The California Cook: Salmon make a welcome return

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

When you reconnect with an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time, it’s only natural that you want to make the occasion kind of special. Maybe have them for dinner. In this case, literally. After a long three-year dry spell, California’s salmon are back — well, at least a few of them are. So the big question now is: How to cook them?

It’s been a tough struggle for a fish that not so long ago was regarded as pretty much of a weekday dinner standby. But after peaking with a 2003 catch that totaled more than 7 million pounds, the bottom fell out of the state’s fishery. By 2007, fewer than 2 million pounds were caught, and the next year it was closed altogether.

It remained closed for two more years until it was reopened this spring, albeit on a limited basis. Only half as many commercial licenses were issued as at the peak, and fishermen will be allowed to catch only 190,000 fish.


What went wrong with the California salmon fishery is worthy of a book. Depending on whom you talk to, fingers point at postwar dam-building, water-hungry farmers, pollution in the all-important Sacramento River delta and global warming. Or any combination thereof.

Whatever the reason, the numbers of young salmon heading out to sea dropped from almost 400,000 in 2005 to a little more than 40,000 in 2009, necessitating the shutdown to preserve the few fish that remained.

But this spring the population looked healthy enough that the federal government decided it was safe to reopen the fishery, at least on a temporary basis. And so, from time to time this summer, you can expect to find California salmon in the grocery store again, although probably only at higher-end stores and almost certainly at higher-end prices.

This is a bit of a role-reversal. In more plentiful years, California’s salmon were blue-collar fish. Enough of them were caught that they could be sold at reasonable prices so even when we didn’t feel like shelling out for the big-name, high-ticket Canadian and Alaskan runs, we could afford to eat wild salmon.

These days, even though prices for Cali kings probably won’t approach Yukon or Copper River levels, they’ll probably still stay high enough that they’ll be a special-occasion meal.

When you’re spending that kind of money on an ingredient, you want to make sure you’re showing it off to its best advantage.


Probably my single favorite way to cook salmon is one I learned from cookbook writer Paula Wolfert (who, in turn, credits celebrated French chef Michel Bras). It makes a salmon that is beautifully colored, deeply flavored and almost buttery in texture — and that’s as good served cold as it is right out of the oven. What could be better?

How about the fact that it’s one of the easiest fish dishes you’ll ever find. Here’s all you do: Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Put the salmon on a baking sheet. Put a baking pan on the floor of the oven (or on the lowest rack) and fill it with boiling water. Cook. Yup. That’s it.

The salmon is done when it begins to flake, about 20 minutes. But don’t expect it to be falling-apart done; it’s firmer than that. Also, don’t pay any attention to the color; it only changes a little bit. It will still be far more orange than you’re probably used to (definitely not as pink as the color called “salmon”).

You will probably see little dots of white stuff come to the surface — that’s just albumen breaking from the muscle. Brush the cooked fish with a pastry brush moistened with oil and they wipe away easily.

I usually serve salmon prepared this way with some kind of a flavored mayonnaise — an authentic Green Goddess is terrific (don’t leave out the anchovies!), but lately I’ve been favoring one made with dill and Dijon mustard.

Because this salmon is so good cold, you can flake any leftovers into a salad. I always fix a little more than I think I’m going to need for just that purpose. Unfortunately, it tastes so good I still only have leftovers about half the time.


My other favorite way to cook salmon is one I learned many years ago from Thomas Keller of the French Laundry. He wrote about it a couple of months ago in his Master Class column, but it’s worth revisiting.

To prepare this crisp-skinned salmon, start by drying the skin. Use the dull edge of a knife like a squeegee, wiping it back and forth to force out any moisture that is lurking, wiping the blade every now and then with a paper towel.

When the skin is sufficiently dry, crisp it by cooking the salmon skin-side down in a hot nonstick pan slicked with just a little oil. Let it develop a nice dark sear; turn it only once you see the lighter “cooked color” come about one-third of the way up the fillet. Once that happens, flip the salmon onto the flesh side and remove the pan from the burner. The reserved heat in the pan will finish the cooking.

This results in salmon that has skin so crisp it’s almost a wafer — think salmon-skin sushi roll — but meat that is still moist. That’s an unbelievable combination. Be sure to serve it skin-side up to keep it crisp.

As with the oven-steamed fish, this is more a building-block technique than it is a specific recipe. At a restaurant like the French Laundry, it is usually served very simply in small bites, with a few tiny vegetables for garnish. When you’re going to be eating 25 courses, that’s more than enough.

At my house the menu is more limited, so I like to pair it with ingredients that have some heft — on a bed of bacon-flavored lentils, for example. And because the salmon is so rich, folding some slightly bitter dandelion greens into the lentils at the last minute balances the dish nicely.


After all, it’s been three years; you want to make the evening special.