Spring in Oregon is easily the year’s most enjoyable time – if for no other reason than it comes with a slow suggestion that the nastiness of winter may finally be over. In one of those “Charlie Brown” recurring poor decisions, each year about this time I make the same erroneous assumptions: when April arrives, I anticipate an immediate end to the frosty nights – Nope! When May arrives, I expect an end to the cold days with northerly wind – Nope! And when June finally arrives, I always think, “OK, that’s it for rain until October” Nope! No matter of experience brings relief from these misconceptions – I am doomed, just like poor Charlie, to re-live them each and every year.
But spring in Oregon also brings a renewal of the spring Chinook salmon season – not the Oregon spring Chinook season, which sadly has suffered such a sad decline that we live under severe and necessary yearly restrictions – but the return of the Alaska spring Chinook, arguably the pinnacle of the many spring culinary highlights.
We eat a lot of salmon – maybe not as much as we should, but hey, it’s just too damned expensive! (Safeway has Copper River Chinook this week for $20 a pound) And sadly (maybe not so sadly), we have learned to discriminate against bad salmon – maybe bad is too strong a word – OK, poor salmon. We have been weaned away from “farm raised” salmon, and from the inferior species of the genus, such as Pinks and Keta salmon, which now for me simply don’t have enough flavor or richness to be considered, even when they drop to $2 a pound – No, unfortunately, we must have the Chinook (King), Coho, or Sockeye – or we pass up the opportunity. And it must be fresh not frozen – freezing robs salmon of it’s special flavor. Fresh salmon remains one of our permitted luxuries, even if an infrequent one.
I don’t know exactly why, but whenever I cook salmon, I resist doing a simple saute, broil, or grill – and by that I mean cooking plainly and serving with a wedge of lemon or lime. I don’t know why this is true, because salmon is surely one of those foods that has enough inherent richness and flavor to benefit from a simple preparation – it just seems that whenever I’m faced with this question, I want the experience to be something special – and I think I’m not alone in this thinking.
Current among the most popular special ways to present salmon is to serve it with a Ponzu sauce, a Japanese take on a soy/citrus dipping or presentation sauce – now, I don’t tend to rush after the trendy, but in the case of Ponzu, I’ve been experimenting with it for several years now – long before you could find a recipe for it on the web. In those days, you had to settle for a bottle of Ponzu in an Asian grocery, and to be honest, I never found one that excited me much. The early hype for Ponzu suggested that it was made from a special Japanese citrus (yuzu) which was only available in Japan – OK, so the bottled stuff was it for awhile. Then some restaurateurs on the west coast began to serve freshly made versions and the rest is history.
My current favorite version of Ponzu is one that is easy and delicious – I don’t mind toiling over a complex dish, but only if the final impact is both dramatic and unattainable in any other way – and in this case, this version of Ponzu is sufficient to impress with its multiple flavor layers and won’t cause you pain in the kitchen either.
Although I’ve certainly pulled inspiration for this preparation from other sources, their multiplicity encourages me to claim at least a partial ownership here – and I need to tell you up front that this recipe is for a very small amount of sauce, and you may, certainly, double and triple this one if you need to – however, this amount is fine for two servings. I should also tell you that Ponzu is wonderful for any number of other uses – use your imagination, the possibilities are endless!
Salmon with Ponzu Sauce
- 2 6 oz pieces of fresh salmon fillets (with skin)
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
- the zest of your orange
- 2 Tbs sake
- 1 Tbs sugar
- 1 Tbs soy sauce
- 1 ½ tsp lime juice
- pinch cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp water
- ½ tsp corn starch
- ½ tsp sesame oil
- Put orange juice, zest, sake, sugar, soy sauce, lime juice, and cayenne into a saucepan.
- Bring to a boil, turn down heat to a simmer, and reduce sauce by half (about 3 minutes).
- Mix together the water and corn starch, add to the simmering sauce, and stir until thickened.
- Allow to cook for another minute or two, add sesame oil, stir.
- Set aside and keep warm.
- Wash and dry your salmon – make sure the skin side is scaled well (the skin is the best part!).
- Heat a heavy skillet (cast iron is ideal) over high heat until smoking hot.
- Sprinkle about ¼ tsp salt over the surface of the skillet.
- Place the salmon, skin side down, into the skillet.
- Sear for about 3 minutes, but don’t let it blacken – you want crisp!
- Turn and do the same for the other side.
Serve the salmon with the Ponzu sauce either on the bottom or the top of the fish – and sprinkle some toasted sesame seeds and some chopped spring onion over it for pretty.
Maybe it’s me, but salmon is one of those foods that I like in any cooked state – raw, seared rare, or seared until well done, as this one is done. Even salmon jerky is good stuff. BTW, this sauce is magnificent on fresh, seared albacore tuna, cooked the exact same way! But for that, we must wait for the heat of summer – a wait that somehow doesn’t seem that hard to endure anymore.