The End of Summer in Chignik Lake: A river full of Silver Salmon, a Two-Day Storm and Halibut Chowder

Smokey Halibut Chowder

With a freezer brimming with Sockeyes and Coho, entering September we have salmon security for the coming winter. The Coho have been particularly fun to put away. These silvery bright ocean-fresh eight to 12 pound fish often hit our lures right at our feet as we cast, swing and retrieve through the Chignik River’s clear green water. We caught and filleted the last fish we need Friday evening just before two straight days of gale force winds lashed our village with heavy rain and turned our lake into an angry, white-capped sea. Today was a good day to stay inside. While José González played quietly in the background on our Bose speaker, Barbra bottled a couple of cases of beer – a red ale and an amber – and turned out two handsome loaves of her famously delicious sourdough bread. I cured a couple of skeins of salmon eggs and tucked in with David McCullough’s fascinating Pulitzer Prize winning biography, John Adams.

A few days ago, a friend presented us with halibut and alder-smoked Sockeye salmon. Today was the perfect day to thaw the halibut and put these gifts to use. The secret to this recipe is to cook the potatoes and the vegetables separately and to then put the chowder together. Roasting the potatoes adds to the depth of flavor and texture. When cutting ingredients up, you want pieces small enough so that more than one item can fit on a soup spoon, but big enough to carry flavor. Celery and bell pepper can be strongly flavored, so cut these finer and go easy on the amount of each. Precooking will significantly soften and sweeten the flavor of these vegetables.

Smokey Halibut Chowder

Ingredients

  • 1 pound halibut cut into chunks
  • 1 1/2 cups of smoked salmon, skin removed diced (or substitute bits of crispy bacon or salt pork and use less)
  • About double the amount of potatoes as halibut, skin on, diced
  • 1 leek, sliced into fairly thin discs
  • 3/4 cup of bell pepper, diced small
  • 1/2 cup celery, diced small
  • 1 can of sweet corn (or 2 cobs worth)
  • about 4 cups of milk
  • about 1 cup of heavy cream
  • olive oil
  • butter
  • smoked sea salt
  • tarragon
  • oregano
  • nutmeg
  • black pepper
  • sherry (or white wine or mirin)

Directions

  1. Place a tray suitable for roasting on the oven’s center rack and preheat to 450° F. (230° C)
  2. Lightly salt the halibut and set aside
  3. Place the diced potatoes into a bowl. Toss with olive oil and smoked sea salt.
  4. Roast the potatoes till soft and beginning to brown and crisp – about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
  5. Meanwhile, heat some butter in a large pan. Add the bell pepper and some sherry and cook for about 2 minutes. Then add the celery, leeks and sweet corn. Add smoked sea salt, and perhaps a little more sherry, to taste, stirring occasionally. When the vegetables have just cooked through and become soft, add the tarragon, oregano, nutmeg and black pepper, tasting as you go. Toss together thoroughly and remove from heat.
  6. Add the potatoes and the cooked vegetables to a large pot making sure to scrape out all the butter & sherry mixture from the vegetable pan. Add the halibut and salmon and toss everything together well. Add enough milk and cream in about a 4 to 1 ratio to sufficiently cover all the ingredients. Add additional salt as needed. Heat on high heat just until the chowder is steaming and the halibut is cooked through. Don’t boil and don’t overcook.
  7. Serve piping hot with sour dough bread and butter.

Let the weather do its worst.

Sometimes it’s the Little Things: Farm Fresh Vegetables in Bush Alaska

Courtesy of The Farm in Port Alsworth, a newly-arrived box of fresh vegetables fit to inspire any food-lover.

Once a week flown in a little bush airplane, a box shows up packed with freshly picked vegetables. It’s like having a birthday each week!

