Melanie Brown says. “We move forward with the tide. Sometimes we have to go out in the middle of the night.”

A man "picks" a fish from the net in Bristol Bay. / Photo courtesy of Bob Waldrop.

A man “picks” a fish from the net in Bristol Bay. / Photo courtesy of Bob Waldrop

Working with their partner Louis Karlberg – who brings 25-year-old arms to the effort – Brown and her mother will haul as much as 20,000 pounds of fish per day during the peak. Let me say that again: 20,000 pounds of salmon per day. Without a rod. Without a reel. Using just their backs and their biceps to pull the nets over the side and “pick” the fish from them.

“At the end of the season my arms are in pretty tough shape,” Brown says.

They stow the catch in 1,000-pound mesh bags, two in the stern, two in the bow, running them to the storage facility several times per day.

As a child, Brown and her family would mostly fish from shore, she says. When it was time to deliver their haul, they would drag their nets high up onto the beach and await the “tallymen” who would count the catch and pay them per fish, tossing each one into a truck using a spike-tipped pole called a “pew.”

Fishing skiffs hauled on shore. / photo credit

Fishing skiffs hauled on shore at Cook Inlet. / Photo courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

“The tallymen would poke into the head of the fish and fling the fish into the truck. They would do that with every single fish,” Brown says. “They didn’t care if the fish were muddy, they didn’t have totes for the fish.”

In the early- to mid-1980s, Brown says, the industry moved toward the mesh bags, called “brailer bags” that they use today. This method produces cleaner, better quality fish, she says.

Brown and her family eat salmon three or four times a week on average throughout the year, she says, and every single day during the summer. She says they never get sick of it.

“For me, salmon is just such a perfect food,” she says. “There’s not much you have to do to it. Just make sure you don’t overcook it. That’s a sin against nature.”

Salmon primer

Alaska boasts five major varieties of salmon, each with its own unique attributes. We’ve compiled a primer and some recipes to help you find the right variety for your tastes and menu.

salmon-king

King (or Chinook): Buttery and mild with a beautiful rosy hue, king salmon most often is seen at the sushi bar and the center of restaurant plates. Its high oil content gives it a rich, full flavor and means it freezes well.

  • Best preparation: King works well in any preparation, but its premium quality shines when grilled, broiled or simply prepared.
  • Availability: Available year round fresh or frozen, but fresh kings peak mid-May through July.

salmon-sockeye Sockeye (or red): Sometimes called “red” salmon for its deep pink, almost scarlet flesh, sockeye has a flavor as bold as its color. This is the salmon that most often shows up as lox, and its roe is prized for the salmon roe sushi known as ikura.

  • Best preparation: Like king, sockeye shines when grilled or broiled, but its bigger flavor means it can take more pronounced dressings, such as salsa and relish.
  • Availability: Canned and frozen sockeye is available year round, but fresh peaks mid-May through September.

salmon-coho Coho (or silver): Firmer and lighter with a lower oil content than king or sockeye, coho’s red-orange flesh flakes easily. Coho is a favorite for smoking, and its skin features prominently at the sushi bar as crispy salmon skin rolls.

  • Best preparation: This is the fish for your backyard smoker or paired with rich items such as avocado. Its moderate oil content makes it good for fattier preparations such as salmon Benedict.
  • Availability: Frozen coho can be found year round. Fresh coho peaks mid-June through late October.

salmon-chum Keta (or chum): Keta has the lowest oil content of all wild Alaskan salmon species, and a red, orange or pink hue. Its meaty texture makes keta a favorite for jerky.

  • Best preparation: Because of its low oil content, keta works well poached in oil. It also makes a good addition to chowders and curries.
  • Availability: Keta can be found frozen year round. Fresh keta peaks June through September.


salmon-pink Pink:
Soft meat, small flake and a delicate flavor make this rosy-colored salmon similar to trout. Pinks are often found as salmon burgers in the frozen food aisle or in salmon-salad sandwiches.

  • Best preparation: Poached in broth or oil or gently roasted, the delicate flavor of pink salmon makes it a perfect backdrop for sauces and other flavorings.
  • Availability: Canned and frozen pinks are found year round. Fresh pinks peak mid-June through September.

