Celebrating at Home: Simple Salmon Dinner

It's a birthday. It's an anniversary. It's a special occasion and right now, because of a nationwide pandemic, all the restaurants in town are closed. There is the option of supporting a local restaurant and ordering takeout, but the idea of going out and having to do even more Lady Macbeth-level handwashing before, during and after is dread on a whole new level.

So now's the time to go to the freezer and haul out one of those sides of salmon you packaged up when the stores were offering to butcher whole fish at a fraction of the price per pound they normally charge. (If you didn't do this, put it on your list for next season.) Simply thaw it, slice it into pieces, mix up the marinade below and put in the fridge for an hour or more, then broil it briefly—you'll have a fancy restaurant-level dinner that'll make anyone feel celebrated, pandemic or not.

I'd suggest a bright, lemon-inflected risotto and a creamy miso-dressed salad with, maybe, a deceptively simple apple galette for dessert, but I'll leave those decisions up to you. The point being, of course, to feed people well and make them feel loved, as it is any time, but especially now.

Roasted Miso-glazed Salmon

1 whole salmon filet
1/4 c. white miso (I'm in love with Jorinji miso)
1/4 c. canola oil
1 Tbsp. sesame oil
1 Tbsp. regular honey
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. grated ginger

Preheat oven to 425°.

Place all ingredients in medium-sized mixing bowl, whisking as you add each one.

If you are starting with a whole filet of salmon, slice it crosswise into 2-inch pieces. (The marinade would also be great with a salmon roast, larger filets or steaks, though cooking times listed below may be different.) Place the pieces into a gallon zip-lock bag and add the marinade. Gently massage the bag to distribute the marinade evenly and place the bag in a bowl in the refrigerator for at least one hour (I allowed 3 hours for mine).

Place parchment paper in the bottom of a large sheet pan or roasting pan. Remove the salmon filets from the bag and place them skin-side down on the parchment, leaving some space between them. Put the pan on the middle rack of the oven and roast for 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness of the filets (3 minutes will be more rare, 4 minutes will be more well done). When the filets are cooked, remove the pan from the oven and set aside. Set the oven on broil and allow a couple of minutes for the broiler to heat. Place the pan of filets back in the oven. When the filets are slightly caramelized, remove from the oven and serve.

Thanks to Michele Lee Bernstein for the Lady Macbeth turn of phrase above. So apt, as my poor, cracked hands can attest!

Buying Whole Fish (Plus a Hack for No-Hassle Freezing)

If you've been seeing ads from your grocery store or fishmonger offering whole fish for a fraction of the regular retail price but you're not sure how you'd use it, I've put together this handy guide.

There is nothing better, or better for you, than fresh, wild, local fish. Fish are packed with Omega-3 fatty acids, high in protein and low in saturated fat, and the American Heart Association advises eating fish twice a week. Trouble is, the usual price per pound for fresh fillets in the butcher case puts it out of reach for most budgets. Plus many commercially available ocean species can be high in mercury, and farm-raised fish are usually fed high doses of antibiotics—think of them as factory farms for finned creatures—due to the crowded pens they're raised in. And don't get me started on the effects of these farms on our waterways.

Albacore swims just off our coastline.

But those of us on the West Coast are fortunate to have access to some of the most delicious wild fish on the planet in our populations of native wild albacore and salmon. This year the fleet of primarily family-owned boats have been pulling in a supply of albacore from the fishery that stretches from Northern California up into British Columbia. Certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, these albacore are young—just three to five years old, low in mercury and weighing in at 12 to 25 pounds—and individually caught with a hook-and-line system. (Want more info? Read my post, Albacore A to Z, for details.)

Coho spawning in Tillamook State Forest.

Wild salmon, particularly from Alaskan waters, are in plentiful supply right now, too, with stores advertising tempting steaks, fillets and roasts. But if you want to get a real deal, look for special sales events featuring whole fish.

"Whole fish?" you say. "I don't even know where to start with a whole fish!"

Well, let's talk about where you buy it. Make sure the fishmonger is a reputable source—recent studies have found that almost 20% of fish sold to consumers are mislabeled, and fish ordered at restaurants are more likely to be incorrectly labeled than fish bought at markets or grocery stores. I recently bought two whole albacore and two whole Coho salmon at New Seasons Market, a regional chain that buys its whole fish from local boats and has several one or two-day sales events per season.

Whole albacore loins ready to freeze.

