I work at a fish market. This much is clear. What makes my fish market different from many others is that people at my fish market buy the whole fish.

What do I do with a whole fish? I don’t know how to cook it!

Don’t worry. We’ve got that covered. 45 minutes to an hour in the oven. Liberally salt and pepper it, make bread slashes, and a lot of oil on top. It’s great, and now you’re a great cook.

Okay, but a whole fish is too much food.

No it’s not. An average sockeye salmon of 4 pounds feeds a family of four comfortably for two meals.

I’m not going to eat that much fish in two days!

Nobody said you had to. Fortunately, since we are not a grocery store, we get our stuff directly from the source. Guys are out at auction on the shores of Neah Bay picking out king salmon every morning. We’ve got flights coming in overnight from Alaska, where the fish just lands in our laps 18 hours out of the water, and not sitting in some warehouse somewhere. With a fresh fish, you can actually keep it fresh without freezing it for up to a week after it has been taken out of the water. A fish you buy Monday will potentially still be fresh on Saturday, equally if not moreso than a storebought equivalent.

How do I know? Easy. Stocks of Norwegian Farm Raised Salmon came from their farms in Norway with preservatives and loads of extra oils to keep the fish from drying out. After processing, it is packed and chilled for a day or so, and then shipped to the nearest airport by truck. It then goes through customs, maybe gets on a plane that day, and is then shipped out to any number of airports around the world. It is either picked up at the airport and taken to a local fish warehouse, where it is shelved in cold storage for a number of days until it is purchased by a grocery store. After this, it is shipped out the next day, where it will potentially sit for two to three days before putting it on display or selling it. Then, you take it home, cook it, and worry about your health if it is on the verge of turning. If you don’t eat it within a day, and it turns south, you call up your fish shop, and tell them it’s bad. It’s not just bad, it’s old. But how old? By the time a piece of farm raised salmon reaches your plate, it can be out of the water and still exhibiting signs of “freshness” (i.e. not going rancid) for 14 to 21 days. Anyone who tells you that the day-glo orange farm raised salmon was in the water this morning is lying to you.

Okay, Gross. You’ve sold me on your fresh fish. I can realistically eat it twice in a week.

Yes you can. As demonstrated by our little farm raised salmon experiment, fish keeps for a long time. In addition, here are some ways that you can choose to eat it.

1. Sashimi/Poke/Tartare/Carpaccio/Ceviche

It's Me, Carpaccio!

Only the freshest tasting fish is used for these. At least I hope it is. The industry standard in Japan has been to superfreeze their seafood for sushi, dropping the temperature down to -76ºF to completely arrest the decomposition of fresh seafood, enabling the full stoppage of bacterial growth at the fishes’ eutectic point, or the point where the product goes into full thermal arrest.

If you can get superfrozen stuff in the store, fantastic. That is one way to ensure the proper storage and handling of your fish.

The second is by freezing the freshest fish yourself at home. With the monger of choice, pick out the freshest fish possible (Copper River Sockeyes that were just in the water yesterday? Excellent), take it home, and throw it in the freezer for a few hours. For the novice fish cutter, this is an easy way to thinly slice your fish without necessarily having the greatest knives or knife skills.

Poke for Me, and Poke for You.

Third, in addition to the freezing, there’s always little additions to the fish that you can add and still eat the fish at a point where you can still consider it somewhat raw.

Think about Tartare. Carpaccio. Ceviche. All of these, you eat raw. You’ve got a raw egg on top of the tartare, but you also have the addition of mustard. Mustard is comprised of two primary components: Mustard Seed and Vinegar. The vinegar acts as a killer of all things that want to give you a stomachache by promoting the environment high in acidity where bacteria fears to tread.

Carpaccio and Ceviche, same thing. Many times with carpaccio, you can brush it with a quick vinaigrette, which has one, two, or many times three of these great safety features: vinegar, mustard, and lemon juice.  Ceviche is probably the easiest raw seafood product to understand, as it’s only citrus that “cooks” the fish by acidulation. It’s something you can see, and a texture difference you can feel when you eat it, and yet it’s safe to eat. Remarkable.

2. Salmon Salad

So you’ve cooked, stuffed your face because the salmon was so good that you just couldn’t eat another bite. Wait. There’s still more salmon left over? You can make sandwiches with it tomorrow. Take a little piece of salmon, some bread, and cheese, lettuce, tomato, etc. Instant meal.

Either that, or take some mayonnaise, green onions, chopped parsley, salt and pepper, and whip it with flaked salmon (it doesn’t have to look pretty. It’s just like making tuna sandwiches) into a spread. Put it on crackers. Put it on tea sandwiches and have a fancy ladies’ lunch! It’s all good!

