Royalty returns: While it’s not cheap, locally caught king salmon is back in area markets

Shadowbrook Sous Chef Will Poolman cuts salmon filets from a large fish at the restaurant’s kitchen in Capitola on Saturday. (Kevin Johnson — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

By Ryan Masters, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Slowly but surely, wild salmon are popping back up on area menus.

To local foodies, May means the arrival of wild salmon to the markets and restaurant tables encircling the Monterey Bay. The bad news is, despite predictions of a strong 2015 season, recreational and commercial fishermen are so far reporting catches far below average.

Mike Schell is a retired firefighter who works at Bayside Marine, the popular tackle shop at the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor. He said the recreational fishing season has been disappointing, and since the commercial season began on May 1, things haven’t improved much. In fact, the commercial season has been so slow that some area boats have ventured as far north as Fort Bragg to catch fish, he said.

Regardless of the slow start, most remain optimistic that the chinook, or king salmon, will begin biting in earnest soon.
“The prediction for the season was good, but you need the bait, water clarity and the wind to all cooperate. And even when those things come together, it doesn’t always happen,” Schell said. “The season will come around. The salmon don’t always have the same calendar we have, that’s all.”

Keith Dillon, a fishmonger at H&H Fresh Fish at the harbor, agreed.
“It’s coming in slowly, but that’s not necessarily unusual for this time of year,” he said.

According to Dillon, the sluggish opening has affected the market. When H&H started buying salmon last Friday, the wholesale price was “roughly $10 a pound. The market price has not been established yet. It takes time and usually there’s some fluctuation.”

The wholesale price sets the price in local groceries and fish markets, where salmon is currently running $25 to $29 per pound. Over the hill, prices are closer to $32 per pound.

Many area restaurants began offering fresh king salmon on their menus on Mother’s Day weekend.

Roger Gowen is executive chef at Shadowbrook Restaurant in Capitola. Although the price for wild salmon is still high, he began serving it as soon as it became available.

“It’s important for us to have wild salmon available as soon as possible,” he said.

When grilling for friends and family, Gowen likes to prepare his salmon with a simple lemon, honey and rosemary glaze.

“I grill it flesh side down, mark it and flip,” Gowen said. “Then I baste it with the glaze and finish it for a few minutes.”

A hot and oiled grate will help greatly when putting salmon on the grill.

Do not be afraid to undercook salmon, Gowen said. Too much time on the grill can affect the fish’s moisture and flavor.

“I look for a whitish pink on the outside but a milky pink in the middle,” he says. “Many suspect the fish is not done when they see that color, but it is. It’s perfect.”

Brigit Binns is the best-selling author of numerous cookbooks, most recently “Sunset’s Eating Up the West Coast: The Best Road Trips, Restaurants, and Recipes from California to Washington” (Oxmoor House, April 2015; 272 pages; $22.95)

She calls the orange-pink-fleshed salmon “quintessentially Californian” because of its health benefits and the fact that it pairs well with both white and red wines.

“I try to include a recipe for wild-caught salmon in every book I do,” she said last week from her home in Paso Robles. “Everybody loves salmon. It’s oily and easy to prepare because it doesn’t dry out as easily as other fish.”

In “Eating Up the West Coast,” Binns includes two recipes for wild salmon that illustrate how versatile the fish can be.
“The Peppered Wild Salmon is a candidate for a great glass of pinot noir, while you definitely want a white wine with the Cedar-Planked Wild Salmon because of its sauce,” she said.

For those new to grilling salmon, Binns suggests setting a piece of aluminum foil on the grill first and cooking the fish for 10 minutes per inch of thickness.

“Put whatever you want on it — sauce or butter or fresh herbs or snipped chives,” she said.

Binns’ advice is to enjoy the availability of wild salmon while you can. The brevity of the salmon season — it essentially runs now through early September — adds to the dish’s allure, she said.

“Two or three years ago the salmon season was only eight days,” she said. “Wild salmon has become something to celebrate and cherish.”

While this season is off to an undeniably slow start, Schell, of Bayside Marine, is far more concerned about how the drought could affect the salmon fishery in the next few years. Low water levels in rivers allow silt to settle over the gravel streambeds that chinook need to lay their eggs.

“We may be dealing with a far more extreme and different set of circumstances come next year at this time,” he said. “Get it while you can, I guess.”

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