About Jack & Barbra Donachy

Writers, photographers, food lovers, anglers, travelers and students of poetry

Abundance

Alaska subsistence gathering natural abundance

Freshly picked wild blueberries, wineberries, and a perfect King Bolete mushroom…

Mid-August in The Chigniks. The river and its spawning tributaries are filled with hundreds of thousands of salmon, its shores thickly blanketed in shades of green rivaling and perhaps surpassing images of Emerald Isles elsewhere. In meadows and bogs a profusion of wildflowers continues to bloom, progressing with the seasons from the irises, chocolate lilies, violets and lupine of spring to the fireweed, cotton grass, goldenrod and yarrow of late summer, yellow paintbrush and wild geranium overlapping the seasons. Salmonberries, their orange and red hues evoking the colors of spawning Sockeyes and Chinook, are nearly over now, gallons carefully vacuum-packed and tucked away in the freezer for the coming winter. Meanwhile, the skies are filled with birds. Our finches – redpolls, siskins and Pine Grosbeaks – apparently had a banner nesting season as did The Chignik’s Golden-crowned and Fox Sparrows. They’ve recently been joined by flocks of canary-colored yellow warblers in the midst of their annual late-summer migration through the Chigniks.

Coho are beginning to trickle into the river. They’ll begin arriving in force later this month, just as the feral raspberries and red currants around the village are ripening. Startlingly brightly colored Red-backed Voles seem to be everywhere, their abundance a boon to the Rough-legged Hawks which nest on a riverside cliff and managed to successfully rear and fledge four chicks this year. Bears continue to amble along the river and lakeshore, but most have moved upstream toward the headwaters of salmon-rich spawning grounds. There are even a few caribou around, moose, and the other evening we watched a porcupine meander up the lakeshore. Now and then a Harbor Seal or River Otter pops its head above the water’s surface to check out whomever might be strolling the shore. Families of teal and wigeons have been taking advantage of thick patches or water crowfoot growing and blooming in the cove near our home. Yesterday morning we were startled awake by the cry of a loon out on the lake.

Blueberries now. A skiff ride across the lake, a short hike along a disappearing trail, now nearly overgrown in salmonberry stalks, fireweed, cow parsnip and willows. We crest a hill carpeted with lowbush cranberries and descend into a wide, open area – a remnant of the boggy tundra that not so very long ago predominated this ever-changing landscape. The bushes are low, only inches above thick, spongy mats of lichen we kneel in as we pick. The berries out here on the Alaska Peninsula are not large – no “lunkers” of the size we picked last year in Newhalen. But lots. And lots. Mushrooms, too. Good ones. They and a few coveted wineberries are added to the gathering. Though we are not far from the village, the only sounds are berries making satisfying plunks in our containers, birds chattering and calling, and, yes, the occasional whine of mosquitoes. In the quiet of the natural world, our minds drift into zen-like states. As we fall asleep that night, blueberries will play on our eyelids like a movie on a screen.

Picking finished for the day, hiking back out, backpack of berries, our skiff anchored along a rocky beach we come to a surprised halt when we see a family of three Sandhill Cranes there – mom and dad in rich, russet-colored feathers, their nearly grown chick in drabber gray. Perhaps they are working the shoreline for caddis larvae. We hate disturbing them, but it’s time to go. As we draw near to the skiff, we see our owls perched in alder and cottonwood snags on the bluff near Otter Creek. All four, the adults and their two offspring whiling away the day till nighttime. The young are still in creamy-white down, their “ear” tufts barely emerging, but they are fully fledged now and capable of strong flight. Again, we hated to bother them. They flew off a short distance and watched us load our skiff, start the engine and cruise home.

Slices of boletes sautéed in butter and garlic on zucchini pizza for dinner, a game of Scrabble, a favorite TV show downloaded from the Internet, twilight and outside our windows the nearby whistling cries of hungry Great-horned Owls siblings waiting for a vole or two from their parents.

 

 

Scrap Soup – Getting the Most from Those Precious Vegetables

Scrap Soup - Getting the Most out of Vegetables

Out in the Alaska bush, every scrap of vegetable is vital. …Come to think, of it, wherever you live, it makes sense to make the most out of vegetables – whether you grow them yourself, or purchase them at the market.

