Aka butter your damn salmon aka special salmon butter
By Rachel Hergett EBS COLUMNIST
“How many people randomly show up in Juneau?” I asked my dad a couple weeks ago, before doing just that on the heels of a trip accompanying a friend up the Alaska Highway to her new home in Alaska. It was a last-minute adventure and the more than 2,000 miles of driving, up past Calgary, through Banff and Jasper national parks and all the way up into the Yukon Territory, made Alaska feel exceptionally remote.
“More than you’d think,” Dad said. Most, however, don’t drive.
The last time I was in Alaska was nearly 30 years ago, when my dad and stepmom’s Forest Service jobs were based in Sitka. They had a motor boat, but it was broken when I arrived; keeping the boat afloat seems to be an ongoing struggle. Instead, Dad produced a small, open-backed inflatable dinghy with a motor attached to its flat wood floor. The thing didn’t seem seaworthy. I don’t remember much about being out on the water that day, except for the terror. Barely on top of the water, child Rachel was stunned into silence, staring into a field of giant pink jellyfish.
Other memories that stand out from that trip to Sitka mostly revolve around food. They include crab omelets smothered in hollandaise (a dish my dad and stepmom have made a house staple in the years since) and the taste of the salmon that went straight from boat to grill.
So when asked what I wanted to do in Juneau, my first response was, “I want to go out in the boat.” I was given a choice between whale watching—the boat’s true purpose, according to my step-mom, Pam—and fishing. “Both,” I said, but was warned that if fishing was on the docket, we were bringing along “Deckhand Dave” and his family. Dave would be focused on the catch and whale watching would not be a priority. The fish, however, seemed to want to be in the boat. I landed a bonus halibut while trolling for salmon, and we ended the day with a haul of fish—enough that Dave announced we could now dedicate the craft to spotting and photographing humpback whales. This, I’m told, is unheard of.
We saw many whales doing whale things, but maybe I am more like Dave than expected. I couldn’t get my mind off the salmon. I am sure my mouth was watering as Dave expertly fileted each of those fish, giving me some salmon belly and halibut cheek for sushi before splitting up the catch between the two families. One was also gifted to the next-door neighbor, as seems to be the Alaska way.
I arrived home last week with a box of salmon, and I’ve gone through most of it. One friend asked if he could cook some for his birthday and created a glaze with miso paste and mirin. It was the next best thing to what every person I’ve polled from the Alaska trip knows to be true: “Always put butter on your damn salmon.”
The French tendency to enhance the flavor of dishes by adding butter works exceptionally well with the fish. Most recipes I have floating in my head call for butter with herbs or other ingredients blended in to enhance the flavor. This is known as a “compound butter” if we’re getting fancy, “beurre composé” in French.
My mom makes one with anchovies, capers and lemon that adds a tangy contrast to the salmon. My family in Alaska seems aligned in their tastes, grilling the salmon with garlic butter, lemon pepper and cayenne for sweet spice. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes on medium heat, Dad says. My brother tells me the secret is drizzling honey on top a couple minutes before you take it off the grill.
“Absolutely don’t overcook it,” Dad texts when I ask for tips. “Cook it just until it flakes back with a fork. No more.”
Dave’s son Drew, who came along for the fishing trip, told me he is partial to the crispy skin from pan-frying salmon then finishing it in the oven until the internal temp is around 130F. He starts the fish skin-side down in a pan prepped with herbs like thyme and rosemary, lemon slices, and—you guessed it—butter.