For at least the next month, we will be swimming in salmon. Not just any salmon, mind you, but the real stuff: wild salmon, line-caught by boats ranging from San Francisco north to Alaska. Old-fashioned fish.
These are special salmon. About 120 million pounds of salmon are harvested from North American fish farms every year, but the amount of wild fish caught is more like 10 million pounds.
The difference in flavor is subtle, which is certainly not to say it's undetectable. To my palate, the wild fish have a denser flesh. They tend to be oilier. The fish taste is harder, less bland, a little more rambunctious. Wild.
You'll also notice at the checkout stand. Copper River salmon runs $2 to $3 a pound more than farm-raised. Kings from the area are $4 to $5 beyond that. If you're going to pay that kind of premium, you want to make sure that your cooking method will show off the best of these qualities. Again, subtlety is the key. Mesquite-grilling one of these wild babies and serving it with papaya-habanero salsa makes about as much sense as chopping a low-rider out of a Ferrari.
I think the best way to cook this fish is a trick I learned from Paula Wolfert many years ago, when she was still in her South-West France phase. She credits Michel Bras from the three-star restaurant Laguiole. The technique is called oven-steaming. It is extremely simple and it produces a salmon filet that is incredibly moist and rich.
You simply bake the salmon on a cookie sheet in a slow oven over a roasting pan filled with boiling water. Cook it until you see beads of fat form on the surface of the fish and you can flake the meat with the tip of a knife. (This is an exception to the rule that fish that flakes is overcooked; because of the steaming and the low temperature, the fish is very forgiving.) It will be done in about 15 minutes.
I can't explain why it happens, but the outcome differs in both color and the texture from salmon cooked any other way. In fact, it can be slightly disconcerting; the bright orange color and moist texture might make you think it's raw.
This is also a great dish for a crowd, since the amount of fish you can cook is limited only by the size of your baking sheet (for the standard size pan, that'll be about 8 pounds--enough to serve 25 easily).
In fact, it was while cooking for a large benefit dinner that I remembered this method. I had planned to poach a whole side of salmon, then paint it lightly with tarragon mayonnaise and cover it with thinly sliced cucumber scales. But when I got the fish home, I found I didn't have a pan big enough to hold the danged thing. There were some tense minutes before I recalled Wolfert's trick. It worked perfectly.
As easy as this dish is, there are a couple of things that will make it even better. It's all basic housekeeping. Or, in this case, fish-keeping.
Because this is a very moist form of cooking, you'll want to remove the skin before starting. Wet salmon skin is no treat to eat. (If you love salmon skin as much as I do, after removing it you can cut it in thin strips to be crisped under the broiler and used as a garnish . . . or cook's snacks.)
Most fish counters will skin the salmon for you, but if they don't, it's not hard, provided that you have a long, sharp knife. Cut through the meat at one end of the salmon down to the skin. Grasp the skin tightly (a kitchen towel will give you better purchase) and turn the knife flat across the cutting board. Pull the skin toward you, sawing carefully with the knife. Always keep the cutting edge of the knife angled slightly down toward the board. The skin will slip right off.
Once that is done, you'll want to remove the pin bones. These are the size of thick hairs, and they run down the middle of the salmon, just above the center line. You can see them--they look like white dots. More to the point, you can feel them with your fingertips. When you find one, pull it with a pair of needlenose pliers. This is a little painstaking--there's a pin bone at each place the flesh flakes--but it makes a nice touch.
Finally, square up the salmon, trimming the bottom and top where the filet thins down to almost nothing. This not only makes for a better-looking piece of fish, it ensures that the fish will cook more uniformly. The scraps are great for making salad. (See "Quick Fix," H6.)
That may seem like a lot of trouble, but these wild fish won't be here forever.
Active Work Time: 5 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes
I like to serve the salmon whole--there's something about spooning it off the platter that emphasizes just how moist and rich it is. Feel free to experiment with accompaniments. I particularly like the cucumber salad because of the way its cool green color and crisp texture complement the salmon.
1 (3-pound) filet salmon
Salt and pepper