Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Food and Place, volume 4 (Seattle)

The title should really say 'Pacific Northwest' because in truth, I've only been to a corner of Washington (on a side trip from Oregon) -- unless you count that time when our flight was diverted from Sacramento to SeaTac because of bad weather in Sacramento. We spent an hour or so on the runway (I refuse to call it "tarmac") before finishing the flight.

The subject at hand: What food item is most intimately associated with Seattle (other than coffee)? Well, if you didn't say salmon, something's seriously wrong. Sure, Alaska probably has a stronger claim, but recall that one premise for this series is to write about places I've been. Sadly, Alaska isn't yet on that list.

The Seattle food and wine show was last week. A quick look at the program shows what a deliciously diverse food culture has emerged in Seattle. But I still think of the big river and the big ocean -- that is, salmon -- as the number one food/place association for that part of the country.

Salmon is versatile. I've cooked it many different ways (poached, grilled, baked, broiled, planked, in parchment, etc.). As with most foods (and most other things), simple is better.

The Columbia River Gorge is spectacular. Others have written more eloquently than I ever could about its beauty and power. Interestingly, the Columbia is not just home to salmon, but to another anadromous migratory fish, the shad. According to John McPhee*, a few thousand American shad were taken from the Hudson River in 1871 and hauled to the west coast by train by a man named Seth Green, who worked for the New York Fish Commission. He put the shad into the Sacramento River. They liked it. The shad quickly multiplied, making their way up and down the Pacific Coast. They've done pretty well for a non-native species; the Columbia River is now the world's largest shad hatchery.

Richard Brautigan is a Tacoma native and I recall some stories or poems of his about fishing in Tacoma. Be damned if I can find them, though.

So I wrote a salmon poem myself.

Salmon recipe with options

Obtain a salmon of some weight
The type doesn’t matter
Coho, sockeye, king

Remove the skin
The fins, the head
These may be used as fertilizer for your azaleas

Place what remains of the salmon on a plank
The type doesn’t matter
Cedar, apple, ash

The plank should be soaked with beer
Or ale or malt liquor
Preferably something cheap

Put something on top of the salmon
That will add a bit of kick
Sage butter, balsamic vinegar, strawberry yogurt

Place the planked salmon in a very hot oven
Or on a grill fueled with anything that produces heat
Charcoal, wood, propane

Make everything else (the salad, the vegetable, the dessert)
Because the salmon will cook slowly on the plank
Absorbing the heat, the smoky flavor of the wood, and the topping

The salmon is cooked through
When the following conditions have been met:
The meat flakes easily and cleanly with a fork;
The plank is very hot, probably burnt to black on the edges; and
The guests are drawn to the kitchen out of
Hunger, boredom, or magic


Thanks for listening. Next stop: Kansas City!

* "The Founding Fish" copyright John McPhee 2002


Rob Hardy said...

Love the poem (and I think you nailed the ending on this one), but I'm afraid I've gone off salmon in the past few years. It's somehow lost its specialness. I prefer swordfish, which you mentioned in your Boston post. And on a plank: whitefish from Huron or Superior, secured to a plank with strips of bacon and aluminum nails, then carefully leaned in over a low campfire on the shore of an island in Lake Huron. The fish soaks up the bacon and smoke flavors, but keeps plenty of its own superb flavor.

Jim H. said...

Thanks, Rob.

McPhee says the best way to cook shad roe is to wrap a tablespoon or so in bacon and fry it.

I once had salmon cooked the way you describe (sans bacon), on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River. The chefs were native Americans who made a specialty of these salmon bakes for small groups visiting Portland.

I quite enjoyed your poem from Lake Huron to Crawford.

Bleeet said...

Great poem, Jim. Seriously. Made me think of fish for some reason.