We’ve written a number articles about how we get food out to the tiny, remote Alaskan bush villages where we live. There’s a story about carefully packing a year’s worth of food from Costco into durable Rubbermaid tubs. More recently, we’ve been ordering much of our food from the Fred Meyer grocery store on Debarr Road in Anchorage. The people there take great care getting our groceries out to us, sending us impeccably wrapped and packed goods usually within about four days of the request. Amazon’s grocery store is another great way to get groceries, although sometimes that involves a wait of several weeks. When we lived in Point Hope we discovered a company in Washington called Full Circle, which mails farm fresh gourmet vegetables to select communities in Alaska. We would get multi-colored carrots and Swiss chard, yellow beets, and pink haricots verts. These premium veggies came at a premium price, but I will admit that after eating frozen vegetables our first year in the bush, we threw our budget to the wind in the name of fresher, tastier fare. Besides, it was fun to experiment in our cooking with colorful and interesting ingredients.

When we moved to Chignik Lake, we heard about “The Farm” in Port Alsworth. It was almost spoken as a whisper – a secret to be kept tight within an inner circle. The scoop was that they would sync orders with local flights and ship boxes filled with vegetables picked that very morning. Freshly picked veggies? Right to our door? The same day they’re picked? Our response – “What’s the phone number?” In the same secretive way we’d first heard about this magical place, we were handed a phone number. Imagine a folded slip of paper passed from one to another during a knowing handshake. When I looked up The Farm in Port Alsworth on the internet, I was surprised to discover that there was no evidence of such a place. I took out the note with the scrawled number and called.

“Hello?” an informal voice came through the receiver. Oh, dear. I must have a wrong number, I remember thinking. They should have answered the phone with a jaunty, “The Farm!” Right?

Tentatively I asked, “Is this The Farm?”

“Yes!” came the cheerful reply. Sometimes things in Alaska don’t come about the way one might imagine.

“The Farm” is actually “The Farm Lodge.” Located in Port Alsworth on beautiful Lake Clark, the lodge is operated by the same company that runs Lake Clark Air, which we regularly fly with. The lodge features a picturesque greenhouse, inviting grounds and accommodations for guests who travel to Port Alsworth for nature viewing, hunting and fishing expeditions. In addition to world class salmon fishing and wildlife photo opportunities, the lodge boasts excellent home cooked meals featuring, of course, their garden fresh vegetables. Since Chignik Lake is a regular stop for Lake Clark Air, we benefit from the surfeit of fresh produce grown in their greenhouse.

They may not have multi-colored beets or artisan green beans, but they nonetheless offer wonderful produce. We’ve received many of the crisp favorites one might find in a typical garden – cucumbers, green-leaf lettuce, tomatoes, chard, beets, radishes, bell peppers and sugar snap peas. With long hours of summertime daylight, Alaska is famous for the truly humongous size certain vegetables attain up here. The cabbage that came in our box last week was as big as a large mixing bowl – and yet it turned out to be only half the original head!

The only downside to The Farm’s service is that the growing season ends in October. But until then, we have all the fresh vegetables we can eat to go with meals of the equally fresh salmon we catch in the river in front of our house!

If you are in our area and would like to participate in The Farm Lodge’s special deliveries, here is the secret phone number (907) 310-7630.

Broiled Salmon Spine with Roasted Vegetables on Farfalle: Getting The Most out of Every Fish

Close to the bone, salmon meat near the skeleton is lean and tasty. Salmon spines (salmon carcasses with some meat still attached) are perfect candidates for the broiler. Add some vegetables to the broiling pan and you’ve got a gourmet meal for two.

No sooner did we return back home in Chignik Lake than we began turning our attention to filling our freezer and smoker with salmon. Wild salmon are precious, and every last bit of salmon meat is delicious. I don’t always get the fillets off the bones as cleanly as I’d like. That’s where this dish comes in. While the photos depict a Sockeye salmon, other species work well, too, and of course a fillet works as well as a spine in this recipe.

1. Position your oven rack to the second level below the broiler. Place a broiling pan on the rack and turn on the broiler to preheat the pan and the oven.

