2017-08-04 / Dishing

Fresh Off the Boat

At Wild For Salmon, today’s catch is tomorrow’s meal.
Michele Marchetti

It’s the first day of July and Steve and Jenn Kurian’s 32-foot boat, the Ava Jane (named after their first daughter), is anchored in a river in the middle of Alaska waiting for the sockeye salmon to show up.

“We’re getting 20 mile per hour westerly winds and 5-foot-seas tonight,” says Steve, owner of Wild For Salmon.  “That really changes things. I think we’re going to start to see the fish really pushing through.”
His crew arrived two weeks earlier for the start of the fishing season, kicked off by a ceremonial meal of the first fresh salmon of the season, cooked right on the deck, skin on, and washed down with a bottle of whisky.

But after a few plentiful days on the water, “the fish didn’t seem to want to go up the river,” Steve says. Life on the boat got so slow, the four-man crew spent an afternoon beachcombing. On their way to the beach, they passed a school of jumping salmon — a welcome sign that more fish were on their way, just taking their time.

“Some people say they’re shaking their eggs loose [when they jump],” Steve says. “Some say they’re watching to see which way they’re going.” He thinks they’re just happy to be coming home.
Central Pennsylvania food eaters, including this mom, are grateful for their annual return — and for the company that delivers a steady supply of omega-3s to our plates.

Thirteen years ago Steve and Jenn joined a friend for some commercial salmon fishing, and Wild For Salmon soon opened its doors. What started as a several thousand-pound catch has grown to last year’s haul of 280,000 pounds. During peak season, the Ava Jane will catch between 15,000 and 25,000 pounds daily. Each year the amount that returns to Pennsylvania — the rest is sold by Leader Creek to a sizeable worldwide market — is growing steadily.

A strict set of guidelines followed from the moment the fish come aboard informs an end product “that’s far superior to most seafood available on the market,” says Jenn, Wild For Salmon co-owner and Steve’s wife.  

The first step is getting the fish out of the net — “not a nonchalant type of action,” she  explains. “You have to pull the net a certain way and give it a heave.”

The salmon land on a slide, a smoother entrance than a bruise-inducing belly flop on the deck. The crew then gills the fish before storing them in refrigerated seawater holds underneath the deck. “Some fishermen just put them in brailer bags on the deck without refrigeration, exposed to the heated exhaust from the engine.” Think of the holds as mini suites with occupancy limits — the fish are evenly divided to prevent overcrowding.

Within 12 hours from the start of each fishing period, sometimes sooner, the fish are offloaded onto a larger crab boat operated by Leader Creek Fisheries, a processing partner that shares Wild For Salmon’s commitment to quality.  (Rule of the boat: If a salmon is accidentally left behind, the responsible deckhand must eat it.)

Steve and Jenn Kurian aboard the Ava Jane.Steve and Jenn Kurian aboard the Ava Jane.

Within 36 hours of sliding into the Ava Jane, the fish are flash frozen and prepared for market. That entails filleting them and sending them through a machine that removes something close to 100 pin bones per fish. Before arriving in Central Pennsylvania, the salmon make a pit-stop in a Seattle freezer facility, where they chill until Wild For Salmon ships them back throughout the year.

If salmon caught in Alaska by a Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, fishery that sells in markets in Central PA doesn’t feel like a true local food story, consider this: According to Paul Greenberg, the author of American Catch and subject of the Frontline documentary “The Fish on My Plate,” a piece of fish in an American restaurant travels an average of 5,000 miles before we get to take a bite. Up to 90 percent of the fish we eat in this country comes from abroad.

Wild For Salmon is yet another reason that food eaters in Central Pennsylvania are among the luckiest in the world. And the same chefs and eaters who are sourcing produce from local farmers are searching for vendors that can shorten the distance from boat to plate. The Blind Pig Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant in Bloomsburg, recently featured Wild For Salmon products in two sold-out “Meet the Fisherman” 5-course dinners. Closer to home, the company’s salmon can be found at local farmers markets and the Friends & Farmers Online Market.

Fresh salmon on deck.Fresh salmon on deck.

The salmon burgers (made at the company’s headquarters) are a customer favorite, but the fillets provide endless options. Steve’s favorite way to eat salmon: rub a fillet with fresh garlic, add some olive oil, cover it with basil leaves and big slices of fresh tomatoes, then wrap the ingredients in foil and bake it on the grill.

Wild For Salmon’s most loyal customers buy the salmon in 10- or 20-pound cases, which makes the wild-caught seafood a little more price accessible. Many of those customers will purchase their first orders at the August 19 “Fishtival” event, a Central Pennsylvania-version of an Alaskan tradition that honors the fishermen once they’re back on shore.

Before last year’s festival, Steve and Jenn worried that freezer trucks transporting the Ava Jane’s catch wouldn’t show up in time for the festival. So they sent some salmon on an Alaska Airlines flight.
At $3 per pound, it was one expensive plane ride. Or a small price to pay for first-class wild salmon caught in Alaska and consumed just two months later by food lovers in Central Pennsylvania. •SCM

Sundried Tomato
& Goat Cheese Salmon Burgers

1 lb. salmon
    (bones and skin removed)
¾ c. crumbled goat cheese
4 green onions,
    trimmed and chopped
¾ c. sun-dried tomatoes,
    finely chopped
¼ c. fresh basil, chopped
½ c. Panko breadcrumbs
1 large egg
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse salmon 5 or 6 times. Add goat cheese, green onions and tomatoes. Mix well, pulsing about 5 times; don’t reduce mixture to a paste.
2. Add basil, breadcrumbs and egg. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well with hands.
3. Form into patties and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
4. In a large frying pan, heat 5 Tbsp. of oil over medium-high heat. Cook for 3-4 minutes each side, reducing heat if burgers are browning too quickly.
5. Slather buns with cilantro lime mayo, place burger on top, top with cucumber and greens.

Cilantro Lime Mayo
4 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 garlic clove, peeled
½ tsp. Tabasco or other hot sauce
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 c. fresh cilantro leaves
1 c. mayonnaise

Blend all ingredients except mayonnaise in food processor until cilantro is finely chopped. Add mayonnaise and process to blend. Season with salt and pepper.

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