The Bristol Bay sockeye salmon harvest, a long-standing annual event – 130 years old – is set to break records this month. Home cooks and chefs look forward to July, when the wild salmon run occurs in the crystal clear waters of Bristol Bay.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts more than 75 million sockeye salmon will return to Bristol Bay this summer, crushing the largest salmon run on record. If the pre-season prediction comes true, this year will be about double the norm. To put this into context, Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon is the largest wild salmon fishery in the world.
“Salmon is more than a delicious and nutritious source of protein,” said Lilani Dunn, Marketing Director of Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon. “It is also part of… life, an essential livelihood and the foundation of the health of fishermen in Bristol Bay. This bountiful and record harvest is the result of careful attention to sustainable fishing practices.
If you are a salmon lover, you know that wild sockeye salmon are a fish of another color, literally! The bright red color is a distinguishing factor and comes from their natural diet. The red color reflects the amount of carotenoids – the same pigment that gives color to carrots – that the fish has consumed. [The pale orange color in farm-raised salmon comes from carotenoid supplements that the fish are fed and that is why there is such a big difference in color.]
I love grilling salmon and my favorite summer preparation can be served as a salad on a bed of arugula or served as a salmon dip with crackers. Fresh salmon is enhanced with brine, grill, whiskey and everyone’s favorite salmon toppings: cream cheese, sour cream, capers and shallots.
The first step is to make a Scotch-whisky flavored brine to infuse and season the fish. Because the fish is fresh and the season is warm, a light, unpeated whiskey works best. I use The Classic Laddie from Bruichladdich which has a crisp flavor with no smoky notes. (You wouldn’t want to use a peated whiskey smoked in brine for fresh salmon, as that would be too strong – use it in the winter instead for a variation of this recipe with my Smoked Salmon Dip.)
The brine seasons the fish and the whiskey adds a slight depth of flavor to the dish. Because the fish is delicate and small, it only needs to be brined for 30 minutes. The easiest way to do this is to pour the brine into a resealable plastic bag, add the fillets and let them brine in the refrigerator for half an hour.
Once the fish is brined, I place the fillets on a cedar plank [or in a small aluminum pan] so that the salmon “grills-roasts” and does not get burnt. This way you really taste the fish at its best. A light coating of olive oil will keep the fish moist – don’t add more salt or seasoning as the brine takes care of that.
Once the salmon is cooked – about 15 minutes of indirect heat – it’s ready to eat and delicious straight off the grill if you’re looking for a simple, well-seasoned piece of fish. But the dip is so good that I usually make the dip.
It’s best to mix the fish with all the other ingredients while it’s hot, so I mix in the cream cheese, sour cream, capers, shallots, spices and a touch of The Classic Laddie while the Grilled fish. That way, as I peel the skin off and make sure there are no bones in the fish, I put it straight into the bowl with all the other ingredients for the dip. I stir well with a fork occasionally as I add salmon. Once I’m done, I give it a good mix again, cover, and refrigerate for 3-4 hours or overnight before removing and portioning into 1/2 pint (1 cup) jars.
I usually serve salmon salad as a “dip” with a highball cocktail made with the same whiskey for summer drinks. It’s a refreshing and sophisticated appetizer/snack but accessible enough to pack in a mason jar for a picnic. It also freezes great (in those mason jars) to take to the beach – it’ll be thawed and fresh when you want to serve it – for last-minute entertainment or to refuel while the sockeye salmon rolls!
The record Bristol Bay salmon run is hitting grocery stores and restaurants this month and possibly into August. The good news is that a lot of wild salmon is caught and frozen immediately so we can cook and eat it all year round. Chances are there is a grocery store in your neighborhood that stocks wild sockeye salmon and you can also buy it frozen online at Wild for salmon.
Grilled Summer Salmon Brined with Scotch Whiskey
Taking an extra 30 minutes to brine the salmon fillets makes a big difference in the flavor of the fish – the brine lightly seasons the fish throughout and the addition of whiskey adds a slight depth of flavor.
Cooking method: indirect/medium heat
2 cups hot water
1/3 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup The Classic Laddie or other favorite unpeated Scotch whiskey
1 generous teaspoon of peppercorns
4 bay leaves, fresh or dried
Ice, about 4-6 cups
1-4 sockeye salmon fillet(s), totaling about 1 pound each
Cedar plank soaked in water (or small metal pan for grilling)
- Dissolve salt and sugar in hot water. Add The Classic Laddie, peppercorns and bay leaves to make brine. Whisk well. Add ice and cold water if more liquid is needed to cover the salmon.
- Salt the fish for 30 minutes in the refrigerator. Remove fish from brine, pat dry and air dry for 10 minutes before grilling.
- When ready to cook, lightly brush the fish with oil, place it in the center of the cooking grate skin side down on the cedar plank and grill for 15 minutes or until the fish is cooked through cooked.
- Make a grilled salmon dip by adding cream cheese, sour cream, shallots, capers, garlic, The Classic Laddie, Tabasco and a pinch of pepper to taste (see recipe below ).
Grilled Salmon Summer Dip
This spread or pâté is so good that I know you won’t be able to stop at just one bite! Serve on homemade rusks or simple crackers. Bluefish and trout are both good substitutes for salmon.
Makes about 2 cups
1 pound brined and grilled salmon (see recipe above)
1 block cream cheese, 4 ounces, room temperature
1/3-1/2 cup sour cream
1 large shallot, chopped, about 1/3 cup
1 generous tablespoon liquid capers
1 teaspoon caper juice, or more to taste
1 tbsp The Classic Laddie or other favorite unpeated Scotch whiskey
Pinch of granulated garlic
3 Tabasco shakes
2 fresh ground peppercorns or more to taste
- Brine and grill the salmon according to the recipe.
- In another bowl, mix the cream cheese well. Add 1/3 cup sour cream and mix well. Add the shallots, capers, caper juice, whiskey, garlic and tabasco and mix until smooth. Taste for seasoning.
- Remove the salmon from the grill. While still hot, break the fillets into pieces, remove the skin and bones and set aside.
- Add salmon to cream cheese mixture and mix until smooth.
- Taste and add more sour cream at this point if the “dipping” is a little dry or tastes a little salty. Adjust Tabasco, caper juice and add freshly ground pepper to taste.
- Leave to cool for at least 3 hours or preferably overnight. Taste again before serving and adjust seasoning if necessary.
- Serve on the cold side of room temperature with cucumber slices, crackers and/or toasted mini rye rounds. It will serve 6-10 as an appetizer.
To note: Do not add salt to this dish because the brine “dirties” the fish before it is mixed into the dip.