Wild California salmon are coming; cook them while you can

The California wild salmon season started this week, though the early catch was a little sparse because of rough seas. Still, they'll be hitting stores over the next week or so, and we'd better get them while we can.

As residents of the West Coast, we tend to take wild salmon as a birthright. We take it for granted that come summer we'll have a bountiful supply of fatty, flavorful fish, taken from our own waters.


But even though this summer's catch is supposed to be fairly good, the California salmon is facing a dire future after four years of drought.

This commercial fishing season for salmon will extend as late as Sept. 30, depending on the number of fish caught. That will make it the longest in a decade — but it may be the last good one for a while.

The drought has caused low water levels and warm water temperatures for the last several winters, when the adult salmon return to their home streams to lay eggs.

So while the salmon are in stores this summer, we ought to take full advantage.

I have two basic preparations that I go back to time and again.

The first is a technique I learned from French Laundry chef Thomas Keller. Thoroughly dry the skin of the salmon by "squeegeeing" it with the back of a knife until no more moisture comes out. Then cook the fish on the skin-side only until you see the flesh of the salmon has changed to a cooked color at least two-thirds of the way up the fillet.

This creates a salmon that is well-cooked but still moist and – most important – leaves it covered with a sheet of salmon "bacon" – crisp, flavorful skin.

The other basic technique is almost the opposite. I learned it from the great cookbook writer Paula Wolfert, who credits the French chef Michel Bras. Use a whole fillet. Remove the skin, then place the fish on a cookie sheet. Bake it at 300 degrees with a baking dish full of boiling water underneath.

This makes the most moist, buttery salmon you can imagine, and it retains its bright orange color. This is superb either warm or cold, making it a delicious modern alternative to the tired old poached salmon on the buffet.

Of course there are hundreds of recipes for salmon, but here are nine of our favorites to get started.

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