A Year’s Worth of Food: Provisioning for the Alaska Bush, Part I

Salmon, halibut and rockfish fillets from fish caught in Resurrection Bay, vacuum sealed and flash frozen for fresh-from-the sea taste, ready to make the trip north to Point Hope. And a plug for Alaskan seafood: it’s wild, sustainable, healthy, and some of the best-tasting on the planet!

One of the biggest challenges living in the bush presents is provisioning for a year’s worth of meals. When we  moved to Alaska, Barbra and I brought with us some of the skills we’d acquired in our lives in Oregon and California.

For starters, we’ve always had Costco memberships and we use those memberships to stock up on bulk purchases from rice to olive oil to meat, fish and poultry. To make this work, we use a FoodSaver vacuum-pack system to repackage meat in smaller portions, which we then freeze. In addition to having some of the very best meat, poultry and fish available – and at prices well below specialty stores carrying products of comparable quality – Costco also carries the best frozen fruits and vegetables we have found. Their Executive Membership, which costs more than a regular membership, offers a 2% rebate on purchases, and thus more than pays for itself, meaning that we don’t incur a membership cost. But even if we had to pay a nominal fee, we’d still be Costco members. They treat their employees well, and they offer quality products and service. And buying in bulk is green: less packaging (much of our repackaging material is reusable), and fewer trips to the store means less fuel consumption.

In our life before Alaska, we were already harvesting most of our seafood and freezing (and smoking) it. Annual berry-picking pilgrimages provided us with a year’s worth of blueberries – a fruit that not only is delicious and versatile, but which freezes well, too.

The challenge we faced upon moving to the bush was getting all this food, and other supplies, out to the village. Here’s the short explanation of the solution: Rubbermaid Roughneck Totes and Coleman Xtreme 52-quart coolers.

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Left: Drilling holes in lids and totes to be zip-tied shut for parcel post. Right: Empty coolers at the post office, ready to be mailed south where they’ll be filled with frozen and cold food at the end of the summer and checked on our planes north to the village.

We drill the Rubbermaid totes so that the lids can be zip-tied (cable-tied) to the tub. Rubbermaid totes are tough and unaffected by cold temperatures. Cheaper totes don’t hold up, and in the long-run are expensive because they have to be replaced as they break down. All of our dry good are mailed up parcel post in these tubs. We’ve mailed hardy vegetables (squashes, potatoes and onions) and hard cheeses in these tubs as well. In Alaska’s cool temperatures, they’ve been fine.

The coolers travel on the plane when we fly up. There are better coolers than Coleman Xtremes, but so far these have been fine. The price is right, they’re tougher than really cheap coolers, and they weigh in at a reasonably light weight – an important consideration. The 52-quart size is manageable even when fully loaded with frozen food.

We stuff at least eight of these coolers with as much fish, meat, chicken and frozen vegetables and berries as we can and pay the extra luggage fee. We’ve been sealing these coolers with duck tape, but this summer we’re planning to experiment with a solution that won’t require having to use and throw away a roll or two of tape each time we ship.

New York Strip steaks (left) and filet mignon (right), purchased in bulk from Costco are packaged with one of each per vacuum-sealed pack for a Porterhouse without the bone. Meat, poultry and fish packaged and frozen this way will keep for over a year; the result is that we waste virtually nothing.

Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Icescapes

Ball and Pyramid, Chukchi Sea, Alaska: This icescape, photographed with a Nikon D90 and a Sigma Bigma 50 – 500 mm lens, has been slightly processed to increase contrasts. The operative word here is “slightly.” Even to the naked eye, these frozen-sea icescapes are other-worldly.

Evocative, perhaps, of a scene from Star Trek, winter hikers venture across the frozen ocean out to a whaling camp. The gun the lead person is carrying is for protection. Although we saw no sign of polar bears on this day, friends of ours who took a slightly different path encountered fresh tracks.

