April is a busy month for me. I focus on clearing out the deep freeze in anticipation of the opening of my farmers market and using up any straggling, gotta-go stored veggies. Last year, for instance, I had one lonely jar of lemongrass stock still in the freezer. It became a wonderful velouté that topped a last bag of frozen green beans in an amazing casserole. So this exercise is not a hardship.
This year, the last of my super-hot peppers are destined for jars of harissa that will be gifted away; my final pesto cubes will mingle with the last bag of frozen tomatoes for pizza sauce. And then there was this one last beautiful butternut squash, a gift from my friend Sally’s garden way back last November…what to do with this quintessential autumn classic in April? Pretty sure no one was in the mood for yet another pot of Butternut Squash Soup.
At the same time, April is the month my herb garden really takes off—I begin weeding, tending, and cooking with those first-of-the-season herbs. So much inspiration…chives–strong and sturdy—Rosemary—still coming on but amazingly fragrant and tender—and Marjoram—all frilly and floral. As soon as my Farmers market opens, there will be asparagus, green onions and leeks–always spring favorites in my kitchen.
And if that weren’t enough to get excited about, April is also the yearly celebration of Earth Day, something we try to honor every day in the Green Gal kitchen. And looking at my ingredients so far, I’m pretty pleased: vegan goodies like stored squash, garlic and garden herbs, all with nearly zero carbon footprint. But then a lightbulb went on in my little culinary brain—wouldn’t salmon be a nice way to pull fall and spring together in a creamy bisque? It would, but would it be ecologically sound? Earth Day, you know….
Fish, if we are careful, can be part of a green-focused diet, I think. My recent reading of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass introduced me to the sustainable and sacred relationship indigenous people of this continent have always had with salmon and led me to consider this cream bisque.
“Careful” is the key word and caveat to choosing fish wisely, though. Sometimes this is not so easy in the middle of greenwash marketing, high price tags and narrow accessibility. I am the first to acknowledge my privilege here—I have abundant food resources, plenty of shopping cash and a network of people and organizations that help me stay informed to make the best choices. Not everyone can say that. So to celebrate Earth Day this year, I set my sights on finding the right sustainably caught salmon for my dish–a product most people could find and afford–and utilizing as many local vegetables as possible. Let’s go shopping for that salmon….
Yes, seafood can be expensive and beyond the budget and shopping reach of many, but Wild Planet products are easing the inequity. I first used their canned tuna in a yummy pot pie; I was blown away by their company ethics, superior product and commitment to sustainability. They are truly transparent, even when acknowledging that their system isn’t perfect. I respect that and have never looked back.
While fish is not a major component in my mostly vegetarian diet, it does appear a few times a month on the menu. So Wild Planet has been a wonderful find. This brand is certainly more expensive than the less-traceable, mass-marketed brands, but it’s not over-priced, in my opinion, especially when you can use it creatively as only one ingredient in a dish that extends its use by including lots of plant-based ingredients, like my butternut, chickpeas, aromatic veggies, fresh herbs and coconut milk. So, let’s get that pot on the stove!
- One and one-half cups dry chickpeas, soaked overnight and rinsed well
- One bay leaf, fresh or dried
- About six cups of filtered water—enough to cover your chickpeas for cooking
- One quarter cup unrefined coconut oil
- One large carrot, scrubbed and sliced in thin coins
- One big bunch spring onions, greens included or one large yellow onion, chopped
- One-half cup leeks, white and light green sections, washed well and sliced in rings
- Four large cloves garlic, chopped
- Four cups peeled, seeded and cubed butternut squash (If you are out of butternut squash by now, consider replacing with peeled sweet potato cubes.)
- One teaspoon ground fennel powder (Or, if you have fresh fennel already, use some of the bulb chopped at the start of the sauté and then include some of the fronds minced with the other herbs when the time comes.)
- One tablespoon freshly grated ginger
- One teaspoon sweet paprika
- One teaspoon yellow mustard seed, crushed
- One-half teaspoon ground Aleppo pepper, or a nice red pepper flake of your choosing (Aleppo pepper works well here, so visit Penzey’s if you can’t get it from your market.)
- One six-ounce can Wild Planet Salmon, no salt added, drained
- Zest and juice of one medium lemon
- One can full-fat coconut milk, 13.5 ounce
- One tablespoon minced chives
- One tablespoon minced rosemary leaves
- One tablespoon minced marjoram
- Sea salt to taste
- Begin by cooking your soaked and drained chickpeas. This recipe is best using dry beans prepared from scratch. If canned beans are used, you can skip the soaking and cooking preparations, but you will need to drain and rinse the canned beans and add in about one and one-half cups of vegetable or chicken stock to replace the bean cooking liquid.
- Cover your soaked, drained and rinsed chickpeas with the fresh filtered water about an inch above the beans. Add a bay leaf—fresh if you have it. Bring to a boil; then, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer partially covered for about 30 to 40 minutes, just until fork tender.
- Set the beans aside, leaving them in their cooking liquid with the bay leaf. Note that this step can be prepared one or two days ahead, and the beans with liquid and bay leaf can be stored in the refrigerator until needed.
- When you are ready to prepare the bisque, add the coconut oil to a large chef skillet or wide Dutch oven and heat on medium high. Once the coconut oil is fully melted, add the carrot, onion, leek and garlic with a teaspoon or so of sea salt. Sauté this fragrant mirepoix for about five minutes, stirring frequently to keep it from browning. Add the cubed squash. Stir and add another good pinch of salt. Cook until the vegetables are getting tender and shiny, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
- Next add your spices to the middle of the pot: the fennel, ginger, paprika, mustard and pepper. Stir well.
