Breakfast Panna Cotta – Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary

A breakfast fit for a celebration – now where’s my champagne?

As it happens sometimes, we received a random box of ingredients, this time thanks to the Farmers to Families program. The box included a variety of items that someone defined as household staples. Included were roasted chicken quarters, hot dogs, potatoes, apples, milk, and yogurt. Jack quickly turned out a delicious soup with the chicken, potatoes, and other veggies we had in our fridge. My challenge was the yogurt. I usually make our own yogurt, so we already had more than enough for our regular menu. 

Living in a small village, we often gift extra food amongst our neighbors. For example, if someone gets an extra order of canned pumpkin or tahini (real examples), we share. When that happens, the resulting cooking challenge always strikes me as our own episode of Chopped. We don’t like to let anything go to waste. So the puzzle of the yogurt needed to be attended to right away.

I had just finished re-reading The Tutka Bay Lodge Cookbook and was in the middle of another pastry chef cookbook when the box arrived. I already had Panna Cotta on the brain. I wondered if Panna Cotta could be made with yogurt instead of cream. Panna Cotta is a wonderful gelatinized dessert that can become a delicious canvas for a variety of fruit. The name is derived from Italian and means “cooked cream.” In my experiment, it would be cooked yogurt. So, yes, this is not a true Panna Cotta. My version has the same vanilla bean canvas and the same structure. That’s where the similarity ended.

I tested different dishes and glasses for serving the Panna Cotta including wine glasses and ramekins. I think they all worked beautifully. My breakfast Panna Cotta definitely tasted like a rich vanilla yogurt. But it made for a gorgeous and delicious breakfast presentation – layers of crunchy granola, chewy dried fruit, zippy tart berries, and a drizzle of last summer’s wineberry syrup. The same visual layers can be accomplished in any clear glass if ramekins are not available. With just a bit of chilling time and not too much effort, you too can turn ordinary into extraordinary.

Breakfast Panna Cotta

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 tsp powdered gelatin (1 package)
  • 3 cups plain yogurt
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • granola
  • dried fruit
  • frozen or fresh berries
  • berry syrup

Directions

  1. Place gelatin in a small bowl. Pour a couple of tablespoons of the milk into the gelatin and mix. Let set for about 5 minutes.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the remainder of the milk, yogurt, vanilla and sugar.
  3. Place about 1/2 cup of the yogurt mixture into a small pot. Warm mixture while stirring constantly.
  4. Add gelatin mixture to pot.
  5. Whisk mixture until gelatin is dissolved. Let cool for 5 minutes.
  6. Pour gelatin mixture back into the original yogurt mixture in the medium bowl. Mix thoroughly.
  7. Divide the panna cotta into 6 ramekins or glasses. 
  8. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight in the refrigerator.
  9. To serve, layer on granola, dried fruit, berries and berry syrup of your choosing.
  10. Alternatively, run a knife around the edge of the ramekin, dip the ramekin in hot water and unmold onto a serving plate prepared with a bottom layer of granola. Top panna cotta decoratively with remaining ingredients.

Dungeness Crab Cakes

Sweet Dungeness Crab – all you’ll want is a spritz of lemon.

For as long as I can remember I’ve ordered crab cakes in restaurants. They are, I think, the most difficult seafood fritter, patty or cake to get right. The best I’ve had were served at McCormick’s in Portland some years ago. They came with hollandaise sauce and I used to have them for breakfast with a cup of black coffee or a glass of Pinot Gris, after which I’d walk up the street to Powell’s to look at books or to write.

Thanks to the Dungeness in our freezer, I’ve been experimenting. Crab is difficult because it’s more important to get the seasonings right than with other seafood and then you’ve got to cook the cakes just so. If the cakes are very good, lemon is all you’ll want.

