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During salmon season, nothing beats the ocean-caught king.

a plate of salmon with vegetables, image
Photo caption
Grilled salmon sits on a bed of summer vegetables.

Would you eat an endangered species for dinner? A question like that, evoking the wild, the controversial, and the culinary, is an appropriate way to start a discussion about one of the West's most ancient denizens and delicious meals: California's king salmon.

Since the last ice age sculpted the land, millions of these silver-scaled fish have returned from the ocean every year to spawn in the rivers and streams of their birth—in the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, the Russian and the Smith, the Klamath and the Mattole. But in the last 150 years, the king and its rivers have been dethroned. By irrigation for agriculture and dams for hydropower. By logging, mining, and grazing. By urban and residential development. The once-abundant king, also called chinook, declined until, in 1994, the government's National Marine Fisheries Service listed the winter run of the chinook in the Sacramento River as an endangered species. That could have been the beginning of the end. Instead, it was the first step in a remarkable recovery.

"These fish have been the poster child for the Endangered Species Act," says Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisher-men's Associations. "They should have become extinct. But they've gone from 191 spawners in the early 1990s to perhaps 10,000 in 2000, due to the enforcement of the act, which created the necessary conditions for their return."

In fact, the California king fishery, from Morro Bay to Trinidad in Humboldt County, has never been healthier, says David Goldenberg of the California Salmon Council. In 2000, 587,000 chinook were caught, up from 264,000 in 1999, and 227,000 in 1998.

Most of those ocean fish are from the fall run of the Sacramento River, and they're caught during a season that starts in May and ends in September. According to many chefs and cookbook authors, fishmongers and fish processors, environmentalists and biologists, commercial and sport fishermen, when king is in season, don't even think of eating any other type of salmon.

"During the season, ocean-caught king is the only salmon we use—in fact, we serve it more than any other fish," says Russell Moore, a chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. "It has a sweet, delicious flavor that varies depending on what the salmon feed on in the ocean, such as shrimp, squid, or anchovies." And California king, he says, are caught by trolling—regulations dictate that commercial fishermen in ocean waters only use lines and hooks, rather than nets. The result: "The chinook from California are generally in better shape than [net-caught] chinook from Wash-ington or Alaska, which can be pretty beat up," says Moore. His best tip for home cooks: "Choose different approaches for different fish." For instance, try cooking it slowly in the oven with herbs over a pan of water. If the fish seems stronger, wrap it in pancetta with a red wine butter sauce. Generally, stronger-flavored fish prevail during the later part of the season, around August and September, says Craig Stoll, chef-owner of Delfina restaurant in San Francisco.

"In my opinion, the king is the prized species—better than coho, sockeye, pink, or chum," says James McNair, author of The Salmon Cookbook. "When I cook salmon, I use king 99 percent of the time. It has everything going for it—better flavor, more delicate meat, and moister flesh than other types of salmon, as well as a beautiful, buttery texture and wonderful color."

McNair adds, "A lot of people assume salmon's delicate nature requires delicate seasonings. But it holds up wonderfully with bold seasonings, like teriyaki marinade, barbecue sauce, or mustard sauce."

The type of salmon you don't want to buy during king season is "farm grown," usually shipped in from Chile, Norway, or British Columbia. "Farm-grown fish are raised in ocean-based pens—the marine equivalent of a feedlot for cattle," says Jim Lichatowich, a fisheries biologist and author of Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis. Crowded conditions cause high levels of disease, so antibiotics are put in the fish feed. Fish escape, carrying their diseases into the wild. Their food contains an additive that dyes their flesh pink so that it resembles wild salmon's. The crowded pens pollute the local ecosystem. And the fish don't taste as good as wild king. "Farm-raised salmon has a lot of fat on it, which makes the flavor more 'fishy,' " says Max Martinez, a chef at the San Francisco seafood restaurant Yabbies Coastal Kitchen.

