Thursday, August 14, 2014

Eating Like a Bear: Wild Salmon
What’s cooking? Salmon Chowder

Sitka Sound

Once upon a time, a talented physician in Ohio pulled up stakes in response to an ad for a private surgeon, and took his wife and three children to live in Alaska. The children grew up, married, established careers, and two of the three raised their own children in a state that remains largely an untrampled and untarnished wilderness. The surgeon and his wife were my husband’s aunt and uncle; their children were his cousins.

Some 60 years later, the stars aligned, and through the combined power of Spoon & Ink, Facebook, and email, I became friendly with the wives of those cousins. They insisted we should visit them in Alaska. Which meant – to me at least – a cruise! Followed by time in Anchorage with the cousins. My husband warned me that it’s such a huge state that we’d only get to see a tiny fraction of it, and he was right. But it’s also spectacularly beautiful. Moreover, if you go during the summer, it’s really pleasant weather, and for a foodie who likes fish, it’s heaven. More on that in a bit.

In addition to the stunning scenery, I made several darling acquaintances.
Sea otters
Harbor seals 
Sea lions

 Some seemed happier to see me than others.

The humpback whales were just shy.

And the bears were preoccupied with lunch.

So, speaking of lunch, we had nothing but amazing seafood on the trip. Halibut, cod, rockfish, king crab, scallops, and squid, but the most amazing was the salmon. Served every way you can think of – grilled and nestled on a bed of spring greens or in a sandwich of thick, crusty bread; fried in a crisp panko crumb coating and served with slaw; roasted with a spicy Cajun seasoning; smoked and served with ahi tuna in a sashimi “Napoleon” with fried wonton wrappers as pastry; and grilled with a soy maple glaze and Asian vegetables.

One of the reasons for the plethora of salmon dishes was that it’s now high season for Alaskan salmon. Technically, the season for fresh salmon – or “fresh frozen” (which means it was frozen on the boat, minutes after being caught) runs from May through October. But I’m told that Alaskan salmon are harvested at sea about 11 months of the year. Because of Alaska’s reliance on salmon for food and commercial purposes, the state is extremely careful about protecting salmon habitats and nurturing the salmon population, with the result that all five species of Alaskan salmon are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Kitchen Goddess notes on buying salmon:

■ As with any fresh fish, it shouldn’t smell. If the fish in your market smells, go somewhere else.

■ Good fresh salmon should glisten. It should be firm and evenly colored. Don’t be alarmed if you see white lines running through the fish; they’re evidence of omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for you.

■ Yes, wild salmon is more expensive than farmed salmon. But it’s way better for you, and the taste difference is like night and day. So eat like a bear: get wild salmon.

On our way out the door to return East, my new “cousin” Judy (I now think of them all as my family, too) handed me a recipe for Salmon Chowder. Apparently, that’s what she makes when she has “leftover” salmon from the previous night. Frankly, I’ve never bought so much salmon that I’d have leftovers, but I may have to start.

I’m going to assume you don’t have leftover salmon, either, so I’ve given you the amount to buy at the market. It’s worth starting from the beginning to make this chowder, and with corn and fingerling potatoes also now in season, I would encourage you to use both in making this dish.

Because I was just feeding two people, I should have cut the recipe in half. As printed here, it serves 6. But it was so delicious that we have happily eaten it for two dinners, and the Kitchen Goddess served herself some for lunch today. Easy and très yummy.

Salmon Chowder

Serves 6.

1 pound wild salmon, fresh or "fresh frozen"
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-3 tablespoons chopped herbs (chives, parsley, dill, or your choice)
kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
2 cups onion, in ¼-½-inch dice
1¼ cups celery, in ¼-½-inch dice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds small red-skinned potatoes (or fingerlings), in ¾-inch dice
1 cup carrots, in ½-inch dice
1¼ cups chicken broth
kernels sliced from 2 medium ears of corn, or 1 cup frozen corn
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt
additional salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

– 2 tablespoons fresh parsley or cilantro or dill, minced
– crumbled bacon (about 6 strips to serve 6)

To cook the salmon:
Preheat oven to 425º. Line a baking pan with foil, and brush a bit of the olive oil on the foil. Lay the fish on the foil, skin side down, and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle herbs evenly on top of fish, and bake 15-18 minutes (depending on the thickness of the fish), until the fish is just done. Set aside.

To make the chowder:
In a large soup pot (I use a 5.5-quart Le Creuset Dutch oven) over medium heat, melt the butter and add the onion and celery. Sauté until tender, about 6 minutes.

Add the potatoes and carrots and chicken broth, and simmer until potatoes and carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.

Kitchen Goddess note: If you will be garnishing with crumbled bacon, start the bacon cooking when you add the potatoes and carrots and broth. I recommend laying the bacon out on a foil-lined baking sheet, and cooking 15 minutes at 400º, but of course you can do it the messy way in a skillet if you prefer.

Once the potatoes and carrots are tender, add the milk, cream, cheese, thyme, Worcestershire, and salt, and stir until combined. Chunk the salmon into cubes about ¾ inch square, and fold them gently into the chowder. Continue cooking until the cheese is fully melted and the soup is hot. Do not let the soup boil. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serve garnished with herbs and crumbled bacon.

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