Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Kaya's Salmon with Blueberry Pan Sauce

Stay with me: fish with fruit sauce is actually a pretty stellar combination.

As much as I love Kaya both as a character and doll, and have a lot of respect and appreciation for the history of the Nez Perce, she can be frustrating to cook for. A lot of the regional treats she would have grown up eating are tricky to find on the opposite side of the country... or a hard sell to my taste testers!

This recipe falls in the latter category, because while my mom loves salmon, my dad, brother and sister are not fans of fish, and my dad hates salmon. I've actually been sitting on featuring this recipe or something like it pretty much from day one of the blog, and the stars had never really aligned until this past weekend. I'm not the biggest salmon fan myself, but I have to admit, this was very tasty and won the approval of everyone who tried it, even my sister's notoriously picky boyfriend!

A few people I've told about this thought putting fruit on top of fish sounded crazy, but read on and I'll show you how it's definitely not.

In the summer, the Columbia River would swell with Salmon migrating upstream to breed, and tribes like the Nez Perce gathered along the banks of the river to fish. Salmon was and is an extremely important source of protein for many Native groups in the Pacific Northwest. It could be eaten fresh, but also preserved well as jerky and could be eaten in the long winter months when fresh meat was harder to come by. Fishing for salmon could be a dangerous endeavor, as the river was so strong and the salmon so large that it wasn't entirely uncommon for inexperienced or inattentive fishermen to get pulled into the rapids and drown. But a successful fishing expedition could mean relatively little worrying about how to provide for your family during the winter! While the men fished, women prepared the fish to cook, along with other food they had gathered and prepared for large feasts.

Today, the Nez Perce continue to hunt, protect and study this traditional food source, working to revive extinct species and protect the population from overfishing, chemicals and habitat destruction. The tribe provides employment for hundreds of workers and is a major part of the economy of the state of Idaho, and has made great strides in undoing the damage done by dams and pollution.

In Kaya's series, Kaya and her family travel to Celilio Falls on the Columbia River to participate in the fishing and trading season in Kaya Shows the Way, which is now included in the second volume of Kaya's BeForever book series. This was one of the most festive times of year for Kaya and her family, and was an opportunity to visit with friends and family they hadn't seen in months, and people from other tribes as well. In the story, it's also the time Kaya is reunited with her adoptive younger sister, who was taken in by an elderly woman after being kidnapped with Kaya by an enemy tribe. The story also focuses on the social and trading aspects of the season, where families often arranged marriages between their children and took the time to celebrate and have fun together. Dried strips of salmon are also included in her food accessory set!

The recipe I used can be found on Epicurious, and I've seriously had this tucked away since last year because I liked that two of its prominent ingredients are things Kaya would have actually eaten.

The sauce should be made in advance, and you begin by heating a tablespoon of olive oil in a pan. Once it's warmed, you add three quarters of a cup of thinly sliced shallots and saute them until they're softened. Next goes in a thinly sliced garlic clove, a quarter of a teaspoon of kosher salt, a quarter of a teaspoon of fresh thyme, and an eighth of a teaspoon of allspice, which is where we ran into a problem. We're rehabbing our kitchen, so our spices are literally everywhere and I could only find our whole allspice. I ground some, and my mom kept assuming I was done with it and kept throwing the rest away. I wound up having to do it three or four times!

Once the spices are fragrant, add a cup of blueberries, a quarter of a cup of water, and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.

The blueberries get mashed up with a fork or potato masher, and this should be cooked on the stove until it thickens. It's pretty noticeable when it does - mine went from being watery and thin to nice and thick in only a couple minutes. This should then be set aside while you cook your fish, and be allowed to cool before you drizzle it over your salmon steaks.

We bought four wild salmon steaks, mostly because farm raised fish are often not raised in good conditions and wild salmon is now being fished more sustainably than it has been in the past. When you buy your steaks, make sure you check to see that they've been deboned, especially if you're working with a larger steak because the bones can be pretty big. They generally aren't fatal or harmful if they're swallowed - your stomach acids will break down the bones - but they can be painful and cause some damage if you're not careful. Ours turned out to have a lot of bones in them, and we didn't get them all when we'd prepared them to cook.

Both sides of the fish need to be brushed with olive oil before you start cooking. We just used a grill pan on the stove instead of our actual grill. The fish is seasoned with salt, pepper and allspice on both sides as well.

Generally, chefs recommend cooking salmon skin side down first. It can fall apart pretty easily if you manhandle it too much while it cooks, so I guess this helps prevent that? The recipe recommends cooking the salmon for about four to five minutes on each side, or until the flesh is opaque. Flipping them turned out to be a bit of an issue in our squishy grill pan. I think if I did this again, I might try to cook two steaks at a time so I have more room to move in my pan!

Rewarm the sauce just a little bit, pour it over the salmon and slice up a little fresh mint to add a little extra color and flavor over the top!

And that's that! It's a little time consuming, if only because you need to take your time with the sauce and give it some time to cool down before dumping it over the fish, although this probably would have gone faster if my mom hadn't kept throwing out my allspice! The salmon would have been easier to prep too if it had been deboned, but it was tasty enough that I didn't mind so much.

Although this recipe says it makes four servings, I think you can easily stretch it to five or six without stretching the sauce too thin. We had a lot left over, so it's definitely something you could do for a slightly larger group if you wanted to, and it wouldn't take much more time or fiddling with the recipe. That's always a plus for me!

And coming from someone who isn't really a fan of salmon? It was very good! A lot of people I told about this assumed the blueberry sauce would be too sweet to taste good on fish, but it was fruity without feeling like a dessert topping. The balsamic vinegar really helped keep it from being too sweet. It reminded me a lot of the salmon I had at the Museum of the American Indian, which had an apricot and wild ginger reduction sauce served on top of it.

As I said, to my surprise and delight, I wasn't the only one who really enjoyed it - Abby and her boyfriend have said they'd eat it again, and unsurprisingly, my mother (who we often joke was a bear in another life) praised it pretty highly. For someone who's never cooked fish on their own before, this was a pretty encouraging first try, and I'm excited to see what other yummy salmon recipes there are out there. I'd definitely like to try cooking it with a cedar plank next time, and while I probably won't be drying any over an open fire, it definitely might be cool to try grilling it on an actual grill next time!

Guess we'll just need to see what else is out there!


  1. *From Julie's doll mom:*

    I actually saw a recipe on the Food Network some years back about salmon w/ a raspberry reduction sauce, so this idea isn't that far out. And I love salmon!

    1. I'd definitely recommend giving this a go, then! I really enjoyed it. :)

  2. Great job with the salmon and sorry about the allspice! Hopefully our spice cabinet will be operational soon. Kaya looks so pretty with the Rhodies in the yard.

    1. Happy to keep documenting your flowers! Thanks for helping out with the flipping the salmon. c: