If you've got your taste buds set for some of that trendy Alaska Copper River salmon, get your wallet ready: Prices are reported higher than ever before as the first shipments arrived in Seattle this week, where pricey Whole Foods wanted $36.99 per pound for the luscious, deep-red fish. In Anchorage, Alaska, closer to the source, retail prices were close to $30 a pound for king salmon fillets in what news accounts described as a "dismal" and "grim" catch.
In short, this may be the year that upscale food trends meet sticker shock. "Chefs ... are eager to see the fish but not eager to pay the cost they've been hearing about. They may wait for the price to come down," the Anchorage Daily News reported from far-off Washington, D.C.
Several factors are driving the increase, according to Alaska news accounts: There's still ice in the Copper River, a condition that may be delaying the upriver salmon run; new catch regulations bar fishing around sandbars where the sought-after king salmon lurk; and increasing demand across the U.S. and around the world is pushing nature's limited supply.
The legal season began Monday and will run for a month or two. Even with the limited catch, Alaska Airlines planned to deliver 130,000 pounds to Seattle on Tuesday; the regional airline flew more than 26 million pounds of Alaska seafood to the "Lower 48" last year, according to an airline press release.
I love living in an age when air freight makes it possible to enjoy truly fresh fish even in inland cities, and I'm sure I'll splurge for at least one dinner of Copper River salmon before the season ends. That being said, however, it should be noted that while wild-caught salmon is clearly superior to farmed salmon (all other things, specifically freshness, being equal), many cynics - like me - have our doubts about whether Copper River really trumps any other Pacific wild salmon for quality. (See my June 5, 2003 <i>FoodLetter</i>, "Copper River salmon: Worth the hype?" for further discussion and a taste test.)
Fresh wild salmon makes an almost incredible flavor match with just about any Pinot Noir except possibly a Shiraz-style high-alcohol blockbuster from <I>Sideways</I> country; it's also great with Oregon Pinot Gris, fine with Riesling and lovable with a decent Champagne. It works nicely, too, with a crisp, dry Provence rosé.
While waiting for the wild salmon to arrive, I consoled myself with a tasty treat based on another great wild fish, fresh cod from the North Atlantic. White, firm-fleshed, flaky and sweet, it only cost about one-third of the quoted price for the early Copper River king arrivals. Cod has an amazing affinity for potatoes, and it was wonderful in this variation on an Italian preparation originally meant for dark-fleshed, oily fish like bluefish or mackerel.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two generously)
3 or 4 medium boiling potatoes, about 1 pound
2 large garlic cloves
Italian flatleaf parsley, enough to make 2 tablespoons chopped
4 tablespoons (45 to 60g) olive oil
12 to 16 ounces (roughly 350 to 500g) fresh cod fillets
1. Preheat oven to 450F (225C).
2. Peel the potatoes and slice them very thin, 1/8-inch (0.3cm) or even potato-chip thickness if you can do it. "Blanch" the slices by putting them in a large pan filled with salted water and bring them just to a boil. Remove from heat immediately, "shock" with cold water, then drain them.
3. While the potatoes are coming up to a boil, peel the garlic and mince it fine; chop the parsley, and put the garlic and parsley into a small bowl with all the olive oil.
4. Put the potato slices in a large bowl and drizzle in about three-fourths of the oil, garlic and parsley mix plus salt and pepper to taste. Gently turn the potatoes with your hands until they are well coated. Spread them evenly in an ovenproof pan (I used a flat 10 1/2 by 7-inch metal pan with a nonstick surface, but any ovenproof pan of similar size will do). Put the potatoes in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes, using a spatula to turn them once or twice.
5. At this point the potatoes will be starting to show a few crusty brown spots. Put the cod fillet on top, skin-side down. Coat the fish with the remaining oil, garlic and parsley mix, add a little more salt and pepper, and return to the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes or until the cod is flaky.
<B>WINE MATCH:</B> Cod's pure white delicacy rules out Pinot Noir and other red wines for me, but this dish is fine with just about any rich, textured white, from quality Chardonnay to off-dry Riesling or Chenin Blanc to more obscure but delicious Southern Italian and Rhone whites. It would be superb with the rare but delicious Chateau Musar Blanc, and was a triumph with the Domaine des Baumard 1997 Savennières featured in yesterday's <I>30 Second Wine Advisor</I>.