Makes 4 servings

AFR Tested

King Salmon with Ramps and Peas

Wild king salmon shines best when left alone. This simple preparation, adapted from "The Broad Fork" by Hugh Acheson, brings out the flavor of the Alaska native without upstaging it.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 4 salmon fillets, preferably king, 6 ounces each
  • Sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 pound ramps, cut into 2-inch lengths, leaves included
  • 2 cups fresh English peas, blanched in boiling water for 1 minute, or 2 cups frozen petit peas
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Instructions

In a saute pan large enough to hold all four pieces of salmon without crowding, heat the canola oil over high heat.

Pat the fillets dry with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt. When the oil just begins to smoke, place the salmon in the pan, flesh side down. Sear for 4 minutes. The fillets should develop a nice brown crust. Add 1 tablespoon of butter and turn the fillets. Cook for 1 more minute. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towel.

Drain any excess oil from the pan. Return to the stove on medium heat. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. When it begins to froth, add the ramps and season with salt to taste. Cook the ramps for 2 minutes, stirring as they wilt. Add the peas and chicken stock and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice.

Place the salmon fillets on a plate and spoon the ramp and pea mixture over each one.

Makes 4 servings

AFR Tested

Wild salmon with mango salsa

Vinegar, mangoes and spring onions accent the rich flavor of the wild salmon in this recipe, which works well with both sockeye and coho. Mangoes and spring onions hit their peak at the same time as Alaska's salmon, making this the ultimate seasonal dish.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup diced mango
  • 1/4 cup diced spring onions, white and green parts
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 1 1/2 pounds salmon fillet, preferably coho or sockeye

Instructions

Oil the grates of a gas grill and heat to high for 10 minutes.*

While the grill is heating, combine the mango, spring onions, parsley, salt, pepper, vinegar, oil and cayenne, if using.

When the grill is ready, pat the fish dry with paper towel. Daub the flesh side lightly with olive oil.

Place oiled side down on the grates of the grill and cook for 5 minutes. Turn the fish and set the heat to medium, cooking for another 1 to 3 minutes. Remove the fish just before it is cooked through. Let salmon rest for 5 minutes.

Cut the fillet into 4 pieces. Serve salmon on a bed of arugula and top with salsa.

*If you do not have a gas grill, use your oven's broiler. Prepare the fish as above. Set the broiler to high, and place fish directly below the element or flame. Broil for 10 minutes per inch of the fillet's thickness. Remove from broiler just before the fish is cooked through. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 4 servings

AFR Tested

Sockeye and Strawberries

Wild Alaska salmon and strawberries are both fixtures of spring. Paired with balsamic vinegar and the first strawberries of the season, rich, red sockeye really comes alive. This easy preparation punches above its weight.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups cored and chopped strawberries
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds salmon fillet, preferably sockeye
  • Olive oil for grilling
  • Arugula for serving


Instructions

At least 2 hours before you want to serve, combine the strawberries, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 6.

When you are ready to eat, remove the strawberry mixture from the refrigerator. Oil the grates of a gas grill and heat on high for 10 minutes.* Pat the salmon dry with a paper towel and daub the flesh lightly with olive oil.

Place the fish oiled side down on the grates of the grill and cook for 5 minutes. When the fish is well seared, turn the fish and set the grill to medium. Cook the skin side for another 1 to 3 minutes, removing just before it is fully cooked. Let the salmon rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Cut the salmon into 4 servings. Lay each piece on a bed of arugula. Top with strawberry dressing.

*If you do not have a gas grill, use your oven's broiler. Prepare the fish as above. Set the broiler to high, and place fish directly below the element or flame. Broil for 10 minutes per inch of the fillet's thickness. Remove from broiler just before the fish is cooked through. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

, , ,

One Response to Wild Alaska salmon is a gift of spring

  1. Helen May 22, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    A pleasure to be introduced to women anglers, Melanie and Katherine, and to have them confirm my own horror with overcooked salmon. Thanks Michele for taking me to salmon school, also.