THE FOODIE FILES: The Wisest Catch

By on August 23, 2016

How to raise your salmon IQ and help protect the fish and water of Bristol Bay.

Left: Wild salmon from Alaska is a sustainable source of seafood.(Photo: Chris Miller)

Left: Wild salmon from Alaska is a sustainable source of seafood.(Photo: Chris Miller)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – What’s for dinner? How about we find a nice salmon filet, throw it on the grill, and slather it with my new favorite sauce—a spicy cilantro chutney I’ve been making as fast as my cilantro grows. Easy right?

The hardest part of this recipe is choosing which salmon to buy. Fresh or frozen? Alaska or Atlantic? What about farmed vs. wild? Should you fork over the extra dough for wild-caught salmon? Should you look for organic salmon? And what about toxins?

Learning a few basic facts about how salmon travels from stream to plate will not only raise your salmon IQ, it will help you choose the most healthful and consciously raised salmon available.

Surprising protocol

Consider this: America exports about three billion pounds of all the seafood we catch. Most of our wild-caught, Alaskan salmon is sent overseas where foodies in China, Korea and Japan have a huge appetite for high quality fish. Asians consume twice as much fish as we do, and they are willing to pay top dollar for our wild salmon. Most of the salmon Americans eat is imported from other countries and is usually an inferior, farmed product.

Meet Matt Luck, an Alaska fisherman out to help save Bristol Bay. (Photo: Bob Waldrop)

Meet Matt Luck, an Alaska fisherman out to help save Bristol Bay. (Photo: Bob Waldrop)

In addition, salmon caught in Alaska often gets frozen and sent to China where cheap labor makes it more cost effective to process the fish in a factory there. It’s defrosted, deboned, filleted, refrozen and shipped back to the United States for distribution. How’s that for racking up food miles?

One of the problems with all this foreign fish swimming up through the food supply to our plates is that most of it is not what it is supposed to be. In a study released in October of 2015, researchers at Oceana, an independent conservation group, analyzed the DNA of fish labeled “wild” from grocery stores and restaurants. They found that two-thirds of all of our imported seafood is mislabeled. The most common fraudulent fish? Salmon. Forty-three percent of the salmon labeled “wild” purchased by Americans is actually farmed fish.

It’s enough to make you give up on eating salmon altogether. But if you choose the right salmon and you have the purest, cleanest protein possible, one that’s packed with heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, it’s easy to prepare and utterly delicious.

Rules to eat by

Buy wild salmon. When it comes to choosing a more healthful salmon, all nutrition experts agree that wild salmon is better than farmed. Most farmed salmon are raised in a pen, fed pellets of fish meal laced with additives to make the flesh pink, given antibiotics to fend off sea lice, and have never had the exhilarating experience of swimming upstream in nascent cold water habitat. Very few salmon farms are producing a high quality, sustainable product. Wild salmon is generally more expensive than farmed salmon, but this is one food choice where the higher price tag really pays off.

Organic salmon? No American fish or seafood of any kind should be labeled “organic” or “certified organic” since the USDA has not yet set standards for aquatic species. If salmon is labeled “organic,” it’s probably farmed salmon from Europe.

Buy American salmon, preferably from Alaska. Most salmon labeled “Atlantic” are farmed overseas. Bristol Bay in Alaska is the largest, sustainable sockeye salmon fishery in the world. The United States does a better job than most countries managing wild fish, with strict quotas in place to avoid overfishing. Real Alaskan salmon should be easily traced to its stream of origin. In fact, every type of seafood you buy, if it’s legit, should be labeled with its place of origin, whether it is wild-caught or farmed, and whether it is fresh or previously frozen.

Buy salmon in season. Just like asparagus and peaches, there is a season for wild salmon. Wild salmon purchased in season—between June and August for most Alaska fishermen—is less expensive and less likely to be mislabeled.

Take a moment to download the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app. It’s a complete, up-to-date guide covering every type of seafood, classifying each as either a best choice, a good alternative, or a species to avoid due to fishing practices, environmental factors, or sustainability issues.

Fishing for salmon in Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay.(Photo: Chris Miller)

Fishing for salmon in Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay.(Photo: Chris Miller)

Frozen is often better than fresh. No fish is truly fresh here unless you catch it yourself or it is overnighted on ice by Fed Ex. The best way to preserve salmon is to flash freeze it immediately after catching. Salmon labeled “fresh” at the fish market or grocery store has probably been frozen and then defrosted prior to sales.

