Boy, I just experienced something of a flood. And it’s not from the Seattle rain that fell this morning after a near-month dry spell. I had determined to honor my dad by sharing with you his family-famous recipe for grilled whole salmon. “I’ll need a few photos to accompany this,” I thought. Off to the closet, where I pulled down an album devoted to him and chose these few favorite photos. Underneath the album is an old Nordstrom box I hadn’t opened in years, tucked in the corner of the closet shelf where I hold other mementos of him. Should I or shouldn’t I?
And I found a wonderful random trove of items that tug at my heart a bit but mostly make me smile in remembering the wonderful man who I miss so much.
Among them a golf ball shaped postcard I sent from St Andrews Scotland while on a church bell choir trip in 1980. A travel brochure for Kyoto, Japan (I was born in Yokosuka). A faux legal document from a non-faux law office proclaiming that the plaintiff (apparently my dad) had reneged (surely not intentionally) on a verbal contract to offer the plaintiff 3 large Beefeater martinis “in large glasses” at the Edmonds Yacht Club. Pretty much every birthday and Father’s Day card I
gave him over the years. And a small yellowed envelope with his report cards from Bremerton High School, 1940-41 school year. For a guy who became a civil engineer, a highly respected officer in the Navy and Director of Public Works for Lynnwood, he sure was a lousy student back then. Chemistry, C+. Third year German and “Electricity,” B-. Fourth year math, D+. Ouch!
This is going to be the 13th Father’s Day without my dad. It’s not quite as painful to start seeing the “great gifts for Father’s Day!” ads and emails as it was in the first few years. But it still serves as a brash reminder each year about that distinct chasm in my life, the place he filled in a tangible, earth-bound manner for so many years.
Thankfully we had a wonderful relationship that does feed me constantly with great memories, rich texture, confidences that guide me every day. The support and love he (and my mom) showed me at every turn in my life–every accomplishment and challenge small and large, from graduating a YMCA swim class to going to France for culinary school–was absolute and unwavering. It’s as much as any girl could wish for; for that I am most fortunate.
Dad’s strengths and skills were many and varied. He played a mean harmonica, especially when sitting around a campfire (“Yellow Bird” was a signature tune). He had a brilliant, detailed engineer’s mind for problem-solving. He had a distinct knack for putting people at ease, making friends, making people laugh.
But cooking? He wasn’t a terrible cook, but it wasn’t necessarily a high point for him. Though he did love having family over for dinner in later years. I have the funny memory of one dinner he’d cooked that began with a leek soup. I said how much I liked the soup and asked what all was in it. He goes down the list: leeks, onions, butter, potatoes, broth, cream…. “Damn,” he yells. “I forgot the cream!”
Dad was master, however, of the backyard grill. In our case, it was a backyard kamado pot that we’d brought back from Japan in the late 1960s. (Today’s wildly popular Big Green Egg is founded on the design of the kamado.)
His piÃ¨ce de résistance at the grill was whole salmon–done simply, as is best with such a glorious fish. Partly wrapped in foil, the flesh’s maximum moisture is preserved while some of that smoky essence from the charcoal embers embellishes the flavor. It was the showstopper for special dinners or
to wow out-of-town visitors with our great local eats.
In fact, among the cards and notes received after Dad died was one from a very dear friend, Anne-Marie Choplain, pictured here in her home, where my dad and I paid a visit while he came to spend time with me in France while I was at cooking school. She wrote (in French that I’m roughly translating), “I’m touched in remembering the wonderful times we had together, the best grilled salmon I have ever eaten, a wonderful hike in the Olympics, a round of golf in Lynnwood, and his visit to France.” See? His salmon can be said to have received international acclaim!
It’s not always easy to find whole head-on salmon (best to call ahead to your local fish market), as the head will generally begin spoiling faster than the flesh and it also adds to bulk for transport. But head-on grilled salmon will retain a maximum of flavor and moisture, plus the added bonus of those two delectable salmon cheese at which the chef gets first dibs.
I just got back from the store with a whole sockeye, about 4 3/4 pounds, and will honor dad by recreating this recipe tonight, to share with my husband, sister, and brother-in-law. And a nice rosé alongside. (Here’s a follow-up post.) Dad could never sip a glass of wine (typically red) without first marveling at the color and character it had in the glass. And you couldn’t help but marvel with him. He took joy in so many things — it was a joy to have him as a father. Here’s to you, Dad, with deep and unending gratitude.
Grilled Whole Salmon Dad’s Way (from Salmon)
2 cups wood smoking chips (optional)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 whole salmon (about 5 to 7 pounds), head and tail intact preferably, cleaned and scaled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 large lemons (1 thinly sliced, 1 juiced)
1 lime, thinly sliced
Small handful flat-leaf parsley sprigs
Preheat an outdoor grill. Soak the smoking chips, if using, in a bowl of cold water.
Cut a piece of heavy-duty foil about 2 1/2 times the length of the fish. Drizzle a tablespoon or two of the melted butter lengthwise down the center of the foil. Wet the salmon on top of the butter. Season the belly of the fish with salt and pepper, then add the onion slices, lemon slices, and lime slices, distributing them evenly. Finally, add the parsley sprigs to the belly. Add the lemon juice to the remaining butter, stir well, and drizzle this over the surface of the fish.
Fold the ends of the foil up over the fish to meet in the center. Crimp the foil along the long side edges so they’re well sealed without too snugly enclosing the fish. At the top center, where the foil ends meet, fold back to make a loose opening, making sure the sides remain sealed to hold the juices during cooking.
When the grill is hot, if using a charcoal grill spread the coal out in an even layer. Drain the smoking chips and scatter them over the coals (if using a gas grill, follow manufacturer’s instructions). Carefully set the salmon packet in the center of the grill grate, cover the grill, and cook until only a slight hint of translucence remains in the center of the thickest part (gently pull back some of the foil and poke into the flesh with the tip of a knife to check), 20 to 30 minutes. Lift the salmon packet onto a heatproof platter, fold back the foil so that the cooking liquids are retained. Serve right away.
Makes 8 to 12 servings