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FOOD: A salmon feast and a happy reunion

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It’s been a decade since I cooked my first salmon, while living in Alaska — three hefty filets from some Chinook I’d caught and saved, frozen, to impress my Michigan parents on their first trip to visit me.

I baked it in foil with garlic and lemon, and when we were done, my mom put her fork down on her clean plate, looked at me across the table and said, “I hate salmon.”

She doesn’t. But until then, her experiences with “fresh” salmon involved overcooked, overseasoned and overpoweringly “fishy” preparations that came from, well, I don’t know. They weren’t good. Turns out, she loves salmon. And why shouldn’t she? It’s rich, flavorful and simply perfect with just salt, pepper and maybe a little garlic or lemon if the mood strikes, though the real deal doesn’t need it.

Frankly, I was impressed with myself for having made something appetizing at all. 

The first time I cooked for my parents, back when I was 8, I made hot dogs with a slice of American cheese melted on top, just like I’d had during a visit to a museum cafeteria earlier that summer. Such dazzling flavors! A hot dog with cheese! I was amazed by its brilliance. Mom complimented my work, though in retrospect was probably just relieved I hadn’t burned down the house. And I’m pretty sure she threw a Stouffer’s frozen dinner in the oven after, while she was cleaning up the dishes.

My kitchen moves have improved since then (as has the cuisine at the museum), but as a home cook I’m still an amateur. In addition to decent salmon, I can make a good steak, I’m nearly where I want to be on cream sauces and am almost brave enough to bake. (It scares me — equal parts chemistry and trust.)

Mostly, I’m just curious about food, appreciative of new flavors and experiences, and deeply interested in the way people connect to what they eat. That's how I'm coming into this: Excited to learn more, from people who have many different experiences.

And that’s why I’m so glad I know Nancy Leson. She also bills herself as a home cook, but one who comes with years of experience, first as a waitress in fine-dining restaurants, later as longtime restaurant critic and food columnist for the Seattle Times, and, of course, right here at KNKX. 

For 14 years, Nancy co-hosted Food for Thought with Dick Stein. He retired from KNKX at the end of last year, and the segment ended. But we promised Nancy would be back.

So here we are! We call this new segment “Food,” and our goal is to explore that word from any angle we can. We want to talk about what we eat and where we get it, explore how it connects to our sense of who we are, and experience as much of the Pacific Northwest’s food culture as we can. We’ll learn from as many people as we can. And we’ll cook from time to time, including in this month's segment.

Making salmon

Nancy and I are both from the eastern United States. She’s from Philadelphia, and I grew up in metro Detroit. But we both wound up in Alaska in our 20s — two decades apart. 

I was in Sitka for four years, and Nancy was in Anchorage for seven, working at the famed Marx Bros. Cafe, one of Alaska’s finest restaurants. It was in Alaska that we both came to love salmon. So we’re making some today in Nancy’s kitchen. (Listen to the audio up top for the full experience.)

Ken Hewitt stands at the register inside Kuzma's Fish Market, ringing up a purchase.
Credit Nancy Leson
Ken Hewitt opened Kuzma's Fish Market in Edmonds in March 2018. It's Nancy's choice for where to buy fresh fish.

No time to fish, so we shop. Kuzma’s Fish Market is only a few minutes from Nancy’s front door, and her top spot for fresh fish and knowledgeable service. Ken “Kuzma” Hewitt opened this place in March 2018 after years in the seafood business, starting at his grandmother’s store in West Seattle. His career included 15 years at Seattle’s Mutual Fish on Rainier Avenue and then 18 years at Uwajimaya, where he was manager of the iconic store’s extensive seafood department.

Nancy asks for three small filets, and notes that you shouldn’t be shy about asking specifically for what you want or need — a leaner cut from the tail, a fatter cut from the belly — those are routine requests to a good fishmonger. 

Below are two simple methods for cooking fresh salmon filets.

PREPARING THE FISH

  • Remove the pin bones. You’ll be able to feel them in the center of the filet. A good pair of tweezers will do the trick. Clean pliers work, in a pinch. Get it? Pinch? Sorry. To make the bones easier to get at, drape the salmon on the dome of an overturned bowl. Not fussy? You can also leave them in, if you don’t mind picking them out while you eat. But if you’re having company over, we suggest removing them first.
  • Leave the skin on if you’re using the stove-top method below. If you’re using the parchment method, remove the skin. You can do that yourself, though a good fishmonger will do it for you if you ask nicely. 

SIMPLE ON THE STOVE

  1. Heat some olive oil in a skillet (Nancy prefers nonstick) over medium-high heat. They say don’t cook on very hot temperatures with olive oil, but Nancy shrugs at “them” — using non-fancy, big-bottle stuff from Costco. 
  2. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on the pink flesh of the fish, to your liking. Just a little will do; you can add more later if you need it. 
  3. Lightly dredge the salmon in flour. Any will do, but Wondra flour (the kind in the blue canister that people use to thicken gravy) is good. So is rice flour. This step is optional, and will be helpful if you are not using a non-stick pan.
  4. Place the filet flesh-side down to start. If you’re cooking more than a single filet, don’t crowd the pan.
  5. And don’t move the fish at first, just let it sear against the heat of the pan for several minutes. It’s normal if it sticks a little. When it’s ready, it will dislodge from the pan with the slightest nudge. When that happens…
  6. … flip the salmon over to the skin side and give it another couple minutes.
  7. It’s done when it flakes easily with a fork. Transfer to a plate, let it cool for a couple minutes, then enjoy. 

SALMON IN PARCHMENT: This method is good for when you have company, because you can prepare the salmon earlier in the day, keep it in the fridge till guests arrive, then just pop it into the oven shortly before you sit down to eat. It also makes for a showy presentation. You’ll need some parchment paper for this, and it works best with slender filets of salmon. Our version is pretty simple, but you can also dress it up a little.

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees (400 if you’re using a toaster oven). Pull a good-sized square of parchment paper off the roll and fold it in half.
    er_salmon_5.jpg

  2. Starting at the folded side, cut half a heart shape, “like you’re in kindergarten, and you’re making valentines,” Nancy says. When you unfold it you should have a full heart.
    er_salmon_6.jpg
  3. Place the salmon fillet up against the crease of the heart so you can easily fold it over. Add whatever seasoning makes you happy. We used a crushed clove of garlic, a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper and some lemon zest.
    er_salmon_10.jpg
  4. Fold half the parchment over the fish, and starting at the curved end of the heart, crimp the edges together — like you’re making a paper calzone.
    er_salmon_4.jpg
  5. Bake for about 12 to 15 minutes. Thicker and fattier cuts will take longer than the thinner and leaner cuts. Look for the tell-tale puffing of the parchment as an indicator that it’s done.
  6. When done, cut open the parchment and serve in the pouch. Listen as your guests say, “Oooh!” before the satisfied silence of people eating great food sets in around the table.

Nancy Leson is KNKX’s food commentator and a Seattle-based food writer, cooking instructor and public speaker. Find her at nancyleson.com. Ed Ronco hosts All Things Considered weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. “Food” airs monthly on KNKX.

Ed Ronco came to KNKX in October 2013 as producer and reporter for KNKX’s Morning Edition. Ed started in public radio in 2009 at KCAW in Sitka, Alaska, where he covered everything from city government, to education, crime, science, the arts and more. Prior to public radio, Ed worked in newspapers, including four years at the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, where he covered business, then politics and government.