Keta Salmon Sushi Stacks
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I’m proud to present this first post in a series of recipes sponsored by Go Wild! BC Salmon. You can find this recipe and more, along with information about British Columbia’s incredible wild salmon fisheries. All opinions are my own.
I can’t think of a single food that is more emblematic of Vancouver’s food scene than salmon. In a country that sometimes struggles with its culinary identity, there’s a tendency to latch onto the most prominent and symbolic of foods in order to convey a sense of place and culture, and here on our West Coast we’ve embraced salmon whole-heartedly. It’s easy to see why, really – it’s a wildly popular fish with a fantastic flavour, and it’s been a socially and economically vital fishery here for thousands of years. On top of that, we’re spoiled for choice; there are five different species of salmon here on the Pacific coast, not to mention several very closely related trout species.
But here’s the thing: being spoiled for choice has left us a little… well, plain-old spoiled. For proof, we need look no further than the keta Salmon. Also called Chum, Silver-bright, or Dog Salmon, it’s one of the most numerous and affordable wild salmon species, and yet it rarely gets the respect it deserves. It’s tempting to toss the ol’ shrugging emoji out there and be done with it, but – well let’s face it, that ain’t my style. Let’s dig a bit deeper.
Keta salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) is on the bigger side for a commercial salmon species, averaging about 3.5 kg (8 lbs). While this is nowhere near the size of the massive Chinook Salmon (averaging 9 kg/20 lbs), it’s still a lot of fish for your dollar. And on that subject, it’s generally the cheapest of the wild salmon species too (in fact it can be shockingly cheap at times). So if it’s big, inexpensive, and readily available… what’s the problem? The issue is largely one of aesthetics. Keta salmon is a fairly pale rosy pink colour raw, and it becomes pinkish-white when cooked. We’ve become rather accustomed to the brilliant pinks, oranges, and scarlets of coho and sockeye, and the relatively plain keta salmon is unfairly passed over (interestingly enough, the massive and spectacular chinook salmon can be much paler than keta in some cases, yet these fish are prized). So what about flavour? Well, it gets a bum rap there too. Keta salmon has less oil than some of the other species, and that oil is responsible for the distinctive flavour of salmon. Because of this, keta is actually milder tasting than, say, sockeye. That means you can do a lot with it, but that it doesn’t exactly scream ‘salmon’ on the palate when it’s prepared very plainly. But when it’s been properly handled at sea, and prepared with the right recipe, it’s a delightfully firm and easy-to-love fish. So to review: large fish from a sustainable and widespread fishery, budget-friendly, and mild in flavour. Sounds good to me. I’ve long felt that keta doesn’t get the love it deserves, so when BC Wild Salmon asked me to develop a recipe, I knew that I needed to turn out something delicious that could also prove that you can make this fish beautiful too. Fortunately, I was able to find inspiration from a cuisine that has long valued this spectacular salmon species: Japan.
Keta is the most widespread of the Pacific Salmon, with a range that extends all along the coast of North America, across the Bering Strait, and down through Russia, Japan, and Korea. Keta salmon is not the only salmon species found in Japan, but it is easily one of the most popular, both historically and in the present day. But historically, salmon’s real value in Japan centered around drying, salting, marinating, and cooking – all methods that downplay keta salmon’s understated colouring. The bold and brightly coloured raw salmon that’s omnipresent in modern sushi and sashimi is a rather modern (and largely Western) addition to the Japanese culinary scene. The entire concept and history of raw salmon in Japanese food is a fascinating subject that I can’t really do justice to in this small space, but suffice it to say that my interests ran a bit further into the past, and toward the flavours and ingredients that beautifully compliment cooked salmon. In particular, I focused on the three classic ingredients used in Japanese grilling: sake, mirin, and shoyu (soy sauce). While I address these and other ingredients in more detail in the Recipe Notes below, I want to explain just why they’re so incredible to work with. First of all, they partner wonderfully with salmon, complimenting the flavour without overwhelming it. Secondly, they’re wildly diverse ingredients, making appearances over and over again in the various components of this recipe. Lastly, they’re increasingly easy to find and use, making a dish like this a lot more manageable than many home cooks realize.
Fall is officially here, and judging by the crisp air, turning leaves, and buckets of rain (ahh, Vancouver), it’s very much here in spirit too. Japanese food is traditionally VERY seasonal, though a lot of modern sushi dishes have foregone this. While this is very much a modern sushi recipe, I nonetheless wanted to keep things firmly ‘in season.’ In lieu of the fairly standard (albeit delicious) avocado that usually makes an appearance in these sushi stacks, I decided to embrace the sweet yet earthy taste of kabocha squash, and to partner that with white miso. The combination is really phenomenal – almost a full recipe in its own right. I roasted the seeds too (more on this later) and turned some of the kabocha into a creamy sauce to drizzle over the finished stack. There’s also cucumber marinated in a sunomono-esque mixture of shoyu, mirin, and rice vinegar, rice vinegar, and greens (pea shoots and red shiso) that came from a local farm and my father-in-law’s garden respectively. Plus, of course, there’s the salmon itself, which just came into season before I started working on this recipe. To top it all off (literally), the ikura (roe) are actually from keta salmon as well.
I had so much fun with this one that I’m hoping to do three more sushi stack recipes in the future – one for each season.
I’ve been writing a lot lately about how recipes built with multiple components can be a lot of fun to work with, and, with a bit of advance planning, surprisingly easy. This recipe is another example of that kind of thinking. If you’re looking to sit down and start this right now, it’s going to take you a long time – in no small part because you need to marinate the salmon. But if you do your prep one evening, you can easily finish this the next day, making it perfect for a party, date night, or money-saving sushi-night in.
