Late spring and early summer is salmon season in Alaska, which claims to be home to more than 90 percent of the wild salmon in North America.
At this time of year salmon that have spent their adult lives swimming in the Pacific Ocean return to the rivers and streams where they were born, to spawn and then die.
Many make the trip home successfully, but fishing boats at the mouths of Alaska’s rivers catch a number of them before they burn off their delicious and heart-healthy fish fat by swimming upstream. Those fish are eaten with enthusiasm throughout the world.
This year the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute projects this season’s harvest, which began on May 16, at 203 million salmon, the fifth largest catch in the state’s history.
The first salmon to return are usually from the Copper River, which is why that fish has become so famous.
“Our clients love Copper River [salmon],” said Carrie Nahabedian, executive chef and owner of Naha in Chicago. “And when the season starts, the receptionists call a special list of clients who have asked to be informed when the beautiful fish arrives.”
Nahabedian serves her salmon with spring asparagus, salsify purée, roasted king trumpet mushrooms and a broth of nettles and freshly juiced apples.
Jeremy McLachlan, chef of Salty’s on Alki in Seattle, serves grilled Copper River salmon with avocado crème, noting that simplicity is the way to go for such a pristine fish.
But sometimes he cures the fish with brown sugar, chile and salt, smokes it and serves it on pasta with fiddlehead ferns, lemon crème and Pecorino Romano cheese. He also cures the bellies and roasts them in an apple-wood oven, serving it on flatbread with herbs, goat cheese and caper berries.
At the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City, executive chef Sandy Ingber makes two preparations of Copper River king salmon fillet. He serves it in a horseradish crust with a honey mustard glaze, and also pan-sears it and serves it with preserved lemon salsa.
King salmon, also known as chinook, is one of five species of the fish found in Alaska. Its large size, high oil content, rich flavor and firm flesh help it to fetch high prices.
Other species include sockeye, or red, which is prized for its color; coho, or silver, which has a relatively low price that chain restaurants and noncommercial operations find attractive; keta, or chum, which has a firm flesh, mild flavor and fairly low fat content; and pink, which is mostly canned but also available as fillets.
“Summer is the only time you will see salmon on the menu at West Town Tavern,” said Susan Goss, who is the chef and owner of the Chicago restaurant.
Goss, who prefers wild salmon to farm-raised, serves pan-seared sockeye fillets in a Niçoise salad with fingerling potatoes, spinach, olives, cherry tomatoes and peaches dressed with lemon vinaigrette.
The king salmon are grilled and paired with patty pan squash and skillet corn.
But Cole Davis, co-owner of upscale bistro Americano in Bratenahl, Ohio, chooses farm-raised Atlantic salmon year-round for its “value and popularity,” he said, adding that he sees his job as coaxing flavor out of “lesser cuts” by using his skills as a chef.
“With fish, we tend to broil or pan-sear it simply with a rub, and salmon takes well to that process. If we do our job, lowly Atlantic salmon elicits grand ovations at a bistro price.”
“Still,” he added, “the aura of Alaska wild-caught salmon fetches a premium price on our specials list, and folks do like talking about it, even if only seasonally.”
Last year Davis ran what he called an “Omega Blast,” referring to the Omega-3 fatty acids that are abundant in salmon and that many doctors and nutritionists say is good for the heart.
The dish combined Copper River coho with avocado purée, walnut vinaigrette and toasted flax seeds. All three of those accompaniments enjoy healthful reputations for their mono-unsaturated fats.
“The health angle was very popular,” Davis said. “But the flavor and texture profiles matched very well and let the delicate fillet be the star of the plate.”
McCormick & Schmick’s, a fine-dining seafood chain based in Portland, Ore., also offers seasonal coho salmon, either simply grilled or as “Sizzling Salmon” served atop sweet onions, mushrooms and Swiss chard with a choice of Asian black pepper sauce or mushroom truffle broth. That dish is $25.90 at most of the chain’s 82 locations.
RAM Restaurant and Brewery does a seasonal “Seafood Celebration” at its 23 restaurants that features several Alaska salmon dishes. Among them are a $12 grilled sockeye salmon and hummus salad, and a $16.99 panko-crusted salmon topped with pico de gallo and served with Mexican rice. For the same price, RAM also will serve it teriyaki style or “island style” with a honey-lime glaze.
Other Alaska salmon dishes:
• Poste, Washington, D.C.: Salmon belly tartare cones
• Tulio Ristorante, Seattle: King salmon poached in olive oil with saffron cauliflower and basil yogurt
• American Seasons, Nantucket, Mass: King salmon with fried green tomatoes and smoky crayfish green onion butter
• Slow Club, San Francisco: Pan-roasted wild Tofino Inlet king salmon with ginger-avocado purée, Chioggia beets, snow peas and upland cress
• Salty’s on the Columbia, Portland, Ore.: grilled salmon with roasted local organic fingerling potatoes, local asparagus, morels and charred ramps with garlic compound butter
• Restaurant Michael, Winnetka, Ill.: pan-roasted salmon fillet over a ragout of fava beans, asparagus and morels with roasted beat ravioli
• The Grille at Morrison House, Alexandria, Va.: Coho salmon with tempura broccoli, red onion gelée, mustard foam, mustard crème fraîche, potato latke, fried quail egg and salmon roe
• TAG, Denver: salmon with spring pea purée, cured wild boar, charred bok choy and tomato confit
• The Mermaid Inn, New York City: grilled king salmon with green lentils, red peppers and chile flakes
• Prairie Grass Café, Northbrook, Ill: King salmon with grain salad and asparagus, garnished with micro greens, pea shoots and lilacs
• BLT Fish, New York City: lightly seared king salmon with apricots, almonds and pickled ramps
• Recess, Indianapolis: King salmon with red wine shiitake mushrooms, carrots, fennel and Bordeaux spinach