Wild Alaska salmon has a season, and it’s now. While you can find salmon in stores year-round, in the fall and winter the fish is either frozen or imported from farms. Fresh Pacific salmon, with its firm flesh and rich flavor, tinged by the cold ocean, is in stores late spring through summer. The early varieties — king and sockeye — are worth seeking out.
King, aka “chinook” by Native Americans, is the largest of the Pacific salmon; a single fish can weigh more than 100 pounds. Distinguished by its silky red flesh, buttery texture and luxurious flavor, it’s the Cadillac of salmon. The season for king from the Copper River in south-central Alaska runs through June.
Sockeye, aka red salmon, retains its distinctly bright red color even when cooked. It’s firm and lush, though less buttery than king. Its roe is used as salmon caviar in sushi and the fish is cured for lox. Like king, the season’s first sockeyes come from the Copper River.
The richness of both king and sockeye make them great candidates for just about any preparation from sushi, to grilling to poaching. This past summer, while visiting Sitka, Alaska, the world’s salmon source, we feasted on roasted salmon collars, poached salmon cheeks, stir-fried tips and salmon ceviche. We ate salmon in curry, mac-and-cheese, tacos, chowders, sausages, kebabs, omelets and sliders.
When purchasing fresh salmon, check that it doesn’t smell of anything but an ocean breeze. (You can ask to take a sniff at the counter before it’s wrapped.) The flesh should appear moist with a vibrant color ranging from deep red to coral to pink and be free of any brown spots around the edges. Avoid fish with skin that curls or “gapes” where the edges of the flesh separate from each other. Look for fresh salmon from reliable sources that follow guidelines from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website at seafoodwatch.org, which is available as an iPhone app.
Wild salmon is so distinctly delicious it doesn’t ask much of a cook, just some butter or extra-virgin olive oil, fresh herbs and lemon. While it’s great on the grill, poaching is gentler and helps to ensure that the fish will stay moist and perfect served warm, room temperature, or chilled. Toss leftovers into a salad, or with pasta or rolled into a wrap. Now, through early July, fresh salmon is a very good catch.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.