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Last summer we followed salmon fishing season in Alaska with Nelly and Michael Hand of Drifters Fish. Nelly wrote weekly dispatches until the season finished, and they put their boat in dock and shipped out the last of their fresh salmon. A couple of weeks ago Nelly got in touch to say she’d be visiting New York City. We’d never met before, and I was excited to spend time with her. I also wanted to introduce Nelly to the other food editors and have them try Drifters Fish salmon, so we arranged to meet at the test kitchen.
Nelly got a tour of our offices and the test kitchen (all 42 burners!) and was able to admire the vast south-southwest facing views (great for sunset Insta snaps). Then we got to admire (and taste) her salmon. As we opened jars, cans, and packets, Nelly talked about her hometown of Cordova, Alaska, a small coastal town that she described as "kind of off the grid. There are no roads out, you have to go by boat or plane." Shira surprised us all by revealing that she has been to Cordova during fishing season. "The boats were all out on a run," she recalled, "but I got to sample lots of local cooking at a potluck where everyone made their favorite salmon dish."
The food editors sampled the vibrant smoked sockeye salmon packed in short mason jars that I’d bought at Mermaid’s Garden in Brooklyn. That was Nelly and Michael’s first foray into having the Copper River fish they catch smoked. This past season they expanded their smoked salmon offerings, so we also tried smoked sockeye caught in Prince William Sound that tastes almost candied, rather like a haute jerky. Nelly explained that the sockeye is lightly cold-smoked over alderwood, then pressure-cooked the same way for both products (cooking makes it shelf-stable—the ultimate pantry ingredient!). For the Copper River variety, the smoked strips are cut to pack into jars, and the fish sits in its own juices. Though both Alaskan sockeye, they have slightly different flavors. The smoked coho salmon is cold-smoked and pressure-cooked in the same way by a local husband-and-wife team but is packed in smart black tins with a distinctive blue Drifters Fish label. It’s not as bright and pretty as the sockeye, but everyone agreed the milder tasting coho took really well to the smoke. While we loved all the salmon, it was the coho that was the favorite.
Shira was curious about how Nelly likes to cook salmon. Her answer was “simply, I really love salt, pepper, and lemon on the grill.” And when Riley asked about cooking salmon from frozen, we found that Nelly is in tune with Sarah Carey, who advocates for cooking salmon straight from frozen. Nelly's recommendation: “Cook it low and slow, and it will slowly thaw while you cook it.”
As the salmon season is short and intense, everyone was curious what Michael and Nelly do the rest of the year when they aren’t fishing. The answer used to be traveling, but now they are combining some travel with building their business. During salmon season, they supply Seattle restaurants including Canlis, and after the season, in addition to the smoked salmon, they have a Seattle-area Community Supported Fishery for their salmon (similar to a CSA for produce). This year they are hoping to expand into pink salmon. Larger boats are used for fishing pink salmon, so they will need to buy a second boat and hire crew to fish with. There are big things ahead for Nelly and Michael in 2018!
Martha was away when Nelly visited, but we saved some of the Drifters Fish smoked salmon and frozen sockeye for her because we know that she too will adore this Alaskan bounty.