Seal-skin boat at the ready, these men stand vigile for bowhead and beluga whales. Note the light blue block of ice they’ve cut out and positioned near their gear as a shield. These men are standing on sea ice just a few feet from the open sea. Last year was a good year for whaling in Point Hope, with three bowhead whales harvested. The hunt is dependent on the right ice conditions, which can be elusive. So far this year, no whales have been taken.

A well-equipped wall tent, complete with a supply of propane, serves as one of several whaling camps near the village. These camps are set up on sea ice, and may be anywhere from a few hundred yards to several miles offshore. The hunters travel out to leads – areas where the ice is open. Winds and currents can open and close leads quickly, underscoring the need for whaling crews to be constantly alert.

Sea ice seem to be lit from within by blue light. Heaved up in pressure ridges and broken into fragments weighing several tons, it is easy to appreciate the arduous work “breaking trail” entails as hunters go out onto the ice to set up camps. 

A black and white composition heightens the contrasts in these massive blocks of broken ice.

There’s a sense of being somewhere other than Earth…

And then a flock of common murres skims across a lead…

The Birds are Back in Town!

Feathers puffed against the cold, a female McKay’s bunting warms herself in the radiant heat from a rock. Daily highs are reaching the teens and even the twenties now, and today’s sunshine stretched from sunrise at 7:00 AM to sunset at 11:13 PM. The midnight sun is back, and so are the birds! 
Gripped in the heart of winter, an Arctic landscape can be one of the quietest places on earth. Save for a few hardy ravens that manage to make a living off dumpsters and the local garbage facility, most birds head for warmer climes. There are no tree branches for the wind to whistle through, no dry grass to rustle, and on the coldest nights, even the village dogs huddle up and stay mum. Dark settles in, and the waiting begins.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve increasingly been hearing the welcome twitters and chirps of flocks of the snow birds of the north, snow buntings and McKay’s buntings. It’s been weeks since the last windstorm, and these days we can feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. It feels… wonderful.
I’ve always admired passerines – songbirds. These snow buntings have become some of my favorites.

Butter Toffee Almonds

Plain, cayenne pepper, or rock salt. We liked all three. Which will you make?

We don’t like to visit friends empty-handed, especially when we invite ourselves over to watch a sporting event on TV. In bush Alaska, there aren’t six-packs of beer or bottles of wine to grab at the store. Our ready gift is usually something we’ve created in the kitchen. Recently we were running late for one of the March Madness basketball games and had nothing already prepared, so a few whirls in the kitchen and we had buttered toffee almonds – three ways. The original plain version is quite tasty. Two other versions were made by sprinkling cayenne pepper on some for that back-of-your-throat-bite and by sprinkling large grains of sea salt for another pleasant surprise. All three versions were tied for first place. This recipe was finished in 15 minutes. Lucky for us, the walk over in sub-freezing temperatures cooled the almonds enough to eat as soon as we entered our friends’ home.

Butter Toffee Nuts Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 3 cups whole almonds (or use 3 cups peanuts)
Directions
  1. Use a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan to heat all of the ingredients, except the nuts. Stir the mixture constantly to prevent scorching. Using a candy thermometer and medium heat, bring the mixture to 300 degrees. The temperature will rise as the water is boiled off, and this can happen quickly, so be prepared to lower the heat or remove the candy from the heat as needed.
  2. As soon as the mixture reaches the desired temperature, remove it from the stove and add the nuts. Mix until all nuts are coated. Pour the nut mixture onto a greased cookie sheet spread into an even layer. Let fully cool. This step works well on parchment paper.

Recipe adapted from http://www.life123.com/food/candies-fudge/toffee/making-butter-toffee-almonds.shtml.

Upside-Down Pecan Pumpkin Cake

Moist, packed with flavor and topped with crunchy nutty deliciousness, this upside-down will have your guests glad they saved room for dessert. 

I baked this cake in a 9-inch springform pan because that was the best pan for the job in my cupboard. Set on a baking sheet it worked well, and unmolding the cake was a cinch.

