Wild, rugged, deep: Sounds like my ideal online date’s profile, but this being a culinary column, Alaska’s Copper River will suffice. That’s the glacier-fed venue for some of the world’s best salmon, which, come mid-May, take on its 300 miles of churning water to spawn. Fat and oil-rich for the journey, their meat is a coveted treasure, the Arctic equivalent of a South Sea pearl.
In the month-long race upriver, three species vie for position. Sockeye are smallest, around six pounds; coho, about double that; and the aptly named king, a shimmering, 50-pound (or more!) bruiser. All of them are set on heading home, silver missiles with payloads of firm, blazing, omega-3-fat-laden succulence. Caught by the hundreds (sustainably so), they’re dressed, iced, and shipped out overnight.
Chef Michael Kaphan of Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish is one privileged recipient. His business partner owns the wholesaler Down East Seafood, so he’s never wanting for steak-like kings or his preferred sockeye (“It’s more supple, with a finer flake than the king,” he says).
Kaphan considers the Copper River returnees, grilled and paired with tender new produce, a seasonal totem. “They’re a great harbinger of spring,” he says. “Farmed salmon isn’t worthy of local asparagus and Pacific Northwest morels. You can’t duplicate what nature creates.”
I’m with you, Chef. So take note: Grill my salmon nice and rare with a little char, and, so long as they’re swimming upriver, I’ll come running up-county.
Grilled Copper River Salmon with Asparagus and Morels
Courtesy of Michael Kaphan, Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish
1½ Tbsp unsalted butter, divided
1 shallot, small dice
½ lb thin asparagus, sliced
diagonally in 1-inch pieces
5 medium morels, cleaned and
3 sprigs thyme
¼ cup chicken stock, plus more if
fresh lemon juice
2 6-oz Copper River salmon
fillets (king, sockeye, or coho)
extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black
For vegetables: In medium sauté pan over medium flame, add first five ingredients. Cook, swirling pan for even coating. When vegetables are softened but not golden, add chicken stock, bring to boil, add remaining butter and toss to coat. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, remove onto plate and keep warm.
For salmon: Season salmon with salt and pepper, brush with olive oil. On medium-hot grill, add salmon, skin side down, and cook about 1½ minutes (alternatively, slow-roast in 250°F oven 18 to 20 minutes). Turn 90 degrees (on same side) and cook another 1½ minutes. Flip fish over and repeat, turning 90 degrees after 1½ minutes. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper.
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