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Copper River Salmon


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Hey Blue Heron! It ain't all hype. These fish are better. But is the marketing hype annoying? hell yes!

I've gotten lucky in getting some really quite good Copper River salmon from Larry's the last few seasons (typically starting around May 15 and continuing through mid-June). The early season Kings (more so than the later sockeye run) definitely have a higher concentration of oil and fat (supposedly due to the salmon's rough and tumble swim up the Copper River, which makes them beefier). The flesh is fatter, richer and silkier (almost a buttery texture? the words to properly describe it escape me) and superior -- in my opinion. And the CRS I've bought has always been a much deeper hue -- almost an orangey red -- than its anemic pink farmgrown counterpart. That's the definitive telling point of a Copper River salmon in the grocery store or at a restaurant. The fish looks much more orange.

Be careful of places that try to sell you the fake stuff (which I'm sure doesn't happen often, considering how educated consumers here are about the fish). In 2000, I was dining at a restaurant that has since closed and they served me the farm grown Atlantic stuff and tried to pass it off as "Copper River." (along with the $29.95 CRS price tag). I had a hard time trying not to cough "Bull#@it" loudly into my fist as I sampled my first bite of this light pink, chalky tasting fish. I got into an argument with the manager about it. My solution was to never return. I got my justice when they went belly up. Ha!  

Also, I have to say that I once had Yukon River salmon (but only once). I don't know if it was just that particular fish, but I still remember how buttery the flesh was and it was so orange, it looked like a jewel. It was magnificent. Of course, I remember drinking a lot of wine that night and having one of the best meals of my life (great friends, great conversation), so it might just have been an elevated memory from an enchanting night. :)

I'd love to hear what others have to say about the whole CRS marketing thing -- and if others have sampled Yukon River salmon. The CRS hype every spring can get really annoying -- especially all the crap about who gets it first!! yahoo. whatever. insert eye roll here. I'm never the first person in line for the fish, but I always get some. Hubby agrees with me that they do seem to taste richer. We like to cook them on our cedar plank (www.plankcooking.com). We don't even use a rub. Just a little butter and some lemon on the side. That's all it needs.

Let's hear what everyone else has to say...

A palate, like a mind, works better with exposure and education and is a product of its environment.

-- Frank Bruni

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Being relatively new to Seattle and living near Queen Anne Thriftway,I was first exposed to the CRS blitz only a couple years ago. It worked and we spent what seemed like a pot of gold on the slab of orange. Boy,was it worth it. Like Girlchow,I prepared it very simply and let the lush,fatty flavor be the star. Since then,I've poached,broiled,baked,sauteed and even nuked it[just a little piece as an experiment],all with delicious results. Other salmon gets treated to more ingredients and more involved recipes,the price being so low at Costco that I can throw half a package away if we don't like the outcome. QAT has also grabbed me with their dry aged beef hype but that's another story.

Judy Amster

Cookbook Specialist and Consultant

amsterjudy@gmail.com

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I made friends with a chef in Vancouver last year (please don't interpret this as a character flaw on his part; he's really quite nice) named Brian Fowke. He's the chef at Joe Fortes, which is a massive seafood brasserie type place and the largest seafood restaurant customer in British Columbia. I had prejudged the restaurant and was expecting a fairly dim chef, given the high-volume production nature of a restaurant of that size, but instead I found one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic seafood guys I've ever met. He was so into his product that I asked to accompany him the next morning on a seafood buying run. We visited a few of his purveyors early the next day out by the docks, and while at Ocean Beauty Seafood, a call came in on proprietor Mark Rossum's cell phone.

It was Friday, the first day of the year that Copper River salmon could be caught, but because Victoria Day weekend was coming up everybody was expecting that they wouldn' t get any Copper River salmon until the following Tuesday. But one guy had access to a plane and had come in early with his catch and was offering to get the stuff down that afternoon if a sufficiently large buyer could be found. Well, Brian from Joe Fortes smelled a scoop, and he grabbed it all. So later that day (but not until a number of close calls and air traffic near-disasters -- the itinerary of the salmon was quite complex) we tasted what I'm reasonably sure was the first Copper River salmon to be served at any restaurant in North America that year. I'm pretty sure we beat -- by an hour or so -- those fish purveyor guys in Seattle to whom the local papers gave credit for the accomplishment.

