Do you ever find yourself standing in front of the fish counter at your grocery store feeling a little bit overwhelmed? We know that feeling well. The challenge of deciphering what all those signs really mean can be complex. They make you consider the relative importance of words like “farmed,” “previously frozen,” and “natural.” With salmon season in full swing, we headed to the store the other day to choose our ingredients for a fresh summer dinner. Standing in front of the salmon selection at the fish counter, that feeling swept over us yet again as we were reminded of the many choices ahead of us.
Surviving the first round of choosing wild-caught salmon (because pastures are good for raising cows, but farms don't raise the best fish) we made it to the next level of decision-making: Chinook, Sockeye or Coho? Nothing but gratitude about having that choice thanks to being so close to the Pacific Ocean. The practical dilemma here was trying to choose a tasty fish without breaking the bank for our meal. The light coral flesh of Chinook Salmon draws us in like a magnet every time. It has the highest fat content of all the types of salmon and is prized for its silken texture. Chinook is also referred to as King salmon, not surprisingly since it's priced comparably to filet mignon. No matter how silky the texture of the salmon, when your household includes ravenous teenagers, the price can be hard to swallow. It almost had us longing for the days when they were happy eating ketchup with fish sticks on the side. Then, we notice the "catch of the day" sign and saw that Sockeye, Chinook’s much less expensive cousin (at a third of the price) was on sale if you bought the whole fish. Now we were competing with the price of frozen fish sticks!
Do you wonder what's the difference between all the different salmon types? This is a great reason to get to know your fishmonger who can provide a wealth of information. Asking just a few questions points you in a great direction towards your meal plan. For us, the responses started rolling in. Why yes, Sockeye is a darker color than the Chinook and Coho because of its own diet (it eats more plankton and crustaceans than the other types). It's much lower in fat too. It's generally a smaller fish than the others, so combined with the lower fat content, your recipe options and cooking methods start to take shape. After choosing some irresistible sweet corn and a gorgeous bunch of basil, we had our fresh and fast meal idea in the works, focused around our Sockeye salmon. For the right price too! Knowing that a sharp knife waited at home in the drawer, we were up for the challenge of buying and filleting a whole salmon. Perhaps you might be convinced to take the whole fish home to fillet too. Here's a great link to The Northwest Fly Fisherman that will walk you through it. Otherwise, you'll probably find that your new confidant behind the counter will do it for you at no additional cost.
Lower fat content in Sockeye means a less oily fish than Chinook. It has a pronounced flavor though so it can stand up to more robust seasoning like this custom spice blend. After brushing it with a little olive oil, generously coat the flesh side with the spices.
We could probably eat corn for three meals a day, so it's refreshing to try something new when preparing it. Jacques Pepin inspired us with this approach to "fresh polenta." It goes from kernels on the cob to a creamy sweet puree in minutes. A buzz in the blender and a quick stir on the stovetop is literally all it takes.
Summer bumper crops help us to create a balance of flavor and texture to go with the fish. Big bunches of basil are everywhere. Basil oil makes a fresh accompaniment for the fish and also can be added to a caprese salad later in the week or doctored up as pesto to be tossed with pasta.
Blanch the basil in boiling water for just a moment, then drain and submerge it in ice water to retain a beautiful vibrant green. Spin it in a salad spinner and dry it well before adding it to the blender with olive oil, salt and pepper.
A few fresh cherry tomatoes add another burst of flavor and color to your plate. Why not brush a bunch of scallions with olive oil and grill them alongside the salmon? A squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of salt and pepper finishes the scallions. There, you've got a beautiful meal harvested from the best that summer has to offer.
When summer's bounty is at its fullest, sometimes the hardest decision is whether or not to have a second helping.
Sockeye Salmon with Fresh Polenta and Basil Oil
It may seem different to see a recipe starting with the garnishes and finishing with the principle component. Preparing this meal in reverse order gives you the shortest start to finish time.
3 oz fresh basil (2 cups, packed)
3/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups fresh corn kernels (cut from 4-6 ears of corn)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste
Sockeye Salmon with Spice Rub
1 lb sockeye salmon, cut in 4 fillet portions
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp cayenne
1/8 tsp ground turmeric
Optional Sides - cherry tomatoes and grilled scallions with a squeeze of lime
Bring a medium pot of water to a rolling boil while you prepare a bowl of ice water. Blanch the basil in the boiling water for about a minute. With a slotted spoon, remove the basil from the boiling water and plunge it into the ice water for several minutes. Drain the basil and dry it well. Purée the basil in a blender and very slowly start adding the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Purée the corn kernels in a blender until smooth. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the puréed corn and season with salt and pepper. Stir the corn several times with a wooden spoon. Once it starts to bubble and thicken, after 2-3 minutes, it’s done.
Preheat your grill. Rinse salmon and pat dry. Brush salmon with olive oil. Combine brown sugar and spices in a small bowl. Rub entire mixture evenly over the flesh side of the salmon. Brush the grill with a little oil to prevent salmon from sticking. Grill salmon, flesh side down over medium heat. After about three minutes, gently turn the salmon to skin side down using a metal spatula. Sockeye is generally a thin fish and cooks very quickly. It usually just takes another 3-4 minutes for the fish to be done, depending on your preference.
You can make the basil oil and spice rub ahead of time. Have your corn puréed and ready to go into the pot before you start grilling the salmon. If you want to add more summer flavor, grill some oiled scallions alongside the salmon, or add some fresh cherry tomatoes to your plate.