3. Cured Salmon

Hey, you. How many times do you go to the store and see those tiny packages of lox, like the little 4 oz. ones, for $10? I’ll tell you. ALL THE TIME. Until this point, did you ever think that for the price of a fresh salmon fillet at approximately $15/lb or less, you could make your own at home in only 24 to 48 hours? That’s roughly half the price! I do this all the time, and it’s the easiest thing in the world. You have salt and sugar at your house, right? Yeah, so do I. Take a ratio of salt to sugar at 4:1, add some fresh cracked pepper, some fresh dill, and put it on top of that extra piece of salmon that you have left over from your dinner that you just couldn’t cook.

Take a lemon, slice it in half. What you should have is a piece of salmon with a thin salt mixture on top, like a crust. Now, squeeze the lemon over top of the mixture until it is moistened, and then put it between two plates. Press down on it and drain a little bit of the liquid out. Anything that’s not touching the fish is not going to flavor it. It’s just going to make a mess.

When you’re done, put it in the fridge. To avoid spillage of any excess liquid from the salmon as it dessicates (that’s what it’s doing; the salt is leeching out all of the moisture as a method of preservation. Drier foods have a lower spoilage rate and longer shelf life than moist ones), wrap the two smushed plates in Saran wrap. On the shelf, put some kind of heavy weight on it. Find a bottle of ketchup, box of salt, or a fireplace brick, and rest it on top of the plate, letting it rest overnight in the fridge.

The next morning, flip it, being careful to drain any excess liquid that may have accumulated. In addition to the salting, the most old school method of preservation, the lemon juice adds the extra punch of killing the surface and subsurface bacteria via acidulation (Remember that?). Let it rest another day and night in the fridge.

When you wake up the next morning, rush to the fridge and open your present. Scrape off all the excess salt, giving it a light rinse underneath the faucet if you wish, and pat it dry. Then, with your knife, slice at a severe angle very delicately towards the thinnest part. You should have very nice strips of lox style cured salmon for more sandwiches and things! Serve them with cucumbers!

Okay, but that still doesn’t address the fact that this fish is whole, and I can’t cut it up. I’d butcher it.

Well, that’s a very good point, but fortunately for you, I’m a professional. I’ll gladly fillet or steak your fish to your specifications for no extra charge. There’s even a sign there that says it. Fortunately for you, this works out to your financial advantage, as purchasing a whole fish at 9.99/lb and having us fillet it for you is a much better deal than purchasing one pound at 14.99/lb. Currently, I average a yield of about 76% on a whole salmon, and if you purchase a whole one, that saves you at least five dollars. It’s like getting another meal for one for free! You can sample out these cool ways of preparing fish with that extra piece. It’s a sweet deal!

Great. Sign me up. I’ll take your finest fish.

Done and Done.

***

All that to get to selling one fish. Here’s a little story about the fish industry that I love to tell. Back in the day, when the Halibut fisheries were becoming more and more popular for Alaskan tourists, fishermen would rent out their boats and charter tours with Cruise ship patrons to go out and catch the big ones, often times offering to fillet the fish for free, pack it up in a box, and send it home with them.  This only helped to fuel the high demand for halibut that we see today in our little shop and across the country. They’d vacuum seal the fillets, freeze them, and ship them out to customers who were willing to pay out the *Ahem* nose for this sort of thing.

What the customers didn’t know was that as they thought they were getting the best of the best, the finest of the finest, the fishermen saved the bones and the head. Nobody knew what to do with it in the lower 48, unless you were of a first or second generation family from an Asian or a Mediterranean country, where you’d save the collars and bones for a soup.

It was the heads that made such an impact. These fishermen were saving the heads and scooping out the flavorful, delicate cheeks, the best part of the fish, for their dinner. The cost of their trip was paid for by the customers willing to pay for gas, use of the boat, and their guiding and filleting expertise. With maybe five or ten decent halibut on board, they could take the cheek meat and eat comfortably with their families for a week for free. Customers had no idea what they were missing.

Now look at them. In restaurants, what do you see as a specialty item on the menu? Cheeks. Veal Cheeks, Beef Cheeks, Pork Cheeks, Halibut Cheeks. Have you ever sat down at Thanksgiving dinner to someone carving a turkey and watched them fully dismantle a bird? If they do a good job, watch carefully. For the expert, there is always one person who will sneak into the kitchen and flip that carcass breastbone down onto the table, and scoop out the “oysters”, those two little pieces of meat along the back. They are moist, flavorful, and nearly every turkey that is eaten in the United States each year is served without regard for these tasty morsels of meat. More often than not, these go in the trash, unless you’re in the know.

