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Sockeye: For Some Salmon Lovers, Redder is Better
If salmon is a symbol of all that is wild in the Pacific Northwest, then the fittest symbol of all may be one particular species of salmon, the sockeye. While it's one of the smaller salmons, it's also among the most numerous, occurring in mind-boggling numbers without the help of hatcheries. And the flavor, to my taste, has an assertiveness that I can only describe as wilder than any other salmon. Yet it's one that can be hard to find in U.S. markets.
I don't know if sockeye got its moniker "red salmon" from the color of the skin or of the meat, but both are distinctive. As sockeye head upstream to their spawning grounds, they undergo a more dramatic skin color change than any other salmon, from blue-backed silver to a nearly solid scarlet. Sockeye fillets or steaks are also easy to pick out from other salmon by the deep red-orange meat, several shades darker than any other species both raw and after cooking. When I conducted a "blind" tasting of several salmon varieties a few years ago for a group of San Francisco food professionals, several tasters found the color of the sockeye sample "strange," "too red," even "fake-looking."
The same San Francisco audience, mainly familiar with king (chinook) and farmed Atlantic salmon, didn't know what to make of the flavor of sockeye. Results were all over the map: "strange" and "peculiar" were among the negative flavor descriptors, while others loved it. Interestingly, one taster found the flavor "like crab," which may be an especially perceptive comment; plankton, including larvae of crabs and other crustaceans, make up a larger share of the diet of ocean-swimming sockeye than they do for the larger salmon species.
My own notes on the sockeye called this fish different but delicious, with a decidedly wild flavor that would be good grilled, especially with smoking chips added to the fire. I have also enjoyed it seared in a pan, and cooked on an aromatic wooden plank (see recipe).
The world's biggest sockeye fishery takes place each July in Alaska's Bristol Bay, on the west side of the Alaska Peninsula. Unlike some other Alaska salmon fisheries, this one does not include any hatchery-bred fish, just healthy natural spawning populations living in near-wilderness conditions. The relatively low-lying landscape of southwest Alaska contains countless lakes drained by wild-running rivers, ideal habitat for sockeye. Unlike other salmon species, which migrate to sea within months after hatching, juvenile sockeye may spend as much as three years in fresh water. Adults then live one to four years in the ocean before returning to the stream or lake where they were born, in annual runs that can top 60 million fish in Bristol Bay. In a brief, intense, and competitive fishing season, hundreds of small boats drifting short gillnets and other fishermen working nets attached to the shoreline typically intercept tens of millions of these 4 to 6 pound fish in the shallow waters of the bay and the surrounding river mouths.
For all the huge tonnage of sockeye caught in Bristol Bay, mainland markets seldom see this fish in any form other than canned. For years, the canneries around the Bay have set aside the cream of the sockeye catch to freeze, mainly for export to Japan, where its deep red color and flavor are especially appreciated. The rest is canned on the spot, providing the premium grade of canned salmon both domestically and abroad.
(Actually, you may have seen Bristol Bay sockeye on television, in a supporting role to the world's most photographed brown bears. If you've ever seen a TV documentary about salmon and/or bears in Alaska, chances are pretty good it was filmed at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, about fifty miles up a river that drains into Bristol Bay. Depending on the time of year of the filming, the fish those bears are shown plucking out of the falls may well be migrating sockeye that managed to evade the fishing nets out in the bay or at the mouth of the Naknek River.)
When we do find sockeye fillets or whole fish in the Lower 48, it's more likely to have come from central or southeast Alaska, particularly the Copper River and Prince William Sound. Some sockeye find their way south as fresh fish in late June and July, but most are frozen for sale during the rest of the year. In the last few years, a growing number of fish markets and supermarkets, especially natural-foods stores, have begun to offer wild sockeye as an alternative to farmed salmon. Like other Alaska salmon, you may see sockeye marketed by source, especially in Northwestern markets. The Copper River has become famous in recent years for its large, fat, and highly promoted king salmon, but the smaller sockeye caught in the same river outnumber the kings twenty to one.
A wooden plank makes an aromatic bake-and-serve dish for salmon and other fish, in a modern version of the traditional salmon beach bake. Several Northwest-based firms manufacture baking planks, or you can fashion your own by routing or chiseling out a shallow basin in a plain 1X8 plank of red cedar, incense cedar, or alder. In addition to filling the kitchen and dining room with a cedary aroma, the wood moderates the heat of the oven, slowing down the cooking but giving an especially moist and tender result.
Serves 4 to 6
1 sockeye salmon fillet, about 2 pounds, skin on or
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Zest of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon dried dill, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, or 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Drizzle of olive oil
Rub a baking plank with a little olive oil and place on the middle or upper oven shelf. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Meanwhile, season the fish on both sides with salt, pepper, and dill. Measure the thickness of the fillet in inches.
When the oven is ready, scatter half the lemon zest on the plank, place the fish on top, skin side down. Drizzle with a little more oil, and scatter the remaining zest on top. Bake uncovered, without turning, to an internal temperature of 130 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer, or until a skewer slips easily in and out of the thickest part of the fillet; start checking for doneness after 15 minutes total cooking time per inch of thickness. Serve from the plank.
Jay Harlow is a Bay Area cookbook publisher and author of ten books including Once Upon a Bagel, The California Seafood cookbook & Beer Cuisine.