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Our food editors have been so excited about the spring and early summer produce finally showing up at the farmers’ market that they nearly forgot about another seasonal treat: salmon. Luckily, a recent visit from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute served as the perfect delicious reminder. On hand to represent was James Beard-nominated chef Laura Cole of 229 Parks in Alaska’s Denali National Park, and our old friend and favorite fisherman Nelly Hand. They brought five species of salmon for Martha and the team to taste side-by-side: king, sockeye, keta, pink, and coho.
While Laura got to work on the fillets at the stove, Nelly, who had just come off the boat the day before, filled in the 42 Burners crew about harvesting the first salmon of the summer. About 60 percent of all wild seafood harvested in the U.S. (and a whopping 95 percent of the wild salmon) comes from Alaskan waters. This year, the season officially opened on May 17th and is expected to last through October. King and sockeye are up first, followed by keta in July, pink in August, and finally coho from mid-August through October.
Shira wondered if the season began late this year or if she was just getting impatient for fresh salmon, and Nelly and Laura confirmed that it was slow to start because of the cold weather. “We’re about two to three weeks behind where we usually are,” says Laura. “Shorebirds and waterfowl were all delayed in returning to the state, and so were the salmon, but they’re coming for sure. Winter’s had a strong grip on Alaska, so the natural progression of everything has been a little bit slower this year.”
Each variety of salmon lends itself to diverse preparations and flavors, but for the tasting, Laura simply pan-cooked all the fillets with salt and pepper so that the editors could really compare and contrast. While the team had sampled different types of salmon separately before, it was a first to try them all on one plate.
According to Nelly, king is the most prized, for its rich red flesh and massive size, and sockeye is the most flavorful; both can be cooked every which way. Keta has a firmer texture and milder taste and is wonderful smoked or marinated. Tender pink salmon makes a delectable sustainable alternative to tuna in salads and sandwiches, and mild coho works well in chowders and paired with meaty ingredients such as wild mushrooms.
While the editors all had different favorites, Martha loved the king salmon so much that Laura filleted some of the whole fish for her to take home. Meanwhile, Nelly shared some shopping tips with the team. While Alaskan salmon is always labeled, there’s more than one name for each variety: king = chinook, sockeye = red, keta = chum, and coho = silver.
Once salmon season is over, Nelly says frozen wild Alaskan salmon is a great option. The fish is typically frozen at sea, locking in the purity, and all five species can be found in the freezer case year-round. If you see Alaska and China on the packaging, don’t fret, as the fish was still caught in Alaska. Nelly says, “Wild salmon come so fast and in such abundance during the season. The fishermen and the fish plants try to keep up with the volume, but a lot of the salmon gets shipped to China for help with processing and then comes back to America.” Good to know for winter, but for now, the test kitchen is busy making the most of the season.