A couple of weeks ago I had an iconic Pacific Northwest food experience. It began with a salmon.
It was the last day of reefnet fishing, a special method of salmon fishing that has been practiced in Legoe Bay, off Lummi Island, for many years. Reefnetters keep the fish they catch in live holds until the last possible moment. Besides keeping the fish alive, it also greatly reduces stress and bruising from rough net handling.
When you buy fish directly from the fishermen on the beach at the end of the fishing day, you get the freshest possible fish in the most perfect possible condition. The fish will be whole - head, guts, and all. I bought a chum salmon from Rush Rock Reefnet.
Dressing the fish isn't hard, but it does take care and a razor-sharp knife. It also helps, when cutting through the bones, if there's a serrated edge. A flexible blade allows you to cut smoothly along the backbone, resulting in less wasted meat.
I work slowly and start by removing the fins. Next I cut off the tail, and then the head just behind the gills. If the salmon has a large head, you may want to use a C-shaped cut to save meat. My chum had a small head, so I used a straight cut.
At that point I discovered the fish was full of roe. Bonanza!
Next, with the fish on its side, I start cutting a shallow cut along the back of the fish, just deep enough to get through the tough outer skin. This is where a sharp knife is a necessity. Once you get through the skin, the rest of the meat cuts easily.
After the skin is split along the back, I return to the head end and make slow, careful cuts toward the spine, which is about three inches in from the back skin. The goal is to cut along one side of the spine until you get through to the body cavity (where the guts are).
Then turn the fish over and do the same thing on the other side of the spine. If you do all of this carefully, you will end up with two long fillets attached by a flap of belly skin - essentially you've butterflied the fish.
The roe sacs will be free to lift out, and the guts should slide off in a bunch, although you may need to cut the belly skin around the anus to free the intestines. Again, take care not to pierce the organs, if possible.
You can leave the "butterfly" fillet in one piece, but I make a cut on each side to remove the fatty lower belly meat and the belly skin. You'll see where that is on the inside, because the meat texture visibly changes. Any heavy metals the fish have been exposed to, such as mercury, tend to concentrate in that belly fat, so I discard it.
Voila! Two beautiful skin-on fillets! From an 8-pound whole chum, I ended up with 2 cups of roe (caviar) and 61/4 pounds of fillets.
I've read that you can smoke salmon in a charcoal barbecue grill using a hot-smoking technique, so I decided to try it. Chums make good fish for hot smoking because they are a fattier salmon and so stay moister during smoking.
I made the brine/marinade shown below and soaked a couple of fillets overnight in the refrigerator. The next day I took the fillets out to drain and dry slightly. I also put a couple of big handfuls of alder chips (purchased at Yeager's Sporting Goods and Marine, in Bellingham) in a bowl of water to soak for a few minutes.
While the fish drained, I lit 16 charcoal briquets using a "chimney." I don't like the fumes and gases from self-starting briquets, and ditto for lighter fluid. The chimney allows me to light plain charcoal with paper.
When the charcoal was ready, I drained the water off of the alder chips. I put half of the charcoal on each side in the bottom of the barbecue. The fillets were placed skin-down on the center of the grill rack about 6 inches above the barbecue bottom.
Last, I put a small amount of alder chips on each pile of charcoal to make the smoke, then put the lid on the barbecue. The goal is to maintain a low temperature - ideally about 160 degrees. I wasn't able to do that, and my temperatures went over 200.
Every 20 minutes I took the lid off, letting heat escape, checked the salmon, and added more alder chips before replacing the lid.
Smoked salmon is done when it will flake, or when it tastes how you want it to taste. After about two hours, mine was ready. We served it on biscuits with homemade paneer cheese (see my blog for those recipes, at whatcomlocavore.com).
What food experience could be more classic Pacific Northwest than fresh smoked salmon, a pint of salmon caviar, and salmon fillets in the freezer for winter? And it all came from one beautiful fish, to which I am grateful. We are so blessed to be living here.
SMOKED SALMON MARINADE
Marinade for hot smoking:
1 quart water
1/4 cup kosher or pickling salt (iodine-free pure salt, can be purchased at Yeager's Sporting Goods, Bellingham)
1/4 cup honey (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped (home garden, Lummi Island)
2 heads fresh dill (Boxx Berry Farm, Ferndale)
Mix ingredients in a plastic container until salt and honey are dissolved. Place salmon fillets in mixture, skin-side up. Salmon should be completely covered with marinade. Cover container and place in refrigerator to marinate overnight.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996; appel-farms.com
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959; artisanwineclub.com
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060; bellinghamfarmers.org
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699; boxxberryfarm.com
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859; cloudmountainfarm.com
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158; communityfood.coop
Everybody's Store, 5465 Potter Road, Deming; 360-592-2297; everybodys.com
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747; ferndalepublicmarket.org
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151; graceharborfarms.com
Green Barn, 8858 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-354-1008
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
Lynden Farmers Market, 514 Liberty St., Lynden, fiveloavesfarm.blogspot.com
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398; facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Dairy/161872142667
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190; islandergrocery.com
The Markets LLC, 3125 Old Fairhaven Parkway and 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797; themarketsllc.com
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020; terra-organica.com
Reach NANCY GING at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, "like" Whatcom Locavore on Facebook (facebook.com/whatcomlocavore) and "follow" on Twitter, @WhatcomLocavore. For locavore menus, recipes, and more resources, read her blog at at whatcomlocavore.com.