If, like most of our readers, you’re not here in Klawock, then you probably didn’t know that in addition to smoking, canning and custom processing we run a little pop-up deli and barbecue stand for fishermen and members of the community. More than a few members of our staff actually come from high-level culinary backgrounds, having worked with top chefs in fine dining establishments across the United States and beyond. It wouldn’t be fair to the community to hide all those skills away under a bushel basket, and so we do what we can to offer a tasty meal option for locals on a few days out of the week.
We truly enjoy flexing and developing our kitchen skills, so we’re nearly always playing with recipes and techniques for preparing wild Alaska seafood in the Wildfish kitchen. And, since food preservation is at the heart of our business, we’re endlessly fascinated with the curing, pickling and fermentation arts. This family of techniques has been in use to preserve fish all over the world for centuries, with some recipes resulting in extremely pungent preparations. Consider tepa, a delicacy of Alaska’s Yup’ik natives. Also known as “stinkheads” today, the traditional recipe entails simply burying salmon heads in a grass-lined gravel hole and allowing them to rot for at least a week, until desired funkiness is attained. The technique has also been applied to salmon roe (“stink eggs”) and other proteins derived from indigenous wildlife, such as whole fish, whale, seal, walrus, beaver and some fowl. Since the advent of plastic containers, incidences of botulism have been on the rise in some native communities. Enclosing the fermenting protein in an anaerobic environment (no circulating air) encourages the growth of deadly pathogens, thus the traditional method of a grass-lined, loose gravel hole is actually safer.
We happen to enjoy a bite of the seriously funky stuff from time to time, but we know it’s an acquired taste that a lot of people have no interest in acquiring. So we’ve been playing with recipes on the lighter, less pungent end of the spectrum, such as some varieties of pickled salmon.
If you’ve ever had sweet, tangy pickled herring filets, or savory Nova lox on a bagel with cream cheese, capers and onions, those are a bit closer to the more approachable flavor profiles we’re aiming for. These styles of pickled salmon became part of Alaska’s culinary heritage due to Russian influence on the territory, and we’re going to share one such traditional Russian recipe with you here. We’ve been known to pickle twenty pounds or more at a time, but the recipe is adjusted for the average home cook.
Russian Pickled Salmon
2 pounds boneless, skinless salmon filet
2 medium onions
2 tablespoons pickling spice
For the brine:1½ cups water
¼ cup white vinegar
¼ cup white sugar
¼ cup kosher salt
Rind from one lemon, cut into ¼ inch thick strips
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorn
Bring the water, vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar and bay leaves to a boil, then remove from the flame immediately and stir to dissolve the solids. Allow the brine to cool completely, then add the lemon rind strips.
Cut the salmon into 1 x 2 inch chunks. Place it in a bowl or plastic container, then cover with the cold brine. Since the fish will try to float, you’ll want to weight it with a ceramic plate. Cover and refrigerate for three days. Some may wish to remove the lemon rind after the second day to avoid potentially bitter flavors.
Drain the fish and discard the brine on the third day. Lay it across a clean surface and pat dry with a paper towel. You can also aim an electric fan over the fish for 30 minutes or so to remove the moisture. Slice the onions thin and layer dry fish pieces, onion slices and a dash of pickling spice in canning jars. Pour oil in the jars so that the fish is completely submerged. Seal the jars and refrigerate. The pickled salmon will be ready to eat in a week, but allowing it to marinate longer will concentrate the flavors. Enjoy!