There’s something about being from the Pacific Northwest and eating salmon. It’s hard to put my finger on the relationship exactly, but it’s a special thing. Maybe it’s because most families from the NW have at least a few memories of setting out on icy cold rivers in the spring, braving the constant, sideways rain in hopes of luring a few well-fed hook jaws returning to their spawning ground from the Pacific. Or maybe it’s because, starting in elementary school, we memorized the salmon life cycle every year until grade nine (I’m sure this had very little to do with the hippy communist middle school I attended…). Or it could be the fact that for thousands of years the salmon has nourished and sustained the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and the salmon runs were always a sacred event. Even without a single drop of Native American blood in me, I feel the connection to the rivers, the salmon and the tradition there. I also feel a certain reverence for the fish themselves. They are incredible animals! Living up to 8 years, they begin their lives in small, shallow rivers and make their way to the Pacific as adults (where their physiology changes to allow them to breathe in salt water from fresh water! Awesome!). They typically live in the Pacific for 1 – 4 years before returning to the rivers and streams where they were born to spawn and die. Without getting too nerdy (too late? Most definitely) I’ll leave it at that. Pretty impressive little guys.
I also grew up with a grandfather that to this day, approaching his 80th birthday, still sets out on the Columbia River every year to catch a few salmon. He even sends them to me (canned) in New Mexico! There is something about that (and the amount of salmon I’ve eaten in my life…) that makes cooking a salmon a particular event to me.
The irony is that for all the salmon I have enjoyed in my life, I don’t think I’ve actually ever prepared it myself more than a few times.
So when whole Sockeye were on sale at the market last week, I decided it was time to cook one for myself. They were freshly filleted in front of the seafood department, and just by seeing the color of the flesh I knew they were good ones. The deep red hue and firmness of the filets (“poke it before you buy it!”) gave away the health of the fish. They lived good lives. Wild, from Alaska – maybe born in Oregon, like me. I bought a whole one without actually knowing what I was going to do with it. I don’t have a grill, so that was out of the question, but I remember an herb-crusted salmon I had years ago at home and decided that was it.
I came across a tub of dried sumac at The Spanish Table the other day, which I have heard about but never tried. Spice nerd that I am, I had to have it. It’s fantastic – bitter but fruity, and an awesome purple color. While rubbing the filets with a blend of sumac, sea salt, black pepper and a pinch of coriander, I still didn’t exactly know how I was going to cook it. This gave it time to sit with the rub while I made other things. Finally I decided frying the filets in coconut oil would give them a nice crust and a bit of sweetness from the coconut oil. Oh my good god. They. Are. Fantastic.
Sumac Crusted Sockeye Filets
2 lbs of Salmon filets, skin on (really you can use whatever salmon filets you have available, but wild sockeye are the best!)
1 Tbsp sumac
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
A pinch of coriander
Coconut oil for frying
Mix sumac, sea salt, pepper and coriander in a small bowl. You really just need enough of the mixture to lay a thick layer over one side of the filet, so adjust accordingly. Lay the filets skin-side down and rub the spice mix over it, massaging it into the flesh. Let sit, refrigerated, for up to an hour.
Heat coconut oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until it’s shimmering and almost smoking. Add the filets skin-side up to the pan and cook until you can see that the center is still dark red or pink, but the outside is opaque (about 2-3 minutes), flip filets and cook for another minute, pulling them from the heat when the centers are still a bit translucent. Let sit for a few minutes and serve immediately. Goes very well with the wilted spinach with cherries and caramelized onions that I made and will post soon 🙂
(Note: this is a huge gripe I have with most prepared salmon. It is SO EASY to overcook salmon, and it’s a matter of one or two minutes that will make the difference. One minute you have a tender filet that is moist in the center and crusty on the outside, and the next minute the flesh is dry and cakey and all moisture – and with it much of the amazing flavor – has been lost. I tend towards undercooking salmon because it will carry over and keep cooking for a few minutes, and if I’m buying high quality salmon I don’t worry much about the purported dangers of undercooking. I like my salmon translucent and my steaks bloody bloody.)