ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

What do you do with a whole Salmon?


Washington SeaSA, my little venture buying sustainable seafood direct from fishermen for a group of about 10 families in DC, is now in year two. Latest on the menu: sockeye salmon from Bill Webber, who fishes the flats off the Copper River in Alaska. This followed an  oyster shucking party, with the farm-raised bivalves from Rappahannock Oyster Co. They were excellent.

I first met Bill last year, when I made the trek up to Alaska to see the fishery. It didn't take me long to ask Bill if he'd ship direct to us and he said he would, as long as we met his 50 pound minimum. Which is why I corralled up my friends. It wasn't a hard sell. 

Bill sends us whole fish, headed and gutted. He also bleeds the fish on his boat, which he argues makes for a much fresher fish. Blood begins to decay once the fish dies and that in turn degrades the flesh, so if you remove the blood -- with a special pressure tube he developed -- you can slow down the clock. He then ships the fish to us in a chilled pack and I drive out to Alaska Airlines' cargo dock to pick it up.

Now, when you buy salmon in the store, you only get the fillet. Getting the whole fish is a different story. I fillet the salmon on our kitchen counter (with an excellent sashimi knife I got from Japan). Aside from the fillet, I'm left with the rich belly meat, which is the bacon of salmon and is excellent fried in a pan. (What can I say, pork belly, salmon belly, it's all good). Then there's the carcass which usually has about a pound of meat on it. These "waste products" amount to a lot of food.

So what do you do them? 

With our last fish, I made stock, layering sliced onions and thin fennel stalks and drizzling them with olive oil. Then I placed the 2-1/2 pound liberally salted carcass on top, covering and then sweating the fish on a low flame for 20 minutes. I then added water and a cup of dry white wine to cover, simmering it for another 20 minutes. Finally, I took it off the heat and let the fish sit for an hour to release its essence. This follows Rick Moonen's method in Fish Without a Doubt: The Cook's Essential Companion, which is now my go-to fish book. Like many chefs he does not recommend using salmon for stock, which is a shame.  Salmon stock is bursting with flavor and isn't oily. But it helps if it's very fresh.

Once the stock cooled, I strained it, and then removed the meat from the bones, ending up with a big container of salmon delicately flavored by the fennel. I ate salmon salad sandwiches for several days, though you could also make salmon croquettes, as another friend did with the remnants of her stock.

Since we had eaten our fill of fresh salmon over a couple of days, I took a remaining fillet and cut thin paillards --  angled cuts 1/4 inch thick -- a wonderful technique I also got from Moonen's book. I salted them, wrapped them up in plastic wrap and froze them (a typical Japanese home-cooking method). These can be taken out and cooked immediately in a toaster oven or in a broiler. They cook in about 4-5 minutes if frozen, or about a minute on each side if defrosted or fresh. So it's a really fast dinner.

With the stock on hand, I was thinking paella but was short a few ingredients. I went ahead anyway since I wanted to use the stock.

I sauteed a fennel bulb, an onion, half a red pepper, 2 slices of bacon, a clove of chopped garlic and an Italian sausage I had laying around. When the veggies were soft and the meat brown, I added just over a cup of arborio rice and sauteed it for a minute. Then I poured in a cup of simmering stock, with a generous pinch of saffron, stirring now and then. As the stock was absorbed by the rice, I added more. What I wouldn't have done for a dozen mussels or clams!

Halfway through, I oiled up three of the frozen paillards and put them in the broiler. They sizzled while the paella continued to cook in the stock.

With everything nearly done, I sauteed a bunch of rainbow chard and garlic from the garden and out came the dinner -- a thoroughly satisfying plate of pseudo-paella, broiled salmon and sauteed chard.

Using the whole fish is a bit of work, or rather it takes time to prepare. But once you have the fish, you realize all the possibilities at hand. Now, if I could just get salmon roe in Bill's next shipment.

Addendum: Here's another tip. Fire up your grill. Cut the stalks off a fennel bulb. Rub a fillet with olive oil and season it with salt . When the fire has burned down to medium heat, lay the stalks over the grill and lay the fish on top. You'll have fennel perfumed salmon. The salmon should flake when done, but still be visibly moist inside. Remove from the fennel, then drizzle more olive oil, lemon and/or fresh oregano on the fish and serve.

- Samuel Fromartz

Alaskan Salmon and the Birth of a SeaSA

Coho Salmon, Copper River

This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Alaska to check out the Copper River salmon fishery and I'm happy to say I came back with more than a story. 

There, I met a fisherman Bill Webber, pictured above, who sells direct to customers. The proposition made sense when I saw fisherman got only $1.85 per pound for Copper River sockeye salmon. This was the same stuff -- or actually a better grade of fish -- than I was buying at Whole Foods for at least $15 a pound this summer. The middlemen can move a lot of fish, but it also creates opportunity for fishermen who want to sell direct to people like me who want a really fresh fish.

I also learned that Alaska has extremely stiff fishing regulations that extend to boat ownership. They require commercial fishermen to be on their boats, preventing one fisherman from owning a fleet of boats in the same fishery. The hundreds of boats in Cordova, Alaska, where I was visiting, were all small businesses protected from industry concentration. (When I mentioned that to a farmer, she said that would do wonders for agriculture).

These fishermen also depend on distant markets, because a few boats could probably feed the entire town for a year -- easily. In fact, without distant markets, there wouldn't be a town since there's hardly anything else going on aside from fishing. Okay, maybe moose hunting.

So I decided to buy fish direct from Alaska, to support the fishermen and the remarkably sustainable fishery up there. 

I told my friends here in DC and we decided to buy seven fish -- 64 pounds total. Last Monday, on Labor Day, Bill went out gillnetting for Coho salmon, which run around 9 pounds each. On Tuesday, he put the chilled fish on an Alaska Airlines jet. On Wednesday, I picked the box up at DC's airport -- just in time to get snarled in traffic because Obama was giving his health-care speech on Capitol Hill, around the corner from my house. Forgot the streets would be on lockdown.

Anyway, I finally made it home, then spent the next two hours filleting the fish listening to Obama on the radio (and cheering him on).

Coho Fillet

The fish were a big hit. As one friend said in an email, "We love our Salmon! It is not only tastier but the texture is very much better than the supermarket or fish market equivalent." We also had a lot of carcasses, which some people passed on. Too bad. There was a lot of meat on them, which one friend made into a fume (stock) and then risotto. Another friend salted the carcass and kept it in the frig.

I think I'm going to pick the meat off the bones and make salmon burgers, then make fume with the bones, leeks, and fennel. I'm using the tail portion of the fish for gravlax. We've already had grilled salmon and salmon aoili sandwiches on ciabatta rolls.

Now, I know, some will say, you're flying fish from Alaska? But if you're going to eat fish, I think the most important thing is the sustainability of the fishery -- and on that score, Alaska is a leader. Plus, this was a first step. I will be looking at nearby sources, too, in the future. But for me, the health of the fishery is more important than the locale when it comes to fish.

With shipping, we ended paying less than retail (though I did cramp my shoulder from all the filleting). Still, it was worth it.

If you missed it, check out the short video I shot on Bill's boat.

- Samuel Fromartz