Salmon is the most widely consumed fish in America and most of the salmon we eat is farmed in or near the Atlantic Ocean. But when spring arrives, so does the fresh-caught wild salmon of Alaska. It has that deep red color and rich flavor that sets it apart from the farmed varieties. It is very expensive due to limited supply, but it is also a sustainable wild fish that is healthy and delicious.
Arctic char, a cold-water cousin to the salmon, is a good choice this time of year when buying farmed fish. Most of the arctic char we eat is farmed in Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia and other northern environments. It has a good reputation among environmentalists, is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and is relatively free of contaminants. It is smaller than salmon and tastes like a cross between salmon and trout. It has light-pink flesh.
The salmon family of fish is extremely versatile when it comes to cooking. Any cooking method works well when properly executed. Roasting, broiling, grilling, pan searing, poaching, curing and smoking are methods that will produce great variety within the same species. Here are some suggestions:
Pan Seared Wild Salmon
with Horseradish Crust
Cut 1 1/2 pounds of center-cut wild salmon into 4 thick fillets, leaving the skin on. Score the skin with a sharp knife and refrigerate.
Cut 8 slices from a French baguette and trim off the crust. Dice the baguette and place it into a food processor. Process until coarse crumbs are formed and add 1 minced shallot, 2 tablespoons chopped dill, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 cup freshly grated horseradish, 1 teaspoon smoked paprika and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Process briefly until combined and remove.
At service time, spray a sauté pan with no-stick and heat it till very hot. Brush the salmon with olive oil and place it in the pan skin side down. After 3 minutes, turn the fillets and remove the skin with a fork. Take the pan off the heat and mound the horseradish crust on top of each fillet. Place the pan in a hot oven on the broiler setting, but not too close to the heat source. Let it cook another 5 minutes, or until the coating is golden brown. Remove and serve over cooked greens.
Fresh Salmon Cakes
Remove the skin from a 1-pound piece of farmed salmon. Cut the salmon into 1-inch pieces and pulse them briefly in the food processor. (Do not over-process.) Add to the processor 1/4 cup panko crumbs, 2 minced scallions, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, 2 tablespoons chopped dill, the zest and juice of 1 lemon, 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard and 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. Pulse to just combine and remove.
Form this mixture into equal-size balls and flatten them into a shallow pan of panko crumbs. At service time, add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a sauté pan and cook the salmon cakes at medium heat until golden on each side, about 5 minutes total. Serve with horseradish dill sauce.
Makes 8-12 cakes.
House-Cured Arctic Char Gravlax
Purchase 2 arctic char fillets, each weighing a little under a pound.
In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup kosher salt, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 2 tablespoons minced shallots and the zest and juice of a lemon.
Lay a piece of plastic film over a cutting board and place one fillet on it, skin side down. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons vodka over the fish and cover it with the salt/sugar mixture. Put a small bunch of fresh dill on top before putting the other fillet on top of the dill, skin side up. Wrap the two fillets securely with the plastic film and place them in a shallow casserole.
Put a couple of cans of tomatoes (or anything) on top of them as a weight. Put the weighted casserole in the refrigerator for a total of about 24 hours, turning the fish once and pouring off any accumulated liquid.
To serve, unwrap the fish and scrape off all the seasonings. Rinse quickly under cold water and dry with a paper towel. Put the fish skin side down on the cutting board and cut very thin slices on the bias. Serve with horseradish sauce and toasted crostini. Also good with hard-boiled eggs, capers and little cornichon pickles.
Serves 4-6 appetizer portions.
Horseradish Dill Sauce
Cut a 3-inch piece from a root of fresh horseradish. Peel away the skin and grate the root on the small holes of a box grater. It should make about 1/2 cup.
Combine grated horseradish with 1/4 cup mayonnaise and 1/4 cup sour cream. Stir in 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, a few drops of Tabasco, 1 tablespoon lemon juice and a pinch of salt and pepper.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected]