Sorting out the secrets of good salmon: North Fork Chef

Braised wild ivory salmon with Peconic Bay scallops and mussels. (Credit: John Ross)

Braised wild ivory salmon with Peconic Bay scallops and mussels. (Credit: John Ross)

I received a Christmas present of 10 pounds of wild Alaskan salmon fillets, individually frozen and sealed in cryovac. The package included red king salmon, Kalgin Island king salmon and white (or ivory) king salmon. They were all high-quality, troll-caught fish that were processed and shipped via FedEx to my door. At a time of year when local fish are not in abundance, it was a timely gift.

Consumers (including me) are still pretty confused when it comes to choosing between farmed salmon, naturally raised farmed salmon and wild salmon. All three are usually available from our fish markets and differ greatly in price.

All salmon is pretty good for you, with some important qualifications. Like other fish they are good sources of protein, B vitamins and minerals, including iodine and calcium. But, due to their high fat content, salmon are also especially good sources of omega-3 fatty-acids. These highly unsaturated fats must be supplied by our diet since the human body cannot make them. Among other benefits, they are essential to the development of the brain, the retina and the central nervous system.

The downside of eating farmed salmon is the presence of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. These toxic chemicals are transmitted to farmed salmon through their feed. They are also found in wild salmon, but at lower levels. Farmed salmon usually contain five to eight times more PCBs than wild salmon.

The most inexpensive farmed salmon are raised in nets in close proximity to each other. Because of this, their feed meal usually contains antibiotics to prevent disease and hormones to accelerate growth.

The naturally raised farmed salmon are raised in pens, with more room to swim in a natural ocean environment, and they are usually antibiotic- and hormone-free (but not PCB-free).

Wild salmon are caught off the coast of Alaska and British Columbia. The season for fresh wild salmon begins in May and runs into the summer, although they are available frozen year round. Their color, size and flavor vary according to whether you buy Chinook (or king) salmon, the smaller sockeye, or the small coho (or silver) salmon. The prized king has a firm texture, a deep color (except for the white variety) and a rich salmon flavor. It is also the most expensive.

Here are some recipes for enjoying this healthy fish in the winter:

Braised wild ivory salmon with Peconic Bay scallops and mussels
Purchase 1 1/2 pounds of salmon fillets with the skin on; 1/2 pound of Peconic Bay scallops; and 1 pound of mussels.

Cut the salmon fillets into 4 portions and season with kosher salt and ground pepper.

Crush 1/8 teaspoon saffron threads and add to 1 cup hot tap water.

Heat a sauté pan (or cast-iron skillet) very hot and spray with no-stick. Spray the salmon skin with no-stick and add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the hot pan. Sear the salmon skin side down in the hot pan, loosening it with a thin spatula to prevent sticking. Cook about 3 minutes and remove. The skin should be dark and crisp, but not burned.

Lower the heat and add 1 tablespoon butter to the pan. Stir in 1 cup chopped fennel bulb and 1/2 cup minced shallots. Cook at low heat for 3 minutes and add 1 cup white wine. Increase the heat and let the wine come to a boil. Add the saffron water and continue boiling.

Rinse the mussels and add them to the broth. Cover the pan and cook until the mussels begin to open, removing them with tongs as they open fully. Let the liquid continue to reduce by about half.

Place the salmon in the pan, skin side up. The liquid should not cover the skin. Cover the fish tightly with a piece of parchment paper and a lid. At low heat, poach the fish until just cooked, about 5 minutes. (You should cut into the fish with a knife and remove it from the pan when it is still not quite cooked in the center.) Remove the fish and keep warm.

Add the scallops to the broth, bring to a boil and remove.

Reduce the broth a little more, then swirl in pieces of cold butter (about 4 ounces). Add to the sauce 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon, 2 tablespoons minced chives and 1/4 cup chopped parsley.

Arrange the salmon in a shallow bowl or plate with the scallops and mussels along the side. Pour the sauce over the salmon and serve.

Serves 4 people.

Note: I served this dish with grilled polenta and creamed kale.

Confit-style wild king salmon with Mediterranean vegetables
For the confit-style marinade, crush 1 tablespoon coriander seeds and combine with 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper, 1 tablespoon fresh thyme and 1 teaspoon minced garlic. Stir in 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil and 12 coarsely chopped basil leaves.

Place 4 skin-on salmon fillets in a shallow casserole and pour the oil mixture over them. Refrigerate this mixture for 2-3 hours, turning once or twice during that time.

Prepare the Mediterranean vegetables by placing in a small bowl 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 1/2 cup chopped basil and the zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon.

Cut pitted Kalamata olives in half to make 1/2 cup and combine with 1/4 cup capers. Dice 3 plum tomatoes and place in another bowl.

Trim the leaves from 1 head of Swiss chard, rinse and set aside.

Dice the bulb of 1 head of fennel and place in a bowl with 1 package of frozen artichoke hearts.

Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Blanch the Swiss chard, fennel and artichoke hearts for about 3 minutes in the boiling water and drain. Rinse under cold water and squeeze the water out of the Swiss chard leaves.

At service time, line a sheet pan with foil and spray with no-stick. Remove the salmon from the oil and place on the sheet pan, skin side up.

Heat a large sauté pan and add about 1/4 cup of the oil used to marinate the salmon. When hot, add all of the Mediterranean vegetables and cook at low heat for about 15 minutes. Add kosher salt and pepper to taste.

Make a glaze for the salmon by placing in a small saucepan 1/4 cup maple syrup, 2 tablespoons butter, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 2 teaspoons wine vinegar and 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce. Let this cook, stirring, until it begins to thicken, about 5 minutes.

Place the salmon under a hot broiler and cook for 3 minutes. Remove and peel the skin off the fish with a dinner fork. Brush the salmon with the glaze and continue broiling for another 5 minutes. Check for doneness by cutting into the center of a fillet. It should be just cooked, remaining red in the center.

Serve the salmon on top of the Mediterranean vegetables. If desired, serve with a classic risotto.

Serves 4.
Note: For a true salmon confit, cook the salmon submerged in the oil mixture at very low heat on the stove for about 20 minutes.

John Ross