Tips, tricks for cooking up delicious North Coast king salmon
“I think the wild ocean king salmon is the best eating fish,” said Anna Larsen, founder of the Siren Fish Company, a Santa Rosa Community Supported Fishery that delivers fish to 800 active subscribers all over the Bay Area. “And they’re fairly easy to process, because they are 70 percent edible fillet.”
The season opener got off to a slow start in early May and closed in July, reopening Aug. 3 through September.
The king salmon were difficult to find when the season first opened because of lower population due to several years of the drought and climate changes, according to Larsen, who also works in sales and marketing for Santa Rosa’s North Coast Fisheries, a boat-direct seafood purveyor.
“The salmon follow the food, and the food is not in the normal places because of El Niño and the warm blob of water offshore,” she said. “They started finding the fish in Fort Bragg right before the season closed in July.”
So far this month, the kings being landed are “nice grade and good quality, but not a big volume,” said Scott Hockett, owner of Fort Bragg’s Noyo Fish Company.
“When you’re closed for a month, the fish have tails, and they’re gone,” he said. “Most of our fleet left yesterday, and there were guys catching from 0 up to 18 fish.”
Hope remains that prices for the local kings — which were retailing for $26 to $28 a pound in mid-August — will fall to a more reasonable level.
“The prices usually go down and level off as the season progresses,” Larsen said. “Last year, it got under $20 a pound.”
On the up side, the North Coast has enjoyed a relatively cool, windy year so far, which has stirred up the deep, nutrient-filled waters and produced the small crustaceans known as krill that salmon love to eat.
“When the kings come into market and they’ve been feeding on krill, that’s as good as it gets,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “The taste can’t be beat.”
Here are hints on how to purchase, cook and preserve this wild treasure, swimming somewhere off the North Coast:
Check for bones: When buying a king salmon, look to make sure there are pin bones, which provide support to the soft flesh. “When you get home, just pull out the pin bones with a pair of tweezer pliers,” Larsen said.
Purchase a whole fish: It’s less money per pound, and you can tell how fresh it is and how it’s been treated by looking at the eyes and the scales. If scales are missing and the eyes are not clear, that means the fish may have been “beaten up,” Larsen said, and the meat may be bruised.
“You can buy a whole salmon and portion and freeze it,” she said. “To learn how to fillet a salmon, just look up a YouTube video. Sharpen your knife and dig in … you can eat your mistakes.”
If you don’t want to fillet a whole fish, buy a side of salmon. Then slice it into meal-size portions and freeze it.
Cedar plank method: For cooking for her family, including her salmon-loving son, who is 3, Larsen likes to keep it simple.
“On the barbecue I’ll do it on a cedar plank, or we just put down a grill pan or foil,” she said. “I just use a really good sea salt and a little pepper.”
In the pan: You can also pan fry the king salmon in a little butter or ghee. Larsen starts the fillet skin side down, on high heat for 3 minutes. Then she turns it over, covers it, turns the heat off, and lets it sit for 3 minutes.
Make bone broth: If you’ve got bones left over from a whole fish, throw them into a pressure cooker to make bone broth. “It only takes 1 hour and 20 minutes,” Larsen said. “Usually, it takes 12 hours on the stove.”
The garlic solution: Hockett, who cooks king salmon for his daughters once a week in season, puts tinfoil down on the grill and cooks it with garlic and butter. The good news is that the fat content of the king salmon is so high that it’s hard to overcook.
“When you see the white fat (albumin) cooking out of it, stop,” he said. “That means it is done or overdone.”
Pepper it up: According to McManus, the Yurok Indians from the Klamath River often season the salmon with lemon pepper. “They hit it with that before they cook it,” he said. “It’s super easy and delicious.”
The thrill of krill: When McManus finds krill inside a salmon, he knows the flavor is going to be topnotch, and he just cooks them with sea salt and pepper. But if they’ve been feeding on anchovies, he will dab a teriyaki baste from Kikkoman after they’ve been cooked.
To grill on the barbecue, he places the fillets flesh side down, leaves them for 4 minutes (until they get golden brown grill marks), then finishes them skin side down. Then he drizzles the teriyaki on top of the grill marks.
Buy local: If you have a choice between an Alaskan king and a California king salmon, go with the local one, Larsen said.
But if your choice is between a farmed fish and a wild fish, it’s best to stay away from the farmed version.
“Try to stay with the wild salmon,” said Lisa Lavagetto, an instructor at Ramekins Culinary School in Sonoma. “The quality is much higher, and the flavor well worth the extra money.”
The following recipes are from instructor Lisa Lavagetto of Ramekins:
Cedar Planked Grilled Salmon with Tuscan Herb Sauce
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1/4 cup olive oil, virgin
2 teaspoons seasoning salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup fresh marjoram or oregano, chopped
1/4 cup fresh garlic chives, minced
2 pounds salmon, whole fillet, skin removed
1 cedar plank, soaked in water
Combine all the ingredients and pour over the salmon. Marinate for at least two hours or overnight.
Preheat your grill on high.
Place the salmon on the wet cedar plank. Place the plank on the top rack of your gas grill, or lower the heat on one side and put the salmon on the section that is off. If cooking with charcoal, please use the indirect method of cooking. Cook the salmon until it is done to your liking.
Serve immediately with Tuscan Herb Sauce (recipe below).
Tuscan Herb Sauce
Makes about 3/4 cup
1/3 cup coarsely crumbled firm white sandwich bread
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons drained bottled capers, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced and mashed to a paste with ¼ teaspoon salt
2 anchovies, mashed
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/3 cup of basil chiffonade
11/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon, or to taste
7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Mash together bread crumbs, vinegar, capers, garlic paste, anchovy paste and mustard using a mortar and pestle (or whisk together in a bowl). Add herbs, oil and salt and pepper to taste, then stir (or whisk) until combined well.
Grape Leaf-Wrapped Wild Salmon with Roasted Grape and Fig Relish
Makes 8 servings
1 jar of grape leaves in brine
8 6-ounce fillets of wild salmon, skin removed
— Zest of 1 lemon
— Juice of 1 lemon
— Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
— Olive oil
1 pound red or black grapes, halved lengthwise (removing any seeds)
2 tablespoons butter
2 shallots, minced
2 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ cup port
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
16 black mission figs, diced into small dice
Preheat grill. Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Lay 2 or 3 large grape leaves so that they overlap. Place a piece of salmon on a grape leaf, season with a little salt and pepper, a little sprinkle of lemon zest and a dash of lemon juice. Fold sides of grape leaf over salmon and roll up, making a little package.
Brush outside of package with a little olive oil. Repeat with remainder of salmon fillets. Set on one side until ready to grill, and prepare the relish.
For relish: Brush a baking sheet with olive oil. Put grapes in a bowl, drizzle lightly with olive oil, toss grapes to coat and place on baking sheet. Bake in oven for 5 minutes, toss with metal spatula and bake for 3-5 minutes more. Remove from oven and leave to cool.
In a small sauté pan melt butter over a medium heat, add shallots and cook until they are soft but not caramelized. Remove from heat.
Add sugar, port and balsamic vinegar, return to heat, bring to boil, then simmer until liquid has slightly reduced. Add chopped figs and roasted grapes and just heat to warm through.
For salmon: Grill rolled salmon packages for 6-7 minutes, flip the packages over and grill for 6-7 minutes more. Serve immediately with fig and grape relish drizzled over the top.