Blackened Bethel Salmon a la Stevens

by Millie Bentley

Bethel is so beautiful at this time of year, isn’t it? “Depends on where you look!”, one person replied. But isn’t that true of any place? “Depends on whose doing the looking,” was my response. Two of my favorite summer sights around mid-July are: First, the light between about 9 PM and midnight. The golden glow over the tundra and the river is exquisite, breathtaking. The second wondrous sight is to be seen sometime between sunset and sunrise, roughly between midnight and 3AM, when everything is black and gold on the river and the lakes. We’ve had photographers here who’ve set up their equipment and waited for hours to capture the beauty of those scenes, but they’ve never been satisfied with their results. Nor have I ever seen any photo or painting which has captured the magical essence of those scenes.

Visitors to Bethel who are lucky enough to be here during this time are captivated by this beautiful light . . . and by the taste of wild salmon from the Kuskokwim. Some years back, a friend from San Diego came up and could hardly wait to get some salmon and cook his version of blackened fish for us. When he did, it was fabulous. As I watched him cook, ‘tho, I was dreading to clean the kitchen, but to my relief he did that himself. Whew! Here is Skip Stevens’ version of blackened salmon.

Blackened Bethel Salmon a la Stevens

Dry rub:

4 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons cayenne

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon white pepper

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons thyme, ground

1 ½ teaspoons oregano, ground

½ teaspoon salt (optional)

Mix all ingredients together well and set aside.

1 ½ pounds salmon fillets, boned and skinned, cut into 4 pieces about an inch thick

¼ cup olive oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Wash salmon, pat dry and rub generously with the dry rub mixture. Place on waxed paper while you prepare the rest of the meal and set the table. When all else is ready, heat the olive oil and butter in a heavy iron or stainless steel skillet over very high heat until the oil begins to smoke a bit. Carefully add salmon fillets and sear them until almost black; turn and sear the other side. It may be necessary to turn the pieces more than once to ensure that the inside is cooked. Test by flaking with your fork. Some people reduce the heat once both sides are blackened and cover the skillet until the fish is cooked through. That may be necessary if your fillets are more than an inch thick, but it tastes better if your crust is, you know, crusty. Serve immediately.

Some folks like to pour any skillet drippings over the fish or into a small bowl in case some hearty soul wants to sop it up. Yikes! My Mom used to add more oil to the skillet, depending on how much was left after frying the fish; she would then add cornmeal and a little salt and cook and stir until the cornmeal was well cooked and all the oil was absorbed. She called this “Sand Gravy” and served it on the side. And the good Lord help you if you put a bite of sand gravy in your mouth before it cooled off, because your tongue would think you’d taken it to hellfire.

This is a messy, smoky procedure, but you’ll love the results, especially if you get someone else to clean the kitchen! Adios, Amigos, until next week, vaya con Dios.