It’s been a week. Not good. Our boxes of produce from Fred Meyer in Anchorage shipped via U.S. mail on Monday. That’s Monday of last week. Usually these shipments arrive to us in about two days. Alas…

Even though we order hardy vegetables such as carrots, Brussels sprouts, onions and cabbage, there’s not likely to be much left of them by the time they arrive to our home in Chignik Lake, a village that defines “remote” out here on the Alaska Peninsula. Right smack in the middle of this Coronavirus epidemic… what a poor time for this president to “reorganize” the United States Postal Service. But, I digress. At Cutterlight we strive to keep things positive. (Interested readers can Google “mail delays.”)

The idea is not ours, but the moment we came across the concept of keeping an airtight container in the freezer in which to store the various cuttings, peelings and scraps from vegetable preparation, we knew we’d found a winner. Our container holds about 10 cups – perfect for turning out batches of vegetable broth on a regular basis. Onion ends, carrot peels, squash trimmings, one-use bay leaves, kale stems, cabbage cores and more – just about anything goes into the container.

When the container is full, the scraps go into a pot and are covered with water. I avoid outright boiling of soups. A very gentle simmer or near simmer for about 30 minutes is sufficient to bring out the flavors. I don’t salt or season the broth at this stage either. I’ll do that when I know what I’m going to use it for. When the 30 minutes are up, I pour the broth through a strainer to remove the vegetables. And that’s it. The result is an excellent base liquid for anything from chicken soup to vegetable soup. In a recent iteration, I added a variety of fresh, summertime vegetables and chunks of local halibut to the broth and served it on rice for a hearty Manhattan-style chowder. The broth is good stuff, and with no salt or seasoning added, it’s the perfect blank slate for your own creations.

Wild Delicious Refreshing Summer Parfait

Summer in the Chigniks, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

Berries beginning at the bottom:  watermelon berries, blueberries, salmonberries, and nangoon berries (aka wine berries). Simply put – the best way to start a glorious day in the Chigniks.

Fresh All Year Long: IQF – Individually Quick Frozen Berry Magic

Freshly Picked and Flash Frozen, these salmonberries will now be vacuum-packed and tucked away in the freezer for future use in pies, on breakfast cereal, and any other time we want high-quality berries.

Berry picking is a lot of fun. These days we’ve been cruising the shores of Chignik Lake and Chignik River, scanning likely looking spots on the hillsides for splashes of ripe orange-red among the light green leaves of salmonberry bushes. When we find a place that looks good, we beach the skiff and begin picking.

Not as resilient as blueberries, lingonberries, currants and crowberries, members of the Rubus family – raspberries, salmonberries and blackberries – benefit from a bit of TLC, especially when we want nice-looking fruit for finishing the top layer of pies or to be able to add individual berries to our breakfast cereal or to salads. So, for us it’s worth the little bit of extra effort to arrange the berries on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and to quick freeze them. Once they’re frozen solid, the fruit remains separate and is firm enough to withstand vacuum-packing without clumping. The result is small bags of gourmet-quality individual berries, their flavor actually intensified by the freezing process.

Tis The Season For Rhubarb! Rhubarb Almond Cake

The delightful pinks and greens of rhubarb make this cake a beauty. The creaminess of almond flour and zippy tartness of rhubarb keep you coming back for more. We started this photo shoot with eight pieces. 😉

Happily, we are the recipients of the Farm Lodge produce boxes again. Every week we receive a mystery box packed with their latest ripened crops. The most recent box of vegetables we received was picked the same morning we received them! Most people probably would not find this remarkable, but we live very far away from sources of fresh fruits and veggies and so these Farm Lodge boxes serve as our Farmers’ Market. With the nearest grocery store hundreds of miles away, our fresh produce usually is limited to items which can withstand several days in a box while traveling through the U.S. Postal system to our home on the Alaska Peninsula. Thus, the veggie drawers of our fridge are usually stocked with carrots, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, onions, potatoes and the like. Being able to cook with freshly picked zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs is a summertime treat we relish.

One thing we’ve come to enjoy about the Farm Lodge produce is the surprise factor. The last box included a bright pink bunch of rhubarb stalks. Last summer, I really fell in love with this vegetable. Tartness is a flavor I adore. This ingredient has tartness in spades which compliments sweetness perfectly…it’s like a lemon’s brother from another mother. Our favorite rhubarb creation from last year was a sauce which we used to drizzle on top of warm brie and on grilled salmon fillets.

