Wild summer salmon

I love wild sockeye salmon. The flavor is wonderfully meaty, its seasonality makes it special, and summer is its season. But sockeye salmon can be tricky to cook, because it easily dries out. This year, I discovered a foolproof way to avoid that pitfall so that it cooks up perfectly moist. Here’s the story.

Most of the salmon my fishmonger Mike Lukas sells at his Star Fish Market is farmed, grown in metal pens offshore, and harvested year round. “Farmed salmon is always around,” Mike says, “365 days a year.”

The wild fish live on their own schedule. Wild salmon lay eggs on river bottoms. Once hatched, the hatchlings migrate downstream to spend their lives at sea, where they build up exactly enough body fat to get them back home – sometimes hundreds of miles upriver – to spawn.

You’ve probably seen the wildlife videos of salmon fighting their way upstream to mate. They may not eat at all during their homeward journey. Once they spawn, they die; the nutrients from their decaying bodies feed the next generation. Since fat translates to flavor, the ideal time to catch wild salmon is at the beginning of its trip home.

There are five species, Mike buys two– King, also called Chinook, and sockeye. They are the most available, sockeye more than King. The season for the wild fish runs from spring to August, but “to guarantee it,” says Mike, “June to August.”

Stocks of wild Atlantic salmon were decimated years ago and there is no longer a commercial fishery. All the wild salmon sold commercially is Pacific salmon. “90 percent of the time the salmon is from Alaska,” says Mike, but his suppliers also source it from British Columbia and the west coast of “the lower 48.”

My first taste of wild salmon was King, the largest and fattiest of the five species. But King is expensive. Mike sells it for $20 to $28/pound; it’s not at all unusual to see it for more than that on the east coast. Sockeye, which is just below King in fat content, is a much smaller fish and significantly less expensive so I like to buy it.

Despite the price, Mike says many of his customers are leery of sockeye. “A lot of people don’t like the sockeye because it’s too thin; it’s not as forgiving, and inherently drier from the start. It’s got a very good flavor – cooked right, it’s perfect. King is fattier, and you can undercook or overcook it and it’s okay. Sockeye has to be spot on.”

That’s exactly the problem.

I solved it by chance one rainy night when I didn’t want to grill outdoors. I started the fillets, skin-side down, in a dry, cast iron pan on the stove. I realized I didn’t need to flip it; I could just cover the pan – a glass lid makes it easy to follow the progress of the cooking – and cook the fish on one side.

The wild Sockeye salmon fillets came out perfectly. The same method works on the grill. As a quick summer accompaniment, I made a tasty salsa with the super-sweet, yellow cherry tomatoes in the market and chopped avocado, lime, and cilantro.

Single-Side Sockeye Salmon with Tomato-Avocado Salsa

Season the fish at least 5 minutes before cooking to allow the seasoning to penetrate. Add some chopped, fresh chile to the salsa if you like heat. No time for salsa? A squeeze of lemon or lime juice, and more olive oil will do the trick.

2 (6- to 8- ounce) sockeye salmon fillets, with skin, 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 inch thick

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

12 cherry tomatoes, quartered

1⁄2 ripe avocado, peeled, seeded, and cut into cubes

Extra virgin olive oil

1⁄2 large lime

Small handful cilantro sprigs

1. Place a cast iron pan large enough to hold the fillets in a single layer over medium heat. Let heat for 5 to 10 minutes.  Or heat the grill.

2. Meanwhile, season the fillets on the flesh side with salt and pepper and set aside while the pan heats.

3. Combine the cherry tomatoes and avocado in a bowl. Add a healthy drizzle of oil (you want it saucy) and squeeze in the lime juice. Remove any thick cilantro stems; roughly chop the leaves and slender stems and add to the bowl. Gently stir.

4.   Drizzle the flesh side of the fillets very lightly with olive oil and place, skin side down, in the pan or on the grill. Cover. Reduce the heat to medium low if using a pan and cook until the salmon is medium-rare and still translucent at the center when you cut into the fish with a small knife, 5 minutes for ½- to ¾- inch-thick fillets, 6 minutes for ¾- to 1- inch-thick fillets.

5. Remove to plates with a spatula. Taste the salsa for seasoning and spoon it over the fish.