Into the mainstream

Farm-raised salmon becoming a bigger fish story

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As habitats were threatened and supplies of wild fish dwindled, investment in salmon farming began to rise in the 1980s. Then, as streams were protected and wild fish began a comeback, farming caught on worldwide in a big way. By 1999, more salmon almost 200,000 tons of it was farmed than caught in the wild.

Salmon is the fastest-growing segment of seafood, climbing 23 percent in 1999 alone to land in third place on America's favorites list, behind tuna and shrimp. That rapid rise, from fifth place throughout the early '90s, is largely attributable to farming.

Menus and seafood cases are brimming year-round with the telltale carrot-colored farmed fillets, easily distinguishable from the more flavorful wild pink, red and sometimes white wild Pacific varieties whose seasons stretch from March to November, including the highly anticipated Copper River kings due about May 20.

But here's the turn that's as strange as a salmon's odds-defying swim against the current, sometimes for 1,000 miles, to get to its birthplace to spawn: Concern has spread to farming.

Environmentalists worry that farming can threaten water in some systems when uneaten feed, wastes and antibiotics pile up. The hardy fish also can compete unfairly with and spread diseases to wild fish when they escape from farms.

And consumers worry about experiments with genetically modified fish and feed additives. All this is leading to labels that tell how the fish are raised and what exactly is, or isn't, fed to them.

Another twist: Farmed fish has become preferable for many chefs and diners because of its convenience, availability and steady price even though discerning palates prefer the taste of wild fish.

"I think when you add chemicals to any processed fish it changes the taste of it,'' says Joel Knox, founder and president of Inland Seafood in Atlanta.

One of the country's top distributors of farm-raised salmon, he claims to "hate every pound of it.''

To appreciate the great taste of salmon, wild or farmed, Knox offers these tips. The main things to remember: If there's skin on the fillets, cook with the meat side toward the direct heat first; don't use too many competing or strong flavors in sauces; and do not overcook.

Salmon's high fat content makes it a good choice for any quick-cooking method grilling, broiling, baking, pan-searing and poaching.

What's simpler than this way to get the best of wild salmon: Cook fillets skin side down for 7 to 8 minutes in a 475-degree oven, then sprinkle with a little sea salt.

We've caught some recipes, though, that can enhance wild or farmed salmon when you want to do a little more.

Removing the Skin

If the salmon fillets are not skinned, remove the skin. Place the fillet with the thickest part toward you and insert the flat blade of a thin knife between the skin and the flesh. Gently move the flat blade along the skin, pushing the flesh away from you. When you're about halfway through, flip the fillet over and continue to use the flat of the knife to pull the skin away from the flesh. Don't worry if the thin part tears a little; you can always trim this off and save it for scrambled eggs in the morning.

Removing the Pin Bones

Often, farm-raised salmon fillets are processed with pin bones removed. If not, drape the fillet over a curved surface, such as an upturned bowl. The bones will pop up and can be removed easily with a pair of tweezers or your fingertips.

Salmon With Pinot Noir and Thyme

Makes 4 servings

4 (4- or 5-ounce) salmon fillets with skin, about 3/4 inch thick

3/4 teaspoon coarse salt, divided

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup pinot noir

4 fresh thyme sprigs, plus more for garnish

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Sprinkle salmon fillets with 1/2 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper.

In a large frying pan over high heat, warm the olive oil. Add the salmon, meat side down, and cook until browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the fish and cook skin side until browned and crisp, about 3 to 4 minutes. The salmon will be slightly rare at the center. Continue cooking for another minute or so until done to your taste. Transfer the fish to a warmed platter and cover to keep warm.

Add the wine and the thyme sprigs to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs and stir in the remaining 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper and the butter.

Pour the sauce over the salmon. Garnish with additional thyme sprigs and serve immediately.

Adapted from "The Pacific Northwest," Williams-Sonoma New American Cooking series (TimeLife, $22.95)

Salmon With Caramelized Carrots

and Onions

Makes 4 servings

4 center-cut salmon fillets, 1 inch thick (about 1 1/2 pounds), skinned (if desired) and boned

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon butter

2 large carrots, thinly sliced

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Sprinkle salmon with salt and pepper. In large, heavy skillet, warm 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add salmon, flesh side down; cook 3 minutes, turn and cook 3 minutes longer until browned and just cooked through. With spatula, carefully remove to ovenproof plate. Cover with foil; keep warm in preheated oven.

Pour off fat; wipe out skillet with paper towel. Warm butter and remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until butter melts. Add carrots, onion and sugar. Increase heat to high; cook about 8 minutes, until vegetables are tender, stirring often. Reduce heat if vegetables start to burn. Stir in soy sauce and vinegar. Top salmon with vegetables and serve with Sesame Egg Noodles.

Adapted from "The Working Mother Cookbook" (St. Martin's Griffin, $24.95)

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