We had it raw with coarse salt and olive oil, and then simply grilled. Brian also held aside a salmon and cured it over the weekend and smoked it on Tuesday (he has a smoking facility on the premises, and he trained with a Scottish expert so he really knows his stuff), so we were able to follow the salmon through to its logical conclusion: The finest, silkiest, reddest smoked salmon I've ever seen, with tremendous subtlety and none of that overly salted, commercial, smoked-salmon fishy taste.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Girl Chow...actually, sockeye (aka red) salmon has more fat than any other salmonid species, but you're right about the kings (chinook) from Copper River being loaded up. It's the preparation for the long swim to the spawning redd that makes these fish so rich, altho' the same occurs in other runs that make a similar journey. They just don't have the name or marketing push (and 'Copper River' seems to really go well with 'salmon,' evoking a whole range of sensory images).

We never used to get sockeye in the markets until the Copper River thing started back in the early 1980s. About twice as many sockeye as chinook come out of the fishery, and once the Copper River brand became established, the demand for any orange-fleshed fish from the Alaskan drainage took off.

Before that most of the sockeye went to Japan. I had friends fishing Bristol Bay (a sockeye fishery) who would bring me fish every year, and I really got to like the rich flavor. The smaller filets (typically not much bigger than 2-3 lbs for a whole filet) also fit on the Weber perfectly, and sockeye makes the best smoked salmon, too.

A local fish monger called Briney Sea sells Copper River soackeye (and king, and occasionally white king, but it doesn't come from the river) at the Portland Farmers Market, and I trade them olive oil for filets so I can stock the freezer during the short run. Last summer I combined the salmon with a filbert romesco, a nice paring of two northwest foods.

Sockeye with filbert romesco

Jim

olive oil + salt

Real Good Food

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I was going to say, Jim & GC, that my recollection is that the first run of the season is sockeye. Am I losing it?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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This is so interesting!  I always thought all these years that the King salmon had the most fat and flavor, and that the Sockeye, while being prettier (more red) was not quite as flavorful, had less fat, and was more for the tourists.  Either it's a subjective sort of thing, or I haven't given the Sockeye it's due respect!  And same goes for smoked salmon, I always thought King makes the best, and that people buy Sockeye for the color, although it's more dry.

That said I like both Copper River Sockeye & King, as well as the white King (where ever that comes from).  I basically like all wild king, from wherever.

I love Steven Shaw's idea of having the Copper River salmon RAW, gosh that sounds good, as in sashimi, especially since it's my belief that what makes the CRS so premier is the care they take in processing it so quickly, which makes for a fresher and tasty fish.

I have also heard how wonderful the Yukon River salmon is, but don't believe I've had the pleasure yet to try it.

I really miss my old seafood guy at Safeway (who has since moved to another Safeway).  He knew me as a regular at his seafood counter, and would occasionally give me free stuff to try out.  Most memorable was a couple large thick steaks of first of the season Copper River Salmon he gave me to try out, another time 2 large wild white King salmon steaks.  Both were delicious.  I sure miss him, did I say that already?

My worst salmon experience was at The Admiral Thriftway.  They had flash frozen wild King  on sale, but the main seafood guy tried to substitute Chum salmon in it's place.  I told him I knew the difference between King and Chum, and refused to buy any seafood of any type from then on (& that's probably why I got to know the guy at Safeway so well!).  Fortunately, the offending seafood man at Thriftway is gone now, so I can buy from them once again, albeit cautiously.

I think one of my best salmon tastes was actually a fresh caught steelhead (salmon-trout) that my brother's friend caught and gave to me.  I don't know why, but I have never forgotten the wonderful flavor of that wild steelhead.

