The last few weeks have been incredible - salmon are returning to spawn in the rivers and creeks where we live, and almost every day we have been going to catch some. Being in the presence of uncountable fish, watching more and more of their dead bodies wash up on the shore every day, watching their bodies shake with release as they ejaculate onto eggs or lay them and tease and fight with each other. Witnessing the fall salmon runs is essential for anyone living in the northwest to understand how truly filled with wild aliveness and magic this land can be – needs to be. In this post I want to talk about some of the amazing ways we have discovered to utilize (preserve, eat) these salmon’s bodies.
WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?
The largest intact run of salmon here are Dog salmon, also referred to as Chum, or Keta. Commercially they are not a species of much value – their flesh is pale and has a low oil content, unlike the deep red, oily Sockeye salmon people are accustomed to. Perhaps the fact that they have been less intensively fished is why there are more of them around these parts still (Sockeye are nearly extinct in the local rivers). Traditionally, though, Dog salmon were extremely important to the indigenous people of this area - the low oil content of their flesh, wich is especially low when they are returning to spawn in the rivers, makes it much more preservable, as fish oils go rancid fairly easily. It was the main fish used traditionally for dried salmon. They are also huge, and beautiful – most of the salmon we have been catching and preserving are Dogs, but the methods described here can be applied to any salmon, and most other fish for that matter.
Drying / Using the whole body
We have played around a bit with smoking salmon to preserve it, but haven’t really liked the results for the most part – salmon dried without smoke is much easier to eat as a staple, much healthier, too. A small 8ft by 8ft cabin with a woodstove in it serves as out drying house, or dehydrator – any heated room will do though for drying salmon (or any meat), I’ve talked to folks that have dried it in basements with small electric heaters before.
After gutting the fish (save those organs, eggs/sperm!) we cut their heads and tails off and filet them – which means cutting the flesh off of the fish along each side of it’s backbone, getting two large slabs and having the spine/backbone left behind. We then slice the filets into thin strips – 1/2 inch thick at the most, then either sprinkle abit of salt on them (to help them dry faster, add deliciousness, discourage parasites) or just hang them up to dry without. It usually takes two days to dry fully for us. Now we have the back bone and the skins left over – the backbone should be dried along with the flesh, it can be made into a nutritious bone broth at a later date. Some of the really nice skins we tan (more on that soon), others we have started drying along with the backbones – they can be used to make broths as well and will add lots of gelatin. Tails can be dried for soup, too.
We have also gotten quite excited about dried eyes. The process is pretty simple – cut the eyes out of the head (after you’ve done it a couple times it takes seconds), then hang them or plop them on a screen in the drying house. They take just a couple days. They taste really good dried, salty, dense with minerals and all sorts of stuff that our eyes need to function – way too amazing.
Eggs can be dried like this also – find a suitable, food grade screen and spread them out on it, outrageously good! Store them someplace cool cause they are pretty oily, so I don’t know how long they will keep. We haven’t dried any semen sacks yet, they are really good fried up in fat though – along with the hearts and livers. Fish eggs are obviously quite delicious cooked also.
Heads can be, should be, made into fish head broth – possibly one of the most delicious broths ever. Plop a few heads in to a big pot, cover with water and simmer for 3 hours and up (longer means stronger). After it’s done brewing, we strain the broth, it’s sometimes nice to not have to pick all those head bones out while eating soup.
Being freshwater fish for part of their lives, salmon are carriers of a few potentially harmful parasites – tapeworms and the anasaki worm most notably. If you are worried, freeze your fish for a couple weeks, cook it, or salt it. Drying actually kills anasaki worm larvae, and might destroy the viability of tapeworm cysts. I will have a post on parasites up here soon – do your own research and figure out what feels best to you.
Salmon are so filled with aliveness – with strength and struggle, tremendous amounts of unquestioning, uncomprimising life force that works in every way towards making this earth a more fertile, beautiful place. We have so much to learn from them.