The sapphire waters of the Inland Passage are the lifeblood of Southeast Alaska. Winding through a magnificent landscape of dense forests, deep fjords and glacier-carved peaks mantled in snow, the icy seas teem with marine life that has sustained the native Tlingit people and fed the bears, bald eagles and migrating whales for millennia.
Today, the maze of inlets, channels and sounds serves as a watery highway to the outside world for fishing camps and towns hugging its shores for the more than 200 miles from Ketchikan to Juneau. The waters support a vast commercial fishing industry. They’re a primary draw, too, for throngs of tourists, who sail in aboard cruise ships and ferries throughout the summer, hoping for a glimpse of wild life that lives off the ocean’s bounty.
Lucky me, I’ve arrived during the King salmon season, when it seems every fishing crew is racing to get its share of the lucrative catch. Fishermen sell whole fish off boats in the harbors and local papers publish notices of salmon fishing derbies.
King salmon, with its luxuriously moist red flesh and rich flavor, is my favorite fish. Since we’re camping, I’m not equipped to handle a whole one, so I’ve been buying fillets and steaks from the markets. Although I haven’t found any bargains ($16.99 a pound appears to be the going price), the salmon has been incredibly fresh and satisfying.
This is fish without guilt. Wild salmon are plentiful here and the fishery is managed to ensure that enough mature salmon are left to swim back upstream and spawn at the end of their life cycle. Forage for the eagle and bear populations is factored into the equation.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program ranks wild Alaskan salmon as a best fish choice for diners.
“For us, it’s one of the poster children for a sustainable fishery,” says Geoff Shester, senior science manager for the aquarium’s sustainable seafood initiative.
When salmon is wild and straight out of the sea, it needs little embellishment. I’ve been cooking it very simply. Fillets were excellent pan-fried quickly in butter then finished with a tablespoon of capers and a splash of red wine vinegar a la Nigel Slater. But a thick steak, cooked in a foil packet over hot coals in a campfire ring, was sublime.
All I added to the steak were a few cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced scallions and a generous pinch of dried thyme. This recipe, adapted from Mark Bittman’s “Quick and Easy Recipes,” should work just as well in a hot oven or on a grill. Fresh sprigs of thyme would be a nice addition.
For camping, cooking in foil can’t be beat. The fish stays moist and is hard to overcook. It definitely produced the best salmon we’ve tasted in Alaska.
Still, the pan-fried salmon comes in a close second. So I’m including that recipe here, too.
If you can’t find perfectly fresh salmon, try some of the flash-frozen fish sold in better markets for these dishes. When the fish is thawed slowly in the refrigerator before cooking, the texture and flavor remain quite good.
About ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 pieces salmon fillet or steak (1½-2 pounds)
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
4 scallions, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 1 teaspoon thyme
For each packet, cut 2 sheets of aluminum foil about 18 inches long and stack together, dull side up. Drizzle the top sheet of foil with about 2 teaspoons of olive oil and layer with a piece of salmon, 6 cherry tomato halves, a quarter of the scallion slices, salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of thyme. Drizzle 2 more teaspoons of oil over all. Fold the foil over a couple of times on top and sides to form a seal and crimp edges together tightly. Repeat.
Place packets on a bed of medium hot coals. After they start to sizzle, cook for about 4 minutes. Flip packets over and cook for 4 minutes more. Remove packets from fire and let sit for a couple of minutes before slitting the package open to let steam escape. Place fish on plates and spoon sauce over all to serve.
Adapted from “Quick and Easy Recipes,” by Mark Bittman (Broadway Books, 2007)
PAN-FRIED SALMON WITH CAPERS AND VINEGAR
6 tablespoons butter
2 pieces salmon fillet
2 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
In a heavy frying pan over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of butter. When it starts to bubble, add salmon and fry until fish starts to turn golden around the edges, about 3 minutes per side. Fry for 2 minutes longer to cook through, if you prefer.
Transfer fish to a plate. Melt remaining 3 tablespoons of butter in the same pan and stir in capers. Add vinegar and cook for a couple more minutes, scraping up the crunchy bits off the bottom of the pan. Pour sauce over fish and serve.
From “Real Fast Food,” by Nigel Slater (The Overlook Press, 1995)