Wanting to do something different with this bunch, I looked back on recipe ideas I never got to try last year. On my list was a rhubarb custard pie. Jack loves custard and he loves pie, so I knew this one would be a winner. The problem was that one of the key ingredients I needed, heavy whipping cream, was not going to happen. Back to square one. I had seen a recipe of an almond cake made with almond flour. The almond paste-marzipan type flavor and dense texture sounded like a great pairing for the tart stems. With a bit of tinkering, I came up with a winner.

The finished cake was lighter than I had expected it would be. The almond and rhubarb flavors complemented each other very well. And the rhubarb kept its lovely pink hue, making for a stunning presentation. What did Jack think? He’s not usually a cake guy. This one got high marks. “Kind of like a custard pie,” he said between big bites of his second piece. Seeing how he is my main customer, I’ll put this one in the keeper section.

Rhubarb Almond Cake

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup almond flour
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 cut butter, melted
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 2 cups sliced or chopped rhubarb

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Grease a 9-inch springform pan. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, mix together almond flour and 1/4 cup sugar.
  4. Remove 1/4 cup of the mixture and set aside.
  5. Add flour, baking powder, and salt to the original large bowl.
  6. Mix butter, eggs, and almond extract into flour mixture.
  7. Pour batter into prepared springform pan.
  8. Sprinkle half of the reserved almond-sugar mixture over batter.
  9. Evenly place rhubarb atop batter.
  10. Sprinkle remainder of reserved almond-sugar mixture on rhubarb.
  11. Bake cake for 50 minutes. A wooden pick inserted to middle of the cake will come out clean when cake is done.
  12. Cool cake in pan on wire rack. Let cool to room temperature before serving.

And for Dessert… a Blueberry Cloud

“I feel pretty – Oh, so pretty – That the city should give me its key – A committee – Should be organized to honor me – la la la la.”

What? You’ve never heard singing meringue?

I have a board in my kitchen where I post culinary ideas. Sometimes they’re inspired by an ingredient. Often the spark is drawn from a photo or even just the name of a recipe. Several weeks ago, I saw a “blueberry meringue pie.” Hmmm… I never thought of a blueberry version of a favorite pie. What a great idea! My ruminations took my mind through several possibilities – a pie for two, blueberry filling with a vanilla-flavored toasted top, an entirely blue pie, a crustless version…

Then I saw a photo online of a gorgeous, bright lime green soufflé encased in toasted meringue. That was the catalyst for what turned out to be essentially a scaled down crustless blueberry meringue pie.

So, how did it turn out?

As you can see, the toasted meringue provides for an eye-popping presentation. When sliced, layers of fluffy vanilla meringue and an airy purple-blue center are revealed. And the texture and flavor? Delicate yet creamy, sweet-tooth satisfying, with flavors of tropical coconut, toasted marshmallow and wonderfully intense wild Alaska blueberry. This dessert was as satisfying as a culinary achievement as it was to demolish – which we did in a gratifyingly indulgent blink of an eye.

You, too, can whip up (pun definitely intended) this five-star dessert. For the sake of making this scrumptious dish accessible to all levels of chefs, I’m writing up the directions for a mason jar version. If you are interested in the more difficult cloud-on-a-plate version, leave me a comment or message me and I’ll send that recipe to you.

The Blueberry Cloud (serves 6)

Ingredients for Blueberry Coconut Custard Base

  • 1 envelope unflavored powdered gelatin
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
  • pinch salt
  • 4 eggs, yolks and whites separated
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 1/4 cup blueberry juice*
  • 1 cup coconut cream (the thick part from the top of the can)

Directions for Blueberry Coconut Custard Base

  1. In a double boiler, stir gelatin with 1/4 cup sugar and salt until well mixed.
  2. In a small bowl, using a wire whisk beat egg yolks with cold water and blueberry juice until mixed.
  3. Stir blueberry mixture into gelatin mixture.
  4. Cook over simmering water, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon.
  5. Remove from heat.
  6. Pour into a large bowl and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
  7. Have six one-cup wide-mouth canning jars out and ready.
  8. In a small bowl with the mixer at high speed, beat egg whites until soft peaks form.
  9. Continue beating at high speed and gradually sprinkle in remaining 1/2 cup sugar.
  10. Beat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Whites should stand in stiff peaks.
  11. Fold the whites into the bowl with the blueberry mixture.
  12. In a separate small bowl with the mixer at medium speed, whip the coconut cream.
  13. Fold whipped cream into blueberry mixture.
  14. Divide into wide mouth jars.
  15. Chill the dessert in the refrigerator until firm, at least 3 hours.

