Editor’s note: This column first appeared in the Clarion on Aug.16, 2002.
Every other year, the Kenai River is blessed with what anglers hereabouts affectionately refer to as a “humpy year,” one in which pink salmon return in great numbers. If you haven’t noticed, this is a humpy year.
“Humpy” is an endearing term given to pinks because of the hump that forms on the males’ backs as they near spawning time. Pinks, humpies, whatever you want to call them, they deserve respect.
At an average weight of about 4 pounds, pinks are the smallest of the Pacific salmon, but their aggressive attitude more than compensates for their shortage in the poundage department. When pinks are in the biting mood, and they almost always are, they will grab at most any small lure. On light tackle, when fresh from the sea, they’re the fighting equal of like-sized trout.
Due to the availability and eagerness of this feisty fish, it’s the first fish caught by many an angler. Kids who are lucky enough to grow up near a salmon stream have fond memories of fishing for humpies.
The one shortcoming of the pink salmon is a tendency to mature rapidly after entering its spawning stream. In saltwater, it’s as pretty as any salmonid, with silvery sides and a blue-green back. But when it stops feeding and approaches freshwater, its sides turn to a blotchy white, its back changes to olive-drab. The male’s back develops a hump that only a female pink salmon is likely to appreciate.
These and other changes occur in a period of just a few days, and eventually include changes to the flavor and texture of the flesh.
Pinks aren’t unique in this respect. All Pacific salmon undergo major physiological changes as they approach spawning. It’s just that pinks undergo them a little more quickly than other species.
The finest salmon, regardless of species, is the one caught in its prime, on the open ocean, while it is still feeding. If you don’t have the wherewithal to fish in saltwater, salmon are in the best condition when caught near the mouth of a river.
That said, salmon that are hundreds of miles up spawning streams have fed and nurtured people since time immemorial. As the song goes, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
If for some reason you’ve never eaten pink salmon, you’re missing out on a real treat. The fish got its name for the color of its flesh, which in color, flavor and texture closely resembles that of a rainbow trout. I’m told by someone with a Texas connection that Texans who shun fish that tastes like other salmon will eat deep-fried pinks with gusto.
Anyhow, because pinks are so very much available right now, a recipe is in order.
Between the water and the pan, take extra care with pinks. While the fish is still alive, bleed it with a cut across the gill rakers. When it has stopped bleeding, gut it and ice it down immediately.
Just prior to cooking, fillet and skin the fish. (The skin of pink salmon can give the flesh an “off” flavor.) Cut into serving-size pieces. Dredge pieces in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Dip in an egg “wash” consisting of a lightly beaten egg and 1 tablespoon of cold water. Coat fish pieces with a 50-50 mixture of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and finely crushed crackers. (Carr’s brand “Croissant” crackers are perfect.) Add butter and a splash of olive oil to a pan, and fry at medium heat until coating is light-brown and crispy. Serve with your favorite sauce.
Whatever else you do, do not overcook! Fish is done when opaque all the way through. This fish should end up crisp on the outside, but the inside should be moist and tender.
My favorite sauce to have with fish is tzatziki, an American variation of a Greek version of raita, an East Indian sauce. (If you have Ann Chandonnet’s “The Alaska Heritage Seafood Cookbook,” it’s on page 237.)
2 cups sour cream
1 diced cucumber
1/4 cup diced onion
2 pressed garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt,
1 teaspoon dill.
Mix all ingredients. Chill for two hours before serving.
After dining on properly prepared pink salmon, you’ll come away from the table with new respect for this diminutive but distinguished fish.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.