Regional Specialties: Astoria, Oregon's Smoked Salmon

As a kid, my father was a traveling salesman. He'd log countless highway miles cruising across his vast Midwest territory, flanked by corn and soybean crops as far at the eye could see. A crackling CB radio kept him company as the hours drifted into days.

Left at home with two rebellious kids, my mom took on the the lion's share of our upbringing. Discipline was not her strong suit, and our transgressions were often capped with the threat, "Just wait until you father comes home!" As the days and weeks wore on, the threat faded from memory and we all looked forward to his return.

The moment my father's car pulled into the driveway, he was greeted with Santa Claus-style fanfare. His homecoming went hand-in-hand with a geography lesson as he unveiled a stash of regional delicacies: inch-and-a-half thick pork chops from Iowa; bratwurst and authentic cheddar cheese from Wisconsin;  and Malkin's jam (now Canada's Pure Jam) from Canada.

These deeply ingrained taste memories connected us to unique regional offerings and specialty producers. Whenever we made the trek to visit family 5 1/2 hours north to Michigan, beloved restaurants--US 31 BBQ, Pronto Pups, and Fricano's Pizza--shared equal billing with family visits. Between multiple orders of the thin crusted pizzas at Fricano's, my dad used to joke with the waitresses, "We drove 400 miles for this pizza!" 

So you see, my love for regional specialties runs deep.

Earlier this year, I was invited on a trip to Astoria, Oregon. Our stay was packed with visits to small business owners--a coffee roaster,  an artisan salt producer, a natural soda maker, artisan bakers, fish processors, and microbreweries. Deep in the Astoria artisan food scene, a flood of childhood memories came whooshing back to me.

With my past firmly rooted in the small town Midwest, and my present entrenched in the Pacific Northwest, Astoria is the best of both worlds.

Astoria sits strategically on the mighty Columbia River, near the mouth of the Pacific Ocean. This is a key migratory route for spawning salmon and albacore tuna, and at it's peak, the town boasted a population of just 12,000 people, and 30 fish canneries. As the fish stocks declined, so went the canneries. Bumblebee Seafood was the last to leave, relocating their headquarters in 1974, and closing their Astoria cannery in 1980.

Fortunately, Astoria is in the midst of a modern day revival. That reinvention has brought new attention to artisan, hand-packed canned fish, and I was sent home with a treasure trove of goodies.

For most Americans, canned fish consumption is limited to tuna, but in Europe, canned fish is deeply ingrained in the cultural traditions of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Think tapas. Canned fish makes for quick and easy snacks--oil packed salmon, mixed with cream cheese, pepper, and a squirt of lemon makes for a terrific bruschetta spread. Another favorite: take wild-caught albacore tuna mixed with olive oil, capers, lemon, and a bit of onion and voila! A quick and easy appetizer in minutes.

Update: I've recently tapped into the Skipanon Smoked Albacore Tuna and heartily recommend that as well.

I popped a can of Josephson's Smoked Sockeye and found glistening flesh with a slight smoke, and an unctuous oil that bordered on creamy. The flesh was a wee bit too salty for eating out of hand, but I made an impromptu appetizer out of it. Draining off a bit of the oil, I dumped the smoked salmon in my mini food processor. Blitzed with a couple ounces of cream cheese and a grind of black pepper and voila!

While I'm hoarding my remaining stash of smoked salmon and albacore tuna, I'm already plotting my next purchase. Of the three brands I've tried, Josephson's is at the top of my list, and fortunately, it's available online. My dad's birthday is coming up and for a man who prizes regional specialties,  it's the perfect gift!

Simple Smoked Salmon Spread
This salmon spread is perfect for impromptu entertaining. Decadent and oh-so-simple, the secret is sourcing amazing smoked salmon.

1 - 6 ounce can smoked salmon, drained
4  ounces creamed cheese
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Lemon, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste

Toss smoked salmon and cream cheese in a Cuisinart, buzz until salmon and cream cheese are incorporated.  Add freshly ground pepper. Buzz again. Taste. Depending on the salmon you use, it may need a hit of lemon and/or salt. Serve with crackers or crusty, toasted bruschetta.