salmon trim “burgers” with thai basil and chilies

I had planned to write a fat, juicy post about salmon when the season got underway, but now that it has been canceled up most of the West Coast, the wind is out of my sails. Alaskan Chinook is still available (at a eye-popping premium), and some places in Washington are still allowed to fish, but our salmon-lite fish markets look pretty sad.

So here’s a quick primer on West Coast salmon. Cook’s Illustrated devoted a text box to salmon types recently, but spent a disproportionate time discussing Atlantic salmon, which, quite frankly, doesn’t hold a candle to the Westside. We don’t eat Atlantic farmed salmon here in the PNW. And we also wish Cook’s Illustrated would get a West Coast correspondent, because they’re way too Eastside to be helpful for many product articles. Anyhoo.

Here are the major Pacific salmon you can buy at a decent fish market in Eugene:

  • Chinook or King. Dark pink, moist, fatty, large flakes. Delicious and mildest.
  • Sockeye. Red. Smaller flakes, strong salmony taste, small flakes. Can be dry.
  • Coho or Silver. Orange-red. Milder than Sockeye but not as lovely as Chinook.

Each of these salmon have slightly different seasons, and are available frozen or fresh, with corresponding prices, and from a number of different places. There’s also Chum or Dog, which apparently can be like Chinook if you get it from the Yukon River in Alaska; Pink, of which a large proportion is used for canning commercial tuna, and Steelhead, which is not a salmon at all but is red-pink like one and still rather tasty.

But the salmon we’ve been eating, thanks to our budget? Chinook salmon trim from Newman’s, at $5.99 a pound. Trim is the little bits and pieces that are trimmed off when making the fillets look pretty. One can use trim for omelets, quiches, curries, and salmon burgers. Since you can only buy nasty Atlantic farmed salmon at large chain grocery stores that price, it’s quite a deal.

Not being much of a salmon burger person but liking the concept, I transformed one of my favorite salmon recipes into a salmon patty topping. Kasma Loha-Unchit, a Thai cooking instructor and cookbook author, has a beautiful recipe for Wok-tossed Salmon with Chilies and Thai Basil in her seafood cookbook, Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood. She cuts the salmon in chunks, then stirfries them with a mix of red and green chilies and a big handful of Thai basil. I still don’t have my kitchen hood installed, so stirfrying is a pain, so I baked the salmon whole instead and it was wonderful (and less fattening). I amended her recipe by adding a few more vegetables: notably arugula, since I didn’t have enough Thai basil, and a handful of winter cherry tomatoes. The arugula and cherry tomatoes worked really well to capture the sauce and add sour, bitter undertones, so I left them in the final recipe. They aren’t in the least bit authentic, but I think they add something to the dish.

If you have the funds and no salmon crisis, the Thai basil and pepper topping works wonderfully on a large fillet of salmon, or on smaller pieces for individual servings. You can grill the salmon or bake it, as I did here. Sockeye works particularly well for this recipe, as it is darker and stronger in flavor than Chinook.

But we have neither funds nor happy salmon. The picture above is an adaptation for salmon burgers. I formed one pound of raw salmon trim into four “burgers” and baked at 425 for about 10 minutes. Served cold the next day over arugula with nothing more but a squeeze of lemon and the basil chili sauce, my “salmon burgers” make a fine summer luncheon dish, too.

The roasted chili paste is crucial for this recipe. You can make your own or buy it in Eugene at Sunrise Asian market. If you can’t find it, you should be able to find Thai red curry paste, which is a completely different flavor, but still good.

Salmon with Thai Basil and Chiles

Serves 2

(adapted from Kasma Loha-Unchit’s recipe)

1 lb. salmon fillet, either left whole or sliced into two serving portions
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes (crummy winter ones ok)
1/4 cup white wine, chicken stock, or water

1/4 thinly sliced red onion
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 T. chopped shallots or the white bottoms of scallions
1/2 red and 1/2 green jalapeno, or use 1/4 red and 1/4 green bell pepper, or some combination thereof

2 t. dark soy sauce
1 T. fish sauce
1 t. roasted chili paste (substitute Thai red curry paste)

1/2 cup or more chopped Thai basil
1 cup chopped arugula or spinach
1/2 cup scallions, cut in 1/2-inch slices

Brush salmon with oil and sprinkle with a bit of fish sauce and white pepper. Add a 1/4 cup white wine or some stock or water for moisture. Add cherry tomatoes, whole. Roast the salmon at 400 degrees, covered, until center is cooked through.

*For the salmon patty adaptation, use 1 lb. of salmon trim. Form into four patties. Slick Pyrex pan with oil, then place patties in pan and season with white pepper and fish sauce. Add cherry tomatoes. Roast at 425 degrees for about 10 minutes. The time greatly depends on the size and content of fish trim in the patties, so check for doneness after 8 minutes.

While salmon is roasting, prepare prep dishes with ingredients in (B), (C) and (D) separately.

Remove the salmon from the oven when done. Add the tomatoes to the sauce in (C), smushing them into the sauce. They’ll add some texture and bitterness to the final dish.

Quickly stirfry (B). Add (C) and let flavors meld for a moment, then add (D). Wilt the greens, pour over waiting salmon, and serve immediately.

3 thoughts on “salmon trim “burgers” with thai basil and chilies

  1. Emily 12 June 2008 / 2:14 pm

    Yum, these sound delicious! We’re having a salmon recipe contest and awarding the creator of the best recipe with “a summer of wild salmon” – 15 pounds total spread out in three shipments. Check it out at


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