- Once everything is well combined and fragrant, begin to ladle in the chickpeas with their liquid. If these have been in the refrigerator, you’ll want to take them out ahead and let them come to room temperature, so your pot doesn’t lose heat.
- I suggest you add the beans gradually, keeping an eye on how thin the dish is becoming. You want to achieve a thick stew but not a soup because you’ll be adding the coconut milk near the end. Nearly all the bean stock cooks away, so you’ll use all the chickpeas but probably not all the bean stock. This step takes about 15 minutes.
- Add in the canned salmon, flaking it with a fork into the pot. (If you have leftover salmon from grilling, baking or poaching, that works just as well as canned. Just flake it up.) Stir well and then add the lemon zest and juice, stir and test for seasoning. Add salt if needed.
- Finally stir in the coconut milk and heat through. Remove from heat and stir in your fresh herbs. Serve immediately.
Here is the thing about this rich and creamy bisque—unlike most soups and stews, I found that this dish did not get better with age. The leftovers were fine, don’t get me wrong, and we certainly had no trouble finishing them off. But it never tasted quite as amazing as when it was first made. So something to save for that brunch buffet or a dinner party, maybe?
We absolutely loved this dish, so much so that I’m thinking of repeating it before spring becomes summer. Of course, there won’t be any more butternut squash until fall, but I’m pretty sure sweet potatoes will work. Wild Planet Salmon is featured here as a sustainable and affordable way to incorporate salmon into a beautiful bisque, especially if you don’t ordinarily fix fresh fish. But if you do have leftover salmon from grilling or baking, it will work just fine here deboned and shredded.
The bisque is perfect for a brunch or light dinner on the porch. Just add crusty bread (maybe some sourdough), a fresh green salad and a bottle of dry white wine. It’s quite rich and creamy, but tastes fresh and springy, all the same. And if you have different herbs coming up in the garden, like thyme, oregano and parsley, feel free to use what you have.
A Deeper Dive into Salmon and Sustainability:
Wild Planet is a great product—handy, shelf stable and less expensive than many high-end brands. Fresh, wild-caught salmon can be sustainable, too, but probably costing considerably more. But regardless of the choice, much, if not all, of the responsibility for ensuring environmental sustainability ends up on consumers’ plates, not on industry’s conscience.
My thoughts on salmon, a fish that has always been a small part of my menu, have been recently and profoundly influenced by the book I mentioned above. I read Braiding Sweetgrass for the Confluence Climate Collaborative’s climate-focused book club, but have continued to return to its pages. In fact, I pick it up nearly every day, like my grandma did her bible. Braiding Sweetgrass is a collection of essays that each in its own way speaks through Kimmerer’s scientific background and poet’s soul of a reciprocal system between humans and the “more-than-humans.” So beautifully written and so life-changing in its overarching tenant that life is dependent on this reciprocal relationship, that the essays become (as I am now convinced Kimmerer intended) gospel.
The essay “Burning Cascade Head” is where the specific topic of salmon surfaces, but there is so much more going on in its 13-page section. This paragraph in particular poignantly reveals the connection Kimmerer presents between salmon, indigenous people of the area and the rest of life in the ecosystem:
The diversity of salmon in the river—Chinook, Chum, Pink and Choho—ensured that the people would not go hungry, likewise the forests. Swimming many miles inland, they brought much-needed resource for the trees: nitrogen. The spent carcasses of spawned-out salmon, dragged into the woods by bears and eagles and people, fertilized the trees…. Using stable isotope analysis, scientists traced the source of the nitrogen in the wood of ancient forests all the way back to the ocean. Salmon fed everyone. (Kimmerer, p. 244)
Despite the beauty and efficiency of this reciprocal system, white settlers thought they knew better when they entered this part of the continent, Kimmerer explains, undoing its symmetry through logging and damming, drying to pasture the very estuary on which the salmon (and, of course, everything else) depended. The settlers did not posses the wisdom of the indigenous people who knew the importance to take only what they needed and return to the Earth gifts of equal value. “It is an odd dichotomy we have set for ourselves,” Kimmerer laments, “between loving people and loving the land. We know that loving a person has agency and power—we know it can change everything. Yet we act as if loving the land is an internal affair that has no energy outside the confines of our head and heart.” (Kimmerer, p. 248)
Earth Day, I think, can sometimes be seen in the same way: one day a year when we hug a tree and sing the songs of Pete Seeger. But the energy, potential and intention so often lose their power at sundown. But they needn’t, you know. We can start with our food choices, switch all our laundry to cold water to save energy, plant an herb and vegetable garden—just a small one, plant milkweed for Monarchs–a gift for a gift, visit a regenerative farm to see the reciprocal system first-hand—and thank that farmer with our purchases for supporting the system–a gift for a gift. We can avoid overwhelm by taking our everyday actions—one by one—and considering how they fit or don’t fit well into the reciprocal system. Can we walk or ride a bike instead of drive? Can we eat more locally produced food? Can we make some energy efficiency improvements to our homes? It’s true that the list of climate change threats is endless, but so are the solutions—many of which are at our fingertips. Let’s begin! Let’s continue!
If I have sparked your interest in Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I certainly hope I have, you can take another journey into her philosophy through her article The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance. After that, I’m guessing you’ll be smitten. And that, to me, is a great way to enter into a new economy—a gift economy, as Kimmerer calls it–in which we take only what we need and give back in gratitude.
Then, if you still want to explore this idea of reciprocity and the sustainability of salmon in particular, take a read through the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s holistic and unified approach to ecological restoration and social justice. Perhaps a little less poetic than Kimmerer’s prose, but every bit as valuable.
Happy Earth Day…every day.