By Stephanie Blake
To dipnet at the mouth of the Kasilof or Kenai river is to be an Alaskan.
Though the Kenai Peninsula brims with wave after wave of tourists from across the globe each summer for world-class fishing and sightseeing, the experience of strapping on your waders, mucking out into the silty tide, sticking your net out and literally scooping fresh, wild salmon out of the cold water – well, that’s a right we Alaskans earn. It’s a right paid for in long winters, months of darkness, earthquake fatigue and expensive plane tickets to get anywhere but Russia. These pure moments of summer bliss belong to us.
My small family moved to Alaska almost four years ago, and when we had fulfilled our one-year residency requirement, we too headed out to the Kenai to subsistence fish. We took notes and tips from neighbors and friends and puzzle-pieced together a rough plan and cache of equipment to make it happen. My husband Pete had heard that Mike’s Welding in Sterling makes strong dipnets with extension rods, but we didn’t invest initially. We simply borrowed from a friend on our way out of town. As we navigated down the Seward and Sterling Highways, we marveled at the towering mountains and lush forests at every vantage point.
Arriving at our destination, Pete clearly bore the brunt of the effort from there on.
He and my visiting New Yorker friend cheerfully toted a cooler, dipnet, waders, beach chairs, sand toys, snacks, cold drinks, one three-year-old child and my very pregnant self down to the beach at the mouth of the Kasilof. We set up in the sand like we were readying to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as Pete made his way, pole over shoulder, down to the water. There, waist high in the brackish water, he looked small- his cold body moving with the waves, set against the backdrop of the towering snowy mountains on the far end of the horizon.
It was there, shuddering in the cold water next to the other dipnetters, that he first recognized a sort of kinship. It is that unmistakable understanding that takes place between fellow Alaskans. He knew that each person in the water was an Alaskan, not a tourist. And he knew that every man and woman in the water with him had some sort of knowledge of the challenges of living up here, as well as the pure joy of embracing your right to partake in the bounty of this place. They were cold and patient and grateful in anticipation of the salmon.
And we gawkers on the beach marveled too.
My little girl was making castles and motes in the dark sand, unaware of the bald eagles roaming overhead and the intense panoramic views we were breathing in. It was then, that moment that Pete’s pole jerked and he began hauling his first Alaskan salmon to the shoreline, that we outed ourselves as rookies. My friend, a former Broadway star, belted with her distinctly clear voice loud whoops and hollers, whistles and cheers that could be heard all along the beach. I exclaimed to my daughter, “Baby, look at Daddy! He got one! He got one!” clapping and fidgeting breathlessly. Pete modestly pulled in his salmon, clipped it and strung it on his line, awkwardly trying to react appropriately to the jumping New Yorker and clapping pregnant lady celebrating his single salmon on a beach full of veteran dipnetters. But we were unashamedly proud, and deep down- I think he was too.
It has been three years since that summer, and we’ve kept it a priority to make the trek to the Kenai each July to harvest as many salmon as we are allowed, and able to pull in. We’ve refined our methods, streamlined our gear and have a clearer picture of what to expect- knowledge that can only come by putting your own two boots in the silt. Pete and I laugh about our changed perspectives too. In Seattle, folks get snooty about their coffee. In Alaska, well, we get snooty about our salmon. The first year of dipnetting we gaped at every catch. I cringed when I overheard people say, “I only eat reds” or “I only eat kings.” Where I’m from a fresh salmon is a fresh salmon, something akin to a bar of gold. But now?
Well, we’ve fallen into the Alaskan ways more and more and have refined our palates, knowing perfectly well that four years ago we’d be laughing at our present-day salmon-snobbery.
But these little quirks are far exceeded by the moments in the water, the moments on the beach, and the moments anticipating taking your family down to one of the most beautiful places on Earth to harvest deliciously fresh and wild Alaskan salmon to enjoy and share year-round. And to experience this process shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Alaskans each summer, sharing that unmistakable brotherhood on the Kenai- well, that just seems to tie a nice bow around the whole adventure time and time again.
If you, like us, are suffering from salmon fatigue after wearing out the same old recipes, perhaps these family favorites will add some variety to your table. Every year we stumble upon another unique way to prepare our summer catch. Enjoy!
Faux Salmon Sushi
- 1 large salmon fillet
- Several sheets of sushi nori paper (available locally in the Asian section of some stores)
- 1-1.5 ripe avocados, sliced into thin strips, removed from skin
- 1 cucumber, peeled and sliced into thin strips
- ½ cup of mayo (avocado or traditional)
- Hot sauce of choice such as Tabasco or Siracha
- Garlic powder
- Soy sauce, Tamari, or Coconut aminos
- Wasabi powder, mixed water to make a thick paste
Season salmon with salt, place on an oiled cookie sheet and broil in oven for 6-8 minutes. (Ideally, it is moist and looks a little red inside like it’s just a bit undercooked. It will continue to cook on your counter after you take it out). Test with a meat thermometer if concerned. Cool completely.
In a small bowl, mix mayo and hot sauce, salt and garlic powder to taste.
When salmon is cooled, chop it into small ¼ inch pieces and mix thoroughly with the spicy mayo.
Now for assembly. We keep this really simple. No special sushi mats or rolling devices. Take a single sheet of nori and place it on a clean cutting board.
Dampen 2 paper towels and spread them over the nori, gently pressing down for a minute. This moistens the nori to be able to roll without feeling too crunchy.
Starting at the side of the nori square closest to you, line the edge with about 1/3 of your salmon mixture. Follow with a line of cucumber and a line of avocado strips, working toward the center.
Beginning at the edge closest to you, roll the nori inward toward the outer edge.
Dampen last inch of nori again with moist paper towel to insure adhesion.
If roll feels crunchy, wrap entire roll with moist paper towel for 30 seconds.
When barely damp and no longer crunchy, cut the roll with a sharp knife. Repeat process for two more rolls.
Serve with soy sauce, tamari or coconut aminos mixed with a dab of wasabi. Enjoy!
Salmon Wasabi Burgers
adapted from Elaina’s Pantry at elanaspantry.com
- 1 large salmon filet, skin removed
- ¼ tsp ginger powder
- ¼ cup fresh scallions, finely chopped
- ¼ cup fresh cilantro, minced
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ½ cup almond or quinoa flour
- 1 teaspoon quality salt
- ¼ cup wasabi powder
- 1 tablespoon water
- Olive, avocado or coconut oil for frying
Rinse salmon, pat dry, and cut into ¼-inch cubes.
In a large bowl combine salmon, ginger, scallions, cilantro, eggs, lemon juice, flour, and salt
Form batter into 2-inch patties with your hands
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium/high heat
Cook patties in skillet until golden brown, 6-8 minutes per side
In a small bowl, combine wasabi powder and water to form a paste
Serve burgers with wasabi paste on top. Omit the paste if you don’t prefer spicy food. It’s just as good.