To those of you who have watched “The Deadliest Catch,” the Alaska seafood industry may seem tough and dangerous. It is. But this very important supplier of America’s seafood has also become remarkably sophisticated.
Copper River Seafoods, named for the river that produces some of the world’s most prized king salmon, is a good example. As I entered the Copper River Seafoods plant in Anchorage wearing a lab coat, hair net and beard net and after removing anything loose from my hands and stepping into a disinfectant solution, I thought, “Most hospitals I’ve been in aren’t this careful about germs.”
But cleanliness is only part of the story. Plant manager Billy Green told me and other journalists that his company can take fish from the water and deliver it to retailers (individual stores, not just central distribution warehouses) in 48 hours. And to insure that the fish will be in optimum condition when it reaches its destination, it passes through a chiller set at 31 degrees below zero to get the temperature to just above freezing.
The popularity of farmed salmon (primarily the Atlantic species) has forced the Alaska seafood industry to work hard to find ways to compete. One is obviously freshness. But even when you can’t get fresh Alaska salmon, frozen salmon is so good that only experienced seafood chefs could tell the difference in a blind taste test. Frozen king salmon fillets I tested earlier this year were as good as any salmon—fresh or frozen—I’ve ever eaten.
During my visit to Copper River Seafoods, I found out why. Within minutes after fillets are cut, they are coated with a sugar glaze that protects the flesh. Then they’re put in a room set at 33 degrees below zero, which brings the temperature of the fillets down to 18 to 20 below in two and a half hours.
Being environmentally friendly is also part of the modernized Alaska seafood industry. For example, instead of using hot water and chemicals to wash away waste, Copper River Seafoods uses cool water pumped with ozone.
When we flew to Sand Point, a fishing town on Popof Island, just off the Alaska Peninsula, we got another look at how environmentally sensitive the industry is. Alaska Department of Fish & Game Biologist Aaron Poetter showed us an escapement board that tallies the number of salmon that “escape” from being caught at the mouths of rivers and swim upstream to spawn. (Alaska salmon are born at the headwaters of rivers. When old enough, they swim out to sea, returning when it’s time to spawn.)
quotas are set for how many fish should escape into each river, insuring supplies of fish for years to come. If the escaped amount exceeds the quota, another fishing area can be opened. If it falls short, fishing areas are closed to make up the difference.
We were in the first half of the fresh sockeye salmon season, which runs from May to September. Reds, as sockeye salmon are called locally because of their deep red-orange flesh, have the most pronounced flavor of all salmon, too strong for some who have only experienced mild farmed Atlantic salmon. But that robust flavor means sockeye can handle strong seasoning from chilies and spices like garlic, cumin or the Chinese five-spice powder in the recipe below, as well as the smoke and char from grilling.
Asian-Spiced Salmon with Braised Bok Choy
- 4 tablespoons peanut oil
- Four 6-ounce salmon fillets, pin bones removed
- 2 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 1/2 pounds bok choy, 2 medium stalks
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup chicken stock
1)Put 2 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy skillet large enough to hold all the fillets in one layer without crowding. Put the skillet over medium-high heat. Rub the fillets with the five-spice powder. Put the salmon in the skillet, skin side down, cover, and cook for 3 minutes. Turn the fillets over and cook for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the salmon keep warm in the skillet.
2)While the salmon cooks, fill the sink with cold water. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large deep skillet, Dutch oven, or wok over medium-low heat. Peel the garlic. Drop the garlic down the chute of a food processor with the motor running. Scrape the garlic into the skillet and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring once or twice to prevent burning.
3)While the garlic cooks, cut 1 inch from the bottoms of the bok choy and cut off any damaged tops from the leaves. Cut the leafy top half of the bok choy crosswise into 2-inch wide strips and the thicker bottom half into 1-inch wide strips. Wash briefly, but vigorously, in the sink and add to the skillet, without draining. Season with salt and pepper to taste, add the chicken stock, and stir. Raise the heat to high, cover, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes until the thickest part of the stems are just tender.
4)Put each salmon fillet in the center of a large soup plate with the bok choy on both sides. Spoon the cooking broth from the bok choy over the top of the bok choy.