I tasted my first Copper River Salmon June of 2000 while working in restaurants downtown Seattle, WA. It was life changing to say the least. The color was such a deep and magnificent ruby red. The flavor and texture melted like butter in your mouth. I was transformed. It was expensive even back then at around $20/lb as it had already gained popularity in it's short 20 years on the market. It was definitely something I looked forward to treating myself to when it hit the store shelves. Hard to believe it used to be tossed out or just canned and sold overseas. Now days it's going for even steeper prices as it has gained in popularity and beckons a mass following of die-hard copper river salmon fans.
I love making cedar-plank salmon as there is just something very nostalgic and soothing when I smell the sweet cedar smoking. You can use any salmon, but if you get a chance - spoil yourself on some copper river. This years' prices are looking to range $49/lb for Sockey and up to $75/lb for King! Remember, when it's gone it's gone!
I have included some history on the story of how the copper river salmon came to be as well as my personal go to recipe and pictures. The biggest tip is to not peak when you start to see smoke - as it's the smoke that's actually cooking your fish. If you open the grill, you will lose the heat and smoke…. And you'll have to finish it in the oven which just isn't as good. I do keep a squirt bottle nearby in case I see any flare ups, but if you soak your boards long enough it shouldn't be a problem. Last tip, if you see cedar planks on sale, load up! They don't go bad and they are only a "one-time-use". I've also enjoyed experimenting with vegetables, chicken, steak as well as other cuts of fish.
The Copper River is long, cold, and powerful. This arduous upstream swim requires enormous exertion, and the salmon have to rely on huge reserves of built-up fat for fuel and insulation. This extra high Omega-3 fat content gives the Sockeye its rich, moist, and delicious flavor; as well as outstanding health benefits.
From the first bite, you can taste the difference in the wild salmon harvested from Alaska's renowned Copper River. Silken texture, deep red color, and incredible flavor are born from an epic ritual: every year from May through September, King, Sockeye and Coho return to the Copper River to make the arduous 300 mile journey up the turbulent, glacial fed waters to spawn in their birthplace. This is no easy task and they need to pack on abundant energy reserves to fuel their journey - resulting in salmon rich in heart healthy and delicious fats high in omega-3 fatty acids. This perfect combination of diet and DNA yield a superior color, texture, and taste - not to mention increased health benefits. Copper River wild Alaska King, Sockeye and Coho salmon are truly unique and superior fish you can serve and eat with pride.
Rowley, who was consulting with Seattle-area restaurants about fish, learned about the salmon from Seattle smokehouse owner Erling Nilson, who was buying the fish frozen. When Rowley investigated further, he found that not only was the fish superb, but also the port was less than a mile from an airport, which would allow quick shipping.
“They had the airport, they had a name you just couldn’t improve on, and they had the first major run of fresh salmon from the Northwest,” Rowley says.
But even more importantly, these fish were genetically a cut above.
“The fish have these superior genetics, they just put on a lot of oil,” he said. “Copper River is not a long river — it’s only 300 miles or so — but there are some really tumultuous rapids. The fish develop this oil so they can power up through there. That’s what makes good eating.
“They had all of these advantages, but nobody was marketing the fish fresh, it was all going to canning.”
Of course, there was more to creating the Copper River craze than just slapping a fancy tag on a fat fillet. First, Rowley had to teach the fishermen how to take care of their catch.
“You know when I first talked to a small group of fishermen to try to get some interest in going to fresh market,” Rowley says, “they said there was just no way they could do it.”
High-quality fish requires special handling — they need to be caught alive, bled immediately and iced before rigor mortis can set in. The canning boats weren’t set up for the amount of work that was required.
But one fisherman took the bait.
“About a month out from the season opening,” he said, “a fisherman named Tommy Johnson said he was ready to give it a try. I basically had to educate him how to do all this stuff — just basic things like not letting the fish die in the nets.
“I told Tommy that when the fish come into the restaurant, they needed to have that immediate perception of value. They had to have that kind of luminous quality, so when they open the box, they say, ‘Wow, look at that fish!’ ”
Rowley personally delivered hundreds of pounds of the fresh fish to some restaurant clients in the Seattle area.
“I brought down 400 pounds and delivered it myself to each restaurant,” he says. “I spent some time in each kitchen showing them the fish and telling the story. We’d cut some fillets and when you run your hand down the side it would be coated with this beautiful orange salmon oil. Then the fish went out into the restaurant and right away waiters were coming back saying their customers told them it was the best salmon they’d ever eaten.”
To top it off, Rowley came up with a crazy marketing trick: He started a race to see which restaurant could serve the first Copper River king salmon of the season, a tradition that continues.
“At first, I was the only one in the race but nobody knew that,” Rowley said.
“I’d pick up the salmon from the boat and send out these regular dispatches. And we’d have TV crews, radio reporters, everybody, would come out and cover the arrival of the first Copper River king salmon.
“Every year it got to be more important. One year President Clinton was in town speaking and there were more TV cameras at the airport covering the first salmon arriving than were covering the president.
“Sometimes the goofier the idea, the better it works."
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