Ingredients for Meringue Top

  • 6 egg whites
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions for Meringue Top and Assembly

  1. Place the egg whites in a large, very clean mixing bowl.
  2. Beat whites on high speed.
  3. When whites start to thicken, slowly add in the sugar a little at a time.
  4. Beat on high speed until stiff peaks form.
  5. Spread the meringue over the entire dessert. Toast the meringue using a chef’s torch.(People say, you can toast meringue under the broiler in the oven. If you don’t have a kitchen torch, this might be an alternative way of toasting. I have never tried this.)
  6. Serve immediately.

*You can make blueberry juice by taking about a cup of blueberries and an ounce of water and simmering for about ten minutes. Using a potato masher, smash the berries. Place mixture in a cheesecloth-lined wire-mesh strainer and let the juice drip through. To keep the juice clear, do not squeeze the cheesecloth.

Super Sourdough Soft Pretzels

Some untwist them. Some peel them apart. Some just tear into them. What’s your favorite way to eat a soft pretzel warm from the oven?

Some foods take you places. Sourdough bread transports me to San Francisco – specifically Fisherman’s Wharf. When I was young, my family would visit that magical city. Our journey would always include a stop to the Boudin Store where we would pick up a couple of loaves of freshly baked sourdough bread. Our unrefined tradition did not involve picnic blankets or even a knife for that matter. We each would take turns reaching into the long thin bag, grab a hold of the baguette and rip. What you tore was the piece you got to munch on while walking around Fisherman’s Wharf. The delicious sour aroma that wafted from the broken piece always enticed me. The outer crust was perfectly crunchy and gave way to a soft interior which was ideally balanced with a dose of chewiness. Those loaves never made it home. When I grew up and began to visit and eventually move to San Francisco, I never outgrew those wonderful loaves and that unsophisticated tradition.

After mastering the beginners art to baking, I set a goal to learn to work with sourdough. Initially, I used a freeze-dried starter that I brought it to life as a regular part of our pantry. Later, I learned how to make my own starter with a yogurt base. Over the years, sometimes I would score a share of a long-tended strain of sourdough yeast from a generous friend. This last sort is the one I have on hand now.

The day before we left Newhalen, one of our friends stopped by with a parting gift – a snack-sized zip-top bag containing a small amount of starter. He had been tending it for a while and was really happy with the flavor. I hand-carried the treasure back to Chignik Lake and dutifully fed it. It immediately came to life. Soon it was bubbling away. After a few daily feedings, I had enough starter to give it the real test – a couple of loaves of my San Francisco Sourdough bread. Yum! Our friend was right. This one is a winner.

It turns out that starter is actually pretty easy to work with. It is like a pet. You have to regularly feed it and make sure to regularly clean its home. The flavor gradually develops, becoming more complex over time. So, if you start your own, you need to be patient. The best thing about the starter gift I received was that it was already aged and wonderfully flavored.

I don’t remember what put this thought in my head, but after finishing the first two loaves, I had developed a craving for sourdough soft pretzels hot from the oven served up with a serving of deli mustard. Or maybe Dijon. I decided to make the pretzels a little smaller than the original recipe called for. Turns out the extra pretzels froze really well – as long as you get them into the freezer before the salt “melts” into the pretzels. Thawed, wrapped in foil and heated for about 15 minutes in a 350°F oven, the pretzels were as satisfying as their freshly made cousins.

I created this recipe using a combination of experience and instructions from two sites:  King Arthur Flour’s website and a site called Baking Sense.

Sourdough Soft Pretzels – Makes 16 Pretzels

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 1 cup sourdough starter
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
  • 1 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp yeast

Directions

  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
  2. Mix and knead the dough ingredients — by hand or mixer — to make a cohesive, fairly smooth dough. It should be slightly sticky; if it seems dry, knead in an additional tablespoon or two of water.
  3. Cover the dough and let it rest for 45 minutes. It will rise minimally. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly greased work surface, fold it over a few times to gently deflate it, then divide it into 16 pieces.
  5. Roll each piece of dough into a long rope. Shape each rope into a pretzel.
  6. Bring 1/3 cup baking soda and 9 cups of water to a boil in a large pot.
  7. Drop 3-4 pretzels into the boiling water for 20-30 seconds. Any more than that and your pretzels will have a metallic taste.
  8. Using a slotted spatula, lift the pretzels out of the water and allow as much of the excess water to drain off.
  9. Place pretzels onto prepared baking sheet. They only need to be about an inch apart.
  10. Sprinkle each with coarse sea salt.
  11. Repeat with remaining pretzels.
  12. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown.
  13. Remove from the oven and serve warm with your favorite mustard.