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I wrote about the 2000 CRS run and Mary Franklin (who represents the Cordova District Fisherman union) told me then that Kings (Chinook) come first to market, followed by Sockeye (Reds) and then Coho (Silvers). But the thing is that I don't recall whether that was because the King runs arrive before the Sockeye, or if fishing regulations (and there are so many regulations) require Kings are caught first. I do know that King show up in the stores and restaurants first, but that the Sockeye season runs longer, until late summer some years.

Here's a web site that I rediscovered in my bookmarks about the Cordova fishing community. One of my vacation goals has been to get to Cordova some day. Hubby was a fisherman for a few years after high school eons ago and he's got all kinds of stories about the fishing industry (although half those stories involve heavy drinking and naked swimming in Prince William Sound).

Copper River Salmon info

A palate, like a mind, works better with exposure and education and is a product of its environment.

-- Frank Bruni

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Blue Heron, I've been under the same spell as you about King v Sockeye (native v tourist). I think maybe I just haven't been giving Mr. Sockeye his due respect after reading what glorious things Jim had to say about sockeye  -- given the choice, I always buy/order King. D'oh! I think this year I might do a little sampling, maybe even some smoking (how about some tips Col Klink!).....tho I might have to initiate some of my tax refund to afford it. I just hope we're not looking at prices like we did in 1999 (or 1998?) when CRS hit $16-$18 a pound at the market. I think it mostly was about $12-$13 a pound last year if my memory serves. I struck gold last year when a new Albertsons had opened by my house last spring and they were offering a store opening offer of CRS for $9.99 a pound for a few days. We bought in abundance and hosted two really great parties.

If we can find a deal like that again this year, hubby and I decided we would have a Northwest style salmon bake (dig pits, fill with charcoal and wood and cook the salmon on cedar planks). We haven't had one of those for a few years, but they're always so much fun.

A palate, like a mind, works better with exposure and education and is a product of its environment.

-- Frank Bruni

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I am almost but not entirely positive that the salmon we had last year, from the very first Copper River run (May 18 I believe), was sockeye.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I consider only one of my smoked salmon to be successful and although it was very smokey (and really delicious), it was not like the smoked salmon you buy at the store which is almost rare.

I smoked mine at around 165 degrees F for a little over an hour and half and it was cooked thoroughly.  When the big runs come in I'm going to try a new method that uses a small amount of coals and wood chips.  It will allow for temps in the smoker to below 100 degrees and I'll be able to smoke it for six to eight hours and still keep it uncooked.  Perfect for nigiri!

I'm much better at smoking pork, poultry and beef.  Oh yeah, and cute little goats and bunny rabbits (I almost forgot!).

girl chow, you're salmon bake sounds like a lot of fun.  Do you cook salmon (and other fish) on the cedar planks a lot?  I've heard that's a pretty stylish trend these days and I haven't experienced it.  I have some old cedar shingles in my tool shed, maybe I'll try one of those, the one with the least amount of moss and spider webs I suppose?

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As to whether king or sockeye head up the Copper to spawn first (and so appear in the market), I think there's more at work than just species. All anadromous fish (born in fresh, live in salt, return to fresh to breed and die) try to return to the same place they were born. The earliest run (run here means a species that spawns at a certain time, like Spring Chinook) in any given river system is the one that has the farthest to travel.

The first salmon marketed under the Copper River banner were Kings, but I can't really remember what comes in first these days. I know that the Bristol Bay season is late May-mid June, but that doesn't mean anything for the separate sockeye run up the Copper. To add to the confusion, Alaska controls its fishery very tightly, at least when it comes to setting dates for catching the fish. The want to ensure enough escapement up river to sustain the run. So one may head up river ahead of the other, but it's season comes later.

