Last week’s newspaper column with pictures.
Early in the 1990’s, my wife, Susie and I joined the ranks of empty nesters and decided that would be a good time to venture out on vacation by ourselves for the first time in 25 years. This was also about the time I was in the process of re-inventing myself and making a move up the Suave and Debonair ladder. One change I was making involved shifting away from my normal meat and potatoes diet.
The two things came together when we walked in on a sale at a smoked salmon packing house on the coast of Oregon. I had some of that salmon for breakfast the next morning served on a bagel with cream cheese. I had never tasted anything like that. I was hooked. Unfortunately, smoked salmon is not cheap so the dish remained pretty much an occasional treat except for those times when we are at our son’s home in Seattle.
Joe has become quite adept at smoking all kinds of meats, including salmon, so I get my fill of smoked salmon on these trips. This week, we are in Seattle visiting with our new grandson. I haven’t mentioned before that our son, Joe and his wife are the proud parents of William Joseph, born August 30, because too many grandparent stories rub some folks the wrong way. I will defer any cute grandson stories for the time when he’s a little older and does something really cute.
Being in Seattle, where fresh salmon can be had at a reasonable price, I asked Joe to teach me the fine art of smoking a good sized piece of salmon so that I could take it home to Indiana. He agreed to give up his Saturday in order to walk me though the process. All I needed to do was get the fish.
On Friday, Susie and I were at the Pike Place market in downtown Seattle, a place where you can buy anything having to do with food, including fresh fish. Joe called and I told him where we were.
“Since you’re there, why don’t you see if you can find a good sockeye salmon? Go to the place across the street from the main building.”
“You mean the place where they throw the fish at you?” I was a bit alarmed at that notion since being able to catch a slippery fish coming at me full bore was somewhat in doubt. But I was too hasty with my worries.
“No, don’t go there.” Joe said. “That stuff is more for the tourists. Go across the street where we had that Cioppino last year. Jack’s seafood, I think.”
“Okay, I know where that’s at. Will they have a good fish?”
“Tell them you want a fresh sockeye. You should get a nice one there especially if you act like you know what you’re doing.”
“How do I do that?” I am not very good at pretending to be something I’m not.
“Ask the guy when they caught it and what boat it came in on, that kind of stuff.”
“Right.” I wasn’t sure I could pull that off but it might not matter.
I remembered reading somewhere that you can tell how fresh a fish is by looking at the eyes. If they’re clear, the fish is good but if they are clouding over, stay away from it. Not being real well acquainted with fish eyes, I had no idea how I would recognize the difference but I was certainly willing to give it a try.
The seafood stand had a long table of fish covered with ice but none of them were of the Sockeye variety. There were signs for King, Coho and Pink salmon but that was it.
“Sockeye run’s about over.” The young man in the rubber boots and apron told me.
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot.” I said, trying to sound as knowledgeable as an ignorant person can.
“Kings make good smoked salmon.”
“Yes, I know they do.” I said with a bit of pomposity disguising the fact that I did not have the slightest notion of when particular salmon ran.
“Let’s take a look at a king.” I had completely forgotten what I was supposed to ask but I still had the cloudy eye check to fall back on.
The young man reached into the ice and pulled out a wholefish, gutted, cleaned and also decapitated. No eyes. How was I supposed to look at its eyes when it didn’t have a head?
People were buying fish left and right and I knew instinctively that the fish was okay but my Midwestern mistrust of open air markets gave me pause. The fish smelled fresh. At least, in my opinion it did but I couldn’t take a chance. I would have to have Joe’s help in finding a fish.
That evening, we went to the Whole Foods market and he helped me pick out about five pounds of King Salmon filets. We returned home and, from his recipe, I made a brine for overnight soaking of the fish. The brine was made up of Kosher salt, sugar, apple juice, brown sugar, seafood seasoning and a couple of spices. This morning, we prepared the smoker while the fish sat on the counter breathing the fresh air for an hour before being consigned to the interior of the smoker.
This afternoon, I am sitting here with my laptop typing this story as the smell of smoking applewood drifts through the open window. I can hear Susie upstairs talking to little Will but I doubt very much that he understands a word she’s saying. One caveat to that statement; I do believe he’s the smartest two week old I’ve ever met. Regardless, my work with the salmon is done and I’ll soon be enjoying the fruits of my labor.
Life doesn’t get much better.