The Fourth at the Weir

Fourth of July girl, Easton

“Hey there, Yukon Jack, we’re gonna meet at the bend, down there just past FRI and float down to the weir. You and Barb wanna get your skiff and join us?” It was Willard on the phone. Temperatures were pushing just past a balmy 70° and the Alaska sun was high in the sky. With the prospect of tasty grilled food, cold beer and Fourth of July fireworks, why not?

“People are gonna be floating down on their Shamus and I don’t know what else. We’ll meet you there in about 20 minutes,” Willard continued.

“Cool. See you down there.” Shamus?? This oughta be interesting.

Taxiing up from the weir in a trusty Lund modified V-haul – the Ford F150 of The Chigniks.

We quickly threw together a few things, walked to the lake beach in front of our house, fired up the skiff and cruised down to a gravel bar where Alaska Fish & Game weir summer staff were assembling with a variety of floating devices – including the “Shamu” Willard had mentioned. Before us was a wilderness river and the perfect day for a Fourth of July float.

The splashy start of the regatta – a two-mile race to the weir

With about half the participants already on the gravel bar, we waited around for the other half to taxi up by boat from the weir. Salmon parr dimpled the surface of the river and an occasional Sockeye showed itself with a splash. Eagles soared in the distance, and directly across the river, a Brown Bear found a shaded spot beneath an alder and plopped down for a rest.

As races go, this one was pretty casual.

With boats beached, docked or deflated, Willard (right) and his son William got things going with live music. The talented Lind family has been playing all kinds of music on all kinds of instruments for generations.

The weir makes an unusual backdrop for a game of horseshoes. This is where the Chignik’s salmon are counted – hundreds of thousands of fish annually. While we were playing, thousands of salmon – mostly Sockeyes but also a few Chinook as well as a couple of seals – were milling around behind the weir. There’s an escapement opening in the weir – you can see it indicated by a fenced corral area between these two horseshoes participants. Seals as well as salmon use this passage. Cameras connected to monitors inside the weir station record ascending fish.

I hadn’t played horseshoes in 40 years and was game to jump into a 10-participant tournament. After knocking the rust off my tossing arm, I even managed a couple of ringers and a leaner! I rewarded myself with samples of the seven basic food groups – moose, King salmon, chicken wings, baby-back ribs, scallops, cheeseburgers and, for dessert, a perfectly charred, deliciously salty hotdog all hot of the grill. For “salad,” I dug into slices of apple pie and rhubarb cake. No one makes friends with salad! 😉

Heading back upriver to our tiny village on the lake

It doesn’t get dark till after midnight this time of year in the Chigniks, and besides, some of us had to make the upriver run back home. So the fireworks came out while there was still light in the sky. A few pops, bangs, sparkles and smoke, and another Fourth had been properly celebrated – Chignik Style.

Almost home, we came across mama bear and her two cubs. With the early salmon run down compared to previous years, she’s looking a little thin. Hopefully things will pick up with the late run and everyone will get all the fish they want.

Here’s hoping everyone is having a safe, happy summer!

Big Boys of the Bear World: Here Come the Brownies of Chignik Lake

Until the salmon arrive en force, salad’ll have to do. Bigboy has been a regular visitor, here loafing about 40 yards from our living room window.

Between a proliferation of recently fledged finches (Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls), baby Great Horned Owls (downy snowballs, their ears barely showing as tiny tufts of fuzz), a pair of Rough-legged Hawks brooding on their nest, and an abundance of Brown Bears ranging from itty-bitty little triplets all the way up to thousand-pound behemoths (and they grow larger than this), there hasn’t been much time to practice my guitar lately. It seems that no sooner do Barbra and I shoot and process one batch of National-Geographic-esque scenes than another bear (or four) strolls into view outside our window and another shoot is on, followed by another stint editing photos.

