(Serves 4 – Recipe courtesy of Chef Johnathan Sundstrom, Lark)
Chef Johnathan Sundstrom is a James Beard award winner for obvious reason. His style of cooking is eclectic but executed with remarkable talent. One meal might be a pure expression of Pacific Northwest cuisine, the next a delicious riff on California pizza (using PNW ingredients, of course), while another shows off his classical training in Japanese cuisine and sushi.
Each year, Chef Sundstrom hosts the annual Washington Chinook Troll Salmon luncheon that Amy Grondin coordinates with the Coastal Trollers Association and the Makah Tribe. This event attracts a diversity of fishermen and distributors, culinary journalists, Fish and Game staff, ecologists and wild food advocates, as well as intrigued epicures. For folks like me keen on great food and interested in how it gets to my plate, these lunches provide an opportunity to acknowledge the environmental importance of sustainable fishing, and to celebrate a heritage fish.
The luncheons take place in Bitter / Raw, Chef Sundstrom’s shellfish, charcuterie, and cocktail mezzanine that overlooks Lark’s dining room. And each year, everyone is anxious to see what this James Beard winner has prepared. The accompaniments change, but the centerpiece of the meal never waivers: hook-and-line caught Washington Marbled Chinook. (Though sometimes, as the photo above demonstrates, a marbled Chinook may not have been caught, and instead a king salmon with the typical coral red flesh is served.)
For the 11th annual luncheon in 2014, Chef Sundstrom served marbled Chinook with bright yellow kale blossoms and green chickpeas, diced Jamón serrano, and a parsley purée. It looked like a painting, and was easily one of the prettiest seafood dishes I’ve ever witnessed. Another year, he kicked off the luncheon with a scrumptious tribute to Wolfgang Puck and his signature pizzas: a crust topped with smoked wild Chinook, crème fraiche, herbs, and ikura. He followed that appetizer with marbled Chinook, Parmigianino risotto espuma, bacon, morels, and spring onion. The first luncheon I attended, Chef Sundstrom nestled each perfectly seared salmon fillet over a roasted beet purée, topping the dish with a porcini and duck fat buckwheat crumble.
During that lunch, Amy got up to thank everyone in attendance and to share a few insights of her own. She invited me up to the front and we chatted about marbled Chinook and my enthusiasm for Pacific Northwest foods in general. Then a fisherman raised his hand, and he asked me how I prefer to cook Chinook. I responded without hesitation: “Grilled.” This was fun, because it incited a boisterous reaction from the other guests. Obviously, everyone has their own opinion on the best way to cook such a special fish. Some agreed with me, but a few other fishermen insisted the traditional method was best, smoked with the sweet perfume of alder. One thought a simple poach was the proper way to truly to showcase pure Chinook flavor. Maxime Bilet, the co-author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, disagreed, and claimed sous-vide is the only way to ensure perfect temperature, texture, and flavor.
But in the end, we were in Chef Sundstrom’s house. After devouring his gorgeous fillet with the perfectly crisped skin and the melt-in-our-mouth texture still fresh on our tongues, we all agreed, he had the final word on cooking the perfect piece of salmon: pan-seared, skin side down in a hot skillet, flipped then finished in a 400-degree oven while the skin is lightly basted with melted butter.
The annual Washington Troll Salmon luncheons held at Chef Sundstrom’s restaurant are exquisite, and a fantastic opportunity for diners to witness John’s command of so many different ingredients and cuisines. John’s accompaniments and styles are ever-evolving, but the way he cooks salmon fillets is often the same, which is easy to understand once you taste them. The skin is perfectly crisped, and the meat is unimaginably tender and moist. So, don’t think of this recipe as a complete, must-try meal (even though it is.) Think of this as a tutorial on the right way to sear a gorgeous, skin-on, Chinook salmon fillet.
1 cup dry white wine
1 shallot, peeled and sliced
1 bay leaf
8 whole peppercorns
6 ounces butter, cold
Sea salt, to taste
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup morel mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
½ pound sugar snap peas
1 bunch French breakfast radishes, washed and quartered
1 tablespoon chives, sliced thin
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 wild-caught, marbled Chinook fillets, about 4 to 6 ounces each, skin on (but scaled)
1 tablespoon butter
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Simmer the wine, shallot, bay leaf and peppercorns until the liquid is reduced by two-thirds. Whisk the cold butter into the wine a bit at a time, then strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve. Season with salt, and reserve the sauce in a warm (but not hot!) part of the kitchen until ready to use.
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat and sauté the morels until caramelized. Meanwhile, blanch the sugar snap peas in salted, boiling water until just tender, remove and immediately plunge into an ice-water bath to halt the cooking. Do the same with the radishes. Drain the peas, slice in half, and set aside. Drain the radishes as well.
Add the peas, radishes, and the remaining tablespoon of butter to the sauté pan with the mushrooms. Reduce heat to low and warm gently. Add the chives and season with salt.
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the salmon fillets—skin side down—and sear until the skins are golden and crispy. Drain the excess oil from the pan, then turn the fillets over (skin side up) and place the entire pan in a 400-degree oven.
Add the butter, and as it melts, baste the top of the salmon carefully. Cook until the salmon is medium rare to medium (probably no longer than 4 minutes). Remove the fillets from the pan, season with salt and pepper, and let rest 2 minutes before plating.
Spoon the warm vegetables into serving bowls, top with the cooked salmon fillets, and ladle the butter sauce around the salmon.