Special-Occasion Beet-Cured Salmon

DEEP DIVE INTO MAINE SEAFOOD AND 2022

December 24, 2021

It’s nearly impossible to live in coastal Maine and not have great reverence for the sea. Many of our neighbors are third- and fourth-generation fishermen whose ancestors emigrated here explicitly for the trade. Boats packed like sardines into quaint harbors—a quintessential recollection of those raised here—provided both sustenance and a way of life. In 2018, the number of commercial fishing trips was over double that of any other East Coast state. As we wrap up our harvest season at Turtle Rock, we can’t help but note that farming the sea is not all that different from farming the land, with fishermen negotiating weather, seasonality, climate change, depleted resources, disease, next-generation labor, and economic viability. 

Much like Maine’s land darling—the blueberry—lobster takes all the glory when there is so much more happening below the surface. These waterways are home to shrimp, halibut, mussels, scallops, mackerel, eels, oysters, groundfish, clams, and crabs, for a start. The sole place wild Atlantic salmon can still be found in the U.S. is a handful of Maine rivers, and we also have an abundance of landlocked salmon. However, because of damage from pollution, overfishing, dams, and warming waters, harvesting these species is now illegal or heavily restricted, with permitted fishing zones limited and rotated annually (similar to letting fields lie fallow). Licensing and jurisdiction over waters is changing and complex. Therefore hatcheries and aquaculture have become essential to the livelihood of various species, not to mention the state economy. And wild fisheries and cultivation can absolutely coexist.

Supplementing the wild population with hatched salmon was actually occurring on the Penobscot River as far back as 1871. Atlantic salmon was declared an endangered species in 1999 and the chance of salmon eggs reaching adulthood today is less than 1%, prohibiting commercial fishing nationwide. Therefore our freshwater hatcheries, monitored from air-traffic-control-like towers over waters leased from the state, are taken seriously. Forward-thinking integrated pest management and vaccines have reduced broad chemical use, and recent agreements with the Faroe Islands and Greenland are working toward restoring the wild population. It’s been said that our Down East rivers are the last best hope for U.S. wild Atlantic salmon.

Seeing as species are both seasonal and dwindling, off-season fishermen have started diversifying their catches. Sea vegetables are one of the more recent and incredibly sustainable pivots, with lobstermen in Saco, for example, growing sugar and skinny kelp over the winter. Seaweed—not a weed at all but an incredible algae—has ~10,000 species, 250 of which appear in the Gulf of Maine. It creates net-positive ecological benefits by removing pollutants, converting CO2 and nitrogen into sugars, and reversing ocean acidification. Kelp, in the brown seaweed family, is full of tasty, flavor-enhancing umami and minerals, antioxidants, micronutrients, omega-3s, and vitamins, and is experiencing a culinary boom. Previously uninhabited parts of the ocean are now being used to plant kelp along 1000-foot, cross-hatched long lines (picture underwater scaffolding), which gets collected within a short window in springtime dictated by the lunar cycle. Commercial harvesting—yielding ~100,000 pounds per four-acre farm—is licensed and overseen by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Seaweed cultivation brings opportunities for environmental and job sustainability, food experimentation, boutique farming, and new habitats for animals.

We hope that continued progressive research into both wild species and aquaculture perpetuates Mainers’ inextricable link to the water. In the meantime, we share our most sea-centric recipe below, give thanks, and eat.

Beet-cured salmon plated board

Beet-Cured Salmon

We can’t think of a better or more stunning way to pay homage to our coast and mark a special occasion than this recipe of beet-cured salmon paired with our quick pickled sugar kelp—an astounding pink-to-orange-ombre aquatic celebration. Be sure to purchase super fresh and responsibly sourced salmon.

Yield: Serves 12 friends (can be scaled down for just you and a lovey)

Ingredients:

6 juniper berries
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon black or pink peppercorns
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 bunch fresh dill, roughly chopped
1 pound raw red beets, peeled and coarsely grated
1/2 cup prepared horseradish, drained
3-pound fresh and responsibly sourced salmon fillet, skin on and pin bones removed
Turtle Rock Mermaid Olives, etc., for serving

Instructions:

Beet-cured salmon mise en place

1) Toast whole spices (juniper, coriander, and peppercorns) in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring, until fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Remove from pan, cool slightly, and grind.

2) Add spices, salt, and sugar to bowl and mix thoroughly. Add dill, beets, and horseradish and mix again.

Grated red beets, fresh dill, and horseradish

3) Overlay one or two long pieces of plastic wrap (enough to securely wrap salmon) across a shallow baking dish just big enough to fit the fillet, letting the excess overhang. Spread about three-quarters of the beet mixture across the dish and submerge salmon facedown (skin side up). Distribute the remaining mix on top of salmon and wrap tightly with the excess plastic wrap. Alternatively you may use a large baking sheet and cure the salmon faceup; just beware that it will leach quite a bit of liquid and be messier to contain.

Beet cure atop salmon filet

4) Place a second baking sheet or heavy pan on top of wrapped salmon and weight down with cans, bags of water, or other heavy objects you don’t mind being refrigerated (it can be a great conversation starter). Cure in fridge for two days. (You can certainly go longer, and we did for testing. But two days seems to be the sweet spot.)

Salmon flesh day 1Salmon flesh day 2Salmon flesh day 3

Day 1                    Day 2                     Day 3

5) Unwrap salmon, gently wipe off and discard beet mix, and dry overnight, covered, in fridge if you’d prefer it to be drier. To serve, slice very thinly on the diagonal, removing skin in the process.

Skin-side-up salmon after curing

Salmon cut after curing

6) Place on your fanciest platter along with our Mermaid Olives, dark breads, schmears, pickles, capers, and veg, if you please. Store in fridge, tightly wrapped, up to a week.

Gorgeous red and orange ombre of cured salmon

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