Upside Down Pecan Pumpkin Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, evenly divided and melted
  • 3/4 cup of brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup pecan halves
  • 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree, canned or fresh
  • 1/2 cup warm (110 degrees) milk

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread pecan halves on a baking sheet and toast for 5 minutes or until aromatic.  Remove from the oven and let cool. Coarsely chop the pecans and set aside. Leave the oven set to 350 degrees F.
  2. Melt one stick of butter in a small sauce pan. Add pecans and brown sugar, mix thoroughly. Spread this mixture evenly at the bottom of a 9 inch cake pan.
  3. In a large bowl, sift together flour, sugar, cinnamon, mace, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.
  4. Melt second stick of butter.
  5. Add melted butter, eggs, milk, vanilla extract and pumpkin puree into a mixing bowl. Beat together with mixer until well combined, about 2 minutes.  Add flour mixture and stir with spoon until just combined.
  6. Pour batter on top of pecan mixture in the baking pan. Bake until a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Transfer the cake to a wire rack to cool, approximately 5 minutes.
  7. Place a plate over the cake and invert to unmold cake and let cool completely.

We served the cake with homemade vanilla bean ice cream and cups of freshly steeped almond roobios tea.

This recipe was adapted from http://thenoshery.com/2011/03/28/praline-upside-down-pumpkin-cake/.

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Chocolate Waffle Cookies in Two Minutes Flat!

This week, I based my search for a new cookie recipe solely on looks. I found a photo of “boot print cookies,” not a terribly appetizing name for a cookie, but the waffled pockets make it easy to imagine serving these with ice cream or chocolate sauce, and the powdered sugar on a chocolate-colored background is classic. The unique look, rich brownie flavor, and the crispy Belgian waffle texture are a winning combination. The best part? After the batter is made, you only have to wait two minutes before you can enjoy fresh, hot, chocolate waffle cookies! Just dollop a rounded tablespoon of batter onto the hot waffle iron, press, and there they are – Boot Print Cookies! Or, if you like, in deference to the waffle-soled running shoes Bill Bowerman created in his kitchen while a coach at Oregon University back in the 1970’s, “Cross Country Cookies!”

Chocolate Waffle Cookies

makes 32 cookies

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

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Directions

  1. Preheat the waffle iron. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and butter together. Stir in the eggs and vanilla. Then mix in the flour, cocoa, and walnuts.
  2. Drop dough by rounded tablespoons onto the waffle iron. My waffle iron is large enough to do 16 cookies per batch. Close the lid and cook for 2 minutes. It may take more or less time depending on the individual waffle iron. Separate any cookies that have run together while still warm. Dust with confectioner’s sugar if desired.
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adapted from http://allrecipes.com/recipe/waffle-cookies-ii/detail.aspx

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Fire in the Sky: Aurora Borealis Point Hope, Alaska

Mars hangs above a water silo aglow with lights from the school, a band of auroral light seeming to shoot from the silo like flames. (Click on photos for larger images.)

No photo – and certainly not our first attempts – can do justice to a northern sky on fire and dancing with the eerie green and purple glow of an Aurora Borealis. On this night 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, temperatures were an icy negative 10, pushed even lower by a steady breeze. As the sun sank below the frozen sea to the west, the full moon emerged in the east, close to Earth and huge, the color of a blood orange, hanging on the horizon. Jupiter and Venus were aligned, Mars glowed red as an ember against the black sky and Orion’s belt burned bright. Washing over it all was a breathtaking display of slowly moving green bands, some of them edged in purple, some of them jagged and electric, the band on the northern horizon streaked with pink mixed in with the green.

It’s not uncommon to see a bit of faint green or greenish yellow in the night sky up here. But what we were seeing on this night was of a different magnitude – a rare event tracing back to a spike in activity on the Sun a a few days ago. We made a few quick phone calls to friends. “Go outside and look up!” Meanwhile we got our camera and gear together, realizing, suddenly, that we weren’t  sure how to capture any of this. We met one of our friends in front of the school and walked with her toward the lagoon on the north side of town, away from the lights. In every direction, from horizon to horizon and straight overhead, what we saw stunned us. “This is amazing,” we kept repeating.

