Copper River Salmon comes to Winter Garden FL!

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In the interest of ‘dessert first’ let me tell you that Copper River Salmon fishing starts May 16 and our local Publix will be stocking this ultra-rare variant in a very, very limited amount on May 20. Any Publix has the opportunity (once a week) to order Copper River Salmon in the next couple weeks. If you are interested in ordering any of this very rare and expensive salmon in the next few weeks, contact your seafood department at your local Publix. 

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The Copper River Salmon Story

Hello foodie fans! I’m breaking protocol on the order of stories that I need to get out this week on FF to come to you with a SPECIAL BULLETIN regarding the soon (but short-lived) availability of the best salmon I’ve ever had in my entire life! The best way to describe Copper River salmon is… 

What is Copper River Salmon?

If you’re familiar with the difference between farm raised salmon (color enhanced through feed) vs. ‘wild caught’ Sockeye or Coho salmon, ‘Copper River Salmon’ is the the next level up.

Copper River salmon, only available about three weeks out of the year, is as much superior to regular salmon as Wild Caught fresh salmon is to the driest, frozen, over cooked, farm-raised/color-enhanced salmon that you might get at a budget cafeteria.

This is not hyperbole – this is honestly the best way to describe Copper River salmon, versus merely ‘wild caught’ salmon.

I first got to experience Copper River salmon many years ago at Artists Point, a high-end restaurant at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. None of us dining had ever heard of ‘Copper River Salmon’ before and I don’t remember exactly why we were eating at Artists Point that night but I was in my 20’s so I am certain that Grandpa Johnson was paying and I had been looking forward to a great steak.

Salmon at the right Disney restaurant however was an alternate favorite of mine whenever I was lucky enough to be a ‘fine dining’ guest on a family Disney trip. Growing up on Chicago’s North Shore, we still did more than our fair share of Disney trips, but not a lot of expensive meals while on them so any table service meal was a rare treat. I had planned on steak but being a lover of unique food, Copper River Salmon sounded like an adventurous option. It even cost more than the filet mignon so I wasn’t likely to try it later on my own dime. I was not a big fan of fish when I was younger but even then I did always like salmon. In fact one of the first Disney recipes I tried to perfect at home was Le Celier’s cedar plank maple salmon recipe (EPCOT Canada) so this Artist Pointe Copper River Salmon sounded like a great addition to my food experience trophy room.

The recipe for Le Celier’s cedar plank salmon is probably available online but I would encourage readers to purchase one of the many food & wine festival recipe books that include it instead. Or better yet, eat at Le Celier while at EPCOT and ask for a chef’s ‘recipe card’ from your server. (Yes, you can do that.)

Back to Artists points though… the theme there is the ‘Pacific Northwest.’ The restaurant specializes in authentic ‘wild game’ and regional flavors. Diners are more likely to find goose and quail on the menu than turkey. And if you like filet mignon you can usually choose from bovine or bison. On this day, however, the chefs selection featured Copper River cedar plank salmon. This was at least 20 years ago, by the way. Back then, even in the highest-end restaurants at Disney, a typical salmon dish was normally in the mid-$20’s, this ‘Copper River Salmon’ dish at Artist Pointe was $54 in the 1990’s!

As a big fan of cedar plank salmon, we asked what the big deal was about Copper River salmon. The gist of the servers pitch was that Copper River salmon is only available for about three weeks each year and was the best salmon legally available…

For only three weeks, the State of Alaska Fish & Game allows limited fishing at the mouth of the Copper River. The reason for the low limit is that salmon that are caught at the mouth are on their way upstream to spawn after spending the last few years in the ocean fattening up for the journey. The salmon caught in those three weeks, at the mouth of the Copper River in Alaska, are at their peak musculature with an over abundance of natural fats and natural salts from spending the last few years in the Pacific Ocean. These are the same salmon that will be fished in abundance a month later, in the upper reaches of the tributary rivers. 

Our enthusiastic server at Artists Point went on to explain that the salmon we would eat tonight was caught in Alaska that morning, flown to Juno by helicopter and sent on a plane to Orlando where it gets delivered each day for three weeks to select restaurants like Artist Pointe. 

The salmon we ate that night did not disappoint. It was, hands-down, the best thing I’ve ever eaten from a river, ocean, or lake. (Bear in mind this statement comes from someone who has fished in Canada, grown up on Lake Michigan, and eaten at most Disney tableservice restaurants.) Of course a lot of the credit goes to the award winning chefs at AP.

Besides Disney where can I get Copper River Salmon?

