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In Praise of Salmon: The King of Fish

Feb 28, 2011 07:55PM ● By Ashley West

I was transplanted from a large, diverse high school to a remote Pacific Northwest fishing community where many of my classmates studied fisheries. I did not share my father’s enthusiasm for this lifestyle, but what did take root deep within me was a love of waterside living and an unwavering fondness for salmon. In those days, our refrigerator was bursting with fresh salmon. We cured, smoked, canned, poached, broiled, steamed, pan-fried, stir-fried, and grilled. To me it was and is best prepared simply—baked whole with butter and garnished with lemon wedges, cucumber ribbons, and sprigs of dill.

Our family never grew bored with the pink-flesh fish that graced our table, and I am not alone. Salmon has been a popular staple for thousands of years. In addition to its good flavor, there is the fascination with the salmon’s migratory ability to return to the waters of its birth, an arduous upstream journey. Still not completely understood, this intriguing ability further enhances the sense of wonder surrounding this magical fish.

In Ireland, the revered salmon became fodder for great tales. One legend begins with the claim that the first person to eat the flesh of the Salmon of Knowledge would be endowed with superhuman intelligence. Today, countless articles and popular health books espouse the benefits of digesting a salmon’s nourishing meat, promising everything from weight loss to my favorite—the reduction of wrinkles.

Whether those benefits are legend or not, salmon are high in protein; low in calories; and a vital source of vitamin A, the B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. Since a common recommendation for a healthy diet includes eating oily fish three times a week, it’s fortunate that the flavorful salmon is a versatile fish with endless possibilities for preparation. Perfect companions for salmon are sauces such as sorrel, yogurt, and mint; watercress cream; and hollandaise.

True salmon are native to the Northern Hemisphere. Pollution, overfishing, and dam construction diminished salmon fishing in the Atlantic. Currently most commercial salmon come from the Pacific and the North Sea (Scotland, Denmark, and Norway). Chinook, also referred to as King salmon, are considered the Pacific’s best. They can reach up to 120 pounds.

Due to the expansion of the aquaculture industry, salmon is no longer a luxury item; it is available now more than ever. Farm-raised salmon are plentiful in grocery stores year-round. Wild salmon, favored by gourmets, can be more expensive. But they tend to be leaner and are thought to have superior flavor. Today, most consumers want to make sustainable food choices, so when choosing farmed salmon they select one that comes from a farm with a recognized organic certification. When choosing wild fish, consider Alaska salmon. Alaska has served as a model of fishery management around the globe. Effective, precise management ensures that Alaska’s fisheries are productive, sustainable, clean, and healthy—as mandated by the Alaska state government. Larry Andrews, retail marketing director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, says, “When you buy Alaska products, you are getting seafood with better nutrition, flavor— and helping small communities and fishing families.” Andrews notes that there are five species of Alaska salmon: King, Sockeye, Coho, Keta, and Pink. Sockeye and Coho have a rich flavor and are great for grilling, broiling, sautéing, baking, poaching, and steaming. Keta and Pink have leaner fat profiles, making them good choices for those who prefer less fat.

When selecting salmon, make sure that the skin is shiny and has scales that are firmly attached. Don’t buy bruised fish. Fresh salmon meat should spring back when you indent it with your finger. Eyes should be clear and bright. Often a fish that is old has cloudy or sunken eyes. And, contrary to popular belief, your salmon should not smell fishy. Fresh fish smells like the ocean. “Do look at the color and texture,” says Andrews. “But keep in mind that we are used to farmraised fish with bright colors. Wild salmon does not always have that same bright color. That does not mean that the wild salmon doesn’t have great flavor.”

And here’s something to think about—some of the freshest, highest quality seafood is frozen. That’s right, frozen. Alaskan frozen seafood products taste fresh because the seafood is processed and frozen within hours of when it is caught, often frozen at sea.

The fear of overcooking it and serving dry fish makes many cooks shy away from fish. To avoid dry fish try poaching. Andrews suggests lining a steamer with lettuce leaves, cilantro, or onion greens and placing the fish on top of the greens. Another tip is to remove the salmon from direct heat as soon as it begins to turn opaque.
With so many kinds of fish on the market, some will dismiss the salmon as just an old standard. My devotion remains steadfast, and you might want to give that salmon in your marketplace another look. Whether you appreciate salmon for its easy preparation, lovely appearance, bold flavor, or health attributes, this is one great-tasting fish that will bring pleasure to your table. 

Grilling the King of Fish

Photos, recipes and grilling tips courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Asian Glazed Rub
This rub recipe works well whether you use a plank or cook straight on the grill.
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger root*
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons soy sauce
11⁄2 teaspoons fresh minced garlic
1 bunch green onions, trimmed and sliced lengthwise (for planking only)

Blend all ingredients except onions. Rub 1/2 to 1 teaspoon on each
portion or all onto the side of the salmon. If planking, place green
onions on plank then top with salmon.

*Add 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes for additional heat, if desired.

Grilling Tips

Preparing the Grill
• Fish cooks best over a medium-hot fire.
• Make sure the grill is hot before you start cooking.
• Liberally brush oil on the grill just before cooking.

Grilling Fish

• Cut large fish steaks or fillets into meal-size portions before grilling, so they will be easy to turn on the grill.
• Use a grill basket or perforated grill rack.
• Brush fish with oil, very lightly, just before cooking.
• Always start to grill fish with the skin side up. (If the skin has been removed the skin side will appear slightly darker.) This allows the natural fat carried beneath the skin to be drawn into the fillet, keeping it rich and moist. It’s also easier to turn when the more delicate, or “flesh,” side cooks first.
• Turn fish only once. For easy turning use a two-prong kitchen fork. Insert it between the grill bars to slightly lift the fish fillets or steaks, then slide a metal spatula under the fish and turn it.
• Cook fish approximately 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Fish continues to cook after it’s removed from the heat, so take it off the grill just as soon as it turns from translucent to opaque throughout. To check for doneness
slide the tip of a sharp knife into the center of the thickest part of a cooking portion and check for color.

Plank Cooking

Planking is a traditional Northwest style of cooking using aromatic pieces of wood. It’s a great way to add subtle flavors to your wild salmon. Grilling gives foods a caramelized flavor, smoking a woodsmoke flavor, and planking an aromatic flavor of wood.

Easy Planked Salmon

• Purchase precut planks at barbecue and grill shops or some larger grocery stores. Or go to your local lumberyard and purchase untreated hardwood lumber, such as cedar, oak, hickory, maple, or alder. Do not use pine or other soft woods, as they are too resinous. Cut planks into any size you desire, but be certain that the plank will fit on your grill.
• The best wood choices for planking are cedar, alder, and oak. Hickory and maple are also good.
• Soak the plank in water for 30 minutes to two hours.
• Pat planks dry with paper towels and spray-coat or lightly oil one side of the plank (place seafood on oiled side).
• Season your salmon lightly with an herb blend or just salt and pepper. Go easy, as you don’t want to overpower the flavor you will get from the plank.
• Preheat one side of the grill to medium-high, with no heat on the other, indirect side.
• Place the planked salmon on the grill on the indirect side (not over direct heat) and close the lid.
• Turn the heat down to medium.
• After 10 minutes check the salmon frequently for doneness.
• To glaze salmon brush on Asian Glaze (see recipe above) during the last 5 minutes of grilling or planking; cover, and let it cook to a sheen.
• Seafood changes from translucent to opaque as it cooks and continues to cook after it is removed from the heat. Cook just until opaque throughout.


The plank provides a beautiful, rustic platter for serving.