Note the three aligned stars of Orion’s belt to the left.

By the time we got our camera figured out, our fingers hurt with cold and the peak of the lights was past. But we still got some photos. A large part of photography is capturing light, and this was a quest for capturing light on a sublime scale.

Fireworks over the Columbia River while sharing a bottle of wine from a balcony at my apartment in Astoria, Oregon, tumblers of Scotch and a sky so impossibly filled with stars we felt like the deck of our mountain cabin in Yosemite was sailing through the Milky Way, a full moon hanging over a becalmed ocean on Prince William Sound with not another boat on the water, a campfire, mesmerizing, at our tent site at Oregon’s Sunset Bay State Park… night skies to come in remote anchorages on the Pacific… Our lives are filled with light.

Florentines – Chocolate or Plain?

These crispy yet chewy cookies can be made as a sandwich with a layer of chocolate to hold them together, chocolate dipped, or with a drizzle of chocolate. And they are wonderful without any chocolate at all.

When I was young my family sometimes went to a deli in San Francisco where, out of an assortment of scrumptious confections, I was allowed to pick out a cookie after our meal. Often, I chose a chocolate dipped florentine, a delicious almond cookie flavored with the essence of orange zest, one of my favorite combinations.

We are trying to keep our kitchen as simple as possible in order to ready ourselves for life on a boat with only a relatively small galley kitchen. So it was only after serious contemplation that we recently added a new gadget to our galley – a Miallegro stick blender. Our manual nut chopper has worked well for most duties, but would have been tough to chop almonds fine and consistent enough to meet the needs of this recipe. The stick blender is much smaller than our counter top blender and much more versatile. With 550 watts of power and a dedicated nut chopper attachment, I had finely ground, perfectly uniform coarse almond flour in less than one minute!

Even with the help of the chopper, this recipe was time consuming, but our cookie taste testers all agreed: the result was fabulous. The first step was blanching and skinning the almonds. After some trial and error, I figured out that the easiest way to skin the almonds was to boil them for two minutes and then pinch them out of their skins while they were soaking in cold water. After this step, the almonds had to dry. I let them sit out on a cookie sheet overnight. After the dough is made, it needs to sit for about a half an hour in order to cool enough to handle. I could only bake six cookies at a time, which also added to the time. Lastly, if you dip the cookies or drizzle them in chocolate, this has to be done after the cookies have cooled. Wait! You still can’t serve them until the chocolate sets up. This investment in time results in cookies that end up disappearing quickly! I don’t know which I like better… the chewy yet crunchy texture, or the combination of the orange, almond, and chocolate flavors.

Florentine Cookies

Yields 24 six-inch cookies

  • 1 3/4 cups blanched almonds, sliced (about 5 ounces)
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • Finely grated zest of 1 orange (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Chocolate topping (optional):
  • 2 to 4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
Directions
  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
  2. Pulse the almonds in a food processor until finely chopped, but not pasty. Stir together the nuts, flour, zest and salt in a large bowl.
  3. Put the sugar, cream, corn syrup and butter in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture comes to a rolling boil and sugar is completely dissolved. Continue to boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla, then pour this mixture into almond mixture and stir just to combine. Set aside until cool enough to handle, about 30 minutes.
  4. Scoop rounded teaspoons (for 3-inch cookies) or rounded tablespoons (for 6-inch cookies) of batter and roll into balls. Place on prepared baking sheet, leaving about 3 to 4 inches between each cookie since they spread as they bake.
  5. Bake 1 pan at a time, until the cookies are thin and an evenly golden brown in color, rotating pans halfway through baking time, about 10 to 11 minutes. Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to cooling racks. Repeat with remaining batter.
Optional chocolate topping
  1. Put the chocolate in a medium sized, heatproof bowl. Bring a saucepan filled with 1 inch of water to a very low simmer; set the bowl over the water, but not touching the water. Stir the chocolate occasionally until melted and smooth.
  • For sandwiches, drop about 1/2 teaspoon chocolate onto the flat side of half of the cookies and press remaining halves onto the chocolate covered halves. Return to rack and let chocolate set.
  • For chocolate decor, drizzle melted chocolate over florentines as desired. Set aside at room temperature until chocolate has set.
Recipe courtesy of http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/food-network-kitchens/florentines-italy-recipe/index.html