When you buy whole fish, you'll need to specify how you want it packaged. The fish are already cleaned, and most stores will butcher your fish at no charge, whether you want steaks or roasts or whole fillets. I always ask for the trimmings to be included, since the head, fins and bones make terrific stock for all kinds of soups, chowders, risottos and it's my secret ingredient for making a fabulous paella. (Here's my technique for using those trimmings.)

Making stock is simple: put fish in pot, add water.

And don't believe those charts meant for chefs that say the yield from a whole albacore, gutted and without the head, is 50 percent of the weight. From the 17-pound fish (head off) that I bought, my yield was more than 80 percent after removing the loins, roasting the carcass (350° for 30 min.), picking off the meat (nearly 2 lbs.) and then making stock from the bones (2 1/2 qts.). The total weight of bones, fins and detritus that went into the compost bin was only two or three pounds. (Kind of tells you about the food waste that happens in restaurants, though, doesn't it?)

Coho fillet ready to freeze.

If you're not going to throw the fish on the grill right away—never a bad idea, but just one good-sized fillet will feed four to six—you'll also need to think about how you want to store it. With a vacuum sealer it's a done deal, since properly packaged fish will keep for as long as a year. The idea is to keep air away from the meat to prevent freezer burn, so if you don't have a vacuum sealer, what do you do?

I quizzed the fellow at the fish counter when I bought my salmon, and he said that his dad, an avid fisherman, would put a single fillet in a zip-lock bag and submerge it in a sink full of water, holding the closure just above the water line. The water pressure pushes the air out, making an airtight seal around the fish. Not having a sealing machine myself, a little smoothing of the wrinkles in the bag while it was underwater did almost as good a job as the machine. (I found that a two-gallon zip-lock bag will hold a good-sized fillet quite nicely.)

Note: Pull those pinbones!

A note: it's good to go over your fish to check for pinbones or other bones that the butchers may have missed. First, it makes it easier to just throw it on the grill without worrying about biting down on one while you're eating and, second, it keeps those pokey bones from puncturing the bag and letting air in. Just hold the fillet and feel for any bones by running your fingers down the flesh, then use a pair of (clean) needle nose pliers to pull out the bones.

All this is to say that you can have more fresh, local, sustainable fish in your diet without paying dearly for the privilege. As the old commercial used to say, "Try it, you'll like it!"

For fabulous salmon recipes, click here.

For to-die-for albacore recipes, click here.

Leftover Salmon? Make Cakes!

With salmon filets and steaks running up toward twenty bucks a pound at the fish counter, this time of year, when I'm craving it, I buy the whole fish, head on, for much less per pound. This way you get the (cleaned) fish, which you can throw on the grill with herbs and lemon stuffed into the cavity. You can also have your fishmonger filet it, or you can slice it into steaks yourself. But any way you choose to cook it, make sure to save the head, fins and tail to make a terrific fish broth for your next risotto or paella.

Cakes for breakfast!

With out-of-town friends coming over for dinner, and wanting to share some of the crazy goodness of the Northwest, we grilled a whole salmon with a side of wild mushroom risotto and a salad of seasonal greens. Throw in some local red to go with the fish, a fruit crisp made with the last of the frozen berries to top off the meal, and they were putty in our hands. Even with everyone eating their fill, there was a good amount of fish left over…which fit into my clever plan to make salmon cakes for dinner a couple of nights later.

These cakes are great as an appetizer or with a salad for a simple dinner, and they also make a great breakfast with eggs, sautéed greens and a slice of homemade bread. It's not necessary to have all the ingredients—the fish, mayo and eggs are the critical ingredients—so the seasonings can go in any direction you desire. These are meant to be mostly meat, with just enough of the other ingredients to (barely) hold it together.

And if you ever happen to have any leftover smoked salmon (does that really happen?), that would be the gilding on this particular lily.

Salmon Cakes

2 c. cooked salmon, flaked
1-2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1/4 c. minced red or green onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 serrano pepper, seeded and finely minced
2 Tbsp. cilantro, minced
1/4 c. bread crumbs
Zest of 1 lime
Juice of 1 lime
1 egg

Combine salmon with other ingredients (except oil) and mix thoroughly. Form into loose cakes about 2" across. Can be refrigerated at this point, which will firm up the cakes a bit, but it's not necessary. Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in medium frying pan until it shimmers. Put cakes in pan, but don't crowd them—do them in batches if necessary. Cook until browned, then carefully flip them over and brown on the other side. Makes about eight cakes.