Shannon Kuhn: For some, salmon season means more than fillets

Shannon Kuhn

As with many Alaskans, summer for Katya Koteff is synonymous with salmon fishing. But in addition to steaks on the grill and fillets in the smoker, she is anticipating eating the less commonly used parts of the fish. It's caviar time. Koteff cures the reddish-orange salmon roe and spreads it on toast.

"In Russia, if you catch the fish you eat it from head to toe," she says. "This includes the head, tails, eggs and, yes, even the sperm."

We are standing in Koteff's kitchen, chatting about the best technique to grill fish heads. As we talk, Koteff multitasks, cutting watermelon for her 4-year-old son, Sasha, and preparing green beans for a neighborhood potluck. She's all smiles and nonchalance. "It's best grilled plain, with salt and pepper."

Koteff was born and raised in Vladivostok, Russia, a sister city of Juneau. "I came to Alaska for a summer," she starts off, "in 2006, with my university's international program." That summer she met her husband Steve Koteff. Katya returned to Anchorage in 2008 and enrolled at UAA for an accounting degree and master's in Russian. A licensed CPA, she worked for Alaska firm Mikunda Cottrell (now BDO) before her son was born. Two years ago, with the birth of her daughter Natalie, Koteff decided to work for herself. In April, she became a U.S. citizen.

Koteff's mom is in town visiting. Steve comes home bearing colorful flowers and champagne. It's their sixth anniversary.

The conversation drifts back to fish. The Koteffs caught 500 hooligan this year, which they smoked and froze.

We discuss our experiences dipnetting for salmon on the Kenai River and the half-filleted fish carcasses we'd seen left in piles on the beach to rot. Koteff often asks people for their leftovers, post-filleting. "Some people don't even take the bellies!" she says. "That's the best part."

Her mom chimes in, her hands clasped together over her heart, "We couldn't believe what people throw away!"

The issue of managing fish waste is a constant struggle for local government. In 2013, the Kenai City Council passed an ordinance announcing it will fine people dumping carcasses and other refuse on the beaches. The jury is out to see if it has any effect this season.

But could the fickle American palate also be contributing to fish waste? If every dipnetter also used the heads to make fish stock, or the roe for sushi, could that make a difference?

We make plans to come together again to grill salmon heads later this summer. I've heard the eyes are delicious.

But even Koteff has her limits. She grins.

"I won't eat insects."

Salmon roe caviar
Courtesy of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service

Caviar is a lightly salted product of discrete individual eggs. Eggs should be shiny and clear-colored with a mild fish flavor and a "crunch" or "pop" when eaten. Salmon eggs can be easily processed into caviar. For high-quality products, the entire egg sacs, or skeins, should be carefully removed from the fish as soon as it is caught, put into plastic bags and packed in ice. Process these eggs within 24 hours. It is important to remove all of the skein membrane from the eggs and rinse the eggs thoroughly before eating them. Eggs may smell "oily," but if there is any odor of spoilage, do not use them. The following steps can be used to easily remove fish eggs from skeins and produce salmon roe caviar:

Soak whole skeins of eggs in a saturated salt solution* for 5 minutes -- this will firm the eggs slightly, making them easier to separate from the skein.

Remove the eggs from the salt solution and place them in a clean sieve (some suggest using the face of a tennis racket instead of a sieve). Gently manipulate the eggs to remove them from the skein, removing any blood, bits of skin, salmon or parasites.

Make a brine solution by dissolving 1/2 cup of salt in 2 cups of water. Place up to 2 cups of separated eggs into the brine and swirl gently. Allow the eggs to rest for 5 to 30 more minutes in the brine (additional brining will add saltiness and change the texture).

Pour the eggs into a colander, rinse well with clean, cold water and remove any remaining bits of the skein membrane.

Store salmon roe caviar tightly covered in the refrigerator for two to three weeks and in the freezer for up to two months. Use glass, ceramic or plastic freezer containers.

Roe prepared in this manner does not require cooking.

*For a "saturated" salt solution, add 3 pounds of non-iodized salt to 1 gallon of water or 12 ounces of salt to 1 quart of water and dissolve.

Using salmon roe caviar

In rural Alaska communities, preserved salmon roe is often used as an addition to salmon soup. Salmon roe caviar can also be used in small quantities as a garnish for smoked fish canapes, seafood crepes or sushi and for pasta dishes, omelets or seafood salads. Salmon roe caviar may be enjoyed by itself on mild-flavored crackers or Melba toast and is often served with sour cream, minced onion or lemon.

Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.


Shannon Kuhn
Food & Culture