If fish had a school yearbook, salmon would be voted “most popular.” Americans adore this species. With its beautiful red/orange/pink flesh –– the word “salmon” is now often used as a color –– rich flavor, versatility, healthfulness and availability, this is not a passing trend.

If fish had a school yearbook, salmon would be voted “most popular.”

Americans adore this species. With its beautiful red/orange/pink flesh –– the word “salmon” is now often used as a color –– rich flavor, versatility, healthfulness and availability, this is not a passing trend. Instead, it always has been and will continue to be a seafood staple on the American table, in restaurants as well as home kitchens.

Eating one piece of salmon a week can reduce the risk of heart attacks in men by a substantial percentage, as high as 50 percent in some studies. If the drug companies had a pill that does that, they would be advertising it on TV nightly. High in omega 3 fatty acids like bluefish, mackerel and other full-flavored species, salmon is a perfect meal to feed your family, especially children –– it helps them to establish a lifelong habit of healthy eating.

Salmon is a dream fish for chefs and home cooks alike. It is extremely versatile in both the cooking techniques that can be applied and the flavors that complement it. Because of its high fat content, which is desirable in fish, it is also forgiving for the novice cook: one or two minutes of cooking too long or short won’t make or break the results.

Salmon is delicious grilled, sauteed, broiled, roasted, stir-fried, steamed, poached or raw. It is delicious when served hot, room temperature or cold. It can be cured for gravlax, or it can be smoked and served hot or cold.

Because of its pronounced flavor, it can hold up to other robust flavors like saffron, curry, soy sauce, shallots, leeks, citrus, cumin, tarragon, thyme and dill. Salmon also pairs well with sweet-and-sour flavors like maple-lemon or honey mustard. That said, when I buy the first wild Alaskan salmon of the year, I like it plain: salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. I want to taste the fish just the way nature made it.

Since salmon is most often associated with spring, it is easy to pair it with veggies like asparagus, artichokes, spinach, cucumbers and mushrooms. A classic combination is salmon with peas. Eggs also go well with salmon, whether in a hollandaise, bearnaise, cream or butter sauce finished with coarsely chopped hard-boiled eggs. Potatoes, rice, cous cous, pasta, lentils … It would be easier to list the ingredients that don’t pair well with salmon.

Salmon is an anadromous species, meaning it lives in the ocean then returns to fresh water to spawn. Log-jammed rivers in Massachusetts caused the near extinction of wild Atlantic salmon at the end of the 19th century. Today, there is no commercial fishery for Atlantic salmon. It is all farm-raised.

Spring and summer is the season for wild Alaskan salmon. Wild king salmon is the most highly prized and the most expensive because it is fatty and very flavorful. Wild coho salmon is also very good, and it is a little less expensive and leaner than king salmon.

To prepare coho salmon so it remains moist and juicy, cook it just a little under, but not all the way through. Don’t worry about undercooking salmon; it can be eaten raw, therefore, cooking it well-done is unnecessary and undesirable. Wild chum salmon is the least expensive, but I am not a big fan. I recommend spending a little more for king or coho.

The quality of farm-raised Atlantic salmon varies greatly, and so does the price. Atlantic salmon can come from Canada, Norway, Chile and other faraway places. Remember, Atlantic salmon is a species, not a point of origin. As with most retail fish, you will fare best if you buy from a reputable market. Be skeptical of really low-priced salmon because you get what you pay for.

There are also environmental concerns regarding salmon. Issues with aquaculture Atlantic salmon include the feed used, the use of antibiotics and growth-enhancing additives and the scale of operation as it relates to the effects on the environment.

Generally speaking, most East Coast Canadian growers have made the commitment to creating sustainable-farmed salmon. At the forefront in terms of sustainability is the Loch Duart salmon. The company that grows them is strict in terms of the sustainable feed used. They rotate their growing pens on a yearly basis, leaving areas open and dormant for periods of time to ease any effects from fish waste on the environment, and they do not use unnecessary antibiotics or additives. ESQU is another Canadian brand that stands out.

Of course, these products are more expensive, but the farmers who raise them deserve our support. Arctic char and steelhead trout, both close cousins to salmon, are also great alternatives, and some are certified organic. Handle and cook them as you would salmon.

Farm-raised salmon is available year-round, so don’t rush out for it. Wild Alaskan is not. I recommend you take advantage of the season while it is in full swing.

Jasper’s Cold Cucumber Sauce
   
This is one of my favorite sauces for grilled seafood,  especially for salmon,  swordfish, striped bass, halibut and tautog.

Think of this recipe as a formula. The ratios of cucumber to the other ingredients is important, but from there you can adapt this sauce to match  different fish and even side dishes.

For example, with a Latino or Caribbean dish like black beans and rice, you could substitute freshly squeezed lime juice for the lemon juice and add  chiles and cilantro. This recipe uses half yogurt and half sour cream, but you could use any combination. For salmon, you might want to use all sour cream and dill. You could also make a low-calorie sauce using low-fat yogurt. The combinations are extensive.

For equipment, you will need a stainless steel strainer. A food processor is optional for this recipe.

1 1/2 pounds (2 large) cucumbers, peeled, halved lengthwise and seeded

Kosher salt or sea salt

1/4 cup minced red onion (1/2 small onion)

1/2 cup whole-milk yogurt, drained of excess liquid

1/2 cup sour cream

2 or 3 tablespoons of fresh herbs (dill, mint, cilantro, parsley and/or chives)

2 teaspoons minced jalapeno peppers (optional)

Juice from a lemon (1 tablespoon or more, to taste)

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Cut the cucumbers in a 1/8-inch dice (brunoise) with a chef’s knife, or pulse them in the work bowl of a food processor until a fine dice is obtained. Place the cucumbers in a large stainless steel strainer set over the sink, and sprinkle them with 1 teaspoon salt. Let them drain for 30 minutes. After they have drained, transfer the cucumbers to a large bowl, squeezing the last bit of excess moisture from them using your hands before placing them in the bowl.

2. Place the onion in a small bowl, cover with cold water and soak 30 minutes. Strain the onion through a small strainer, drain well and add to the bowl with the cucumbers.

3. Add the yogurt, sour cream, herbs and jalepeno (optional). Mix gently, and add the lemon juice. Season the sauce with black pepper and more lemon or salt, as you wish. Refrigerate for an hour before serving.

Makes 2 cups. Keeps refrigerated for two days.

Recipe from Jasper White’s “Cooking From New England” (Norton, 1989).

Jasper White is a chef, author, entrepreneur and owner of Summer Shack restaurants and the Fish Market at Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham, Mass.