Behind the Scenes: Vail chefs fall hook, line and sinker for Skuna Bay salmon
October 16, 2013
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series. Check back next week to read the second installment.
My memories of fishing with my father in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the Louisiana coast, aside oil platforms where aquatic life teamed are as real as if I were now sitting beside him, smelling the warm, salt air. I close my eyes to let my mind taste the sweet, fried fresh speckled trout that only a few hours before were swimming in the Gulf's warm waters.
As a naive child, I believed the Gulf's water produced most seafood and that only catfish came from farms in Mississippi. With the Gulf possessing a seemingly endless supply of Neptune's bounty, it was unimaginable that one day most commercially available fish and shrimp would be farmed. Unfortunately, we now live that unimaginable reality.
Before we go much further, if you believe this is an article espousing the sins of fish farming, it's not. Yes, it is about fish farming, however, not in land-locked, over-crowded ponds. It's about Skuna Bay Vancouver Island craft raised salmon from the glacier waters off British Columbia.
Love at first bite
Executive Chef Sergio Howland introduced me to Skuna Bay salmon at Leonora in Sebastian's kitchen this past December. He excitedly described Skuna Bay's innovative ocean farming methods that produced a high-quality salmon. As that first bite met my palate, I savored fresh flavors of raw, firm flesh with its natural oils devoid of any fishy smell that could impede the experience. Simply put, in its naked splendor, it was superb, sashimi-grade salmon.
As a dedicated pescatarian, Howland paid homage to the fish, serving it as one of Leonora's famous small plate crudi and as entrees, cooked to perfection in simple main dishes that let the fish's flavors sing.
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Howland's Skuna Bay salmon ceviche marries the fish's fresh flavor with exotic tastes of coconut milk, green curry and green apple leche de tigre (the foundation of ceviche marinades, rumored to enhance amorous prowess). Using a sous-vide, Howland immerses the vacuum-sealed filets in 55 degree Celsius water for 10 minutes. Afterward, Howland sears the filet on the skin for 2 minutes. The "fantastic" result is a perfectly cooked fish: evenly cooked, moist rare flesh with crispy skin outside.
On average, each week in Leonora, Howland serves two whole fish — each weighing on average 12 to 14 pounds. However, the salmon's popularity on wedding menus also creates a high demand for the fish. At seven of 10 weddings this year, Skuna Bay salmon was a featured "guest." At a recent high profile wedding, Howland ordered eight whole fish for the event.
Having fallen in love at first bite with Skuna Bay salmon, I sought to discover more about it. First, I needed to experience different chefs' preparations. It was hard research work, but I perservered.
At Zino Ristorante in Edwards' Riverwalk, co-owner and Executive Chef Nick Haley, trained in Asti, Italy at the prestigious Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, serves about approximately 35 pounds of Skuna Bay salmon per week. Deep in the heart of Piemonte, Haley grew to love Piemontese cuisine's simplicity. However, such simplicity relies on superior products that have flavors that can speak for themselves. Haley's culinary talent and respect for fresh, pure flavors gave rise to his popular Skuna Bay salmon dishes at Zino.
My favorite preparation — more of a Three Tenors' version of "singing flavors" than a solo performance of the fish — is Haley's pan-seared Skuna Bay salmon topped with fresh, locally foraged chanterelles sauteed in white wine butter sauce, atop chickpea puree or roasted fingerling potatoes. The three simple, synergistic components tantalize my palate with gustatory joy, particularly when paired with Matteo Correggia's rascally white Roero wine, Arneis.
Since our epic fungal gold season recently ended, Haley switched to a different preparation that stays true to a simple Mediterranean style. Zino's winter menu includes pan-seared Skuna Bay filet served with puttanesca on chickpea puree. Again, simple flavors that let the fish sing and keep it from drowning in overexposure to a myriad of unnecessary ingredients.
Recently, I pleasantly encountered Skuna Bay salmon at Splendido at the Chateau in Beaver Creek. No surprise, owner and Executive Chef David Walford serves the fish. Only the finest ingredients make their way to Splendido's kitchen and Skuna Bay certainly fits Walford's stringent quality requirements.
My Canadian hostess ordered the salmon. Like Haley, Walford is an avid forager and makes good use of local forests' porcini and chanterelles. The preparation was quite simple: pan-seared Skuna Bay salmon with fresh local porcini and tarragon. Although I didn't order the dish that night, I reveled in watching my hostess savor her first bites of her native land's fish.
Playing with food
Since introducing Skuna Bay at the Four Seasons in Vail six months ago, Executive Chef Jason Harrison has served on average four whole fish a week. Like me, the Canadian chef's first taste of the fish was in its natural state — raw. He immediately recognized it as a "well raised, clean fish" that presented a myriad of gastronomic opportunities.
Harrison gleefully declares, "I like to play with my food." During the past three years, I've experienced the great tastes that evolve from his playful "epicuriosity." His reverence for high quality products — particularly meat and seafood — is evident in his simple dishes that explode with natural, fresh flavors of the proteins he employs.
I doubt Harrison met a meat or seafood protein he didn't have an urge to cure or smoke. He delights in dry aging beef and buffalo, making sausage and creating housemade smoked Skuna Bay salmon for the hotel's breakfast menu.
It's a simple enough process. Whole sides of skin-on fish are cured in a two-to-one mixture of cracked pepper, brown and white sugars, and crushed juniper berries with a drizzle of Chardonnay for 16 hours under weight. After rinsing, the fish is cold smoked with Breckenridge Bourbon barrel chips for two hours. Any day starting with a meal of Harrison's Skuna Bay smoked salmon has to be great!
The wackiest thing I've seen yet in Harrison's kitchen is his "smoking gun." Instead of bullets, the "ammunition" in this "gun" is housemade woodchips from broken down Breckenridge bourbon barrels, heated to create cold smoke.
To prepare his smoked Skuna Bay salmon, Harrison first lightly grills the filet and then finishes it to medium rare in the oven. The filet is then placed on a roughly 12-inch-by-12-inch-by-2-inch Boos butcher block plate with grilled shishito peppers and a swipe of chimichurri sauce. Now comes the fun part for Chef Harrison.
Harrison places a small, glass dome over the fish. Attached to the smoking gun's barrel is a small hose that Harrison places under the dome and then "pulls the trigger," creating cold smoke that's blown into the dome. Once the hose is pulled, the covered fish, bathed in smoke, is whisked to the table for presentation.
I was a bit skeptical about how natural the smoke flavor would be. It was excellent. The infusion of oak wood smoke gave the fish a subtle smoky flavor.
Hopefully, I've piqued your interest about Skuna Bay salmon and tempted your taste buds with the delicious creations from local chefs. Come back next week to "visit" Vancouver Island to learn how about the farming of this precious fish.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.