***

Why have I told you this story? What does it have to do with our current blog post? Here’s the thing that most people coming through the market don’t understand: Even when I cut their fish, fillet it for them, and send them home with a 76% yield, there’s still a spoonful or two of meat on the carcass of a salmon. Simply by taking a spoon and running it along the backbone, you get long, boneless, beautifully fresh and tender strips of salmon ready for burgers.

How interesting, then, that this week was the first week of Copper River Salmon season.

A little background: Copper River Salmon Season is the first fresh run of the year in Southeast Alaska. Called the Copper River for its rich mineral deposits along the banks, it is a 300 mile long river which is one of the steepest in the world, dropping 3600 feet in altitude (an average of 12 feet per mile) over its course. During the spring, Salmon return to the Copper River to spawn, swimming the journey to lay their eggs at the top of the river, weaving through the Chugach National Forest. The salmon that hatch swim down the river, out to sea, and feast for four years on pristine vegetation in the icy cold waters of the North Pacific. Every year, Mid-Spring, they return to their place of birth, swimming for over 1000 miles, exercising their muscle and becoming lean, mean, tasty machines. For Twelve Hours on the morning of Thursday, May 13th, Twelve more on Monday, May 19th, and Twelve more today, the mouth of the Copper River, a 5 mile wide delta just outside of Cordova, Alaska, is netted, and these fish are the first, freshest, and most highly prized salmon that we’ll see in stores all year. Twelve hours at a time, those waters supply the salmon that will feed a hungry mass of customers on the West Coast who have been feverishly awaiting a fresh Alaskan Salmon since November.

courtesy ronniebrugge.com

Chugach Yerself a Happy Little Tree

And boy does the price reflect it.

Copper River King Salmon prices started at $39.99/lb for the whole fish this year. Sockeyes came in at $29.99/lb on the first opening. In my opinion, this reflects both quality and demand. At the mouth of the Copper River, there are an average of 5 sockeye for every king salmon. As the season progresses and the boats are allowed to go further upstream, this ratio drops to about 3:1. Still, what prices indeed!

There are those people who’ve gotta have them. You can see it. They’ve been calling for weeks, asking about it. “When’s Copper River start?”

“When’s the Copper River Season?”

“Got the Copper River yet?”

And we say “Not for another month,” or “Not for another week.”

This week, I told people all about it. I told them exactly what I’ve told you. And they bought the fish. I’d make some joke about how they bought it, hook, line, and sinker, but it’s all true. It’s some of the best tasting salmon you’ll find, and as the fish are flown overnight (They are fishing right now. 18 hours from now, those fish will be netted, harvested, gutted, boxed, and shipped overnight to my store. 24 hours from now, they will be in someone’s possession for dinner), you can’t possibly find anything fresher.

And now that people are buying it, what of the bones? At the first sign of Copper River arrivals, all the employees who had been in the business showed up prepared.

What's that you've got there, Amelie?

So we get to scraping the bones. After a busy Sunday, it sounded like three guys playing muted washboards. Now we know why that thing that they guy plays in Santana looks like a fish. If you scrape the bones, it makes exactly the same sound.

And it’s all free. It’s all, amazingly, what people would, and do, normally throw out. Why would they do such a thing. Out of each salmon, with the right mixture, you have enough salmon trim for at least one, if not two salmon burgers.

Sunday was rocking. I have six pounds of salmon meat. I am going to make the finest effing salmon burgers this great nation has ever seen.

Here’s what you need:

Raw salmon meat, about a pound or two.

1 red onion, finely chopped

3 cloves of garlic, minced

green onions, finely chopped

peppers, red and yellow, finely chopped

parsley, finely chopped

1 jalapeno, minced

Salt

Pepper

Oil

Japanese Breadcrumbs

Fresh Dill, finely chopped

Take your salmon. Make sure it’s pretty mushy-like, enough that you can squeeze it through your fingers if you try. If not, run a knife through it a couple of times to make it so.

Put it in a bowl, and add all the other ingredients, save the Breadcrumbs and the Oil.

Mix them up. The salt and pepper can be seasoned liberally into the meat mix.

Sprinkle enough breadcrumbs over top of the mixture so that you can only see flecks of orange through the top. Mix it in, incorporating by hand. (Get your hands dirty. I do it all day, and it enables me to not take myself so seriously. I mean, I smell like fish all day. How serious can I get?)

