Salmon, especially king salmon, are the pigs of the aquatic world. Large, fatty, with significant differences in flavor from cut to cut, the salmon is, like pork, equally good fresh or cured.
And if there is a fish you can get all nose-to-tail on, it is the chinook. After Holly and I caught three gorgeous spring-run kings in the Trinity River last weekend, we decided to dispense with the fillets (they went straight into the freezer) and wallow for a week in the “nasty bits.”
As my friend Josh and other readers have pointed out, there really aren’t any truly nasty bits on a salmon, but what I’m talking about are the pieces many anglers toss into the river: heads, collars, bellies and bones.
These parts are quite possibly the best cuts on a salmon, as they are fattier and have a more interesting texture and flavor than straight-up fillets — and those fillets are themselves spectacular Let me just say that this has been some of the most incredible salmon I have ever eaten — and I have eaten Copper River sockeye, wild Atlantic salmon, Canadian coho and even the vaunted Yukon kings. This Trinity River spring-run salmon is the equal of them all; only the Yukon kings might be better. Might be.
The most surprising dish has been a salmon head soup I made last night. These salmon heads had been in our fridge for six days — long enough for a normal fish head to start stinking. These had no odor at all. None. I am still kind of in shock about this, and I attribute it to our bleeding out the fish immediately after catching them, and then putting them on ice after that.
I made the soup the Japanese way: I brought the three heads to a bare simmer (not a boil) with a slab of kombu seaweed, a three-inch piece of ginger and a little salt. I let this simmer for 20 minutes or so, until the heads started to collapse. I picked out the meat — especially the cheeks, which, unlike the rest of the fish were grayish white, like the dark meat on a chicken. I then strained it it through cheesecloth and serve d the soup with somen noodles and a dollop of white miso. (Here is the recipe.)
So satisfying, even on a hot evening. Holly thought it almost buttery, with pearls of salmon fat dotting the surface of the broth like constellations. The cheek meat was transcendent, and strangely meaty; it tasted uncannily like the “oyster” in a chicken or pheasant.
And that was just the most recent of our Adventures with Salmon Bits.
I am pleased to say that I actually do know of other people who roast the bones of a salmon and pick off the meat for salmon salad or salmon cakes. In fact, Jon, our fishing guide, smokes his racks and picks them. I grilled ours, and in a short time had two pounds of meat — enough to make a full batch of both salmon salad and salmon cakes.
The salmon salad is some of the best I’ve eaten, and again it is because of the clean flavor of the fish: no fishiness, no tacky feeling on your teeth. I added the obligatory mayo and mustard, but then a little homemade piri-piri hot sauce, capers, a minced pepper and lots of baby leeks. My whole office has been eating it for two days now. Delish.
Salmon cakes will be tonight. Our friend Nick has a recipe for them, which I will no doubt bastardize and make my own somehow. I will post my recipe once I come up with it. On to my favorite parts: the bellies and the collars.
There simply aren’t any better parts of a salmon than these, and there simply isn’t any better way to prepare them than grilling. Why?
- You have skin, which is crispy, yet slightly gelatinous from the subcutaneous fat.
- You have the meat iself, which is clean and umami-liciously decadent.
- You have ALL THAT FAT. Salmon, like the rest of us, store most of their fat in their bellies. And this, friends, is a Mother Lode of those omega-3 fatty acids people are all talking about. I actually got a full-on glob of salmon fat in one bite, which, if you can imagine it, was both alarming and tasty. No need to take fish oil pills after this meal.
- You also have collagen from the cartilage around the fins and bones. This partially melts under the heat of the grill and lubricates everything. I feel that my lips are more supple these days…
- Finally, there are the fins. The crispy ends of the fins, dipped in whatever sauce you are serving, are nutty little crunchy tidbits that contrast so well with the luxuriant fat, collagen and meat that you’d think Nature herself had created it just for our pleasure. And maybe she did.
We had two nights of collar-belly foodgasms. The first night was quasi-Euro: Grilled collars, brined for a few hours, served with grilled green onions, the first garden tomatoes of the year and a dipping sauce made with garlic, a smidge of mustard, salt, olive oil and verjus.
Holly and I barely spoke during this meal, being reduced to grunty yummy noises and slurps of the Holly’s Hill Viognier we served with it.
The next night was all Japanese. Again, the collars bathed in brine, then received a massage of sesame oil before hitting the grill. While they sizzled, I made a classic teriyaki of soy, mirin, sake and a little sugar, which I boiled down by half. I thought about glazing the collars with it (which would be typical), but they had been so good, so pure, the previous day that I once again used settled on using it as a dipping sauce. I served it simple, with just a dash of togarashi.
We were sorry to see those collars and bellies disappear. Now all we’re left with is about 25 pounds of pristine salmon fillets. Poor us.