Dining Out - Spawning Flavor

by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & opper River salmon is the Chateau Lafite Rothschild of fish, coveted for its unimpeachable quality. It's the migration of the sparrows of Capistrano, both rare and highly localized. The way people talk about it, though, you'd think it was more like Halley's Comet. It's the thing salmon connoisseurs around the Northwest covet most. It's what they fain for. They crave its fatty, firm, rich, nutty flesh, and the yearn drives them insane because, tragically, it's only available for about one month a year. You can only get it, they lament, between mid-May and mid-June during their upriver push to spawn.

Among those anxiously awaiting this run is Jonathan Sweatt, chef and co-owner of the Downriver Grill. He can't stop beaming about this fish. At first I think it might be the salesman in him -- I'm wary because of the insanity with which these fish are marketed and because executive chefs are as much lifestyle brokers as they are food preparers -- but the breathless way he goes on makes him seem less like a snake (or, perhaps, fish) oil slinger than a kid in a candy store.

"They're very fatty, very oily fish," he says, before qualifying that statement, making note of the culinary morons sitting in front of him. "They aren't fatty like greasy. It's a very healthy fat that gives the fish a very nutty flavor." While all salmon are high in omega-3 fatty acids -- the zeitgeisty, piscatorial cure-all that some researchers and all bandwagon-jumpers claim lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease -- the spawning patterns of Copper River salmon make them especially high in the stuff.

That fat content, Sweatt explains, not only makes these salmon taste better than others but makes cooking them much simpler, increasing a chef's options: "They're great to sear because of the oils, and they're great to grill because they're so fatty."

You can tell Sweatt looks forward to getting his hands on these beasts, but for the preparation at Downriver this year, he's handed the reins over to his sous chef, Aaron McEachran, who has a piercing stare and a rock-hard grip. He's extremely reserved without being aloof, and when he tells us what's in the dish, it's as though he's reciting it from memory. "It's grilled salmon topped with a cucumber dill relish, paired with a lemon and caper sauce and served with saut & eacute;ed carrots, green beans and pearl onions," he says, adding with finality, "The starch is roasted garlic mashed potatoes."

The run won't begin for another month, so the dish McEachran gave us to sample was wild sockeye, not Copper River King. Even without the centerpiece, though, the dish said all the things McEachran had not, painting lush vistas on our taste buds. Even prepared with wild sockeye, the flavor is explosive. The lemon and dill are classic complements to fish. The occasional caper adds tang, while the cucumbers contribute a contrasting cool crispiness. Everything works in proportion and leaves the fish as the focal flavor on your palate.

Balance and nuance like that is exactly what Sweatt wants. McEachran's creation is just about as complex as he'd want the preparation to get, says Sweatt: "When you create a dish like this, you really think about the meat. For something like this, as a chef, you want people to taste the quality of the fish rather than some elaborate preparation." McEachran's done that here, and Sweatt promises this is exactly what Spokanites will get once those Kings start shipping out.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & y the time it arrives on that plate of yours, though, covered in that relish, dancing on that caper sauce, garnished with those veggies -- the absolute pinnacle, we're told, of effete Northwest seafood dining -- the fish has been embroiled in countless life-or-death struggles. That's no food-snob platitude. As end consumers, we indulge in the warm, pink, fatty treat of Copper River salmon as often as we can. For the harvesters, though -- and for the fish themselves -- it's a far more grave endeavor.

Once May hits, things get tense around the once thriving village of Cordova, Alaska, located on the Copper River Delta and tucked into the Orca Inlet on the eastern end of Prince William Sound. The river will soon begin to writhe here, straining under the sheer volume of salmon. At the mouth, commercial fishing trawlers tensely await these waves of sockeye, silver and king salmon. This one month's catch will sustain these fishermen for nearly a year. Given the market prospects for other fish here, it has to. Wild fisheries here have been mostly supplanted by farm-stock fish, which are cheaper to produce. The tragedy of Valdez, still ever-present some 17 years later, collapsed a sizeable herring fishing operation.

The salmon, though, are a different story. Seafood wholesalers easily get 16 bucks a pound for this fish (you'll pay upwards of $22 in the store), and the run adds an estimated $40 million to the local economy. In a town and surrounding area where the cost of living is 50 percent higher than it is in Anchorage, there's a tremendous incentive to get as many fish as possible out of that frigid river and onto your plate.

The Kings hit first, early in May. They're massive spawning machines, often weighing upwards of 80 pounds (though Sweatt says the biggest he's seen at Downriver was 68). They, like all river-spawning salmon, have spent the year at sea gorging themselves. Then the Kings take on the 300-mile trip up the Copper River and its tributaries. This process, in which the salmon store up tons of body fat before beginning the trip upriver to spawn, is what leaves them with those wonderful stores of fatty acids. The longer the spawning run -- so goes the conventional wisdom -- the better-tasting the fish (though 300 miles is certainly a hike, the Copper River run pales in comparison to the relatively un-hyped, un-marketed Yukon River run, which is some 2,000 miles).

The blood red sockeye, the smallest but most visually distinctive, hit the delta next. Their flesh is very fatty as well, though not to the extent of the massive Kings. For a sense of scope, an estimated 850,000 sockeye alone passed through the mouth of the Copper in 2005. The silvers come last, generally, and though they're bigger in size than the sockeye, their flesh is generally the least fatty of the three.

Alaska Fish and Game is given the unenviable task of corralling this cacophonous frenzy. On hand with patrol boats and sonar, it's their job to make sure this desperate grab doesn't do irreparable harm to one of the longest un-dammed salmon runs in the country. Thus far it has been incredibly successful. Though an estimated 1.4 million fish are harvested annually from the Copper alone, Alaska's salmon runs are the only ones in the country certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

The tale of the Copper River salmon, then, is about more than epicurean delights. It's about lives lived with hardship in a tense truce with both Mother Nature and civil government. It's about dying industries and disappearing resources. Long, un-dammed stretches of salmon-rich river used to be everywhere up and down the Pacific coast. Local Indian tribes talk about the Spokane River itself teeming with fish. Now there's almost none of that. Now it's one river, one month a year, to sate our lust for quality fish. We've destroyed the rest and now we're paying for it -- at around $22 a pound.

Summer Parkways @ South Hill

June 14-20
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