When I first pulled up to the tiny, colorful fish shack that sat in a parking lot directly off of Highway 35, I immediately spotted Doug, its owner. He was wearing sandals and shorts and his long black hair hung in a tri-banded ponytail down the center of his back. As I approached the stand, I noticed him fiddling with a shiny new banner that read: “Wild Columbia Salmon.” He looked up at me, casually passed one of the banner strings to me, and signaled to pull it taut out to the side. Without saying a word, as if we’d known each other forever. His new banner slowly rose up high above the stand as each of us pulled our respective ropes in opposite directions. We tied each side off and marveled at it for a minute.
On the right side of the banner hung the American flag, its stars and stripes clear and crisp. On the left, a lesser known faded white flag with an arc of feathers lining a mountain, representing his affiliation with the Yakama Indian Reservation and Nation.
I’d read about the tribal fishermen in Hood River who exclusively sell their catch to Doug daily, so I knew he, as a member of the Yakama Nation, had access to some of the best sustainably-harvested fish in Oregon. What I didn’t know before making the one-hour drive west from Portland is that Doug is quite possibly the most warmhearted person in the entire world. The kind of person you could sit and talk to for hours. His friendliness sparkles in his eyes. His kindness seeps out of his pores, only trumped by the tan smile lines that frame his face.
I was his first customer on a gorgeous sunny Sunday afternoon, but he was expecting more as the day went on. Windsurfers frequently stop by his shack after a long day of riding the water, looking for the area’s best smoked salmon. Local shop owners come by for their weekly haul of fresh fish. But while I was there, around noon on a Sunday afternoon, when the sun was quite literally sparkling high above us, it was just Doug and me.
We spent some time talking about salmon in the criss cross shadows under his hut’s lattice roof. He told me how his fish are caught by the Yakama in hoop nets, as opposed to gill nets, to preserve the quality of the fish. I told him how I planned to cure the fish in beets, as it had been taught to me by the James Beard Award Nominated (!) Chef Bonnie Morales. We discussed what kind of smoking process produced the most flavorful smoked salmon. And he told me with a laugh about the off-season “zombie fish,” his term for the fish that survived last summer’s harvest but have some, shall we say, life scars that show their age.
After he’d helped me choose a filet for the Beet and Horseradish-Cured Salmon I’m preparing here, he pointed over to a neighboring country store and said casually, “you ever drink wheatgrass?”
“Nope, sure haven’t,” I replied, laughing. I know people who swear by a daily or weekly wheatgrass shot routine. I, however, am not one of them. “C’mon,” he said, with a swing of his arm. “I’ll buy you a shot.” Music to my ears, usually, though a shot of wheatgrass isn’t quite what I have in mind when I hear those words strung together in a sentence. (I’m more of a tequila kind of girl.)
Nonetheless, I followed him across the empty parking lot and into the country store where he greeted each and every one of the employees and customers before ushering me to a tiny nook in the back of the store. We each pulled out a barstool and plopped ourselves down. He ordered two shots of wheatgrass and two shots of ginger from the woman behind the counter, one for each of us. While we waited for our green juices, Doug listed the various benefits of ginger and wheatgrass, which ranged from help with digestion to improving circulation. When the wheatgrass woman poured our shots, along with two “chasers” of water and a green smoothie, we clinked glasses and downed them. The expression on my face—squinched face and furrowed brows—probably said everything. Spicy, intense, herbaceous, and…grassy?
When it came time for me to pay for the salmon, I handed Doug enough cash to cover my fish as well as my wheatgrass. I didn’t want him to spend his money on me and wanted to, at the very least, pay for my own green shots. He gently pushed my hand away and said, “In Native American culture, it’s considered impolite to refuse a gift. Please.” I nodded, feeling a little embarrassed and also hoping I hadn’t offended him, and promised that next time I came out, I’d insist on bringing him something as a gesture of my thanks.
Before parting ways, Doug and I talked about hanging out again sometime with our respective partners. He suggested heading out to his house, which has a river running through the property, where we could fish and cook up whatever we caught. I promised to bring something to contribute from my own roots, perhaps a gumbo or a cornbread dish. One thing I know I won’t be bringing, however, is the wheatgrass. He’s all on his own with that stuff!
This post is dedicated to the people of Tohoku, Japan. May we together remember today as a day of significant loss and continue to have hope for a brighter future.
- 2 cups of kosher salt*
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1 large beet, grated
- 1 tablespoon of fresh horseradish, grated (optional)
- 1 large (about 2 pounds) sushi-grade or fresh caught salmon filet*
- fresh dill, for garnish
- Mix together the kosher salt, sugar, beet, and horseradish in a medium sized bowl. If using your hands, you may want to wear gloves as the beets will temporarily stain them pink.
- On a sheet tray, smash a layer of the beet mixture in a shape that is roughly the same shape as your salmon filet. Place the filet on top of the beet mixture on the tray, skin side down. Take another handful or two of the beet mixture and spread it all over the top of the salmon filet. Coat the sides of the mixture until the salmon is entirely covered in the beet mixture. Making sure it’s covered evenly will help the colors set in evenly. You’ll notice, almost immediately, that liquid in the fish will begin to seep out of the filet. This is normal since the curing process is meant to both dehydrate the fish and break down proteins.
- Cover tray loosely with plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator for 8-24 hours, turing halfway through. The length of time that it rests in the refrigerator is dependent on the size of the filet, larger sizes require longer. For the 2-pound filet photographed here, I let it rest for roughly 20 hours, but for a smaller one, say 1 pound, you could do it for as little as 8 or as much as 12 hours. The longer it cures, the more flavor and color will infuse into it, but you absolutely don’t want to do it for any longer than 24 hours.
- Remove from the refrigerator and rinse the filet under cold water. Pat dry with paper towels. Set the rinsed filet on a wire rack over a baking sheet and place it back in the refrigerator, uncovered, for 1-2 hours. This will allow the surface to become tacky, improving the overall texture of the finished salmon.
The recipe here is for a 2-pound salmon filet. Scale the ingredients based on the size of your filet.
If your filet came with pin bones, pull them out after the cure is finished. Here is a helpful resource on how to remove pin bones: http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-remove-pin-bones-from-fish-fillets-169839
Once cured, the salmon will last in the refrigerator for up to one week. Just make sure it's tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and then place it in a ziplock bag.
A word on the importance of fish selection when curing: Because you’re not cooking the fish full through, you need to be choose-y about which fish you use. Make sure to use something that is either “sushi grade” or has been caught no more than a day or two before you begin the cooking process. Frozen “sushi grade” sushi will work and that is more than likely what you’ll be able to find since freezing is one method of killing bacteria on fish and some states even require it for sushi. But you still need to be choosy about which sources you buy your fish from. Fish that has been flash frozen (frozen almost immediately after being caught), as mine was from Doug, will taste much better than one that sat around for a while before freezing. As a general rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t use it in sushi, don’t use it here. And don’t neglect the power of your nose—if it’s limp and smells fishy, it’s not worth the risk!