Early in January, the other Jared over at the Carnivore Project started the Adopt-a-Meat program, and this was supposed to be a part of that. Life got in the way and this post is past it’s due date. Sorry, other Jared. I owe you one.
It’s the time of year when those of us fortunate enough to live in the North start to get at least a little bit stir-crazy. December 21st was the shortest day of the year, and already we’re gaining over 5 minutes of sunlight a day. The extra few minutes add up quickly, and by the end of this month the passing of each week will mean nearly an extra hour of light each day. After several months of days that start at 10 AM and end with sunsets at 3:30, we are ready for spring, and all that comes with it. One of the perks that comes with living here is a basically never-ending supply of protein, and our freezer is still full of carefully preserved salmon, halibut and cod from last season. We dole it out a fillet or two at a time, each a little piece of last summer.
The largest officially recorded king salmon weighed 126 pounds…
The excitement that the returning salmon runs bring to Alaska each year is difficult to describe, perhaps akin to the buzz of a big football game in a college town or the way high school kids feel before homecoming. By the time May rolls around the first big kings are moving upriver while tourists and Alaskans alike are moving to intercept. The fish are monsters, getting up over 90 pounds in the Kenai River. The largest officially recorded king salmon weighed 126 pounds, caught in a commercial fishing net. And there are probably larger ones out there – rumors of unofficially weighed kings topping 135 pounds make the rounds every so often. By numbers, king salmon account for only about 1% of the annual catch but by weight they make up almost 4%. Although the kings are, well, the kings of the salmon world, and do make for the best bragging rights, they are not what most of us here fill our freezers with, nor are they the species most Alaskans consider the best eatin’.
What most of us prefer to catch are reds,the sockeye, the most commercially valuable if not the most abundant of the Alaska salmon. They return in vast waves to much of the Southeastern Alaska waters and battle gauntlets of commercial fisherman, sea lions, salmon sharks, and even beluga whales to make their way back to the same rivers in which they were spawned. And then they have hoards of teeth, claws, and fisherman’s hooks to get past before their journey ends. For our part, Alaskans are allowed a vast harvest of this resource and take full advantage. The waters I call home are at the heart of the red run on the Kenai Peninsula, on the glacier blue Kenai River. The Cook Inlet commercial fleet seines the river outlet, and the beaches nearby are lined with setnets set out by the permit-holding locals. Here, Alaskan residents are allowed to participate in a personal-use scoop salmon up with large dip nets as they return to the Kenai Peninsula rivers. Generally the head of a household is allowed to harvest 25 fish plus 10 per family member. That can add up to a lot of fish, and a lot of work. We eschew the nets for with fly rods, working likely lies and riffles to catch our daily limits. It’s usually only three fish per angler per day, but 10 or 15 trips a year will fill a freezer and then some. Might also get you fired, but still. The number of red salmon flooding back each year are staggering. Nearby Bristol Bay is home to an estimated 33% of the world’s red salmon, and the Kenai sockeye runs number in the hundred of thousands.
The famed Copper River red salmon deserve special mention, for their fabled ruby-red meat and the astonishing prices it brings both in and out of Alaska. In years past some commercial processors have had helicopters standing by to fly out the first of the catch, making sure theirs were the first (and most valuable) fish to market. In Anchorage prices for Copper River sockeye easily top $20 a pound, and this when nearly everyone in the state has access to all the free salmon they can catch. Single portions go for much more once plated in a Seattle or New York restaurant.
Lately our favorite way to eat salmon has been blackened, I suppose adding a little heat to the cold and dark nights. Generally when salmon are caught most folks here don’t bother to clean them. We just kill and fillet them, so the meat in the freezer has a skin side. This means you get to add an extra thick layer of blackening to the other side. The skin side has a lot of fat and flavor up against it, and will crisp up nicely in the bottom of the skillet. All you need for this recipe is the fish, 1/2 stick melted butter, blackening, and a ridiculously hot skillet. Best done outside, if you have a burner on your grill.
Step One: remove batteries from the smoke detector…
5 tsp toasted paprika
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
Mix all the spices together in bowl. This makes a lot more than you need, but it will keep well till your next craving for heat. Spread a goodish amount of your mix out on a plate. Make sure your fish is dry, and coat the fleshy side with a sheen of melted butter. Press this side of the salmon into the spice, pushing down hard enough to press the seasoning in, but perhaps not hard enough to make a smushed-salmon tatare. If you have salmon steaks instead of fillets then butter and season both sides. Meanwhile, heat a cast iron skillet till it absolutely is as hot as possible. Smoking, white hot with flecks on ash on it is just about right. You can do this on a grill without a burner if you need to, but really – do this outside. or at least take the batteries out of the smoke detector. Place the fillet skin-side down in the hot skillet. Pour a bit of butter over the top, and cook for approximately 90 seconds. Flip it over, and pour another tablespoon of the melted butter over fish. Watch out for splatter. Remove the salmon from the skillet after about 90 more seconds. Your timing will vary depending on the heat of the skillet and the thickness of the salmon. The times given are for piece of fish that’s about 3/4 of an inch thick on a skillet that is scary hot. Plate the fish and drizzle any remaining butter over the top.