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Arrival of spring salmon has cooks fired up

This entrée prepared by chef Nick St. Clair of Café Marron features wild salmon atop grilled cheddar polenta with braised red chard and a smoked tomato vinagrette. (Christopher Anderson)
This entrée prepared by chef Nick St. Clair of Café Marron features wild salmon atop grilled cheddar polenta with braised red chard and a smoked tomato vinagrette. (Christopher Anderson)

Spring salmon season has arrived and with it, the sticker shock over the price of those first fish from the Copper River in Alaska.

Paying upwards of $20 a pound can take a bit of the joy out of eating the fish famous for its rich flavor and sky-high levels of omega 3, but those soaring prices will likely come down to earth soon.

And there are larger than average numbers predicted for salmon runs off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.

The arrival of fresh, wild king and sockeye this time of year gets cooks fired up about trying new preparations and perfecting tried-and-true techniques.

“I always think of salmon as a spring and summer dish, something I look forward to eating outside when the weather warms up,” said Merrilee Lindaman.

At the South Hill restaurant bearing her name, the fish is prepared at least a half dozen ways as customers vote with their forks to determine what best-sellers find a spot on the menu.

The artichoke heart-crusted salmon with tomato-mint vinaigrette is a big hit, as is the fillet covered in black and white sesame seeds and served with wasabi-spiked guacamole.

For another diner favorite, Lindaman cold smokes salmon and then lacquers the fish in a tomato-based, slightly sweet/spicy Thai barbecue sauce. That’s served with grilled pineapple.

Coeur d’Alene Resort executive chef Rod Jessick also likes the way tropical fruit compliments the full flavor of salmon.

“The beauty of this fish is that you don’t need to do a whole lot to it,” Jessick said. “It’s great with just a little salt and pepper and lemon juice, but I do love fruit salsas with it.”

The key, of course, is to cook the fish properly.

“People have a tendency to overcook it,” said Glen Aurdahl, skipper of Fishing Vessel Northstar out of Neah Bay, Wash. “If you start to see white appearing on top of the fillet, you’ve probably gone too far.”

Most pros recommend cooking to about 130 to 150 degrees, measuring on an instant-read thermometer. But it’s important to remember the fish will continue to cook once it’s removed from the heat, so it’s best to take it off a little before it reaches the optimal temperature, Jessick said.

Jon Rowley, the Seattle-based seafood expert credited with giving Copper River salmon its superstar status, said it’s also important not to undercook it.

“The trend of cooking salmon medium rare or rare is wrong-headed,” he said.

Inspired by the methods used by the Makah tribe, which calls for cooking the fish on wooden stakes over a fire, Rowley adapted that technique to come up with a winning process.

“Sear the fish for a minute or two in a hot pan, then turn it and place the pan in a 225- to 250-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes and it’s perfect every time,” he said.

Mike Hackett, the executive chef at Anthony’s overlooking Spokane Falls, said salmon lovers who visit the restaurant tend to be divided into two camps: those who go for it cooked on the grill and those who savor the flavor of fish cooked in the oven on alder planks.

Either way, salmon is embellished with seasonings and toppings designed to let the flavor of the fish shine.

“Our tomato-basil butter and roasted red pepper butter sauce are simple preparations that enhance the fish,” Hackett said.

The kitchen gets whole fish and fillets it, and the trimmed bits end up in one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers, the salmon poke.

Poke, a Hawaiian dish pronounced po-kay, is typically made with raw fish. But Anthony’s version calls for searing the chopped fish before tossing it in soy sauce and seasonings, giving the poke a slightly smoky quality.

David Blaine, the chef at Latah Bistro, goes for a double shot of salmon in an homage to saltimbocca by wrapping European-style gravlax around a seasoned salmon fillet and sautéing it. Braised cippolini onions complement that preparation.

Steve Eggers, owner of Eggers Better Meats and Seafood on 56th Avenue and Perry Street, is in the less-is-more camp when it comes to preparing salmon.

“We tell our customers to cook it 12 to 15 minutes on a grill, skin side down on a piece of foil,” he said. “By the time it’s finished cooking, the skin sticks to the foil. I like to use some hazelnut butter on the fish, a little at the beginning and then some at the end.”

