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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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May 23, 2008 11:15 AM

Salmon chanted luncheon: Gone fishin' at the Space Needle

Posted by Nancy Leson


When I cancel a date for sushi, you know I must have something really good on the line, and that's what happened yesterday when I got a last-minute invite to join a group of Yu'pik Eskimo fisherfolk for lunch at the Space Needle:



It was my chance to chat with them regarding something they know a whole lot about -- Yukon River salmon -- and to proudly show off that incomparable view from Seattle's famous landmark:



Over the past couple of days, they'd been tooling around with Jon Rowley, the Northwest seafood guru (and major marketeer) who put the words "Copper River" in our salmon lexicon. "Growley" as I like to call him, is now making it his business to have us associate the word "Yukon" with something other than potatoes, so he asked me to join him, his wife, Kate, and these Yukon River Delta villagers who were here on a reconnaissance mission representing their community-owned Kwik'pak Fisheries.

They wanted to see exactly how Seattle fishmongers and restaurateurs go about marketing Copper River salmon, whose short-lived annual run also hit town this week. BTW: As of late yesterday, Whole Paycheck's selling the fish fileted for $27.99 (sockeye) and $37.99 (king), and the $14.99 filets of Copper River sockeye were already sold-out when I called a downtown QFC to see what they had in stock.

Before heading up to the Sky City restaurant -- then heading to the airport for an afternoon flight -- the Yu'pik visitors visited Pike Place Market (where produce purveyors are known to post signs selling "Copper River Asparagus") and met Harry Yoshimura at Mutual Fish, who will be selling Yukon River salmon when the annual run arrives in town in a few short weeks. Jerry Alexie, whose family has been fishing the Yukon for generations, was celebrating his 45th birthday yesterday, and he and his wife, Eunice, were taking a break from their hard work in Pitkas Point (population 125) to do a little business and have a lot of fun down here in the Lower 48:



When Kate pointed out that Eunice's earrings were mini ulus, Jerry told us that as a Yu'pik fisherman, he and his brother never go anywhere without their own ulus -- the cutting tool of choice for Eskimos. "My Ulu's like my American Express card," said Jerry. "I never leave home without it." His brother, he says, calls his ulu "my Eskimo Express." I, on the other hand, always leave home without mine -- whose handle and cradle are made from some kind of antler:


Actually it's my husband's ulu, but seeing as Washington is a community-property state, I get to use it, too. Mac bought it home from the Kuskokwim Delta in 1984 when he was writing and photographing an article on Yu'pik seal hunters and substistance culture. It's a culture these folks are all too familiar with, which is why they were down here learning how to market the fish they subsist on, at a time when the fuel needed to run their fishing boats and heat their homes is prohibitively expensive. Gasoline prices (now ranging upward of $5-$6 and varying from one village to another) are fixed for the year, and the next shipment will soon be dropped off by barge following this year's "break-up" -- when the winter ice, frozen across the river, breaks into chunks and flows out to sea.

To put village-costs in perspective, I've been told that the average annual income of a Yu'pik is about $9000. Today, says Eunice, a loaf of bread runs her about six bucks and a gallon of milk closer to $7. It's costing 11-cents a gallon to make the ice needed to keep their commercial fish fresh, and they're producing about 60,000 pounds a day. Worse, with the big factory trawlers trawling the Bering Sea, salmon runs just aren't what they used to be and salmon-bycatch from those trawlers mean fewer fish for the Yu'pik to subsist on and sell.