Here’s a basic breakdown of how to break down the workflow to make this easy.
(Or morning of, if you’re so inclined)
- Marinate the salmon. Get it thrown together and put in the fridge before you do anything else.
- Cook the kabocha squash. In the recipe below I’ve only specified that you need cooked squash – how you cook it is up to you. You can roast a whole squash or a portion, or even microwave diced cubes. I needed a bunch for this recipe and others, so I pressure-cooked the whole thing in my Instant Pot and it was ridiculously easy. If you want to try that, this basic guide from You Season With Love uses butternut squash, but the principle is the same. You can also mix the kabocha with the miso (etc.) at this point, or leave that for tomorrow.
- Marinate the cucumbers
- Toast squash seeds, if you plan to use them.
- Cook the rice.
- Mix the kabocha and miso if you haven’t already done so, and use a portion to make the sauce to drizzle on top.
- Cook the salmon.
- Season the rice while the salmon cooks.
- Assemble everything.
That’s about it. None of it’s terribly difficult, and it makes an absolute show-stopper of a meal. If you’re newer to Japanese cooking and ingredients, feel free to keep reading for tips and tricks on finding and using them.
The ingredient list looks a bit long, but that’s misleading, as many ingredients are repeated in the various components. It would be wildly unclear to list mirin once in the recipe when you’re using it in four different places. None of the ingredients are particularly hard to find if you’ve got a Japanese or Asian grocer that you can go to, but even if you don’t you can obtain basically any of the Japanese pantry staples online. If you’re looking for more information, I’ve broken down a few of the key points below.
Sake & Mirin
Sake and mirin both Japanese rice wines. Sake is generally rather dry while mirin is sweeter (and usually lightly salted because of the laws surrounding alcohol sales in North America). Sake has become quite popular in North America, and many liquor stores stock at least one or two brands. I take the same approach to sake that I do to cooking wine: if you can’t imagine drinking it, you probably don’t want to cook with it either. You don’t have to break the bank or anything, but I personally stay away from the cheapest sakes out there.
Mirin is a bit of a complicated beast. Traditionally, it’s made with only rice and koji (the fungal starter, akin to yeast), just like sake. The fermentation process is halted earlier however, yielding a sweeter product with a lower alcohol content. That being said, most inexpensive mirin (the stuff found most easily at many Asian grocery stores) is nothing like real mirin, and is usually just flavoured corn syrup. I’m not a fan. If you can’t find a good mirin (click here for more on doing just that), I personally recommend that you don’t use the cheap stuff, and instead substitute sweetened sake. 1 tsp of sugar in 1 cup of sake should work pretty well.
I’ve covered mirin in a lot more detail on a Pantry Page which I encourage you to check out.
I won’t get into too much detail about miso here, because I did just that on a rather in-depth Miso Pantry Page. White miso has a wonderful sweet/salty taste that works really well with the squash. If you can’t find it, you can try any of the less powerful rice-based misos.
Salmon & Ikura
Obviously this recipe was developed with keta salmon in mind, but you could use other varieties too. If you did want to take this in a slightly different direction, you could use a good sashimi-grade piece of sockeye or coho salmon, marinade it the same way, then simply sear it all over rather than cooking it through.
Ikura is the Japanese word for salmon roe (borrowed from the Russian word for caviar, ikra [икра]). You can buy cleaned packaged or frozen ikura from better fishmongers and Japanese grocery stores. Failing that, try asking a Japanese restaurant where they get ikura from, as it’s basically a must-have. While the ikura is only a topping, I personally think it’s essential to the taste and the appearance of the dish. If you’re really stuck without it you could use flying fish roe. They have the same vibrant orange colour and salty punch, but they won’t taste or look exactly the same.
Greens and Seeds
The delicate young pea shoots/sprouts I used here are common at Asian grocery stores. Around here they’re actually grown in small operations only a short drive away. Pea shoots have a delicate green pea flavour that I love, but you could substitute other baby greens like mizuna, mustard, etc. Red shiso is a beautiful Japanese herb with a strong and distinctive flavour, but don’t go nuts if you can’t find it – there’s already a lot going on.
As for the seeds – I’m going to leave this one up to you. I roasted the ones that came out of my kabocha squash, but they’re admittedly a rather robust squash seed, and not everyone likes just how, well, ‘woody’ they can be. Pumpkin or butternut squash seeds would be more delicate, so if you have some of those, feel free to use them. If you have hulled pumpkin seeds, mix a handful with a little soy sauce and honey (just enough to leave them sticky) then toss with a bit of salt and shichimi togarashi (if you have it). Don’t want to use any seeds? Dust a bit of shichimi togarashi over the finished stack and call it a day. If you’re inclined to go hardcore here, bits of tempura batter would also add a nice textural bit of pop.
If you do want to roast your own seeds, this is the basic recipe I used:
Toss the cleaned seeds with 1 tsp soy sauce, 2 tsp honey, 1 tsp of rice vinegar. Roast for 20 minutes at 350 F. Cool the seeds and toss them with salt and shichimi togarashi.
Putting it Together
The finished sushi stack looks pretty fancy, but putting it together isn’t tough. The image below shows the process step-by-step. If you have a large ring-shaped cookie cutter or other circular form, just lay it on a plate and add the components one layer at a time. If the ring is short (mine was) just lift it up as you work – everything will stay in place. If you want to make these appetizer-sized, just use a smaller ring.
Looking to keep it simpler still? Just layer everything in a bowl like the picture above.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Note: The recipe does contain gluten/wheat if you use standard shoyu/soy sauce, but this can be substituted for a wheat-free tamari.
Japanese Recipes on Diversivore
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