The Fall Salmon Runs:

…a Bachelor Cooking SubSeries:
(c) 2015, Davd

’round about the time the frost gets the Atlantic and Prairie tomato and cucumber plants, or shortly before, the most important wild harvest in Canadian waters, begins. Five species of Pacific salmon, the chinook, coho, sockeye, pink, and chum, enter the rivers of coastal BC in the autumn and late summer. In August, Alberta supermarkets may have some of these Pacific salmon; in past Septembers and Octobers, wild Pacific salmon was often for sale in Atlantic Canada, the pink for lower prices than the “locally farmed” Atlantic salmon. That’s why this blog appears now.

Salmon is wonderful food. The Finns, the Irish, the Miq’mac, Salish and Nuu-Chah-Nulth, the Scandinavians, knew whereof they spoke… and ate. Among the Omega fatty acids, Ω6 is rather common; while Ω3, the one found in salmon especially, is rare. Ideally, say the nutrition and health sources, the two Ω-acids should be about equally present in your diet…… and it is those who eat a lot of salmon, who can have them so equally present, naturally. No wonder those coastal Native Americans have had such vigorous cultures—they had such healthful “eats”.

Only a couple of centuries ago, very recently in evolutionary or even anthropological time, salmon were abundant in the North Atlantic and North Pacific rivers, and the bays and oceans into which they fed. Indeed, i read “somewhere”, there was a law, less than five centuries ago, that required Irish apprentices be fed something other than salmon at least two dinners a week! Today, nearly all Irish and most other apprentices would be glad indeed to be fed salmon as often as twice a week.

So this is partly preaching the ecological message that as humanity has done far too often, our species has failed to conserve the productivity of the salmon runs that fed our European, North American, and even Siberian ancestors before industrialism. Better ecological stewardship would mean more and better food, at a quite modest cost compared with “meat farming”.

Western Canada (BC) and Alaska have more left of those traditional fish runs and harvests, than Eastern Canada; while the western and eastern USA south of us have very little indeed, and Nordic Europe has lost salmon stocks roughly as badly as has Eastern Canada.

The first thing to know about the Pacific salmons, if you’re neither a fisheries biologist nor an ecoforester, is their different eating qualities. Pink salmon is usually the cheapest to buy, and has a less intense flavour, and less fat, than coho, chinook, and sockeye. Coho has a stronger salmon flavour; chinook, more fat and thus a richer flavour; both are generally considered better tasting than pink. Sockeye has the strongest, most intense flavour of the salmon species, and a high fat content; it is a very good source of Ω3. (All the salmons are good sources.) Chum salmon has the least pleasant taste to most people’s liking (it seems to be known among native peoples as “Dog salmon” because it was the species usually fed to dogs) but it can be cooked into something quite good as a casserole or sandwich spread, with herbs.

Atlantic salmon and Pacific steelhead trout have similar flavour and fat content. Wild Atlantic salmon would generally be counted as about equally enjoyable with steelhead, coho and chinook; while farmed Atlantic salmon tastes more like wild pink (but with a higher fat content.)

If you buy a whole salmon, “dressed”[gutted], it will have 10%-15% waste [skin and bones] if headless; and 25% or less waste [head, skin and bones] if head-on. The head and skin can be fed to your dog or cat, and the animal will probably consider it a treat… so the “waste” is not entirely wasted.

The first thing to do with a whole salmon—is butcher it. If the fish is fairly large, you can cut “steaks” from the front part—back to say, six inches or so before the tail. If it’s fairly small, fileting is the way to go. “Steaks” are cut crosswise—perpendicular to the backbone—usually 2 cm [¾”] to one inch [2,5 cm] thick; and the skin is left on while cooking them. A strong, fairly heavy, sharp knife will cut a salmon into steaks fairly quickly.

Most of the salmon i butcher are fileted: The meat of each side is carefully sliced from the bones, which are then put in a stock pot where the last meat left on them is cooked, The fins and their bones are then cut from the filets and added to the stock-pot. If you bought a head-on fish, the head will go into the stock-pot too. Usually, you’ll cut each filet into portions, but sometimes whole filets are grilled or even baked.

A few chefs i’ve met can actually slice a filet in one long stroke of a big chef’s knife, but if you’ve seen “fileting knives”, you’ll realize that they’re not designed for such fast work. The knife takes many short, smooth strokes along the bones, separating the meat so as to leave as little as practicable, clinging to those bones. (That meat left behind, along with the bones themselves, will give flavour and nutritional value to the stock and the soup that’s made from it.)

I usually begin by cutting through the skin next to the dorsal fin [which is at the top of the back, halfway between the head and tail]. The filet knife then slides tight alongside the bones, slicing free the meat and skin in short, smooth strokes. There are bones supporting the fins, and the backbone and ribs (a fish has far more ribs than a mammal! but they are also much thinner). Eventually, you’ll have a filet completely free of all those bones. Then you turn the fish over and do the same for the meat on the other side.

That paragraph doesn’t tell all the niceties of fileting, but if you read it a couple of times, and then maybe write or print it to have handy while learning to filet, you can work out the rest by observation and experience. Having someone experienced in fileting, present with you, will make the learning go much easier.

If the filets will be “raw” salted*, or steamed, they should be sliced free of the skin as well. If the filets will be grilled or cooked in the microwave, the skin should stay on. If they will be fried, there are techniques for filets with and without skin, but skinless works well for most frying.

You can cut the filets into portion sized pieces if they are large, or leave them whole… and to keep whole filets together, it helps to leave the skin on. If you freeze them, they should be surrounded by water, or more simply and compactly, put in a plastic bag and the air pressed out so the bag wraps the fish tightly. If you’ll use them soon, they can be refrigerated in most any good, covered, glass or food grade plastic container.

After you’ve put the filets in a refrigerator or freezer container, you have the bones, head, fins, and perhaps some skin. The skin can go to your dog or cat; you might cook it briefly in case it has bacteria or tiny parasites. The bones and fins [and head if you got the fish head-on] go into the stock-pot; and the next post in this series will be about salmon soup.

Don’t worry, there will be delightful ways to enjoy the filets (one of them is right below, marked *); they can be grilled skin side down; and pink salmon is good steamed.


* Freezing salmon for at least a day, is said to kill any parasites that could harm humans. Since fish put in a freezer will take some time to freeze to -18 [0 Fahrenheit], i make that two days: If a piece of fish was frozen for two or more days before i raw-salt [gravlaks] it, i consider it safe, salt it (about one part salt to 10 parts fish by weight; less will do if you will eat it quickly), add dill or tarragon, and put it in the refrigerator for two days to “sure”. If it hasn’t been frozen, i salt it, add dill or tarragon, and put it in the freezer for two days; when it has been back out of the freezer and in the regular fridge, for one day, it’s ready to enjoy with boiled new potatoes or rye bread, a film of butter or good margarine, and onion. If you use bulb onion rather than greens or chives, slice very thin


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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