For the most part we live a modest life, my family and I, but a few times a year we spoil ourselves on a new (or favorite) dining experience. For the last few years our occasional ‘fancy feast’ has been at Todd English’s Blue Zoo at the Dolphin. Blue Zoo is a little known secret and the best quality seafood restaurant on Disney Property. Yes, better than Narcoosee’s at GF, Boathouse at Disney Springs or Flying Fish at Boardwalk (but more on that in another post.)

Several years ago though one of those feasts, normally reserved for Disney, was instead at a chain called Seasons 52. Previously part of the Darden chain (Olive Garden) Seasons 52 has restaurants nationwide. The “52” comes from 52 week/yr and implies that the menus changes weekly. At least that year, in May, they had copper River salmon on the menu for a very limited time. A decade after I first tried it, Artists Point still had the dish once a year but that year it was $78 at AP and $52 at Seasons 52.

The ‘Seasons 52’ version was smaller and it wasn’t presented on a flaming cedar plank like at Artists Point and the asparagus was a-la-cart, but the taste was unforgettable. Don’t get me wrong, seasons 52 is a very nice restaurant with highly skilled chefs, but the fact that thiers was ‘on point’ with Disney’s, let me know that this was a remarkable protein, not merely ‘one skilled chef’, one night, at one Disney restaurant.

Since then, every mid-May, I begin my search for Copper River salmon. I was nearing the time of year where I start my search for a ‘mere mortal’ source to obtain The Holy Grail of salmon, Copper River Salmon. I assumed that if I wanted it this year I would have to drive down to Bar Harbor seafood’s warehouse (off Sandlake.) If they sell it at a restaurant in central Florida, you can buy it at Bar Harbor’s warehouse store. It’s really not that far from me but to be honest, most years I don’t bother, settling instead for any wild salmon from Publix that’s on sale for $9.99/lb. Seemingly out of the blue today however Jorge, from my local Publix seafood department, called me to let me know that he was, in fact, finally able to order Copper River salmon this week if I was still interested. I was quite taken aback by the call because, at least at my local Publix, any offer to order or add something that they don’t stock has been mere disingenuous placating.  The meat and seafood departments there however, have always seemed to be the exception. In fact the only item requested over the years that did show up was also a seasonal fish.  It was some years ago during Lent and we were running out of new fish to try on Friday nights. My son had an interest in trying rainbow trout and though it’s not exactly a rare or expensive fish it’s also not one that’s normally stocked in a Florida grocery store. Whoever had taken that order for us called me when it came in then as well. Ironically I got there just in time to walk up to the Seafood case listening to a manager berate the employee who ordered it for me for ordering 3 lbs of a fish that ‘nobody’ wants. I let the manager know that I was the “nobody” that asked for it and planned on buying half of what was in the case. If it was a problem, I said, I would buy it all.  I reminded him that it was a Thursday during Lent and guaranteed it would be gone by Friday even if I hadn’t come in. (It was actually gone by 3:30 that same day when I went back with the kids after school.) I suggested he should actually thank the guy for ordering it and probably order more for next Friday. Now remembering that event, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Jorge sincerely did take down my request, and actually did call me once the rare item I requested was available. 

For anyone interested in trying Copper River Salmon, the Stonybrook West Villiage Publix in Winter Garden (at the corner of Stony Brook West Parkway and 545/Avalon Rd.) will be ordering a few pounds of this ultra-rare, best you’ve ever eaten, Copper River Salmon this month! The first very limited shipment should come into the seafood department on May 20 and I’ve got ‘dibs’ on the first pound! 

The store has not yet set the price but the belief is that it will be about $37.50/pound. Granted, that’s a very expensive fish, however a 6 ounce portion (if you can find a restaurants that will offer it) will currently run you $60-$100 a plate.

So, just like U-10 scallops which might sell for $20+/lb., it sounds expensive. But when you realize that U-10 means 10 scallops to a pound (and a typical $20 appetizer might have two of them) Publix seafood can be the better choice for any home cook.

Fair warning though… the wild-caught salmon that we gush over at $10-$15/lb next month will be a distant second once you try Copper River. Even the freshest salmon in June is still caught, put on ice and slowly transported to grocery stores in Florida, long after they’ve spawned, expanding most of their energy, flushed out their salts and burned off most of their muscle and fat.

Copper River Salmon season opens May 16. It’s available for Publix to order on May 18, the Salmon that is coming in on May 20 at my local Publix will be caught about 24 hrs before the store gets it!

Any Publix can order it, but only for the next couple weeks. Good luck and I’ll make sure to post pictures when I cook mine!

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