Point Hope in Winter from the Air

The village of Point Hope, Alaska, February 24, 2012, as seen from a nine-passenger Cessna Caravan.

Viewed from the air, a continuous sheet of ice and snow obscures the boundaries between land and sea in the Arctic north. We were happy to fly south to Anchorage for a few days, thereby escaping the steady string of days with temperatures hovering around negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Compared to Point Hope, the weather in Anchorage was downright balmy, with highs around 28 degrees. Intermittent snow showers filled the crisp air with big, soft snowflakes.

Six days later our plane touched down on the icy Point Hope runway. As we descended the ladder, a blast of icy wind crushed into our faces, momentarily taking our breath away. The previous week, the absence of wind made walking outside pleasant enough, but now the wind chill is frequently dipping to 50 or 60 below and even colder. Cases of frostbite are up, as are cases of frozen plumbing. Each day, we’re gaining eight minutes of daylight. Still cold. Still a lot of winter left.

Waste Not Want Not OR Spiced Pear Butter

Pear butter and cream cheese slathered on fresh-baked bread and canning jars of just-made pear butter ready for the freezer.

Jack and I try not to waste, especially when it comes to food. When our school’s head cook brought me a box of pears that were too banged up and bruised to serve to students, I gladly took them with the promise of creating something tasty in return.

I bagged up what weighed in at eight pounds of what appeared to be d’Anjou pears. With our supply of maple syrup running low (pancakes and waffles are a weekly feature on our breakfast menu) I reckoned they’d cook down into a fair amount of sweet, lightly spiced pear butter.

Outside it was blowing a gale. I made the walk home in near white-out blizzard conditions only to find my front door knob frozen solid! A snow drift as high as the house had the other door completely buried! After trudging back to school to get help – and fortunately finding one of our maintenance crew who knew exactly what to do – I decided to forego a walk to the store to pick up orange juice, a key element in my most recent batch of pear butter. I did have plenty of lemon juice on hand. Time to experiment.

I have to say this pear butter came out even better than the last. If you picked this up in a cute jar in a boutique gourmet shoppe, you would be happy you spent the $8.

Making pear butter requires an investment of time and effort, but it’s worth it. We taste tested it on Challah bread with a smear of cream cheese. Delicious. We already can imagine filling all the nooks in our weekend waffles with warmed pear butter and chopped pecans. It would be equally tasty on broiled pork chops or grilled chicken.

Ingredients

  • 6 pounds of cored pears cut into cubes (D’Anjou or Bartlett)
  • 1 tbsp dry ground ginger
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup lemon juice
  • 4 – 5 cups of sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom
  • 1 tsp orange zest (lemon would be good, too)

Directions

  1. Put cubed pears and ginger into a large pot – preferably one with a thick enough bottom to prevent scorching. Add 2 cups water and 1 cup lemon juice. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook until pears are soft, 25 – 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  2.  Purée the mixture using food processor, stick or regular blender. Pour puréed pears back into large pot.
  3. Add sugar. Taste after adding 4 cups to see if more sugar is needed. Add cardamom and citrus zest. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.
  4. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring often to prevent the purée from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning. Cook until the mixture is fairly thick. Test by placing a small dollop on a chilled plate: it should not be runny. The cooking-down time can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the batch.
  5. Store in freezer containers or canning jars.
Recipe adapted from http://simplyrecipes.com/recipes/pear_butter/

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