Hook, Wine & Sinker

A wine lover’s guide to picking, preparing and pairing the savory salmon.

In their life cycle, salmon astound.

Only the strong (and lucky) survive the passage from freshwater creek to endless ocean, followed by a headwater homecoming, there to spawn and die. No wonder salmon symbolize self-sacrifice and perseverance for Coast Salish tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

Of course, on the plate—whether poached, baked or grilled—salmon is the siren of the sea, its diamond-silver skin surrounding the enticing, silky pink flakes.

The mighty salmonidae holds another tantalizing power: They’re packed with Omega-3 fatty acids, which lower the risk of heart disease, cancer and even arthritis.

Rosés and Pinot Noirs are generally accepted as good pours for the pink pesce. But how you cook the salmon should determine the wines you pair with it. 

“The size and weight of the wine should match the richness and intensity of food,” says Erik Liedholm, wine director and partner with John Howie Restaurants in Seattle. “Grilling creates a char that goes with a New World Syrah or cooler-climate Zin. With poached salmon, a rich Chardonnay can be wonderful.”

Salmon have their own superstars—the Copper River and Yukon River runs in April and May. These salmon pack higher concentrations of Omega-3s, and their rich fillets fare best when simply grilled or seared.

“Because of the richness of the fish, you can head to Syrah,” says Liedholm.

See eight other top wine-and-seafood pairings >>>

Pan-Seared Monterey Bay King Salmon, Castroville Artichokes Barigoule

Recipe courtesy Jeff Rogers, executive chef, Cindy’s Waterfront, Monterey, California

Juice of 1 lemon
12 baby artichokes
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley (keep stems)
1 yellow onion, sliced about ¼-inch thick
1 bulb fennel, sliced about ¼-inch thick
2 carrots, sliced on a bias about ¼-inch thick
1 stalk celery, sliced about ¼-inch thick
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup white wine
2 cups vegetable stock or water
4 5-ounce wild salmon fillets, skinned, boned
Kosher salt
4 tablespoons canola oil
4 tablespoons salted butter,
cut into small pieces

Fill a large bowl with water, and add the lemon juice.

Peel the dark green outer leaves from the artichokes and cut off the spiny tops and stems. Cut the artichokes into quarters, remove the chokes with the sharp point of a pairing knife and immediately place them into the water with lemon juice.

In a large shallow pan over medium heat, heat the olive oil until it begins to shimmer. Next, add the garlic, parsley stems, onion, fennel, carrots and celery. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Gently cook until the onions are translucent but not browned, stirring frequently. Drain the artichokes and pat them dry with a cloth or paper towel and add them to the pan.

Deglaze the hot pan with the white wine and bring to a simmer, cooking until the liquid reduces by half.

Pour the broth or water over the vegetables and simmer, covered, until the artichokes are tender when pierced with a knife. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Discard the parsley stems, then add the whole parsley leaves to the pot, and let wilt slightly.

Season the salmon fillets liberally on both sides with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Heat a heavy sauté or frying pan to medium high and add the canola oil.

Working in batches so as not to crowd the pan, lay the fillets gently into the hot oil. Press fillets with a spatula briefly. Add the butter to the pan and baste the fillets once the butter is melted. Cook on the first side until the fillets are nicely caramelized, then turn the fillets over and cook the second side until they are firm and no longer translucent.

To serve, spoon the vegetable mixture into four shallow bowls with a little of the cooking liquid. Place the seared salmon fillets on top of the vegetables and serve with crusty bread. Serves 4.

The Pairing

Artichokes are  a notoriously tricky pairing. But Chef Jeff Rogers at Cindy’s Waterfront, says with this dish, the minerality and crispness of an unoaked Chardonnay is a sure bet, such as the local Wrath Ex Anima Chardonnay (Monterey County). Another choice Rogers recommends: Falanghina—an ancient grape grown in Campania, near Naples. It has notes of lime blossom and mimosa, and a minerality that slices through the flavors. 

See eight more perfect wine-and-seafood pairings >>>

Oil-poached Wild White Alaskan King Salmon with Rhubarb Crème Fraîche

Recipe courtesy Chef Adrian Diday, Bear Track Inn, Glacier Bay, Alaska

4 6-ounce white King salmon fillets, skin on,
from shoulder (tails cook faster)
¼ cup olive oil
2 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic
4 stalks rhubarb, peeled and chopped
in 2–3-inch pieces
1 quart simple syrup
1 quart crème fraîche
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
Cayenne pepper, to taste

Place salmon, olive oil, bay leaves, and garlic in a heat-resistant Ziploc bag.  Put the bag into 105˚F water, being careful not to break the bag (Chef Diday uses a pasta strainer to keep it away from the sides of the pot), for 6–8 minutes (flip half way through) or until the desired degree of doneness is reached. 

Poach the rhubarb in simple syrup for 3−5 minutes, then strain out rhubarb, reserving the simple syrup. Allow the rhubarb to cool completely, then purée it in a blender until smooth. If it is not blending well, add some of the simple syrup until you get it smooth.

Place the crème fraîche in a medium mixing bowl, and allow to come to room temperature. Add the rhubarb to the crème fraîche until you like the way it tastes. Add Kosher or sea salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste. Serves 4.