2. Chop up some of your favorite vegetables. Pick ones that are hardy enough to withstand a few minutes under the broiler. Whole garlic cloves roast up soft, slightly charred and delicious in this recipe. Fruit such as pitted olives work well, too.

3. To serve two, measure out about two cups of Farfalle pasta. Other types of pasta are fine.

Mise en place: whole garlic cloves, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, fresh oregano, sea salt, pasta and Kalamata olives. You’ll also need a good extra virgin olive oil, a broiling pan, and, of course, the salmon spine or fillet. 

4. Toss the vegetables together in a bowl along with sea salt and olive oil. Fresh or dried thyme or oregano are good herb choices.

Sprinkle salt into the vegetables to taste, add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, then mix together. As an additional option, a tablespoon or so of mirin – a light, sweet cooking wine – adds a hint of sweetness and helps the vegetables brown and char.

5. Next, rinse the salmon in cold water and dry and clean it with paper towels. There may be some dark matter running along the spine inside the skeletal cavity. That’s the kidney. If there’s a lot of this, you can use a knife or even a spoon to scrape it out. It can be further cleaned up with a stiff brush. A toothbrush works well for this.

6. Place the salmon spine on a cutting board and give it a fairly generous sprinkling of salt.

A good sea salt (we like gray sea salt) really brings out the flavor of salmon.

7. Take the preheated broiling pan out of the oven. Use a brush or spatula to coat the surface with olive oil. Arrange the salmon and the vegetables on the pan.  It should be sizzling hot. Place the pan back into the oven and broil for about 8 or 9 minutes.

8. While the salmon is broiling, prepare the pasta according to the maker’s directions.

Colored bell peppers and Brussels sprouts char and caramelize beautifully under a broiler.

9. After about 8 or 9 minutes, remove the broiling pan from the oven. Transfer the salmon to a cutting board and use a fork to pull the meat off the bones. You want chunks of a good size to go on a fork along with a bite of vegetable and a bit of pasta.

10. Finally, plate up the pasta. Add the salmon and vegetables. Finish with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a couple of grinds of freshly cracked pepper. Serve hot with a bright Willamette Valley Pinot Gris.

 

Winter Landscape in Black and White: Spruce Tree with Mountain

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I made this photo just a few feet from my home in Chignik Lake. The challenge was to somehow clean up the assortment of utility poles, wires, satellite dishes and the dissonant array of scrub alder closer to eye level. I actually knew as soon as this assignment (Winter Landscape in Black and White – the second weekly assignment from Outdoor Photographer magazine) was posted the scene I wanted to shoot. I put on a long lens, waited for the right light, and got this frame.

Next Thursday: Patterns of Winter

 

Winter Macro Photography: Other Worlds

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Abstract #4: Parallel Worlds – Among new projects in 2017 is a commitment to taking on the “Weekly Photo Assignment” challenge at Outdoor Photographer magazine. The first new assignment for 2017 was Winter Macro. 

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Abstract #4: Fracture – For the first time in perhaps five years, our lake, Chignik Lake, has frozen solid. The first day it was reasonably safe to walk on the ice, it was incredibly clear.

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Abstract #9: Galaxy – As I walked around scanning the bottom for fish and aquatic insects, here and there I noticed bubbles trapped in the clear ice.

Next Thursday: Winter Landscape in Black and White

Uni & Ikura Amuse Bouche (Sea Urchin & Salmon Roe)

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Fresh from the sea, uni and ikura create a salty, savory combination.

Much as is true of most Japanese people, most Alutiiqs love virtually anything harvested from the sea. From octopus to chitons (locally known as bidarki), if it’s fresh from the ocean it’s likely to find its way onto the menu here in Chignik Lake. Sea urchins are highly prized.

