Friday, November 17, 2006

Eating. salmon.

Until we moved to Seattle in the mid-eighties, the salmon I knew was smoked, the peachy-pink, shiny slices of lox that were sandwiched between cream-cheese-smeared bagel halves. I was lucky to grow up here, in the Pacific Northwest, with all kinds of fresh seafood available, from Dungeness crabs which we steamed and ate dipped in saucers of ginger-spiked Chinese vinegar, to oysters which were carefully cracked open, seasoned and floured and then fried in a smoking-hot pan, to silver-skinned fish filleted and steamed with scallions and ginger and soy sauce and wine. And salmon. Lots of salmon. In Seattle, salmon is King (pun very much intended).

In school we would often go on field trips to salmon hatcheries to see how the eggs were fertilized (and later I would often eat sushi topped with salmon eggs - little round eggs a little smaller than a pea, clear and bright orange, they burst open in your mouth as you ate them, like caviar, only more exciting because the eggs were so much bigger). We learned about how salmon were born in freshwater streams, struggled upstream all the way to the ocean to live, and then returned back to where they were born to spawn, thus continuing the life cycle. I seem to recall watching nature films in science class, complete with sped-up footage of a salmon egg being fertilized and then emerging as a baby salmon. (While shopping at the Pike Place Market when it was filled with tourists in weather-inappropriate clothing, I have felt rather like a salmon swimming upstream as I elbow my way through the crowds heading the opposite direction).

At home there is only one way to cook salmon, according to my father - seasoned with salt and pepper, sprinkled with dill and parsley and fresh lemon juice, and broiled until the flesh has gone from bright orange to a paler, pinkish orange, like a sunset in reverse. In college, away from disapproving parental eyes, I would buy small fillets of salmon, glaze them with a little honey and soy sauce, and sear them in a frying pan until the skin was crisp and the fish was just cooked through, a variation on the salmon teriyaki I sometimes ordered at the fairly good Japanese restaurants near my university. Heresy, my father would say, a travesty to do something like that to a nice piece of fish. I may as well buy farmed stuff. (Once, I had accidentally bought farmed salmon instead of wild, and from the reaction I got you might think I had tried to poison my family). But back home I revert to the herb-crusted salmon of my childhood. If I am alone I might toss the leftover salmon with pasta and sautéed slices of fennel and onion and mushrooms, showering everything with finely grated Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese (if I have any lying around) and more lemon juice.

My father is here for the holiday week, and jet-lag notwithstanding he has gone out to buy some salmon, a piece of wild white King salmon steak, sprinkled with salt and pepper (WHY is there no salt in the house!? he asks, indignantly) and dried herbs and fresh lemon juice. There are broiled portabello mushrooms, and shrimp steamed with ginger and scallions and white wine, and boiled sweet corn. Welcome home.

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