Salmon 101…. with a challenge

I used to think that salmon was salmon- it was simply that vibrant pink fish I bought in the grocery store when my food budget had room for a splurge. That was, until I moved here to Vancouver Island and met our friend P.

P, who is part of our care group and previously worked many a summer as a professional fishing guide, is passionate about fish. Jeff and I privately refer to him the “Fish Guru” because he is a walking encyclopaedia on salmon. Before meeting P, I had no idea that different parts of the salmon could taste so very different, that the size/fatness of a fish could impact its flavour so much, or that white salmon even existed. Before moving to the West Coast, I was vaguely aware of the different varieties of salmon but could not have picked a Coho from a Sockeye had my life depended on it. Thanks to P, I now know that there are five main species of salmon found in this part of the world and can tell them apart: 
Pink
Image from finesalmon.com
Pink salmon, as well as being the smallest Pacific salmon, is the most common and plentiful. Pinks live a short two years and weigh up to about five pounds. They’re silver with heavily spotted humped backs, have a pale pink flesh and a very mild flavour.  I have developed a dislike of them because they are so bland and tasteless compared to other varieties. In our part of the world, if a grocery store is selling “Pacific Salmon” and does not specify the variety, it is usually a Pink. Click here for more information on Pinks.






Chum 
Image from finesalmon.com
Chum is sometimes known as Dog or Calico salmon. While it’s the species I am least familiar with, it’s one of the most popular and is the most widely distributed in North America. Chum are popular because they look like sockeye (bright pink flesh) but have a milder flavour. 

Chum salmon have black specks over their silvery sides and a faint pattern of bars, live from three to five years, and weigh up to 13 pounds.  Click here for more information on Chum.






Coho
Image from finesalmon.com
Coho salmon are a bright silver colour, live about three years and weigh up to 15 pounds. While Coho is much less plentiful, it is popular with sport and commercial fishers because the fish feed close to shore and are therefore, easier to catch. Coho flesh is consistently a deep pink/red colour with a full flavour and fine texture.  Click here for more information on Coho.










Sockeye  
Image from finesalmon.com

Sockeye salmon are silver with blue tinges and live approximately five years. At seven pounds, the sockeye is the slimmest of the Pacific salmon but their sleek and narrow torpedo-like shape make them very fast swimmers. The rich flavour of its firm, dark red meat makes the Sockeye the most popular of the five species. Quite simply, it’s a beautiful looking and tasting salmon.  Click here for more information on Sockeye.





Chinook

Image from finesalmon.com

Also known as Spring or King salmon, Chinooks are the largest of the North Pacific salmon. Because they weigh up to 120 pounds, they are pretty popular with sport fishers. This year is my first real exposure to Chinooks and we just love them. While they are pretty to look at (with light spots on a blue-green back), their large size makes them an incredibly delicious fish (fat = flavour). Chinooks live up to seven years but are less popular because their flesh, which varies in colour from ivory to a dark pink, is not “pretty” enough for retail demand (see photo below). Click here for more information on Chinooks.



Colour variation on two pieces of Spring (Chinook) salmon

Last September when the West Coast saw the largest run of Sockeye in over a century, our friend P pulled together a group of friends to purchase and share 700 pounds (accounted in this post about our adventure processing it).  It was my first real taste of sockeye and we loved it- I really do understand why it is the most popular of the North Pacific salmon species. This year, the group reunited to purchase 800 pounds of Spring (Chinook) and 200 pounds of Sockeye and repeat our fish-sharing adventure. With P as our fearless leader (and amazing fish fillet-er), we spent a Sunday several weeks ago processing this half tonne of fish to fill our freezers.

After taking stock of our health and diet (especially in light of my dad’s heart attack this summer), Jeff and I doubled our fish order this year and have set a goal of eating salmon at least twice a week. We now have 110 pounds of fish in our freezer…. and I find myself needing to expand my repertoire of three go-to salmon dishes to give us some variety. I also want to give this fine fish the culinary respect it deserves.


To do this, I have challenged myself to try 50 different salmon recipes and blog about it here.  I hope that through this challenge, I will gain confidence cooking seafood (something that still makes me a bit nervous) and do a better job of regularly including heart-healthy fish in our diet. On nights when I can’t figure out what to make for dinner, fish is the last thing I consider and I want that to change.

So here goes the Great Salmon Challenge!  Stay tuned for the first recipe later this week. 

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