Eggers makes and sells its own hazelnut butter.

At Café Marron, chef Nicholas St. Clair takes a minimalist approach to cooking salmon.

“I like to take a fillet and put it on a sheet pan with olive oil, lemon slices, a little rosemary, some basil and roast it 15 to 20 minutes at 400 degrees,” he said.

The fish gets an upscale finish at the restaurant when it’s served on polenta cake, a smoked tomato vinaigrette drizzled on top.

“I love cooking salmon almost as much as I love cooking steaks,” St. Clair said.

If salmon fillets are like the steaks of the sea, then the whole fish is like a roast.

Jessick said he loves cooking the whole fish because it’s much more flavorful.

“You can easily roast a whole salmon in the oven or on the grill,” he said. “Season the cavity with salt and lemon pepper and dill fronds, some white wine or sherry, maybe a little butter and then wrap it up in foil.

“Wrap it fairly tightly if you’re cooking it on the grill because you’ll want to flip it halfway through.”

For a 10-pound fish, Jessick suggests cooking at 325 degrees for an hour and 15 minutes. But he tests for doneness by touch.

“You are looking for a texture that’s between soft and firm, like the way the area between your thumb and your index finger feels,” he said.

When it comes time to serve the whole fish, Jessick said: “Follow the bones.” But he also offered this 21st century-style cooking tip: “You can always search on YouTube for a tutorial.”

Whether it’s whole fish, a fillet or a steak (which fisherman Aurdahl said is still one of his favorite preparations), salmon remains one of the welcome rites of spring, along with the arrival of local asparagus and morel mushrooms.

Which, come to think of it, are two more ingredients that go swimmingly well with salmon.

‘Thai’ Barbecue Salmon Filet with Grilled Pineapple

From Merrilee Lindaman, Lindaman’s.

For the sauce:

1/2 cup ketchup

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 tablespoons dry sherry

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 cup orange juice

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

1/4 cup sweet chili sauce

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1/3 cup fresh chopped mint

For the salmon:

4 salmon fillets

3 tablespoons sesame oil

Salt and pepper

4 fresh, thick pineapple slices, peeled

1/4 cup vegetable oil

Combine all ingredients except lime juice and mint in sauce pan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until sauce is reduced by half. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice and mint.

Rub the salmon with sesame oil. Salt and pepper the fish. Rub the vegetable oil on the pineapple. When your grill is ready (medium), place the pineapple and the salmon on the grill. The pineapple should be nicely seared at about 5 minutes per side. The salmon should still be pink inside, but mostly opaque throughout, about 7 minutes per side.

To serve: Ladle sauce over fish, place pineapple slice on top. Garnish with freshly minced mint.

Yield: 4 servings

Tropical Salsa

From Rod Jessick, Coeur d’Alene Resort.

1/2 small Hawaiian Gold pineapple, cored, peeled and cut into wedges

2 kiwi, peeled and sliced

1 ripe mango, peeled and pitted

1 papaya, peeled, seeded and cut into wedges

1 medium red onion, chopped fine

3 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped fine

1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled and chopped

2 to 3 limes, juiced

Leaves from medium bunch of cilantro

Kosher salt to taste

Combine all fruit in food processor and pulse until it reaches a chunky, semi-liquid consistency. Do not over-process. You can also just chop all fruit by hand; just keep all the juice you can.

Add the onion, chilies, chopped bell pepper, lime juice and cilantro. Cover and chill for two or more hours. Adjust the heat by adding more jalapeño and a dash or two of Tabasco sauce.

Seared Salmon Poke

From Anthony’s restaurant.

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup sweet onion, chopped

1/2 pound fresh wild salmon fillet, cut in 1/2- to 3/4-inch pieces

1/2 cup Soy-Ginger Glaze (see recipe below)

1 cup shredded iceberg or romaine lettuce or Napa cabbage

2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped scallions

Fried crispy wonton strips (available in most supermarket produce departments)

In large sauté pan, heat olive oil until very hot. Add onions and stir; add salmon and toss to sear. Add Soy-Ginger Glaze and reduce until thick and salmon is just done.