Does it need more breadcrumbs? Is it too wet? Let it set in the fridge for half an hour. Then try to make patties or large meatballs with it. about the size of a tennis ball should be good for one meal. It’s about five or six ounces.

Is it not sticking together? Add a little bit of oil and let it sit again for 30 minutes. Try it again.

Here’s a note: I normally don’t care about chopping things so precisely, as I want it to taste good and don’t particularly care if it looks good. With that being said, if you chop everything into really small pieces, it will be easier for you to patty things up. If not, they’ll fall apart on the grill and you might look foolish. As I said, I have six pounds of this stuff, and although I’ve probably made over 10,000 pounds of salmon burgers over the years, I still run the risk myself of messing up every time. With six pounds, I run the risk of looking foolish in front of however many people six pounds of salmon meat may feed. (It’s about thirty) Take it from me- Chop them up fine, and that’s one less hassle you’ll have to deal with later.

SOAPBOX OF THE DAY:

Contrary to what many people may believe, Alaska’s greatest contribution to the United States is its natural resources, and at the top of the list is salmon. So often, we tend to forget. With the recent spill of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, it is easy for us to see the immediate destruction on the way of life of so many people who are affected by a terrible disaster. Often times, it is Nature at its cruelest, with the ravages of Hurricanes uprooting oyster beds and effectively decimating entire populations of indigenous species of plants and animals. The government is subsidizing many fishing operations in that area who have been affected, and this week I’ve talked to some of them. More than the immediate effects, the lasting damage done to hardworking people whose lives depend on the bounty of the sea is irreparable.

Twenty one years ago, there was an oil spill that we all remember- The Exxon Valdez. This year marks the first year that populations of Alaskan Spot Prawns are large enough and clean enough to harvest out of those waters. It is a test fishery, but slowly, the numbers are coming back, and they have been approved to fish in a limited run.

Bristol Bay is Alaska’s largest run of Sockeye Salmon. 99% of all fish caught in Bristol Bay are sockeye, and if you’ve ever eaten it, you know just how delicious it can be. If it was Alaskan, chances are pretty good that your fish came from Bristol Bay or someplace pretty close. It is Alaska’s most important source of income generating natural real estate, but it is being threatened.

Progress, in Alaska, means generating new sources of revenue. In addition to Tourism, Ice, and Fish, the other big industries up there are gold and oil . The progress that Big Oil has made in Alaska may be far more largescale than we are equipped to deal with, but for the mining of other natural resources surrounding Bristol Bay, it is equally, if not more, perilous.

From the Bristol Bay Alliance website:

Despite its abysmal environmental record and the fact that it is the single largest source of toxic releases in the U.S., the hardrock mining industry is subject to some of the weakest, most outdated regulations of any major industry in North America. In a 2004 report Alaska Community Action on Toxics declared the mining industry “Alaska’s largest toxic threat.”

Those who live, work, and attempt to prosper if not simply survive, want us to know that we do have a choice, and they are hoping to gain more of a voice in the freedom to continue to promote all of the renewable resources their state has to offer.

The Bristol Bay Alliance is a group of fishermen, business owners and local citizens working to help ensure that the people who live, work, and play in the Bristol Bay region have the most influential voice of any group regarding the future of our land and waters. (They) will educate people on the potential dangers and consequences of open pit mining in an area that depends heavily on clean water, healthy spawning grounds, and pristine habitat.

As with fishermen and women in the Gulf, their livelihoods are at stake due to the hubris of the mining industry, but this time it’s both Oil and Gold. What we can do to ensure the success of the fishing industry up there, and give hope and promise to the stocks of salmon that are our most precious resource coming out of Alaska?

Vote with your mouth. Eat Wild Alaskan Sockeye. Any place you see it. If there’s a restaurant that is serving it, what they can do, and what you can tell them about is the Alliance. It is a partnership with restaurants that provide signage, facts, and information to the public about their plight, and encourages them to show their support with their forks. There will be a time, maybe not this year, when we exhaust our open pit mines full of gold. Fish is a sustainable and renewable resource that circulates year after year. We owe it to protect the population for generations to come. Help save the species, save the environment, and save the jobs of those whose lives depend on commercial and subsistence fishing out of Alaska.

Please visit the Bristol Bay Alliance website, read it over, and donate your time and energy to helping out a cause that is timely and worthy of saving. Yes, they need money, but by showing your support with your palate, it proves that the value of Sustainable Wild Alaskan Salmon is far greater year after year than a fully exhaustable and finite supply of mineral deposits.

Bristol Bay Alliance: http://www.bristolbayalliance.com/index.htm

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