During my Saturday sojourn to the farmers’ market I scored a beautiful piece of rosy Copper River sockeye salmon. If you’re not familiar with Alaska’s famed Copper River, fish from that area are considered by many to be the rock stars of the salmon world. Think of them as being rich, eccentric, and somewhat elusive, and - just like a rock star – bringing one home for dinner is guaranteed to provide you with a memorable evening.
When I was planning the rest of the weekend menu it seemed only fitting to pair my salmon with another elusive ingredient, “forbidden rice.” Forbidden rice is more commonly known as Chinese black rice (not to be confused with Thai black rice). Stories vary, but one legend claims the rice was believed to have unique powers and was grown to be eaten only by Chinese emperors – consumption of the grain by mere commoners was forbidden. Legends aside, this rice is indeed special and it’s utterly delicious.
Chinese black rice has a very short grain with a deep purple-black color, and when cooked it develops a rich, nutty flavor that matches well with its slightly chewy texture. Trust me, it’s worth the hunt — I checked several stores before locating the rice at New Sagaya Market in Anchorage. If you don’t have an Asian market in your local area, check with an online supplier and have a bag shipped to you. You won’t regret it.
Confession: I didn’t discover forbidden rice until a trip to Hawaii where I dined with friends at Roy’s Waikiki Restaurant. My dish of misoyaki butterfish arrived nestled deep in a bed of Chinese black rice … and it was love at first bite. Now please don’t get me wrong — the butterfish was sexy and absolutely divine, but it was the seductive quality of the black rice that added a dimension to the dish that would not have been present had any other variety been used.
Copper River Salmon with Forbidden Rice and Red Pepper Coulis
You can make this dish with another variety of wild Alaska salmon if necessary, but please don’t substitute farmed salmon. If you’re going to stoop to using farmed salmon, don’t bother with the Chinese black rice or the coulis — just whip up some Uncle Ben’s white rice and call it a day.
4 6 ounce pieces of Copper River sockeye salmon fillets, skin-on, scaled, and with pin-bones removed
1 Tbsp canola oil, divided
2 Tbsp butter, divided
1 large red bell pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 Tbsp fresh oregano (or substitute 1/2 tsp dried)
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup Chinese black rice
1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
3/4 cups water
1) Using a long-handled fork, carefully roast the red pepper over a gas flame until blistered and charred on all sides.* Place in a paper bag and let stand 12 to 15 minutes. Starting at the blossom end, peel the pepper then remove the seeds, ribs, and stem end. Coarsely chop the roasted pepper and transfer to a food processor or blender. Add the extra virgin olive oil, garlic clove and oregano, then blend/puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt and set aside.
2) Place the balsamic vinegar in a small sauce pan or saucier over medium heat. Simmer until the volume is reduced by 2/3 and the vinegar is thickened to syrup consistency. Remove from heat and set aside.
3) Combine the Chinese black rice, chicken stock, water, and a pinch of salt in a medium sauce pan. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes or until rice is tender. Stir in 1 Tbsp of the butter. Cover and keep warm.
4) While the rice is cooking, pat dry the salmon fillets and lightly season with salt. Heat 1/2 Tbsp canola oil in a large non-stick sauté pan over medium high heat until shimmering. Carefully place 2 salmon fillets in the oil, skin side down. Cook until the skin begins to crisp, about 1 minute, then reduce heat to medium low. Continue cooking until the fillets are barely cooked half-way through (about 3 minutes). Carefully flip the fish so the skin side is up, add 1/2 Tbsp butter to the pan, and continue cooking over low heat until the salmon is barely cooked through (about 3 more minutes). Do not overcook. Place the cooked salmon fillets on a platter, cover, and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining 2 salmon fillets.
5) To serve, divide the coulis between 4 plates. Mound a scoop of black rice in the center of the coulis and place a salmon fillet on top, skin side up. Drizzle 1/2 Tbsp of the balsamic reduction over the coulis on each plate. Garnish the salmon with daikon sprouts or minced roasted red pepper if desired.
The salmon and black rice go well with lightly steamed asparagus as a side dish. When it comes to wine, my favorite pairing with salmon is Pinot Noir. Go ahead and splurge for a nice bottle from Oregon’s Willamette Valley or the Russian River Valley in California – and enjoy.
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* Don’t have a gas stove to char the pepper? An alternate roasting method is to broil the pepper about 2 to 3 inches from heat. Carefully turn it every 5 minutes, broiling until the skin is blistered and charred, about 20 to 30 minutes total.
Red pepper coulis adapted from Bon Appetit 1999
Salmon cooking method adapted from Chef Thomas Keller’s Master Class as published in the Los Angeles Times