When sauce has enough body to cling to the salmon, toss and pour over lettuce topped with the scallions and crispy wontons.

Note: If salmon looks cooked before sauce thickens, move salmon to one side of pan and keep the sauce over the heat.

Soy-Ginger Glaze

3 tablespoons pineapple juice

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup light soy sauce

1 cup water

1 cup brown sugar

4 tablespoons fresh chopped ginger

2 tablespoons fresh chopped garlic

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Mix pineapple juice with cornstarch in separate container. Add all other ingredients to small saucepot and bring to simmer.

Temper cornstarch mix with about 1/4 cup of warm soy mix from saucepot, return to saucepot and simmer 1 minute until sauce begins to thicken slightly.

Note: Can be made three to four days in advance and refrigerated.

Yield: 21/2 cups

Cippolini Onions and Cherries

From David Blaine, Latah Bistro.

12 peeled cippolini onions

2 cups red wine

1 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup dried tart cherries

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons butter

Place all ingredients up to the cherries in a small sauce pan. The liquid should cover the onions. Simmer until onions are soft. Add water if the liquid reduces too much.

When the onions are soft add cherries, fresh thyme, salt and pepper. Before serving, add 2 to 3 tablespoons butter.

Wild Salmon with Grilled Cheddar Polenta Cake, Braised Red Chard and Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette

From Nick St. Clair, Café Marron.

For the salmon:

4 (4.5-ounce) pieces wild salmon, skin off, pin bones removed

8 tablespoons canola oil

For the chard:

2 bunches red chard

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced shallots

Salt and pepper, to taste

½ cup of white wine, preferably sauvignon blanc

2 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 recipe Cheddar Polenta Cakes (recipe follows)

1 recipe Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

For the salmon: Dry salmon thoroughly with paper towels (if there is moisture, you increase the risk of the salmon sticking). Season evenly with salt and pepper.

Heat sauté pan with 2 tablespoons canola oil until just smoking and add salmon presentation-side down; brown well and use a spatula to transfer to a prepared baking sheet. Cook in oven at 500 degrees for 3 minutes for medium rare or 4 to 5 minutes for medium.

For the chard: Strip red chard away from hard veins, cut off stems and reserve for another use. Rip leaves into bite-sized pieces. Rinse well and dry thoroughly.

Heat pan over medium heat, add shallots and garlic and sweat for 1 minute. Add chard, salt and pepper. Stir, then deglaze with wine, add butter and turn down to low heat until wilted.

To serve: Put grilled polenta cake in center of the plate. Stack chard on top of polenta cake. Put salmon on next. Drizzle some smoked tomato vinaigrette on the plate and enjoy.

You could also add some fresh torn basil leaves for more color and flavor.

Yield: 4 servings

Cheddar Polenta Cakes

41/2 cups water

11/2 cups polenta

21/4 teaspoons salt

3/4 cup buttermilk

1 cup yellow cheddar cheese

1 small red bell pepper, cut into ¼-inch dice

Bring water to a boil, add polenta and salt and whisk like crazy. Turn down heat to low and cook for 3 to 4 minutes.

Add buttermilk, then fold in cheddar with a spatula. Taste for seasoning, then add bell peppers.

Spray an 8-inch square cake pan with cooking spray; put the polenta in the pan, spread evenly and chill for 1 hour. Cut into 3¼-inch squares.

Brown over medium-high heat in a nonstick pan with bacon fat or canola oil. Finish in the oven at 500 degrees.

Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette

8 tomatoes

1 large garlic clove

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 lime, juiced

Zest of 1/2 lime

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1/4 cup canola oil

1 tablespoon cilantro/basil, minced

For stove top smoking: Use a sturdy cake pan, with a small rack that will fit inside. Put enough hickory chips in the bottom of the pan to almost cover it.

Cut the tops off 8 tomatoes. Quarter them and put on top of the rack. Cover the whole pan with foil and place over low heat for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

Peel skins and place tomatoes in blender; blend, then measure out 12 fluid ounces of puree. Add garlic, salt, lime juice, lime zest and white wine vinegar. Blend thoroughly; slowly add canola oil, then basil and cilantro.

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