The perfect marriage of River & Sea – Dungeness-stuffed whole jack salmon.
Each year we try to take a couple of char or salmon in the pound-and-a-half to three-pound range, the perfect size for presenting head and tail intact. When I lived in South Carolina, I sought Puppy Drum (small Red Drum), Speckled Sea Trout, Summer Flounder and keeper-sized Striped Bass for these dishes. If I lived in the American midwest, I’d target Walleye or bass from cold water. In Japan, small suzuki (Japanese Sea Bass), hirame (Olive Flounder) and kurodai (Black Porgy) fit the bill.
The salmon in the photo was about 17 or 18 inches in length and weighed just over a pound-and-a-half. Jack is the name given to precocial male salmon that mature early and return to the river after only a year at sea. Were I running a restaurant, I’d offer this dish as a special and call it The Chignik Jack, as in,
“What’ll it be, Mac?”
“I’ll have the Chignik Jack.”
The recipe here couldn’t be more straightforward. The stuffing is comprised of the back meat of a Dungeness Crab, steamed or boiled and lightly seasoned, perhaps a bit of fresh lemon juice added to the cleaned meat. Crab meat tends to be wet, so use paper towels to gently squeeze out excess moisture from the cooked meat. You might even heat the meat in a dry, non-stick skillet to remove additional moisture.
The fish is scaled, gilled, gutted and cleaned. Spritz the stomach cavity with lemon juice, rub in a little salt, add the crab meat and then roll the fish in panko that you’ve seasoned with salt and Italian-style herbs. This is a relatively light dish; you don’t need any batter, just the seasoned crumbs.
Meanwhile, set the oven to 400° F and put enough olive oil on a broiling sheet or pan to cover it and heat it on a center-positioned rack till the oil is hot. I use a heavy, rectangular, well-seasoned cast iron pan for this kind of cooking, but a thinner baking sheet will work. The fish should sizzle when you place it on the pan. After about 4 minutes, check the down side to make sure it’s not browning too quickly. Continue baking for a total of about 8 minutes, and then carefully turn the fish to the other side. It can help to have someone man an additional spatula to help with this.
Bake for another 8 minutes, again checking halfway through to make sure the skin and panko are browning properly. In the above fish, I set the oven to broil for the final couple of minutes to further crisp the presentation side. The tail came out crunchy as a potato chip – a delicacy in its own right. And speaking of delicacies, don’t forget the cheek meat just in back of the jaw; the scallop-like morsel has a texture unlike any other part of the fish.
Paired with a buttery chardonnay, this is a lovely meal to enjoy with your best friend.