Any fish biologists out there to provide some better answers?

and to col klink....when I was growing up about the only fish I would eat was smoked salmon, and whether it was made by my dad, one of his fishing pals, or a smokehouse on the dock where we would trade our fresh fish for smoked, it was always the hot-smoked, well-done variety. I remember my first encounter with lox, which someone had described as smoked salmon, and being shocked that it was nearly raw. That well-done, almost jerky-like northwest smoked salmon goes back to the early days of the unfortunately named 'squaw candy,' the strips of salmon that the northwest tribes would hang in the sun (and smoke) to dry for weeks so they'd keep. My mother grew up in The Dalles and her father would take her down to Celilo (the great falls of the Columbia, now drowned behind a dam) so he could pick up fish, get his deer hides tanned into buckskin, and hang out. She didn't realize how lucky she was at the time, but would complain about the smell of the drying fish and clouds of flies that it attracted.

ps...we used a brown sugar and salt brine

olive oil + salt

Real Good Food

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There's quite a bit of information on this site:

http://www.copperriverfestival.com/

Some of this is coming back to me. I think it may be the case that both sockeye and king are present during pretty much the whole short Copper River season.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Hmm...let me see if I can get a limnologist buddy of mine interested in this thread.  I feel like I should know this stuff, but I don't.  As for my opinion on Copper River Salmon, I've had it a number of times (including on the cedar plank--yum!), and it's never been disappointing, but I don't feel I can say it's "the best" with my limited experience.

If you're serving some, though, give me a call, because my survey requires further data points.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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I think (guess) that this should be a good year for the consumer re Copper River Salmon pricing.  For several years the hype kept growing and the price kept escalating until the wholesale price was pushing that of sashimi grade tuna and chilean sea bass.  Finally last year most chefs said to heck with it and refused to pay the price.  All my fish purveyors were in a bit of a tizzy and by the end of the run the prices were falling faster than the NASDAQ.  Hopefully common sense will prevail this year.

It sure is tasty though...

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The best salmon I've had came from the Bay of Fundy, over here on the East Coast. But then again all our East Coast fish are better. :raz:

Seriously, though, it's hard to judge. I mean, one of the attractions of Copper River salmon is the freshness of the product on account of all this crazy-hurried air shipping. Maybe it's also the best, but I don't know. I mean, I've had wild Oregon coho that I thought was just as good as anything from Copper River. In the few days I've spent in Alaska every bite of salmon I had was amazingly good (and overcooked). And like I said I think the Bay of Fundy stuff kicks butt if you can get it really fresh. That was always Gray Kunz's choice. Something to do with the bay having the world's largest tidal variation.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Hey Col Klink, salmon baked on cedar is not a trend! Dammit! My grandpa, also a native Washingtonian like me and my mom, used to cook his salmon that way. Ok, I guess I'm willing to admit that cedar planks designed for a home oven is just another weird yuppy fad. I don't care! The cedar flavor rules. And the oven planks are a lot easier than making sure you've got cedar that hasn't been treated with cyanide or any toxic crap that might cause your lungs to sear.

I got my plank from John Howie's company (Howie is the former chef of Palisade and just recently opened a very sylin' restaurant called Seastar in Bellevue). His manufacturer is a nice fellow who lives in Belfair and makes the planks at his house. The cool part is that he incorporated these screw/lug nut thingees (that's the techical term) into the cedar so as cracks appear and the wood begins to separate, you can turn the screw and the cracks will disappear. It's a way cool trick to use at parties. hahaha. not. Howie also sells one-use planks for the Q and he's also got alder planks if you don't like the strong flavor of cedar.

John Howie's cedar planks

A few of my tips for cooking on cedar planks learned the hard way: Do NOT use much oil, unless you like fire in your oven. A little rub down with oil to season the plank works just fine, though. Do cook the salmon (or chicken or halibut) with its skin on (duh). I soak the plank before putting it in the oven (although I think some plank manufacturers tell you not to. I like to run with scissors too). Expect the salmon to take longer to bake than using traditional methods. I want to say it takes about 15-20 minutes per inch, although I've never really timed it or anything. I just keep a good eye on the salmon as it's cooking. Don't get the oven too hot. Follow most of the manufacturer's directions, unless, of course, you like fire.

A palate, like a mind, works better with exposure and education and is a product of its environment.

-- Frank Bruni

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