Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Are Running. Catch Them While You Can!

Food & Drink

The harvest of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, a long-running annual—130 years old—event is set to break records this month. Home cooks and chefs alike look forward to July when the running of the wild salmon occurs in the crystal-blue waters of Bristol Bay.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game is predicting that more than 75 million sockeye 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 twice the norm. To put this in 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 the…life, an essential livelihood, and the foundation of health for Bristol Bay fishermen. This abundant and record-setting harvest is the result of careful attention to sustainable fishing practices.”

If you are a salmon lover, you know that the wild Sockeye salmon is 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 carotenoids—the same pigment that gives carrots color—that the fish have 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 to grill 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. The fresh salmon is enhanced by a brine, a grill, whisky and everyone’s favorite salmon garnishes—cream cheese, sour cream, capers and shallots.

The first step is to make a scotch-whisky flavor brine to infuse and season the fish. Because the fish is fresh and the season is hot, a light un-peated whisky works best. I use The Classic Laddie from Bruichladdich which has a crisp bright flavor and no smoky notes. (You wouldn’t want to use a smoky peated whisky in a brine for fresh salmon because it would be too overpowering—use it instead in the winter for a variation of this recipe with my smoked salmon dip.)

The brine seasons the fish and the whisky adds a light depth of flavor to the dish. Because the fish is delicate and small, you only need to brine it for 30 minutes. The easiest way to do this is to pour the brine in a re-closeable plastic bag, add the fillets and let them brine in the refrigerator for a 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 “grill-roasts” and doesn’t get scorched. This way, you really taste the fish at its best. A light coat of olive oil will keep the fish moist—don’t add any more salt or seasoning as the brine takes care of that.

Once the salmon is cooked—about 15 minutes of indirect heat—it is ready to eat and delicious straight off the grill if you are looking a nicely seasoned simple piece of fish. But the dip is so good, that I generally make the dip.

It is best to mix the fish with all the other ingredients while it is warm, so I mix together the cream cheese, sour cream, capers, shallots, spices and a splash of The Classic Laddie while the fish is grilling. That way, as I remove the skin and make sure that there aren’t any bones in the fish, I put it directly into the bowl with all the other dip ingredients. I stir it well with a fork now and again as I add more of the salmon. Once I am done, I give it one more good stir, cover and refrigerate for 3-4 hours or overnight before I remove it and portion it into 1/2 pint (1 cup) jars.

I usually serve the salmon salad as a “dip” with a highball cocktail made with the same whisky for summer drinks. It is an appetizer/snack that is refreshing and sophisticated but accessible enough for packing in a mason jar for a picnic. It also freezes very well (in those mason jars) for taking to the beach—it will be thawed and fresh when you want to serve it—last minute entertaining, or stocking up while the sockeye salmon are running!

The record Bristol Bay salmon run reaches grocery stores and restaurants this month and possibly through August. The good news is that much of the wild salmon is caught and frozen immediately so we can cook and eat it all year long. Chances are there is a grocery store in your neighborhood that stocks the wild sockeye salmon and you can also buy it frozen online at Wild For Salmon.

Scotch Whisky-Brined Grilled Summer Salmon

Taking an extra 30 minutes to brine the fillets of salmon make a big difference in the flavor of the fish—the brine lightly seasons the fish all the way through and the addition of the whisky adds a light depth of flavor.

Grilling Method: Indirect/Medium Heat

Bruichladdich Brine:

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 whisky

1 generous teaspoon peppercorns

4 bay leaves, fresh or dried

Ice, about 4-6 cups

1-4 sockeye salmon fillet(s), totaling about 1 pound each

Olive oil

Cedar plank, soaked in water (or small metal pan for grilling)

  1. 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 necessary to cover the salmon.
  2. Brine fish 30 minutes in the refrigerator. Remove fish from brine, pat dry and air dry for 10 minutes before grilling.
  3. When ready to cook, brush fish lightly with oil, place in center of cooking grate skin side down on the cedar plank, and grill 15 minutes or until fish is cooked through.
  4. Make into a the Grilled Salmon Dip by adding cream cheese, sour cream, shallots, capers, garlic, The Classic Laddie, Tabasco and a dash of pepper to taste (see recipe below).

Grilled Summer Salmon Dip

This spread or pate is so good, I know you won’t be able to stop at just one bite! Serve on homemade melba toast or simple crackers. Bluefish and trout are both good substitutions for the salmon.

Makes about 2 cups

1 pound brined and grilled salmon (see recipe above)

1 4-ounce block cream cheese, room temperature

1/3-1/2 cup sour cream

1 large shallot, minced, about 1/3 cup

1 generous tablespoon capers in liquid

1 teaspoon caper juice, or more to taste

1 tablespoon The Classic Laddie or other favorite unpeated Scotch whisky

Pinch granulated garlic

3 shakes Tabasco

2 grinds fresh ground pepper or more to taste

  1. Brine and grill salmon according to recipe.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix cream cheese well. Add 1/3 cup of the sour cream and mix well. Add the shallots, capers, caper juice, whisky, garlic and Tabasco and mix until smooth. Taste for seasoning.
  3. Remove salmon from grill. While still warm, break fillets into pieces, removing the skin and any bones and set aside.
  4. Add the salmon to the cream cheese mixture and mix until combined.
  5. Taste and add more sour cream at this point if the “dip” is a little dry or tastes a little salty. Adjust Tabasco, caper juice and add freshly ground pepper to taste.
  6. Let chill for at least 3 hours or preferably overnight. Taste once more before serving and adjust seasonings if necessary.
  7. Serve on the cold side of room temperature with cucumber slices, crackers and/or toasted mini rye rounds. It will serves 6-10 as an appetizer.

Note: Do not add any salt to this dish because the brine “salts” the fish before it is mixed into the dip.

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