Wild salmon is an epicurean dream

Published 11:59 pm Friday, March 27, 2009

Wild salmon is an epicurean dream; it is endlessly versatile; it is hard to overcook, and it boasts a rich, inimitable flavor that stands up well to many different kinds of seasonings and sauces. Though wild salmon is no longer available in North Atlantic waters, there are still five viable wild varieties in the Pacific—chum, coho, pink, sockeye, and Chinook, otherwise known as king. All of them are harvested between April and September. Farmed salmon can taste great, but it simply cannot compare with the wild stuff, caught when the fish is surfacing from the ocean and commencing its fated run upstream to spawn. At that moment, its flesh is dense and thickly ribbed with pearly, white fat that lubricates the fish as it cooks.

Different varieties of salmon vary substantially in taste and texture, but they all share one cardinal trait; a high fat content, which gives their flesh a rich flavor and lush texture. All wild salmon taste their best when caught just before their journey home to freshwater spawning grounds, since they prepare for the trip by fattening up on ocean crustaceans.

Salmon has become popular because of its health related benefits. It is a key source of omega-3 fatty acids. We try to eat salmon once a week. I visit Whole Foods and one can buy the sockeye salmon, which is wild caught. Whole Foods has even established protocols for the farmed salmon it buys, including a ban on the use of antibiotics, hormones, and parasiticides.

A great salmon recipe, which I have used several times this year, is from the new cookbook by Frank Stitt, Botegga Favorita. You know he is my favorite chef in Alabama (and maybe all round), and his new cookbook is great. I’ve told you that before, I know. This recipe was just easy and tasty. If corn is not in season, you could substitute sweet peas or roasted butternut squash. I did it the first time with edamame and my husband liked it better than the corn. The orzo is served at room temperature and is a great choice for a buffet platter. I had lots of orzo left over and it was a great salad for the next day. This is the salmon recipe that was used in the “cooking with friends” menu last week.

Salmon with Orzo Salad

Serves 4

1 ½ cups orzo

About 1 tablespoon olive oil

Four 6-ounce skinless salmon fillets, any pinbones removed

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup corn kernels (from about 3 ears of corn)

1 cup quartered cherry tomatoes

1 shallot or ½ red onion, minced

¼ cup Kalamata or Nicoise olives, coarsely chopped

¼ cup basil leaves, torn into small pieces or cut into chiffonade, plus 4 sprigs for garnish

Kosher salt

2 tablespoons Spanish sherry vinegar or other good quality red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Grated lemon zest for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to boil. Add the orzo and cook until al dente, 5-7 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl. Toss with a dash of olive oil.

Heat a large ovenproof skillet over high heat, then add just enough olive oil to barely coat the bottom of the pan. Season the salmon with sea salt and pepper, place in the hot skillet, and cook until the fish is lightly golden on the first side and the edges are beginning to turn opaque, about 4 minutes. Turn the salmon and transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking, about 4 minutes for medium-rare, or about 6 minutes for medium. Transfer the fillets to a rack and keep warm.

Stir the corn, tomatoes, shallot or onion, olives, torn basil, and salt and pepper to taste into the orzo. Add the vinegar, drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil, and toss to coat. Taste for seasonings and adjust to your liking.

Place a large spoonful of the orzo on each serving plate and top with a salmon fillet. Garnish each with a little lemon zest, if desired, and a sprig of basil.

Another new cookbook this year is The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper by Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift. I did this recipe also, and it is a winner. You roast the salmon in the same dish as the potatoes and you have a complete dinner organized.

Lemon-Garlic Roast Salmon On New Potatoes

Serves 4 generously


10-12 small red-skin potatoes, unpeeled

3 quarts boiling salted water in a 4-quart pot


½ cup good-tasting extra-virgin olive oil

5 large garlic cloves

Juice of 1 large lemon

Salt and fresh-ground black pepper

The fish

Four 1-inch thick salmon steaks (wild if possible)

2 generous teaspoons capers, drained and rinsed

Leaves from 2-3 sprigs of parsley

Slip the potatoes into the boiling water and simmer for 15 minutes, or until they are slightly firm when they are pierced with a knife. Drain them in a colander and rinse under cold running water to stop the cooking.

While the potatoes are cooking, heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a food processor, combine the olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt and pepper; puree. Place the salmon steaks in a shallow bowl. Pour the marinade over them and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes.

Peel and thin-slice the potatoes. In a shallow baking dish that can hold the salmon steaks with some room to spare, overlap the potato slices to cover the bottom of the dish. Moisten the potatoes with a little oil of the marinade, and sprinkle with half of the capers. Top the potatoes with the salmon steaks, the rest of the marinade and the remaining capers.

Roast the salmon in the oven for 8-10 minutes, or until the fish is just firm when pressed. The flesh should be barely opaque near the center; make a small cut to check. If the fish is cold when it goes into the oven, it could take longer to cook. Serve the salmon and potatoes in their baking dish, sprinkle with the parsley leaves.