At the beach, looking for salmon. He’s gonna ruin his Brad Pitt highlights…

Meanwhile, we’re edging closer to the first 30,000 Sockeyes being counted at the weir – enough salmon to get the bears and everything else from eagles to ravens to us excited, but still only 3% or so of the nearly one million fish we hope will have been counted by the end of summer. Yellow Paintbrush, Chocolate Lilies, Lupine and Wild Geraniums are in full bloom. Salmonberries, Raspberries and Red Currants are beginning to set fruit. The White Spruces, transplanted from Kodiak Island back in the 1950’s when Chignik Lake became a permanently settled village, are sheathed in new, purple-red cones, each a promise of abundant mast this coming winter for the finches, chickadees and sparrows that relish the seeds.

Life at The Lake is bumpin’.

You don’t hear ’em called bluebacks much these days, but blue backs they have. Judging from a puncture on the other side, this Sockeye barely escaped an encounter with one of the Harbor Seals that follow these fish up the river. Badly injured, this is exactly the kind of easy meal patrolling Brownies are looking for.

Not yet wearing the startlingly white plumage of fully mature Bald Eagles, these are probably three-year-olds. The tin roof of a lakeside house Sam Stepanoff built – subsequently flooded out by annual high-water events – is a favorite salmon-watching perch for eagles, ravens and gulls.

So… about those bears….

This male (left) got a little too close to the mom and her twin one-year-olds. She woofed a stern “Stay put!” in Brown Bear to her cubs and then put the intruding male to flight.

The Chignik River drainage is home to one of the densest populations of bears in the world. And these aren’t just any bears. Coastal Browns, big males can push 1,500 pounds and stretch to nearly 10 feet from snout to toe. Growing fat on a diet rich in salmon, sows give birth to as many as four impossibly cute, clumsy, curious cubs.

The village post office is located in a small room on the first floor of the house in the upper left. You can just make out a piece of Chignik Lake’s main road, which the bear is following. The wooden rail in the foreground partitions our yard from the blurry line between settlement and wilderness our village embodies.

The little fella on the right isn’t entirely sure what to do with the salmon head he found down at the beach. Mom just filled up and now will head up Post Office Creek to find a quiet place to nurse the little guys.

When they emerge from their dens in mid to late spring, the bears begin regaining weight by grazing almost constantly on grasses, sedges, roots and other vegetation. But, like most of us humans who call Chignik Lake home, what they really want is salmon.

“Wait up!” By the time they enter their second season, unceasingly curious cubs seem to engage in a constant game of lagging behind to explore and then racing to rejoin mom.

Once the fish start running, the bears begin a perpetual patrol along the riverbanks and lake shoreline. Until the salmon get well up the system and into the various tributaries, there’s no easy place for the bears to catch them. So they amble along, grazing on grass and other vegetation, keeping an opportunistic eye out for any fish that has made easy pickings of itself.

Blondie gives himself a mighty shake after wading the shallows in search of salmon. Still skinny from his winter fast, once the salmon come in he’ll begin putting on serious poundage.

Watch a shoreline for any length of time, cruise up and down the river in a skiff, or simply keep your eyes open as you travel through the village: you’ll see bears. From now through November, we don’t even make the five-minute walk to the Post Office without carrying bear spray. Bears use the little creek we cross on that walk as a thoroughfare. There were four down in there just last night. Two more today. That we saw.

Could be checking to see if Kevin left the key in the ignition of this sweet skiff… more likely it was the scent of a recent catch of halibut from the sea a few miles downriver that had this guy’s attention. 

We do a fair amount of our bear photography right from the dining/living room window of our home which sits only 30 yards from the edge of the lake – a quarter of a football field; six car lengths. In the live-and-let-live world of Chignik Lake, fishermen sometimes leave salmon scraps on the beach and in the shallow water there, knowing that at some point bears, eagles, gulls, ravens and magpies will come along to clean them up.

First thing after getting up and getting dressed this morning – 6:05 AM – I looked out the window. At 6:05:50 I made this photo. If you look closely, you can see salmon parr dimpling the lake as they take emerging midges.

But in actuality, a person could pick just about any piece of lake shoreline or riverbank, commit to sitting and watching, and see bears and other wildlife here. Thus far this season, we’ve counted 13 different individual Brownies. There are more around…

Last night as the sun lingered on past 10 0’clock, then 11 and on toward midnight, it seemed every time we looked out our window there were bears on the beach. First Mom and the triplets, who earlier in the day had surprised us as we were cleaning our skiff. The little ones are still suckling. They waited patiently on the sandy beach, taking turns standing on hind legs in imitation of mom as she scanned the shallows for salmon carcasses, the little guys steadying themselves with small paws pushing on their siblings’ backs.

