Food for Thought
---- — Here is a recipe to re-instate the once traditional Fourth of July salmon.
Harold McGee, in On Food and Cooking, offers some fascinating facts on this favorite fish. Salmon, one of the oldest fish, was apparently swimming around 100 million years ago. Carnivores born in fresh water, salmon head to the sea to mature, and return to freshwater to spawn. Trout, in the same family as salmon, evolved when groups of Atlantic and Pacific salmon couldn’t make it back to the sea, and became landlocked.
Salmon is orange, according to McGee, “due to astaxanthin, a chemical relative of the carotene pigment that colors carrots.” In salmon’s case, astaxanthin comes from tiny crustaceans meals. Most fish have astaxanthin, but store it in their skin and ovaries. Salmon store it in their muscle. When heated, as in broiled, grilled or poached — all the delicious ways we cook salmon — astaxanthin produces volatile molecules that resemble those found in some fruits and flowers. This, apparently, is why we love the taste of salmon.
Although the image lingers, Fourth of July salmon and peas had only a brief run as a food tradition. For a short time after the American Revolution, harvest of the season’s first peas coincided with Atlantic salmon’s arrival at river mouths preparing to spawn. Yet, food historian Sandy Oliver claims that a cold spell gripped New England in the 18th century. Indeed, NASA scientists describe a Northern Hemisphere “Little Ice Age” beginning in 1550 and lasting until 1850, with three stages of cold spells in between. In 1816, Oliver says, Maine saw snow in June and a killing frost in July. July peas, she guesses, were rare in those years, making Fourth of July salmon and peas a treat only from mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, when Atlantic salmon stocks began their tragic decline. By the 1940s, Oliver says, Penobscot Bay salmon were just about gone.
According to NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources, Atlantic salmon were once native to almost every river north of the Hudson River; now wild populations exist in only 11 rivers. A 2006 evaluation put Atlantic salmon’s risk of extinction between 19 percent and 75 percent.
Still, the Alaskan wild salmon fishery is thriving; even previously frozen wild salmon is delicious. My neighbor, Heather Ritchie, recently offered me this recipe, which we prepared for a potluck dinner. Not only did it vanish quickly, but, the ultimate test of recipe-worthiness, more than one person asked for the recipe. The distinctive crust of hazelnuts, faint sweetness of honey and brightness of basil aren’t traditional, but that pea thing was apparently just a climactic aberration. This gives salmon a whole new outfit.
Salmon with Hazelnuts, Honey and Fresh Basil
Serves 4 to 6
Grapeseed, safflower, or olive oil to coat pan
2 pounds salmon fillet
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 cups roughly crushed hazelnuts (don’t worry about removing skins.)
2 teaspoons olive oil for drizzling
1 cup basil, chiffonaded
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a rimmed baking sheet or jelly roll pan in one of the three oils. (Heather Ritchie prefers one with a high smoke-point.)
Rinse fish, and pat dry. Lay in pan skin-side down. If there is a thin end, tuck it under so that the fillet is even in thickness.
Drizzle honey over the fish flesh. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover with hazelnuts. Drizzle oil over nuts to guarantee they toast. Sprinkle basil chiffonade over all.
The basil will brown when cooking. If that is undesirable, add it half-way through the cooking time. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the fish is lightly brown, and just beginning to flake.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.