But back to my new friends. On Wednesday night, the Alexies joined their new friend, Kwik'pak Fisheries manager Tom Redfox (of Emmonak, population 823):



Tom already knew fisherman Stanley Pete (of Nunam Iqua, home to 200 residents) from high school, where their teams competed against one another at basketball, among other sports:



Together they attended a fancy-pants, $75-a-head Kwik'pak Yukon River Salmon & Wine Dinner event at Elliott's Oyster House featuring last year's properly frozen catch, where Tom put on a colorful Yu'pik coat -- a kuspak -- and danced. Word has it he's a real mover and a shaker, and I'm sorry I missed his performance. And word also had it that at an earlier dinner, Stanley was forced to hail a waiter. "Sir!" he called out, "My salmon is raw!" It was seared on the outside, and too rare-centered. As Stanley explains, "I've either had salmon cooked, or raw, but not half-and-half." Rowley, who runs around the country carrying on about such things as how to properly cook a salmon, took a knife to his lunch to show that his "honey- and peppercorn-crusted wild troll-caught Alaskan king salmon" (as it was described on the menu) was cooked just as it should be -- all the way through, yet still glistening:



And at $34 a plate, it should have been cooked properly. We all ordered the salmon except for Tom, who had the grilled Asian-style chicken salad ($27). "Two days in a row is enough for me," he said. Stanley took a couple bites of his fish and rendered his verdict, "I don't know about you, but this is some of the best salmon I've ever had." He doesn't usual garnish his catch with preserved lemon, nor bed it on multi-grain rice with stir-fried slivers of asparagus, but he does smoke it, as they lightly do here, so that "it's got that smoky, aged flavor" Stanley says he prefers. That led to a discussion of how to smoke fish, with Eunice telling Stanley how she and her family "gut 'em and head 'em," before hanging and drying their salmon in strips. Then she told us all how the Alexies keep their fresh-caught salmon stored in a very cold creek that runs by their house. "Don't you worry about bears getting them?" I asked. She said they don't.

That's when I told them the story about the maurading bear who was terrorizing my friends' gardens in Bird Creek, Alaska, back when I lived in Anchorage over 20 years ago. And how one day, a pal called and said, "Get up here. Someone finally had enough and shot that bear and we're having a barbecue." I wasted no time heading south along Cook Inlet -- where I once saw an enormous bear sitting on the bank, posing for camera-toting summer tourists. And in case you were wondering, the bear roast I ate that day was deliciously sweet, which was no surprise given the number of berries and garden-fresh veggies it had eaten that summer. That's when Tom pulled out his Nikon digital camera to show me the big bear sitting on the airport runway in Emmonak, waiting for his flight down to Seattle.

Eventually our discussion moved on to whether salmon should be "aged" before eating, with Rowley chiming in with a scientific explanation about rigor mortis, and the benefit of icing fish down on the boats, no matter how small those boats are, at just the right time. He'll be flying up to Alaska to explain more about the proper handling of salmon when he visits six Yukon Delta villages and their fisherfolk next week. "Fish can be too fresh," noted Stanley, who sits on the board of Kwik'pak Fisheries and owns two fishing boats that contribute to the community's livelihood. "If you catch the fish and eat it right away," he opined, "it's too soft."

I know someone who begs to differ. "There's no such thing as salmon that's too soft, too oily, too smoky or too rare," says my 13-year-old Alaskan Husky, Maia Wolfe, who never met a fish she didn't like. "But there is such a thing as too Cryovac'd":



Want to talk salmon? Taste? Price? Sustainability? The uber-marketing of such fabulously fatty River-specific runs such as those from the Copper River, Yukon River and (coming in July) the Kenai River (where I once saw so many fish swimming upstream while I was fishing I could have walked across the Kenai while stepping on them)? What about farmed vs. wild salmon? Will you be grilling any salmon this weekend? If so, have you got any favorite recipes or cooking tips? Operators are standing by!

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Posted by Mitchell

12:02 PM, May 23, 2008

Farmed salmon is bad for your health and the environment.

Posted by BetsyS

12:23 PM, May 23, 2008

I bet Maia Wolfe doesnt' even like farmed salmon...
ditto to Mitchell's post.

Posted by Cris

12:46 PM, May 23, 2008

Boil down equal parts maple syrup and soy sauce to a "glaze" consistency. Brush on your wild salmon and pan sear it. Yummy and easy!!

You can also grill the salmon but I find that, no matter how much oil is on the grates, it still sticks and that's wasteful!!

I also serve mine with a saffron rice pilaf and garden salad.