Make friends with your fishmonger. We are lucky to have a handful of reliable local fish purveyors who are sourcing high quality, sustainable seafood. Kudos to Jackson Whole Grocer for using the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guidelines to categorize their seafood. The fishmongers at Pearl St. and Aspens Markets are keen on sourcing the most sustainable seafood, and can trace each product back to its origin. Liquor Down South takes orders from customers to source seafood from independent fishermen.

Support a good cause, fill your freezer

Ordering wild Alaska sockeye salmon at a great price just got easier, thanks to a collaboration between Slow Food in the Tetons, the local chapter of Trout Unlimited, and the organization Pride of Bristol Bay. Fisherman Matt Luck, of Ketchum, Idaho, launched Pride of Bristol Bay as a commercial fishing business that gives back. He will be helping us stock our freezers at the People’s Market later in August by taking orders for this year’s catch. Luck will be back at the end of September for delivery. After devouring a side of Luck’s sockeye salmon, I can attest to the fact that this is the freshest-tasting, cleanest salmon you can buy.

Pride of Bristol Bay donates 10 percent of proceeds from the sale of its salmon to Trout Unlimited and Save Bristol Bay, two organizations fighting to stop a large-scale mining operation in Bristol Bay for almost 10 years. It turns out Bristol Bay, the place where our national treasure of wild salmon are caught, is sitting on a gold mine, an estimated 66 billion dollars in gold and copper. The Pebble mine, if developed, would be one of the largest mines in the world. And because of its location and size, it runs a high risk of polluting Bristol Bay.

When I caught up with Luck last week, he was encouraged by the fact that two major investors in the proposed mine had pulled out. Efforts to keep the multinational group of developers from mining the area have become what Luck calls “a poster child for collaboration” between the 17 native Alaskan villages that depend on salmon fishing, the commercial fishing industry, and Katmai National Park. But Pebble mine, he says, is always a threat. Luck witnessed firsthand the devastating effect of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989. He says he will keep fighting to protect what he loves. “At this point, I’ve been a commercial fisherman for over 40 years,” he said. “I’m 60 years old. For me, this is a passion project.”

Wyolaska Salmon Stock-Up, August 31: Meet fisherman Matt Luck at the People’s Market, taste his wild sockeye salmon, and sign up for your share. Pick up your share at Jackson Whole Grocer September 24. All proceeds from prepared food served at the People’s Market will go to Jackson Hole Trout Unlimited and Slow Food in the Tetons. Ten percent of sales of salmon purchased will go to Save Bristol Bay and Trout Unlimited to help fight mining in Bristol Bay. Can’t make it to the market? Reserve your share at prideofbristolbay.com.

Grilled wild Alaska sockeye salmon with cilantro chutney (recipe below). (Photo: Annie Fenn, MD)

Grilled wild Alaska sockeye salmon with cilantro chutney (recipe below). (Photo: Annie Fenn, MD)

Grilled Wild Sockeye Salmon with Cilantro Chutney

(Chutney recipe adapted from Made in India by Meera Sodha)

Serves 4

1 12 – 14 ounce boneless salmon filet, skin on

Olive oil

Kosher salt, to taste

4 – 6 Tbsp. cilantro chutney

Cilantro Chutney

4 ounces cilantro

2 ounces raw, unsalted cashews

4 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tsp. salt

4 tsp. honey

¼ tsp. ground turmeric

2-3 small fresh green chilies, roughly chopped, deseeded for less heat

Directions

Wash and dry the cilantro. Roughly chop the stems and leaves and place in a blender or food processor.

Add the cashews, lemon juice, salt, sugar, turmeric, and 2 small chilies. Pulse until smooth and pesto-like.

Add water to help the mixture blend if necessary.

Taste; add the last chili if you like it more spicy. Add more lemon juice, salt, or honey to taste. It should taste equally sweet, fiery and lemony.

Spoon into a clean jar and keep in the fridge for up to a week.

Preheat the grill on a high heat. Use a grill brush to clean the grill thoroughly (or else your salmon will stick to the grill).

Turn the heat down to medium. Oil the grill by dousing a wad of paper towel in cooking oil and using tongs to rub it along the grates.

Brush the salmon with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Place the salmon filets on the grill, skin side up. Grill with the top down for 2 to 3 minutes. Gently flip the salmon over and cook for 2 more minutes for medium rare.

Just before serving, slather the salmon with several generous spoonfuls of cilantro chutney. PJH

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About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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