An original caribou antler and walrus ivory carving by Edwin Weyiouanna guards a bowl of bowhead whale stew.
Outside it was -11 degrees Fahrenheit. The steady 25 mile per hour wind brought the chill down to negative 40, making it a good day to stay inside and cook a big pot of comfort food.
I could feel the frigid north wind seeping in around the edges of the window over the kitchen sink as I stared apprehensively at the three, one-pound cubes of thawed whale meat draining in the stainless steel basin. The odor of the dark red meat was decidedly un-beef-like, but it was mild and agreeable nonetheless – not at all gamey or fishy. The texture was a bit like that of fresh halibut – soft and dense. The meat of the bowhead whale, the largest genus of right whale, might be compared to especially tender filet mignon. I had no idea what cooking would do to the texture, or what the meat would taste like. “Good beef,” I hoped as I rinsed the meat and considered my next move.
For the past 27 years, Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook has been a faithful companion – my go-to reference when I’m not sure what to do next in the kitchen. I turned to Claiborne’s basic recipe for beef stew, made a few modifications to take into account what we have on hand and our own tastes, and proceeded from there. The end product was probably the best meat stew we’ve ever had (allowing for the fact that our creation would have been improved with the addition of three cups of good red wine, which is, of course, unavailable up here.) The meat was wonderfully tender and no more strongly flavored than, say, strip steak, and complimented the seasonings and other textures in the stew beautifully. I served three piping hot bowls of stew with freshly baked cornbread muffins while daughter Maia cued up the film The Triplets of Belleville on our big movie screen – the perfect recipe for staying warm north of the Arctic Circle.