Copper River salmon season has begun, and with it,the media hoopla and excitement over the arrival of these fish in area restaurants. My first Spring working as Chef in Seattle, I was stunned by the customer reaction to the coming of ‘The Copper”. Early in the morning of the first day of the season, the phone starts ringing. “Do you have Copper River salmon?” “Will it be available tonight?” “Can I reserve some for my table in case you sell out?”
If you are a known seafood restaurant in this area, and you have Copper River salmon on the menu, you will be busy for the next few nights. If you don’t, a lot of customers are going to go elsewhere.
You’ve probably heard the story on Copper River salmon, how they have such a long, hard journey from the ocean up the river to their spawning grounds that these fish have developed a higher fat content to sustain themselves over their extended freshwater trek. There is some debate about how much of the Copper River salmon’s purported quality is migration and how much is marketing. I’ll stay out of that argument for the time being.
I will say that there is something to be said for how long (both time and distance) there is between when a salmon enters the fresh water, and when it spawns. When returning salmon hit the mouth of the river, they are in peak condition. They’ve been bulking up during their time in the ocean. That part of their life cycle is all about stuffing their faces, hitting the gym, downing protein shakes and creatine supplements. By the time they are ready to make their transition from the salt back to fresh water, they’re oiled up and muscular. And just in case it’s not clear, muscles mean meat and fat means flavor. That brings us to the significance of whether a salmon is a marathoner or a sprinter. Once the salmon are in the river, they start living off those reserves they’ve built up. They start to burn up that fat & muscle to sustain them as they travel towards the spawning grounds, and their metabolisms are focused on developing their reproductive organs. Therefore it makes sense that a subspecies that has an epic journey upriver is going to need to build up more fat & flesh than one that is spawning a couple miles from the salt. The Copper River is swift and 285 miles long. No small trek there. However, it’s not the longest swim up river that migrating salmon make, not by a long shot. Our own Columbia river is over 1,200 miles long, with several major tributary rivers. The most notorious of which is the Snake River. They say the salmon traveling that river get so big, Evel Knievel needed a rocket to jump over them. My facts might be a little blurry there, but my point stands.
Of course it’s not just about how far they have to travel up river, it’s also a matter of how long they are in fresh water before spawning. A lot of king salmon are summer returners, some even push into early fall. There are also the ones that get an early start on the process. Spring return salmon, “springers”, start rolling into the rivers in March & April. Those fish need to be ready to last significantly longer in fresh water than their summer run brethren. That means they are even more oily, and therefore better tasting, than the average king salmon.
The State of Washington has just extended the Columbia River spring chinook salmon season, so there is plenty of time to get out there and get yourself a springer.
Of course, if you are new to this fishery, it helps to have a guide. Even when you are only looking at the lower part of the Columbia River, there are a number of different segments, each with its own seasons and most effective angling techniques. For our recent trip with Captain Ryan of Riverside Guide Service, we were fishing the I-5 area, right around where Interstate 5 crosses the river near Portland. It’s not the most picturesque river setting in the Northwest; the area is rather industrial with a smattering of residential. It is a good fishery though, and it sports a rather nice convenience: a hotel right on the river that has its own boat dock. After making the drive down to the river, and then relaxing at the hotel bar with a beverage or three before turning in, it’s nice to be able to roll out of your hotel room and stroll right down to the dock to meet your boat. This area is a popular fishery, and we had plenty of company on the Saturday we were out there. There were bank anglers “plunking” from the shore, some boats anchored up, and others backtrolling. But most were doing what we were, trolling with the flow of the river (trolling “downhill”) using cut herring, a triangular flasher, and a dropper weight to keep our gear near the bottom. Springers, like all kings, are a ton of fun to catch. They run hard after they grab the bait, and don’t give up easily. We hooked four, and boated three of them that day. 3 out of 4 is not a bad percentage, especially when you consider it’s a barbless hook fishery. My own was a 15 pounder, and I was plenty happy to toss that beauty into my cooler and bring it back to my kitchen.
Being as rich and fatty as they are, they go great on the barbecue. Give a piece of springer filet a bit of salt & pepper, a quick rub of oil, and toss it on a hot grill, and you are eating good that night. Hot & fast is great way to cook fresh salmon. A bit of smoke & char from a grill, a good sear from a hot pan, or touch of caramelization from a broiler, all marry perfectly with that beautiful fattiness of salmon.
We already knew that though. But have you ever tried going low and slow with fresh salmon? This is a method that came out of restaurants. I associate it with Jerry Traunfeld, a very talented Chef here in Seattle (if you are local, and haven’t tried his restaurant “Poppy”, I suggest you do so soon) although I can’t swear that he was the one who first popularized it. Anyway, this style of salmon preparation has been popular with the “foodie” crowd for a while. But don’t let that scare you away. It really is delicious.
Slow Roasted Spring Salmon with Tarragon Butter Sauce & Crispy Fennel
This is a three component dish. Any one of these recipes are great ones to have in your arsenal. Together they make a dynamite dish. However if you’re not feeling all that ambitious, the salmon is great by itself, or with either one of the toppings alone.
Scroll down for the video version of this recipe.
Tarragon Butter Sauce
- 1/2 of a shallot, chopped
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- juice of 1/2 of a lemon
- 4 0z (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- 1 Tbs chopped fresh tarragon, or 2 tsp dry tarragon
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
Combine the shallot, pepper, wine, and lemon juice in a small sauce pot. Place it over medium heat and bring it to a simmer.
Allow it to reduce until the liquid is mostly, but not completely, gone.
Turn the heat down to very low. While constantly moving the pan back and forth, slowly add the butter, one cube at a time.
Once the butter is incorporated, add the tarragon & salt. Check seasoning and adjust if needed.
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced thin
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbs corn starch
1 tsp chili powder
2 tsp Old Bay seasoning
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 cups canola oil, for frying
Soak the sliced fennel in ice water for 10 minutes.
Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
Thoroughly drain the fennel & toss it in the flour mixture, making sure to coat it well.
Fry the fennel in small batches in 350 degree oil for 2 -3 minutes, until lightly brown and crisp.
Transfer to a paper towel lined bowl and sprinkle with a small pinch of salt.
Slow Roasted Salmon with Lemon & Ginger
Zest of 1 lemon
1 Tbs grated fresh ginger
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
2 – 4 portions of cut salmon filet
Preheat oven to 225 degrees.
Combine the first four ingredients into a marinade.
Thoroughly and evenly coat the salmon with the marinade.
Place the salmon in a non-reactive baking dish, and let it rest at room temperature for 20 – 30 minutes.
Bake for 30 minutes. When done, the salmon will still be lightly translucent and flake apart easily.
If any part of this recipe is unclear, maybe this video version might help.