Later one of the larger males came up the shoreline from the direction of the river. Finding no salmon, he went for a swim in the cove below Fred’s house and headed back down the lake.

Barbra composed this early morning photo about a week ago. 

Not long after that a dark-coated male shot past our house right below our window. Leaning out to watch, we heard the cause for his burst of speed. Suddenly, a roly-poly light-coated male came charging into view, paws falling heavy on the sand 15 feet from our window, the big bear breathing hard, tongue rolling out of his mouth, hot on the trail of the previous bear, leaving us to wonder what the story there might be.

Conversation led to conversation as twilight descended, the snow-capped mountains glowing in the gathering darkness. We recalled our first visit to Alaska back in the summer of 2009. Experiencing the famed midnight sun for the first time that summer, we found it hard to go to sleep – not because of the daylight, but because of all there was to see and do and marvel at.

Eleven years later, it’s still like that.

The Other Chocolate Chip Skillet Cookie

Why mess with perfection? Skillet cookies were introduced to us a long time ago. They bake perfectly in a large cast iron pan. Served straight from the oven and topped with vanilla ice cream, you can’t get a better blast of sweet and the flavors… chocolatel-y, carmel-y, vanilla-y. The cookie is gooey in the middle and crispy on the edges. As they say in our part of the world – it’s a dandy!

After consuming many of these cookies baked in a way-too-big, 10-inch cast iron pan, I converted the recipe to fit my more-modestly-sized 6-inch pans. The cookies are smaller, but following the original recipe, all the sugar and fat was still a bit much. So I’d been thinking about how to transform this favorite yet again. While I won’t throw out the original recipe (it is too yummy), what about recreating this treat with a lot less sugar? And more fiber? Maybe an extra kick of protein? Less fat? Could I make a delicious version that was heathy?

It was a dark and stormy day. Cold rain was pelting the window from a nearly horizontal angle. This was the day it was going to happen. As I headed to the kitchen, I already had an idea. I have been experimenting with puréed beans in baking recipes for quite some time. They are a good flour replacement and do the trick of adding more nutrition by way of fiber and protein. Small white beans cook up nice and soft and have no discernible flavor in baked goods. For the sweetness, I had been reading about using puréed dates as a sugar substitute. They have a wonderful caramel flavor and they are powerfully sweet. I still planned to use semi-sweet chocolate chips because… chocolate!

With the first batch out of the oven and cooled, I set a piece before Jack – my expert taster – and took another piece for myself. I told him it was a healthy version of a skillet cookie. He frowned. Since I needed him to have at least some semblance of an open mind, I did not tell him the cookie was actually gluten free and had virtually no sugar. While we agreed that the cookie was not nearly as decadent as the original, it was still full of the satisfying flavors you want in a skillet cookie – it turned out surprisingly sweet and quite tasty. The next day, Jack suggested we put a warm vanilla custard on it. Oh Jack, that kind of kills the healthy factor…but now he’s got me thinking. We did enjoy one topped with raspberry preserves, which was excellent!

The Other Chocolate Chip Skillet Cookie

Ingredients

  • 1 cup pitted dates, soaked in 1/3 cup hot water to soften
  • 1 ½ cups cooked small white beans, or 1 15 oz can white beans rinsed and drained
  • 2 tbsp unsweetened applesauce
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil, or light olive oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • Pinch salt
  • ½ cup quick oats
  • ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease two 6-inch cast iron pans or a 12-muffin pan.
  2. Smooth dates and water into a paste using a stick blender or food processor.
  3. Add beans, applesauce, oil, egg and vanilla into date mixture. Continue to process until all are incorporated and smooth.
  4. Stir baking soda, baking powder, salt, and oats into mixture.
  5. Fold in chocolate chips.
  6. Divide mixture evenly into prepared pans.
  7. If using cast iron pans bake for about 25 minutes. If using a muffin tin, bake for about 15 minutes. Cookies should be brown and firm when done.
  8. Let cookies cool for about 20 minutes before serving.

I was curious about all the nutritional details. Thanks to an online nutrition analyzer, I can easily share what I’ve found with you.