Charred Sugar-Crusted Wild Alaska Salmon
As a Top Chef (read: Tom Colicchio) fan , I was completely thrilled to see the Top Chef crew (Tom Colicchio) in Alaska in its latest episodes. The “cheftestants” (and Tom Colicchio) couldn’t say enough nice things about our seafood. I mean, we Alaskans already know that our seafood is the best in the world. But we still like hearing nice things about us.
Especially when these words are uttered from the mouth of Tom Colicchio. I heart him.
I love ALL Alaskan seafood. Halibut, cod, scallops, spot prawns, king crab…the list goes on. It is THE BEST in the world. But for my money, nothing compares to delicious, healthy, and sustainable wild Alaska salmon. Some of my favorite childhood memories involved a boat, a river, and a fishing pole with a fighting salmon at the other end of the line.
For many years, my Dad would haul my mom, us three rugrats, and our boat down the Richardson Highway south to the Gulkana River to fish for king salmon. While my classmates were heading to Disneyland, SeaWorld, and the Hawaiian shores, my family had more rustic (and budget-friendly) adventures to look forward to during the summer months. Never one to take the easy road, my Dad took camping very seriously. So he’d load us into the river boat and we’d travel up river until Dad found the perfect fishing hole near a flat, sandy beach to set up our COMPOUND.
No joke. Our annual Gulkana fishing trip required no less than four tents: one for the parents, one for the kids, a mosquito tent for cooking, plus a “shower tent,” which was nothing more than a blue tarp Dad propped up for privacy with a fancy (i.e., not fancy) solar shower. It was like showering under a leaky faucet, but it was far better than going without a shower for 6 days.
For most people, tent camping in a campground is an adventure in itself. But our annual family camping trips on the Gulkana were another level of “roughing it.” You won’t find picnic tables randomly scattered in the Alaska wilderness, so my dad would prop up a piece of plywood on dead trees to use as a table. Dining at the river compound was always a treat. Breakfast consisted of eggs, hashbrowns, and bacon on some days, while on others we’d fight over who got to eat the box of Fruit Loops from the cereal variety pack. Dinner might be chili dogs or Dinty Moore beef stew, in the event the fish weren’t biting.
But when they were, we’d eat like Kings. Alaskan kings, to be exact.
As a kid, you never really know how good you had it.
As an important aside, we Alaskans have a bone to pick- literally and figuratively- with farmed salmon. I’m no expert on the subject, but I know enough to never want to eat the stuff. Farmed salmon is full of toxic PCBs, and farming methods pollute the environment and endanger wild fish. In a word, it’s unnatural. And don’t even get us Alaskans started on “frankenfish,” or genetically-modified salmon. Eww icky eww eww.
Wild Alaskan salmon, on the otherhand, is totally natural, delicious, and sustainable.
If you live in Alaska, need I remind you just how lucky we are to live here?! Our majestic mountains, tranquil lakes, and rushing rivers full of salmon. After 34 years, I’m still blown away by the beauty of my home state.
If you don’t live in Alaska, you should come visit, either by plane or by making a trip to your local grocery store. Pick up some wild Alaska salmon and make this dish. Serve it along side some rice and grilled veggies. Your family, and Alaska, will thank you!
Charred Sugar-Crusted Wild Alaska Salmon
(Recipe adapted from Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute)
For the sugar rub:
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 tablespoon paprika
1/2 tablespoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
sprinkle of cinnamon
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
4 to 6 skinless wild Alaska salmon fillets (about 4-6 ounces each)
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
(1) Remove the pinbones from the salmon fillets (I use little needle-nose pliers, but tweezers also work). Generously coat one side of each fillet with the dry sugar rub.
(2) Heat oil in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Place fillets seasoned side down in the skillet and cook for 1-2 minutes (charred is good…burnt is bad). Turn each fillet over, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 2-6 minutes more.*
(*NOTE: How long salmon needs to cook depends on how thick it is. My thin fillets took a total of only 4 minutes to cook, but thicker fillets can take 8 minutes or so. Use a fork to flake and check the middle if you’re not sure. If you purchased quality wild Alaska salmon, I always err on slightly underdone than slightly overdone!)
About Heidi Drygas
Heidi was born and raised in Fairbanks, and grew up in and around the waters of the Chena River. She graduated with a degree in History from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and received her law degree from Willamette University. A lawyer by day and self-taught home cook at night, she is passionate about cooking and creating tasty, uncomplicated food. She is also a firm believer in buying local produce and products whenever possible, and is an avid fisherwoman. She currently lives in Anchorage with her trusty terrier, Milo.