I begin my salmon essay with a confession: salmon is not my favorite fish to eat. That honor goes to the unparalleled, at least in my mind, Gulf Coast grouper. If you have never scarfed down a plate of fried grouper throats at the Bright Star in Bessemer, Alabama or had the Greek-style grilled filet of grouper at Captain Anderson’s in Panama City, Florida, then you have never eaten fish. Book your flight or gas up the car and go to one of those places now – it will be worth the trip. It may seem odd, then, that I would devote an entire article on a fish that, although very good, is not my favorite. As you read my story, though, I think you will begin to understand why.
As I look back on my thirty-one years of existence, I realize that no fish has had a more significant impact on my life than salmon. From a young boy eating salmon in the form of fried patties to the present day me eating salmon a couple of days a week for health, it has always been a part of my life. Although we now view salmon as a “super-food” – rich in the Omega-3 fatty acids that scientists tell us are so very healthy – my relationship with salmon did not begin with a view toward better health. Rather, it began with a view toward a metal can in the pantry.
More than Squishy Fish in a Can
As a naïve and impressionable youth, I believed for many years that salmon came in one form only: a squishy, gross fishy substance in a can. All you had to do was open the can and the contents would “ploop” out onto a plate in a perfect cylinder. Brilliant! It was the perfect kid-food.
The pantry in my home growing up always had four or five cans of Double “Q” or Black Top (and occasionally Bumblebee – which even as a kid I recognized as inferior) canned salmon stacked next to the green beans and macaroni and cheese. It was a staple in our household that was constantly being replenished, because we were constantly eating salmon patties.
I have heard the term “salmon croquettes” used over the years, but not in our house. No sir. We had no use for such highfaluting French-derived terminology. We ate salmon patties in our house – nothing more and nothing less. Sometimes we even called them “salmon panties,” which I realize makes no sense, but if you are familiar with my family’s sense of humor, then you understand all too well.
Very well do I remember the many, many salmon patty dinners served in my house growing up. Whenever my brother and I were asked what we wanted for dinner, “salmon patties” was the response a weirdly disproportionate number of times. We loved them. Both smell and sound of patties frying in vegetable oil are unmistakable to my senses. The result, if done properly (and in my house it always was), is a crisp and delicious fried disc of nothing more than salmon, egg, onion, flour, corn meal, salt and pepper. A well-executed salmon patty can’t be beat. In our house they were almost always served with two perfect accompaniments: macaroni and cheese and green beans. Although I realize that some of the fondness toward this (admittedly unhealthy) meal is a result of nostalgic feelings, I prefer it this way even today, and still love it.
However, man cannot survive on canned fish alone, and over the years I came to realize that salmon lived exciting lives before they were killed and cut up and sealed into metal cans. The turning point for me involved a hungry bear and a National Geographic special.
If it’s Good Enough for a Bear
We have all seen it, and I as I describe it you will inevitably begin forming a mental image: a grizzly bear, standing in the frigid, rushing water of an Alaskan stream on the edge of a waterfall, catching a salmon in its mouth as the fish jumps out of the water. Got it? If not fully, then here’s a good representation of what I’m talking about:
Ah, the wonder of nature! I first saw this image sometime in the mid-90s on the Discovery Channel, which was one of my favorite channels as a kid. There was nothing better than watching a lion stalk an antelope on the African plains. And meerkats – no animal more clever. Those meerkats! As for the bears, I remember thinking that they seemed to really be enjoying that salmon, and I was intrigued. Was it possible that there was a world of salmon beyond the canned mush? What did the bears know that I did not? I had to investigate further.
After some research I discovered that salmon also came in filet form – just like a fishy steak! Wow! I began buying (or, more accurately, my parents began buying, as I had no money) shrink-wrapped salmon filets from Son’s Grocery, and I began experimenting with them on the grill. After a while I became fairly proficient at grilling salmon (I won’t call myself a salmon grill master, but you may if you must), and somehow I became known for it. People travelled from far and wide to try my grilled salmon, and I became a national sensation. Well, that part may not be exactly true, but it should be. My grilled salmon was really good – so good, in fact, that I caught the attention of the local newspaper.