The Pairing

“I like a very full wine with this salmon,” says Chef Adrian Diday, of Bear Track Inn.

“With its round fruit flavors, the 1999 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet goes extremely well with the tasty trinity of fat, acid and salt in this dish. Also, the astringency of the crème fraîche really works to balance the fruit in the rhubarb, and all the flavors meld and harmonize well with the rich middle of the wine.”


Cedar Plank Grilled Salmon

Recipe courtesy Chef John Howie, chef at Seastar Restaurant, Seattle

For dry rub seasoning
2 teaspoons lemon pepper
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon dry whole tarragon
1 teaspoon dry whole basil
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
2 teaspoons light brown sugar

For the salmon
4 6−7 ounce salmon fillets, skinned
2 tablespoons dry rub seasoning
2 lemons, halved
2 tablespoons melted butter
Italian parsley, to garnish
4 lemon slices

To make the dry rub seasoning, place all ingredients into a food processor and process until well blended. Transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature.

Place the fillets on wax paper. Sprinkle both sides of the salmon with 1½ teaspoons of the dry rub seasoning. Really press the seasoning into the flesh. Refrigerate the fillets uncovered, for at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours prior to cooking.

Before removing the salmon from the refrigerator, soak cedar planks in water for 1–2 hours or until completely soaked.

Place the seasoned salmon fillets onto the soaked cedar plank, then squeeze lemon over each salmon fillet. Make sure the fillets are not touching.

Meanwhile pre-heat an outdoor grill to high. When pre-heated, turn the heat down to medium-high.

Place the planks on the grill, and cover the grill with the lid. Cook for 8–12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the salmon fillet, or until the internal temperature of the fillet reaches 120–125˚F. Remove the planks from the grill and place them on a cookie sheet. Baste the fillets with butter, then garnish with the parsley sprig and lemon slice and serve on a cedar plank. Serves 4.

The Pairing

Syrah melds texturally with the cedar plank dish, in which the dry rub brings out the subtle flavors of the salmon,” says Erik Liedholm, wine director of John Howie Restaurants. “If you’re splurging, choose a Northern Rhône, such as a Crozes-Hermitage. A less-expensive option is Grenache, like the ones produced by Qupé in California or McCrea Cellars (left) in Washington. They have the acidity and depth to go with the dish.”

Salmon Smarts

Wild vs. Farmed

Wild not only tastes better, it’s better for the environment. On the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list, the “Best Choice” is wild salmon from Alaska, followed by wild catch from California, Oregon and Washington. Of the farmed fish, only U.S.-farmed freshwater silver (or coho) salmon earn a “Best Choice” rating, due to the reduced risk of escape and spread of pollution and disease. The aquarium recommends avoiding all other farmed salmon.

Fresh vs. Frozen

From late November to March, there are practically no wild salmon runs. Frozen fish can be tasty if thawed correctly—meaning a slow, two-day process in the fridge. “It can’t be left on the counter or quick thawed,” says chef John Howie. “A whole fish fares better than a fillet. Oilier fish, such as king, transition the best.”

Casting Call

Cooked vs. Raw

Using a digital thermometer, cook to 110˚F for rare; 115˚F for medium-rare; 125–130˚F for cooked-through. Let the fish sit a bit after you take it off the heat to finish cooking. Adrian Diday of Bear Track Inn shares a chef secret for skipping the thermometer: Use an aluminum cake tester to probe the center of your cooking fish. Place the metal on your wrist. If it feels slightly warmer than body temperature, the fish is about 120˚F.

Pacific salmon

First, each separate species has its own unique oil content, so the five Pacific salmons all cook differently. Each species also runs up river at different times, so the peak seasons vary. Here’s what else you need to know.

King (Chinook)
The heftiest, thickest fish, it generally weighs about 30 pounds. Heavier fish often are called Tyee; the record is 126 pounds. Of the Pacific salmon, it has the second-highest oil content, making it delicious on the grill. May–July.

Sockeye (Red)
Smaller than kings, sockeyes average four to 15 pounds. The brightest red salmon in color, they are also the oiliest. Pan searing will caramelize the outside while keeping the thin fillets medium-rare in the center. You can also slow-poach sockeye in olive oil, which enhances the fish’s unctuous quality. June–July.

Silver (Coho)
Its bright-metallic color earns it the nickname “silver bullet.” Cohos can be found from Alaska to Monterey, California. The flesh—more pink in color—isn’t as rich as king or sockeye. It’s best quickly sautéed, although it can also be grilled. July–November.

Pink (Humpy or Humpback)
The smallest of the Pacific salmon, it has a lower oil content than the others. To maintain a rich, velvety taste, pinks should be flash-seared, similar to silvers. Late June–mid-October.

Chum (Dog or Keta):
The most widely distributed of the Pacific salmon, they are generally used for canning. Two runs: summer and fall.

Atlantic salmon

There is only one species of Atlantic salmon (the most popular farmed fish) found between Maine, Greenland and Northern Europe and Maine.  Atlantic salmon can survive spawning and return to spawn in subsequent years. The best catches are February through November.  


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