My working hypothesis is that the majority of Pacific NW transplants came out to visit in the summer, were captivated by the Cascades on a sunny day, snarfled some fresh salmon and then promptly started scouring the want ads. And truthfully, for 2 1/2 months out of the year it’s just that idyllic out here. Being able to walk to the grocery store and pick up gorgeous wild caught Pacific salmon for tonight’s dinner is one of the many perks of living in Portlandia. Plans of using the pounds of cherry tomatoes bursting from my garden in a white bean ragù with fresh rigatoni were promptly abandoned when these succulent Chinook fillets started beckoning to me, luckily they haven’t started talking to me yet….
Easy Peasy Hints:
1) How to pick a good piece of fish? A deep orangey-red color is indicative of a good piece of salmon, right? Not always. Different species have different natural flesh colors: Chinook or king salmon can be white or red, coho is a light orangey-pink, and sockeye is a deep red. The best test is texture, the flesh should be firm, not mushy to the touch with no ragged gaps in the flesh and there shouldn’t be any slimy texture of strong smell all of which would indicate an older fillet on the verge of going bad. I like to get my fish from the seafood case and most fishmongers will be happy to let you get up close and personal with your future meal.
2) Ideally your fillet should have a fairly uniform thickness otherwise the thinner parts will be overcooked and the thicker areas underdone. Next time you order fish at a restaurant you might notice how square and uniform in thickness your fillet is because they usually cut off the really thin belly edge and use it elsewhere, like in chowder or fish stock. I like to trim off the thin belly flap and cook it separately.
3) Not a fan of that crispy skin (what?!), don’t remove it until after you’ve cooked your fillet. While I like crispy fish flesh like the next person, so does my spoiled pooch so I crisp it up and set it aside for him cuz sure, you never know when he might have to save me from a mountain lion or falling down a well. Just remember to cook it well done as there is a parasite in some salmon that is harmless to humans but can kill dogs. Anyhoo, when the salmon is done, flip over it in the pan so that the skin side is up and gently slide your spatula between the skin edge and the flesh. The skin will very easily slide off as you slide the spatula across the space between the skin and flesh. This is much easier and faster than trying to skin it with a flexible knife and cooking with the skin on helps keep the moisture inside.
4) If you cook your fish at too high a heat not only do you run the risk of overdone flesh on the outside and underdone on the inside but also the proteins will bleed out of the flesh, looking like thick white clumps, due to the muscle fibers contracting violently from the heat.
5) When is my fish cooked? Raw fish is translucent and turns opaque when fully cooked with the usual rule of thumb being about 10 minutes total for a 1-inch thick fillet. Another good test of doneness is to insert a sharp knife into the flesh, it should go through easily with no resistance when fully cooked. Some people like their salmon (and tuna) opaque outside and a little translucent in the center so the knife test is best for this where in this case you’ll want to feel a little resistance halfway into the fillet. I would not wait till the flesh flakes easily. Not only does it mangle that lovely fillet you’ve been lovingly preparing but it also means that your meal will be overcooked by the residual heat as it continues to cook off the stove.
2 5-oz salmon fillets, pin bones removed
Spices for salmon: salt, crushed red pepper, dried thyme and garlic powder
1 tbsp + 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1/4 small sweet onion, like Walla Walla, finely diced
2 c frozen sweet corn kernels (if you have the time by all means use fresh corn too, about 2 ears)
1 c cherry tomatoes or 2 vine-on tomatoes that have been diced
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
Season each fillet with a pinch each of salt, red pepper, and garlic powder and a tiny pinch of thyme (dried thyme goes a long way and too much will give a bitter, medicinal taste).
Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Place fillets flesh side down and cook until the flesh on the sides turns opaque about half-way up toward the skin ~ 3-5 minutes depending on how thick your fillet is. Using a spatula or slotted fish turner flip the fillet so that the skin side is down. Cook for another 3-5 minutes until the sides are completely opaque or until a sharp knife goes through easily without resistance.
While the fish is cooking heat 2 tsp olive oil and 2 tbsp butter in a medium-sized pot over medium heat till foam subsides ~ 1 minute. Sauté onions till soft and translucent ~ 2 minutes. Add corn and sauté for 4 minutes till tender. Mix in cherry tomatoes, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ground pepper and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Serves 2.