When you buy king, as a whole fish, in steaks, or in fillets, the best-tasting fish is the freshest. Which is why you may want to skip the chain supermarket. "In general, supermarkets are bad places to shop for fresh fish," says Tim Ports of the Fresh Fish Company, a wholesale seafood distributor in San Francisco. "Most of them buy from bigger companies that don't have the same quality control for freshness as smaller companies." Instead, says Ports, find a specialty retailer that buys whole fish and cuts its own steaks and fillets.

You can also buy fresh king at a number of Northern California farmers' markets, such as the one at Ferry Plaza along the Embarcadero in San Francisco or the market under the Capital City Freeway at Sixth and W streets in Sacramento. There, for instance, you're likely to find Larry Miyamura, who catches king throughout the season in his boat Shogun.

When you buy a whole fish, says Miyamura, look for clear eyes, flesh that is supple, returning to its shape after being pressed, no cuts or nicks on the belly, and flesh that isn't separating from the bone. Expect to pay about $4 to $5 per pound for a whole fish, and $7 to $8 a pound for steaks and fillets.

If you're smart—and you want to stay smart—you'll eat salmon two to three times a week. "Salmon is rich in a marine lipid called DHA (docosahex-aenoic acid)," explains Lloyd Horrocks, an expert on marine lipids and a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry at Ohio State University in Columbus. This omega-3 fatty acid helps form brain cells, or neurons. Deficient levels of DHA have been linked to mental decline in aging, depression, and Alzheimer's disease. The fat also helps protect your circulatory system—low levels have been linked to heart attacks and high blood pressure.

"The great majority of people are deficient in DHA and should eat more DHA-rich fish like salmon," Horrocks says.

When you eat king, receive it as a gift from nature, says Freeman House, director of the Mattole Restoration Council and author of Totem Salmon. "When I sit down to eat salmon, I take a few moments to think of where that fish has been—of the thousands of miles it has swum to bring ocean nutrients to my table—and I eat it with respect, gratitude . . . and enjoyment."

Salmon with Salsa Verde

Craig Stoll serves this salmon dish at Delfina with cranberry beans and Blue Lake or yellow wax beans.
serves 4

Salsa Verde:

1 shallot, minced

2 tablespoons
champagne vinegar

2 anchovy fillets

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

1 tablespoon minced capers

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 salmon fillets, 6 oz. each, skin on
and extra olive oil

Combine the shallot and vinegar in a nonreactive bowl and let stand for 30 minutes. With a mortar and pestle, work the anchovy and garlic to a fine paste. Transfer the paste to a bowl. Crush the herbs and add to the anchovy paste. Stir in the capers. Drain the shallots (reserving vinegar); add them to the sauce. Stir in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt or reserved vinegar as desired. Set aside salsa verde. Preheat the oven to 325° F. Brush salmon with oil; season with salt and pepper. Set the fillets on a baking sheet, skin side down. Bake for 15 minutes or until salmon flakes slightly. The salmon will remain translucent, appearing less cooked than it is. If desired, cook a few minutes longer. Lift the salmon using a thin spatula to leave the skin behind. Drizzle the salmon with the salsa verde.

Craig Stoll serves this salmon dish at Delfina with cranberry beans and Blue Lake or yellow wax beans.

T H E   R E E L   C A T C H

American River Salmon Festival
October 13-14, Rancho Cordova, (916) 361-8700

Klamath Salmon Festival
Mid-August (call for date), Klamath, (707) 444-0433

Kokanee Salmon Festival
October 6-7, South Lake Tahoe, (530) 573-2674

Lodi Salmon Festival
October 13-14, Lodi, (209) 333-6742

Oroville Salmon Festival
September 22, Oroville, (530) 538-2222

Return of the Salmon Festival
Late October (call for date), Anderson, (530) 365-8622

Trinity County Salmon Festival
October 6, Weaverville, (530) 623-2760

World's Largest Salmon BBQ
July 7, Fort Bragg, (707) 961-6300

Photography by Terrence McCarthy

This article was first published in March 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.