Out of the can

Wild about salmon but not the latest warnings about farm-raised fish? We asked three Baltimore chefs to cook up an answer.

January 14, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

With news that farm-grown salmon is the latest bearer of bad toxins, it turns out that one of the safest ways to eat salmon may be to open a can.

Most canned salmon comes from wild fish, according to chain-store food buyers. And while wild fish have all the fatty acids that make salmon heart-healthy as well as tasty, they apparently contain few of the toxins farm-raised salmon ingest in their food.

But canned salmon sounds like something on a hospital diet menu rather than a gourmet menu. So we asked the chefs of Gemini Bistro and Pierpoint in Fells Point and Dalesio's of Little Italy to cook up something tasty with a can of salmon you can buy at a supermarket. The chefs don't actually use canned salmon in their restaurants, saying it tastes bland. They buy their salmon fresh and wild, they say. But on short notice the other day, they came up with a quartet of dishes that might well pass muster in Seattle or, for that matter, Anchorage, Alaska.

Taking the cake

At Gemini Bistro, at 720 S. Broadway, chef Jason Farrell whipped up a couple of salmon cakes in about five minutes. And you could do it, too, no matter how clueless about cooking you might be.

He mixed a can of Chicken of the Sea salmon with about an equal amount of leftover mashed potatoes, the whites of two eggs, a handful of chopped onions, a dash or two of chipotle pepper and a squirt of lemon juice. Then he sauteed the cakes in butter and served them on a bed of mesclun greens with a sauce of mayonnaise, yogurt and horseradish. His salmon cakes looked good and tasted swell, with the chipotle giving them a zesty edge.

"It's easy to do," says Farrell, who is 28 and has cooked at Gemini for four years. "There's not much to it. And for $1.19 a can, it's cheap."

No question about that. The fresh salmon on the Gemini menu costs $13.

Theo Solomonides, the bistro's manager, suggested that a nice bottle of pinot grigio would go nicely with Farrell's salmon cakes.

Asian twist

At Pierpoint about four blocks away from Gemini on Aliceanna Street, Nancy Longo, the chef-owner, came up with two salmon dishes in about two hours. She used a $1.99 can of Bumble Bee pink salmon for a pair of spring rolls of surpassing delicacy and a $3.99 can of red sockeye salmon to create an Indian-style rice dish or biryani.

She said she'd last used canned salmon about 15 years ago. But she did say a friend sent her a very fine can of smoked salmon from the Northwest a little while ago.

"I ate it with crackers," she said.

Her curry was a spicy tikka masala sauce and her biryani a combination that included cranberries and butternut squash. Because the canned salmon is already cooked, she says, you only have to heat it to serving temperature. "You have very little of that canned flavor left in the salmon with all that marinated stuff in there," Longo says.

The crisp rolls, encasing a combination of salmon and thin rice noodles, were served with a glaze of pomegranate juice with five-spice powder and chile sauce. Sensational.

She suggested a pinot grigio with the egg rolls and a pinot noir or a zinfandel for the curry.

And for the last bite of spring roll she drooled a pool of her own Longolian BBQ Sauce on the plate.

"You need to rely on intense flavors with canned salmon," she says.

Going Italian

In Little Italy at Dalesio's, Paul Oliver served a simple but beautiful plate of penne with asparagus, salmon and dill with the tiny asparagus spears like little border guards at the edge of the plate with crossed red pimento stripes in the center.

"You could serve this in summer as a pasta salad," Oliver says.

He sells a lot of fresh salmon at his restaurant, and for this experiment he essentially substituted a can of salmon from Whole Foods in his penne recipe. He offered a chianti classico with it.

While he doesn't use canned salmon at the restaurant, he recalls that his mother used it at home.

"I can still remember that taste today," he says. "It was pretty good."

Going wild over salmon

Salmon is such a great health food it's sad some is suspect. A new study published last week in the journal Science finds farm-raised salmon can harbor an unnerving menu of cancer-causing toxins, from PCBs to dioxin.

Because salmon is so rich in the omega-3 fatty acids that help prevent heart attacks, the American Heart Association recommends eating it a couple of times a week. But, the new research indicates that even one meal of farmed salmon a month can be unhealthful.

So what's a troubled salmon fan to do? Eat wild Pacific salmon. Wild salmon doesn't generally have the high toxin levels of farm-raised fish, basically because it doesn't eat the junk farm fish do.

Alaska claims a pristine natural habitat that has abundant healthy seafood stocks. The state tests its salmon for mercury, heavy metals, dioxin, PCBs and other unpleasant things. So far, Gov. Frank Murkowski claims "a clean bill of health" for the state's salmon.

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