Grilled Wild Alaskan Salmon with Sauteed Cherry Tomatoes
Wild salmon is one of my favorite foods. I am not speaking about frozen or farmed salmon; I love the fresh, wild fish from Alaska. This fish emerges from its days in the cold, pristine waters pure in flavor and resilient in texture. Remarkably tasty, wild salmon doesn’t need much help from the cook; I sprinkle it with lemon zest and fragrant fennel and mustard seeds, and then grill it. Add a topping of quickly sautéed farmers’ market cherry tomatoes, and a sublime meal is ready in minutes.
On a visit to Juneau last spring, to learn more about Alaskan seafood, I discovered that grilling with alder wood adds the fragrance of the Alaskan woods to the fish, and perfumes the air as well. That is how salmon was cooked at the Taku Glacier Lodge, a log cabin restaurant set at the edge of the wilderness, with a view of the Taku Inlet and Taku Glacier, a spectacular 45 minute helicopter flight from Juneau. When I got back to Los Angeles, I searched for alder wood chips and found them at Barbeques Galore.
My method for grilling the fish produces melt-in-your mouth texture and crispy crunchy skin. Simply soak the chips in water for 20 minutes, add to the grill, and start cooking when the alluring aroma of the forest billows forth. I place the fish skin side down on the grill, cover, and cook until the flesh is resilient to the touch; no need to turn the fish over.
I look forward to the arrival of fresh Alaskan salmon in stores each spring, but indulge more in summer, when the price drops. I like to buy my fish at Santa Monica Seafood; the offerings are glistening fresh and the counterman can even tell you where in Alaska the salmon was caught. They carry a large selection of seafood; last week, I saw 6 different kinds of salmon, in addition to countless other sea creatures.
Markets in Los Angles generally sell two of Alaskan salmon’s five species. King (also called Chinook) is the largest and most luxurious; it is firm, rich and succulent, the most celebrated of the five, and the variety I seek out. Sockeye (also called red) is slightly smaller, full flavored, with a deep red color, not quite as buttery as the king, and less expensive. For a special treat, consider splurging on king or sockeye salmon from the Copper River. I was sent a few fillets, and loved the opulent feel and sublime flavor of these fish, which are prized for their faultless quality from careful handling by fishermen, processors and shippers, and for their high-oil content.
In addition to its incomparable taste, wild Alaskan salmon has earned a spot on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Super Green List, because it is good for our health, and is fished using methods that do not harm the environment. The Aquarium works hard to save our oceans from destruction; and designed its Seafood Watch website and pocket guides to help consumers make sustainable and healthy seafood choices. I use the Aquarium’s expertise to guide me; and am enjoying creating recipes for the items they approve. I look forward to bringing you the best of these dishes, recipes like this one:
Grilled Salmon with Sautéed Cherry Tomatoes
Alder wood chips add great flavor to the fish, but this dish is also delicious without the chips; just skip the 2 steps referring to them.
Farmers’ market stands show off delicious sun-ripened cherry tomatoes and tender green beans now, perfect for easy, fresh accompaniments to the fish. I sautéed tomatoes briefly with olive oil, basil, and thyme, and served them as a sauce. For a side dish, we loved green beans and small potatoes boiled separately, and then tossed together with olive oil and chopped fresh marjoram. I am partial to the sun gold tomatoes and blue lake green beans at Harry’s Berries; if they are at a market you frequent, be certain to also bring home a couple of baskets of their remarkable Gaviota or Seascape strawberries, for dessert.
Makes 2 servings
1 large handful alder wood chips (optional)
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
¾ pound wild Alaskan salmon fillet
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
Grated zest of ½ lemon
Sautéed Cherry Tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons minced red onion
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
12-ounce basket cherry tomatoes (preferably half red and half gold), each cut in half
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
If using the wood chips, place them in a small bowl; cover with water and soak for 20 minutes.
Add the seeds to a small skillet over medium heat. Toast until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Grind the seeds coarsely in a mortar or spice grinder. Place the salmon skin side down on a plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then the ground seeds and lemon zest. Brush with olive oil. Let marinate while preparing the grill.
If using the wood chips, drain the chips, and place in a smoker box or in a disposable foil pan. If using a gas grill, place the smoker box or foil pan directly atop a burner and preheat the grill to medium-high. If using a charcoal grill, prepare medium-high coals. Place the smoker box or foil pan directly atop the coals. Cover the grill until the wood chips give off smoke, about 5 minutes.
If not using the wood chips, prepare a charcoal or gas grill for direct-heat cooking over medium high heat.
Place the salmon skin side down on the grill. Cover the grill and cook the salmon without turning over until it is just cooked through, moving to a cooler position or decreasing the heat if the skin is browning too quickly, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the tomatoes: Heat the oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and red pepper and sauté until the onion is almost tender, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and sauté until tender and starting to juice, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the basil and thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cut the salmon into 2 pieces and transfer to plates. Spoon the sautéed tomatoes over and serve right away.