And there’s really nothing to preparing them. Insert a small knife into the opening on the bottom of the shell, cut the shell open, and remove the bright yellow lobes, which are the urchins’ reproductive organs.  (They are not roe.) Most people are careful to remove the dark colored matter inside the shell, but the urchins we had were small and including this substance added, we thought, both a subtle additional flavor and contrasting color. In Alaska, we almost always have a jar or cured salmon roe on hand. This bright, salty, translucent salmon caviar is a perfect finishing touch on many dishes. For a popular recipe for making your own ikura, click here.

Perfect Sourdough English Muffins: Easier than You Think!

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Perfectly round. Perfectly chewy. Perfect little breakfast breads. Why did I quit on you so quickly. my Darlings?

With success under my belt making sourdough bread, I found myself contemplating what other types of delicious baked goods I could make with my sourdough starter. A friend in the village lent me an old Alaskan recipe book with a huge collection of recipes that are truly Alaskan. Did you ever wonder how to cook up beaver meat? Or fireweed stalks? These are just a couple of the interesting recipes found in this volume. Of course, there was a substantial section on sourdough. I don’t know if many people realize this, but sourdough is a very Alaskan thing.  In fact, you can find starters that date back to the Klondike gold rush! It was an easy thing for people of that time to keep fresh starter going. They only had to regularly feed it. Delicious pancakes and breads could then be whipped up in a snap.

Now that I have a healthy starter going (I actually have two, thanks to another friend), I started playing around with recipe ideas that would showcase this unique ingredient. In short order, an idea came to me from a recipe that I’d failed at several years ago…

I got into serious baking when we first came out to the Alaska bush. At that time, we decided to make as much of our food as we could from scratch, knowing that our local store would have limited supplies. We shipped out ingredients in bulk, like 50-pound bags of flour and sugar and 25-pound bags of rice and beans. It was lovely to have a year’s worth of ingredients in our pantry. Lately, I’ve been contemplating how my baking skills and confidence have grown since the days of bread machine loaves and basic chocolate chip cookies to what I turn out in our kitchen now: lattice-topped pies with homemade crusts and my own “Twix” bars in which every layer of the candy is crafted from scratch.

I can’t remember what about my first English muffins was so bad, but I do remember being quite frustrated and promptly turning my back on these little breads. Until now. I’m glad I came around. These round beauties came out better than store bought. They had that lovely sour tang to them, the chewiness that is the hallmark of good English muffins with the expected crunch of cornmeal on the outside. Of course, we split them with forks before serving them toasted with butter and homemade jam. We also use these muffins for tasty breakfast sandwiches of fried egg, salmon, and melting cheddar cheese. As it turns out, these tasty baked breads are actually pretty easy to make. Who knows what wrong I did to this recipe so many years ago.

Sourdough English Muffins

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 2 cups warm water (about 110 degrees F)
  • 1 tbsp active dry yeast
  • 7 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sourdough starter
  • ½ cup nonfat dried milk
  • ¼ unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • cornmeal, for coating

Directions

  1. Combine all of the dough ingredients (except cornmeal) in a large bowl.
  2. Mix and knead. Dough should be elastic and not too sticky.
  3. Place dough in a lightly greased bowl. Cover with plastic and let rise for about 1 hour.
  4. Turn dough out on a lightly flour surface.
  5. Divide dough in half.
  6. Roll dough to about ½ inch thick. Cut into 3” rounds with cookie cutter. Or just cut dough into squares, using a knife.
  7. Re-roll and cut any remaining scraps.
  8. Repeat with remaining half of dough.
  9. Place rounds onto cornmeal-sprinkled baking sheets. Sprinkle with additional cornmeal.
  10. Cover with plastic wrap and let them rise for another hour.
  11. Preheat a large griddle over medium-low heat.
  12. Place as many muffins as you can (without crowding) on griddle.
  13. Cook muffins for 10 minutes on each side.
  14. Remove muffins from griddle and cool on a wire rack. Store tightly wrapped at room temperature for about 5 days. Freeze for longer storage.

Recipe adapted from King Arthur Flour.