To this day I’m not quite sure how it happened, but one hot Saturday afternoon I found myself grilling salmon for the Daily Mountain Eagle lifestyles editor. She wanted to visit and eat and write up a news story about my grilling exploits, and I was happy to oblige. I thought it would be kind of cool to have a small story in the paper all about me. It would certainly be a more interesting story than the account of “farmer so-and-so who grew the enormous pumpkin,” so I was on board. Well, the lifestyles editor did write a story, but “small” was not what she had in mind. Behold:
That’s right, folks. Full color. Front page. Above the fold. The headline claimed that I was “quite good in the kitchen,” and who was I to argue? I thought it was great. Of course, it did trigger quite a bit of razzing and ragging from my baseball teammates (I don’t blame them – it was impossible to resist, obviously!), but that was a small price to pay for the glory of local notoriety. I’m still not so sure about the “gourmet with a flair” claim, which seemed to be pushing it a bit. “17-year-old’s quite good in the kitchen” it further asserted, and so I was. That part I like.
Salmon, the Later Years
After a while the adoring crowds died down and the reporters stopped camping out in my front yard. I was able to let my bodyguard go and resume a normal life. How does Justin Bieber do it year after year? Fame wasn’t for me, and I was able to resume grilling my salmon in quiet, peaceful obscurity. Whew.
As the years passed I graduated from grilling to pan-frying, which I now prefer. I took a trip up the west coast through Washington and British Columbia and had my first fresh-from-the-ocean salmon. It’ll knock your socks off, but unfortunately is not readily available in Alabama unless you get it shipped in, which is, shall we say, cost-prohibitive. So, we’re stuck with the pre-packaged and frozen versions, neither of which is all that bad.
Along the way I discovered that salmon is one of the so-called “super foods.” Have you heard this term before? It’s relatively new and gimmicky, and I understand that most nutritionists and doctors loathe it, but I have researched and concluded that much of the science behind the super-food claim is accurate, even if the moniker is nothing more than a marketing device to sell books.
Salmon is one of the approved super-foods, containing all sorts of a beneficial nutrients: Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, selenium, potassium, vitamin D, protein and carotenoids. I don’t know what half of those do for you, but at least they sound healthful. I try to eat a salmon filet one day a week, and sometimes two. At the very least it’s a lean meat, which most anyone will agree is good for you, and on top of that you have the aforementioned added health benefits. But hey: no one can claim that I jumped on the salmon bandwagon just because of the Omega-3s. I was eating salmon long before it was healthy and cool.
In truth, there may be tastier fish in the sea (here’s looking at you, grouper), but salmon is no pushover. From patty to filet it’s versatile and can be delicious, if handled properly. My life with salmon began at an early age and continues to this day. I encourage you to fire up the grill or heat up the sauté pan and give it a try. To get you started, here are a couple quick and easy ways to enjoy salmon:
2 fillets canned salmon, flaked (I strongly prefer Double “Q” or Black Top)
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons green onions, diced
Flour and cornmeal (equal parts) to bind (I don’t measure. You will not need much. This is a salmon patty, not a bread patty.)
Vegetable oil, for frying
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1. Heat oil over medium heat in a medium skillet.
2. Combine canned salmon, beaten egg, green onions, flour/cornmeal and salt/pepper.
3. Form into patties and fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes on each side.
Salmon filet or filets, patted dry with a paper towel (You may use frozen or non-frozen here. If using frozen, defrost in refrigerator overnight, or under trickling water for 8-10 minutes on each side for a quick thaw.)
2-3 lemons, juiced
2 TBSP Butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1. Heat oil over medium heat in a medium skillet. Non-stick works best.
2. Season salmon generously with salt and pepper. Rub the seasonings into the salmon.
3. Pan fry salmon until almost cooked through, just a couple minutes on each side. It will not take long.
4. Add lemon juice and butter to the pan and cook salmon a minute or two longer, turning once. (You may experiment with this step a bit and try variations by adding chopped garlic, fresh dill, onions, soy sauce, cilantro, or other herbs/flavorings/condiments to your taste. This recipe is simply to show you the fundamental method. You may experiment to suit your taste. Salmon pairs well with a variety of flavors.)
5. Transfer salmon to plate, drizzle pan sauce over, and serve.