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Pink and Chum Are King in Alaska

March 26, 1997|ANNE WILLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Willan is the author of "In and Out of the Kitchen in 15 Minutes or Less" (Rizzoli, 1995)

ANCHORAGE — In Alaska, salmon is a way of life. Everywhere I look in downtown Anchorage, I see the sleek silver fish: salmon on T-shirts, salmon-shaped earrings, salmon depicted on plates, in paintings, rods to catch salmon and tantalizing feather flies to lure them to the line.

What will future salmon trends be? I am here to judge the "Symphony of Salmon" contest with 37 salmon products, each representing a new "value-added" idea to diversify sales. My taste buds wilt at the thought.

Most of my fellow judges are burly industry veterans of distribution and marketing. Their talk is all of shelf life, package appeal and head-to-head competition. I pipe up and say that my expertise is in taste, and they look rather taken aback.

It appears that there is a glut of salmon, partly because of a huge increase in the numbers of wild fish. The situation has reversed dramatically since the late '8Os, when stocks were so low that crisis loomed.

Wild Alaska salmon competes with farmed Atlantic salmon from Norway, Chile and Canada. Atlantic salmon is a separate species, delicate and fragrant, excellent for smoking and a favorite of chefs. Up here, to mention it is the equivalent of saying a bad word.

Before coming to Alaska, I was aware of the five Pacific salmon species, but now the dramatic differences between them are clearer. The fresh fillets and steaks offered in the Lower 48 retail markets come from either king or silver salmon, which together make up just a smal percentage of the total catch. The prized king salmon makes up only 1% by weight of the commercial catch, though in value the figure is much higher. King offers the best sport and the best eating.

Silver or Coho is slightly paler but equally tasty and makes up 5% of the catch.

We rarely see rich, meaty sockeye or red salmon, even though it makes up about 35% of the total harvest, because almost all of it goes to Japan, where people are willing to pay more for the best quality.

This leaves us with pink and chum salmon, which account for almost 60% of the total catch. The pink is small and mild, a humble cousin of the splendid king. Even at the end of a line, it offers little resistance to the sport fisher. Chum has gotten a bad reputation because its native name, keta, means dog.

So it is that pink and chum salmon are the ones that purveyors are eager to market, and it is basically these two that I am here to taste.

"Don't worry," says Linda Sievers, veteran of previous contests and food editor of the Anchorage Daily News. "You'll start out with the easiest, the retail and gift items; it's the last, food service section, that's tough."

She finds the contest's search for innovation quite a challenge. "Salmon flavor is pretty strong, and it needs powerful treatment, like smoking or pickling, to balance its richness. There's a limit to what you can do with it; not like halibut, which is mild, a blank canvas."

Sievers should know. She is an avid sport fisher. "When the kings are running, we'll catch 60 in a day, and the biggest can weigh 90 pounds--meat fishing we call it. Back at home, it's an assembly line to clean, fillet and vacuum-pack them. We mail some to relatives. Neighbors don't want any; they have too much themselves."

Sievers is right. Rating such retail items as salmon spread, a jumbo sea dog and Cajun smoked king salmon nuggets is indeed amusing. The retail winner proves to be a more than respectable smoked salmon chowder studded with vegetables. Gift ideas, like honey-smoked salmon and a lively salmon jerky, prove equally impressive, though I am sorry my favorite chum salmon caviar, lightly salted with golden eggs that pop on the tongue, does not earn a mention from the judging panel.

But I am hard hit when it comes to food service. The lineup of salmon burgers, salmon franks and anonymous salmon crumbles, salmon strips and salmon shreds seems unending; it's nourishment reduced to the lowest common denominator. Here my fellow judges thrive, discussing annual volume and cost per serving with gusto.

Packaging is all part of the game, and I have to admit that a handsome silvered plastic pouch catches my eye (cumbersome cans will soon be a thing of the past in our supermarkets). The contents of this particular pouch "processed for a mild taste comparable to tuna" are less than enticing. It wins, of course. How could it fail with a projected price of 28 cents per portion?

I leave Alaska still sticking to my preference for fresh wild fish cooked in the simplest ways, as in the following recipe, but I'll be looking out for alternatives. There's more than one way to skin a salmon.

CRISP-SKINNED SALMON FILLET, COULIS OF TOMATO AND BASIL

COULIS

1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced

Salt, pepper

1 bunch basil

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Juice of 1 lemon or more to taste

SALMON

1 to 2 salmon fillets with skin (about 1 1/2 pounds)

Salt, pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

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