Posted by Karen

1:03 PM, May 23, 2008

My favorite salmon recipe. I grilled a couple of small filets last week when QFC had Wild King for 19.99#.

Glazed Grilled Salmon (serves 2)
From Bon Appetit/July 1996

3 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
4 teaspoons prepared Chinese-style hot mustard -- or Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
2 7-to-8 ounce salmon steaks -- about 3/4" thick (I used filets)

Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Combine brown sugar, mustard and soy sauce in medium bowl; whisk to blend. Transfer 1 tablespoon glaze to small bowl; mix in rice vinegar and set aside. Brush 1 side of salmon steaks generously with half of glaze in medium bowl. Place salmon steaks, glazed side down, onto barbecue. Grill until glaze is slightly charred, about 4 minutes. Brush top side of salmon steaks with remaining glaze in medium bowl. Turn salmon over and grill until second side is slightly charred and salmon is just opaque in center, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer salmon to plates. Drizzle reserved glaze in small bowl over salmon and serve.

Posted by BigGreenFrank

1:38 PM, May 23, 2008

"Farmed salmon is bad for your health and the environment."

This is such a stupid and polarizing comment.
It's like saying all Republicans are dumb hicks or all Democrats are out of touch elitists.

Are there issues with farmed salmon? of course. it can pollute, and some studies have shown that the same nutrients are not in farmed salmon as in wild.

Then again, there are issues with wild salmon as well regarding catch size, sustainability and trawling practices.

The only perfect food is probably cold oatmeal that has been organically and sustainable produced. It will also probably have to cost $5/pound to ensure that everybody along the supply chain was paid a "fair" wage. Invite me over for some at your next party!!!

Posted by sailcocktail

1:46 PM, May 23, 2008

I use a mixture of apple juice, maple syrup, and soy sauce to brine a filet before lightly smoking it on the grill. Leaving the skin on and cooking on just one side means the skin might stay on the grill, but the meat doesn't. With the lid closed, the salmon doesn't need to be turned.

Posted by Kairu

4:18 PM, May 23, 2008

I season my salmon with salt and pepper and sprinkle it will dill and parsley, squeeze some lemon juice over it, and then broil. I buy wild troll-caught King salmon from Mutual Fish whenever I can, which is not very often.

Posted by Cindy@

4:14 PM, May 24, 2008

I'm still giggling over your title. :)

My favorite way to prepare salmon is cedarplanked on the grill. I see that many people use some form of maple syrup -- our version is half maple syrup, half dijon mustard, with some fresh ginger grated in (or some cayenne pepper if I don't have ginger on hand). This is great smeared on top of salmon, and just as good smeared on pineapple rings that you toss on the grill alongside. Serve it up with some rice and/or a big salad, and it's a super quick summertime meal.

Posted by ratcityreprobate

7:08 AM, May 27, 2008

I just don't get masking the taste of good salmon with maple syrup or soysauce. Not at my house.

Posted by Johnnie Fishpimp

5:51 AM, May 28, 2008

I sold wholesale seafood locally for 6 years and I've enjoyed salmon from nearly every river system from Sacramento to St. Michael. The Copper River produces a fine fish, but it's not worth $30 a plate. The Yukon produces a much richer fish, but it can take up to a week to get to Seattle.

For my money the best salmon are the "Springers" - the Columbia River spring run Chinook (King) caught just up the river from Astoria. They're not available every year, but it's about the only fish I'll pay full retail for.

Posted by Fishmonger

4:11 PM, May 28, 2008

I have to agree with Johnnie FP about Columbia River spring Chinook being the best. But I'm probably a little biased because I market Columbia River salmon in Seattle. You can ask Jon Rowley about our springers - he knows how good they are, too. Availability can indeed be an issue because of how the available harvest is shared, but I'll stay away from the politics for this entry and just comment on what's in store from the Columbia this year.
We did have about 6000 spring Chinook to supply to the public this last April, which was an improvement but not a lot to go around. Our next season will be summer Chinook the last week of June and the first week or two of July. A great fish, very similar to springers, bound for the upper Columbia, comprised of both wild and hatchery fish (of the same stock) with no endangered fish. After that, we'll have early fall Chinook in August, a combination of early Chinook bound for lower Columbia tributaries and also upriver brights, a healthy run of wild fish bound for the Hanford Reach, the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia above Bonneville Dam. Our fishery in September and October for fall Chinook and coho will be smaller than usual this year but there should be a few opportunities to bring salmon to Seattle. Each of these seasons will have some accompanying white sturgeon harvest, too.
All commercial non-Indian fisheries in Washington are carefully managed, regardless of what you might read in the news or what some groups may say. I have plenty of data to support my claim because I've also been involved in advisory groups for many years, and I'd be happy to provide answers. Are there weak runs that need protection? Sure, but seasons are set to avoid those and catches are closely monitored. There are strong runs on the Columbia, such as the ones I mentioned above, and elsewhere in Washington, too, such as Puget Sound chum salmon. Different species have different qualities but they are all nutritious and can be a great eating experience if handled well and properly prepared.
I will try and follow Nancy's blog and be more than happy to answer questions about Washington salmon, Washington fisheries, and when fresh Columbia River salmon may be available in Seattle or other Puget Sound markets. By the way, I have bought Yukon Chinook, too, and it was excellent - far better than Copper River, in my opinion, but like I said, I'm probably biased.

Posted by Jeff Hegland

4:24 PM, May 29, 2008

More than 20 years ago we had opened our restaurant in Everett. We were still working out the kinks trying to figure out who we were. One of our best customers asked if we'd do her wedding rehearsal dinner and we happily accepted. It was scheduled for a Friday night in the early summer and the wedding party would occupy more than half our available seats; needless to say we were pretty excited. While I was discussing the menu with the bride to be she mentioned that most of the guests would be from the midwest and that they would certainly appeciate fresh Pacific Northwest salmon. We decided that the salmon would be one of three entrees available and I querried our "chef" on how he would prepare the fish. He thought for a few moments and the said "We'll marinate it in buttermild and brown sugar. We'll plank it behind the broiler so it cooks slowly and picks up the smoke". I had never heard of this but trusted him to know what he was doing.

Friday night got started and things were going just fine. We had a nice early rush and the wedding party began arriving just as the crowd was thinning out. The fish had been on station for awhile and it was looking good. The party got underway and one of the entrees, charbroiled New Yorks, was also hugely popular. Suddenly I got a urgent call from the kitchen. While cooking the steaks the grill had got too hot and the sugar on the fish had caught fire! Our salmon looked like burned marshmallows, all bubbly an black. The kitchen crew had managed to get the fire out without using the Ansel system so the steaks were fine, but the salmon, all we had in the house looked pretty bad.

"What'll we do?" they asked. I did not have a clue.
"Let's taste it" I said. The crust was crisp and surprisingly sweet and not char tasting. The interior fish was nice and moist, cooked to a T!
"Let's serve it". We did. After the dinner I was approached by the bride to be. "Ev eryone agrees that that was the best salmon they'd had in quite awhile" she said with a grin. I thanked her and told her we'd be happy to do it again. So far we haven't.

Jeff Hegland
Buck's American Cafe
Everett

Posted by Jon

11:42 AM, Jun 03, 2008

Regarding Johnny Fish Pimp's comment on taking a week for Yukon king to get to market, not any longer. Fish caught on the 15 should be in Seattle on the 17th. Kwik'pak, the Yup'ik company handling most of the Yukon fish these days is committed to getting the best quality fish to the fresh market as quickly as possible. And yes it is "much richer".

Posted by Fishmonger

5:26 AM, Jul 03, 2008

Fresh Columbia River summer chinook available in Seattle for the 4th of July holiday from Tuesday night's fishery. Wild and hatchery fish, no ESA fish, caught 120 miles from Seattle (for those following a local diet style). Availabl;e at Wild Salmon Seafood Market at Fishermen's Terminal and Greenlake PCC, also at Ray's Boathouse if you want someone else to cook for you! Let me know what you think if you try it.

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