Courtesy of Tom Nunn, writer/husband of artist Jonlee Nunn, Edmonds, WA
I grew up in the wheat country of eastern Washington, where the only salmon came from a can and was prepared as salmon loaf. I ate it under duress. Later, I married a woman from Seattle whose father cooked fresh salmon over coals from an alder fire. It was a revelation: moist, tender, and flavorful.
Over the years, I have refined and simplified my father-in-law’s recipe. The most important ingredient is, of course, the salmon. Most Northwesterners are familiar with the many varieties. I will concentrate on only a few. First, I will urge you to avoid farmed salmon and steelhead as if they were Covid-19.
A short story may help you decide. We were having a family gathering and I set out for the local fish market to pick up provisions. Because we were celebrating a college graduation, I wanted a special fish — King Salmon — but I was shocked at the cost for a large group. To keep the reckoning down, I decided to buy half-farmed salmon and half-wild King. Besides, it would provide an opportunity to compare the flavor of the two.
When I reached the checkout counter, the clerk, a young man in his 20s, surprised me with a comment. As he was ringing up my two packages of salmon, he said, “I see you are buying some fine wild salmon and some very sick fish.”
He explained he had worked at a fish farm for a season and saw how the salmon there were raised. “They are crowded into giant pens floated in a saltwater inlet. To keep the fish from dying, they are fed a diet laced with antibiotics.” I took the salmon home and cooked both kinds for my relatives. The King Salmon was firm, moist, and flavorful, while the farmed was soft and the flavor a bit off. I never cooked farm fish again.
Wild King (a.k.a. Chinook) Salmon still makes a wonderful meal, but for those seeking to keep the cost down or who prefer a milder flavor, there are several excellent alternatives:
- Wild Sockeye
- Copper River Sockeye (when in season)
- Wild Silver (a.k.a. Coho)
Wild Sockeye, our most frequent choice, is a little dryer than King but with careful attention to internal temperature, it can make a delicious meal and at a price half that of King.
So, to the recipe:
I use a Teflon-coated fish/vegetable grill, the one with small holes to let the heat through. An instant-reading temperature probe is extremely helpful. My wife probes with a finger and knows when it is done.
- 1/2 pound of salmon fillet per person
- 1-2 lemons (one quarter to two quarters lemon will generally be enough for most fillets)
- vegetable oil (canola, if possible)
- olive oil
- lemon pepper
- garlic salt
Turn salmon skin side up on the wrapping and spread a thin coating of vegetable oil on it to keep the skin from sticking to the grill. Turn the fillet over and squeeze lemon juice on the flesh and rub it in with your fingers. Then spread olive oil on the flesh. Dust the lemoned and oiled flesh with lemon pepper and garlic salt—not too much garlic salt or the fish will be too salty!
Your salmon is ready for grilling.
Make sure the charcoal is mostly grey coals or the gas grill is at 350°. Load the fillet on the fish grill and place it on the regular grill bars. Replace the cover for quicker cooking and smokier flavor.
After 7-10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillet, use a spatula and tongs to turn the fish. You can cut it in half with the spatula to make turning easier.
Using the tongs, remove the skin, which should peel off easily after cooking. Dust the newly-exposed flesh with the lemon pepper and garlic salt, replace cover, and cook an additional 5 minutes before checking the internal temperature with the instant thermometer. If the probe registers 135-140°, it is done. At 145°, salmon begins to dry out and lose flavor. The thin belly flesh can be cut off and served as snacks several minutes earlier.
This may sound complicated, but preparation and cooking takes less than an hour and the flavor is out of this world—and very Pacific NW.