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Alaska From Scratch: Sugar-crusted salmon with salsa

Maya EvoyAlaska from Scratch
Sugar-coated salmon with avocado-peach salsa: To get a beautifully crusted salmon with a kick, the secret's in the rub. Maya Evoy, Alaska from Scratch

There is nothing more seasonal in Alaska in July than a wild salmon caught directly from our local shores.

One evening last summer, after 13 hours on the water, a friend of ours came home with a marvelous salmon. Although it was late, it was still light out, and he and my husband made quick work of filleting while I pulled up a recipe. It wasn’t long before the fish was sizzling in a hot pan, filling the house with the aroma of spices and saltwater mingling together. There is truly nothing better.

That night, I coated the salmon with a homemade spice rub, based on a recipe I found on my talented friend Heidi Drygas’ local food blog, Chena Girl Cooks. Together, we ooh’ed and ahh’ed over the smokiness of the paprika and the cumin, the kick of the chili powder and dry mustard, the nice sweetness from the sugar and a surprising pinch of cinnamon. And can we just talk about that beautiful charred crust for a moment? You get a stunning caramelization when a hot pan swirled with oil meets a perfectly fresh fillet of salmon, patted dry (this is key) and rubbed generously. “I have to write about this,” I said aloud between bites, squeezing a wedge of lime over my fillet before diving back in. “We have to make this again.”

Two nights later, we indeed made it all over again, and this time I made a bright, summery avocado-peach salsa to go with it. When I don’t have peaches on hand, I’ve used mangoes in the salsa with equally terrific results. Since last summer, we have looked forward to eating this dish again, as soon as the first fresh salmon comes through the door and into my kitchen.

Sugar-crusted salmon with avocado-peach salsa

For the salsa:

  • 2 sweet but firm peaches, pitted and finely chopped (or mangoes)
  • 2 ripe avocados, finely chopped
  • 1 small red or orange bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup red onion, diced
  • 1-2 jalapenos (to taste), seeds removed and minced
  • 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • salt and pepper, to taste​

For the salmon:

  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 14 teaspoon dry mustard
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 4-6 wild-caught salmon fillets (about 4-6 ounces each), pin bones and skin removed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 

1. In a bowl, gently stir together the peaches, avocados, bell peppers, onion, jalapeno, cilantro and lime. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

2. In a smaller bowl, stir together the sugar, chili powder, paprika, cumin, mustard, cinnamon, pepper and salt.

3. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Pat the salmon fillets dry and liberally season the top of each fillet with the rub, patting it so it will adhere. Place the fillets, seasoned side down, into the hot pan. Cook about two minutes, until rub is fragrant and caramelized but not burnt. Flip each fillet and continue to cook on the other side 2-6 minutes more, being careful not to overcook (cooking time will depend on the thickness of your fillets and your preferred doneness. I like my wild salmon fillets medium in the center, so mine were ready after four minutes).

4. Plate the salmon and top with the avocado peach salsa. Spice rub adapted from Chena Girl Cooks, originally adapted from Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. 

Maya Evoy lives in Nikiski and blogs about food at alaskafromscratch.com.