When the weather turns warm and I begin to crave outdoor meals, nothing beats a beautiful cut of salmon lightly seasoned and quickly grilled. But now I grill my salmon differently. I used to only grill salmon steaks. If I grilled fillets, I started flesh-side down on the hot grill (skin up). But after talking with Chef Sundstrom (and tasting his amazing salmon twice now), I’ve changed how I grill salmon. I forgo steaks and always choose skin-on fillets, and I start skin side down, so that I can get a deliciously charred, crispy skin while the flesh cooks more quietly and evenly. I flip the fillets during the last minute of cooking to get those grill marks we all love to see, which seem even more fetching against the pale pink flesh of marbled Chinook.
I find this dish easy to prepare because it cooks so quickly. The vegetables and the salmon can be cooked at the same time on the grill. If you have a small grill, or are cooking for more people, grill the vegetables first, then place them in a warm oven. You can then devote your full attention to grilling your fresh, wild-caught fish to perfection.
The sauce is a fun riff on a traditional tzatziki, which I find quite refreshing on hot days. Instead of cucumbers, I use shallots and ginger—two bold flavors that pair well with salmon—and then give it a wee bit of kick with chipotle chili flakes. But feel free to season as you wish, or even make a true tzatziki if that’s what you prefer.
1 tablespoon avocado oil (or any neutral flavored oil with a high smoke point)
1 medium shallot, minced
1 tablespoon pickled ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, pressed
½ teaspoon chipotle chili flake
1 small Meyer lemon, juiced
1 ounce dry white wine (I like sauvignon blanc because I find the bright, citrusy zing pairs best with grilled fish and vegetables)
1 tablespoon fresh dill fronds (stems removed), minced
½ teaspoon sea salt (more or less, depending on your taste)
8 ounces Greek yogurt, plain
4 medium sized zucchini, sliced lengthwise, ¼” thick
4 medium Ping Tung eggplant, sliced lengthwise, ¼” thick
¼ cup olive oil
Splash of white wine or lemon juice (to prevent eggplant from oxidizing)
½ teaspoon each salt and pepper (more or less, depending on your liking)
4 wild-caught, marbled Chinook fillets, about 4 to 6 ounces each, skin on (but scaled)
Extra virgin olive oil
I recommend making the yogurt sauce well in advance. This allows the flavors to meld and frees up your time so you can give full attention to the salmon and veggies, which cook in just a few minutes.
In a small saucepan, heat the oil over a medium-low flame. Add the shallots and sauté until translucent. Add the pickled ginger, garlic, chili flakes, lemon juice and white wine and continue to cook until the liquid is reduced by half.
Place the dill and salt in a medium mixing bowl and then pour the shallot-ginger-garlic sauce over the herbs and mix well. Now add the yogurt and blend completely. (If you prefer a smoother sauce, throw everything into a food processor).
Chill the yogurt sauce for at least 2 hours to let the flavors meld.
Place the sliced zucchini and eggplant in a large salad bowl, and add the olive oil, wine (or lemon juice), salt and pepper. Using your fingers, gently toss until each slice is thoroughly coated. Set aside while you prepare the salmon for grilling.
Begin by removing any pin bones from each fillet with tweezers. Be thorough, but gentle. Ripping pin bones from the flesh destroys the texture of the meat.
Brush each fillet with avocado oil and then season with a sprinkling of white pepper and salt. (I prefer to go light on the seasonings so you can better taste the pure flavor of marbled Chinook.) Now it’s time to prepare the grill.
Since the vegetables and salmon cook very quickly, temperature modulation is imperative. It is easy to overcook salmon and delicate vegetables like eggplant and zucchini. For these reasons, I prefer to use a 3-burner gas grill so I have quick, direct control over the heat across the grate surface.
Begin with a clean, well-oiled grill grate. Turn all 3 burners to high, close the lid, and heat to 450-500 degrees. Once the grill is pre-heated, turn off the center burner and place your salmon fillets—skin side down!—in the middle of the grill. This method employs the best of direct and indirect grilling. The grate is so hot, it will sufficiently sear and crisp the salmon skin. But since the center burner is off, you reduce the risk of overcooking the salmon.
Turn the left and right burners down to about medium. Place the eggplant slices in a single layer on one side of the salmon fillets, and the zucchini on the other. Close the grill lid and sear the veggies about 2 minutes until those tantalizing char markings are clearly evident, then flip each slice. Continue to cook until vegetables are just tender. Remove and place on a platter.
At this point, the salmon should be close to done. Flip the fillets and sear until light grill markings appear. Remove the salmon. The fish will continue to cook even off the grill, so make sure you remove the salmon from the grill when the meat is almost—but not quite—completely done. The old adage “cook until the flesh easily flakes with a fork” is too long! You want to remove the fish when the sections of flesh begin to pull apart, but do not quite flake. Brush the finished salmon with a little bit of your favorite extra virgin olive oil.
To serve, grab a spoon and ladle enough yogurt sauce to swipe a generous smear across the plate. Layer a few slices of eggplant and zucchini atop the yogurt, then finish plating with the grilled salmon.