Dungeness Crab Cakes

Ingredients

  • ½ pound cooked Dungeness or Blue Crab meat. If it seems too wet, it is. Squeeze the excess moisture out with paper towel or through a strainer. Take extra care to make sure there is no shell.
  • seasonings: Crab is very sweet. It needs something. I use a blend of dried powdered peppers such as Aleppo, Ancho, Cayenne, Chipotle. The idea is that you want to balance the sweetness of the crab with something that pulls your pallet in a different direction. This actually serves to underscore the sweetness of crab, its signature trait. In addition to the above types of spice, smoked paprika, nutmeg and tarragon can also be added. Dill or fennel? I wouldn’t. I seldom spice anything exactly the same twice. The key here is the spicy pepper.
  • soy sauce: as desired
  • 1 or 2 shallots, diced fine, sautéed till soft in olive oil, removed from pan and set aside to cool
  • ¼ cup red bell pepper, diced, sautéed in olive oil, removed from pan and set aside to cool
  • 1 egg, beaten with a little soy sauce whisked in. Provided you don’t add too much spice to the cakes themselves, you can also add a couple shakes of Cholula here.
  • panko: approximately the same amount in volume as the crab meat. Start by mixing in about half the volume. That won’t feel like enough, so add more till it seems about right – not to wet, not too dry.
  • Olive oil and Butter

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl, mix together the crab, seasonings, shallots, bell peppers, soy sauce and egg. Hands work best for this. Then mix in the panko. Shape the cakes into patties. Keep them fairly small so that they are easy to turn and they stay together.
  2. In a frying pan on medium heat, add enough olive oil and butter in equal parts to shallow-fry the cakes. When the oil is hot, set the timer for 4 minutes and add the cakes. Cover the pan and cook for 1 minute, then lower the temperature to a little below medium. It is important to check the cakes periodically to make sure the bottom side is browning the way you want.
  3. At 4 minutes, gently turn the cakes over and continue cooking uncovered. Occasionally spoon some of the oil-butter mixture on top of the cakes.

These are the best crab cakes I’ve ever had. All I ever want with them is a spritz of lemon. When Barbra and I pick a whole crab and dip it in herbed lemon-butter, we almost always go for a buttery, oaked Chardonnay. But these cakes want something lighter and more fruit forward, so Pinot Gris or similar pairs well.

Don’t Discard the Discard Sourdough Crackers

Delightfully crispy and packed with flavor: cheese-like tang, garlic, onion, with a hit of salt. You’ll never discard your discard starter again.

One day, I noticed a friend had posted on a community webpage that she had extra sourdough starter if anyone wanted it. It made me wonder about extra starter – a problem I don’t seem to encounter. Due to a combination of where we live and our predisposition to avoid waste, we generally don’t have “extra.” Of course, shortly after coming to the conclusion that we’d never have extra starter, I had a week where I skipped making sourdough loaves and wound up with “extra starter.” One of my recipe books recommended discarding the extra. What?! I decided to taste it, to see if the flavor would inspire a recipe. Tasting raw starter was a bad idea. Yuck! 

After a bit of research, I decided to tinker with a cracker recipe I found on the King Arthur Flour website. My first batch came out wonderfully flavored, but too soft. The problem was the thickness. My rolling pin and I could not get the dough thin enough. The solution came to me after rolling lasagna noodles – the pasta machine! If you’ve only ever thought of your pasta machine as a noodle machine, think again. Besides wonderfully flavored and textured linguini and spaghetti, I’ve also cranked out perfect bowties, ravioli and even wonton wrappers. This seemingly single-purposed machine helps perfectly roll sourdough to make satisfyingly crunchy crackers.

If you don’t have a pasta machine, I highly recommend the Atlas model we have. It is a heavy beast, but it is a kitchen tool that’s made the cut every time we’ve had to pack up and move. If you don’t want to add another item to your cupboards, a rolling pin will still work with this recipe. Be patient and aim to roll a thickness of about 1/16”.

The finished crackers have a tangy cheese-like flavor from the sourdough starter. This in combination with a mixture of onion and garlic and a hit of grey sea salt make these crackers very addicting. Serve with the complementary topping of your choice. Or enjoy their flavor unadorned, as I usually do.

Don’t Discard the Discard Sourdough Crackers

Ingredients

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp granulated shallots (onion powder would work, too)
  • 1 tsp granulated garlic
  • 1 cup sourdough starter, unfed
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • olive oil for brushing
  • coarse salt for sprinkling on top (I like grey sea salt)

Directions

  1. Mix first 6 ingredients to form a smooth dough.
  2. Tightly cover in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. I often refrigerate for several days.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  4. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper or reusable liner.
  5. Cut off 1/4th of refrigerated dough and roll until it’s about 1/16” thick. I roll it like it is pasta on the pasta machine down to the 5th setting.
  6. Placed rolled dough on prepared baking sheet.
  7. Using a knife, or pastry roller, cut dough into cracker shapes. There is no need to move the crackers apart.
  8. Brush dough with olive oil.
  9. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt.
  10. Bake for 9 minutes.
  11. Crackers will be lightly browned when done.
  12. Let cool on wire rack. Store cooled crackers in an airtight container at room temperature.
  13. Repeat with remaining dough.

Lingonberry Flaugnarde Pour Deux

Flaugnarde is a lovely French name for a baked dessert which has fruit baked into a batter. The flaugnarde process creates a lightly crisped crust and a thick custard-like middle. Topped with ice cream, you’ll have a grand slam last course to any meal.

Lingonberries, known around here as low bush cranberries, are the last berry we forage for before we tuck in for winter. Collectors of these sour, flavorful gems are advised to wait until after the first frost for the best berries. We’ve learned that as long as the berries are fully red, the freezer also seems to do the same trick of enhancing their subtle sweetness.

Last year we found a killer spot for lingonberries across the lake. Looking back on the calendar where we kept noteworthy events, I noted that our several gallons of lingonberries in the freezer were collected in only two picking sessions. Now that’s a great spot!

Lingonberries can be used for cranberry recipes and vice versa. We’ve made lingonberry relish to go with roast turkey or moose, lingonberry breads to accompany poached egg breakfasts, and lingonberry juice for a hot spiced drink to warm up with on cold winter nights.

One of the tastiest recipes I’ve made with lingonberries is a version of Cranberry Chess Pie. It’s creamy filling packs a cranberry-orange, sweet-sour flavor punch inside a beautiful flaky pastry dough crust. This is the recipe I was channeling when I came up with a crustless version, which was supposed to be a little lighter on the calories. I can’t say I was successful with the calorie reduction. But I can say, it was incredibly delicious. I told Jack that I wished I could record his mmmming and ooohhing while he was eating this dessert. That would have been worth a thousand words.

Although this dessert is perfectly delicious on its own, I highly recommend serving it while it’s still warm with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. The dish will come out of the oven with a beautifully browned dome top. While it’s cooling, the flaugnarde will fall, creating a hollow perfectly shaped for a scoop of ice cream.

Lingonberry Flaugnarde

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup + 2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 extra large egg or 2 small eggs
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 1 1/2 tbsp Greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 1 1/2 cups lingonberries

Directions

  1. Grease two 8 oz ramekins. Set aside.
  2. Heat oven to 375 degrees F (190C).
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, add sugar, butter, and salt. Mix together.
  4. Mix in eggs.
  5. Mix in flour.
  6. Mix in yogurt and almond extract.
  7. Mix well.
  8. Stir in lingonberries.
  9. Divide mixture into the prepared ramekins.
  10. Bake until top is golden brown and filling is firm, about 50 minutes.
  11. Cool ramekins on wire rack.
  12. Top warm flaugnarde with scoops of vanilla bean ice cream. Devour immediately.

Salmonberry Sour Cream Crumble Cake for Four (Or two. Or one.)

Salmonberry crumb cake

Springtime in Mongolia meant every kind of weather. Recently, this similarity to Chignik Lake has seemed to be especially true. A few days ago the lunchtime thermometer read 42 degrees under sunny skies and only a few patches of a deep snow that had blanked the landscape remained. We were inspired to go for a Honda ride to look for whatever new growth we might find. That was a few days ago…

Yesterday, we awoke to drizzly rain that morphed into melty, wet snow. Next thing we knew, we were immersed in a blizzard that blanketed us in again in a winter wonderland. This morning, the new day greeted us with broken skies, gusts of wind, a thermometer registering a chilly 16°, and new skim ice near the shoreline.

The warmth streaming in through our windows a few days ago prompted thoughts of summer – fishing, berry picking, mushroom hunting, boating, and the like. But the honda ride confirmed that even though the warmth of the sun is returning, the land is still in a deep wintery slumber. The blizzard kept me indoors, antsy – I really wanted a taste of summer, even though I know it is still months away. There is nothing more evocative of Alaskan summers than berries. Last year, we picked gallons of wild berries and carefully preserved them in our freezer – blueberries, raspberries, salmonberries, wineberries and lingonberries. Lately, I’ve been favoring the blueberries to top my oatmeal or to mix in with homemade yogurt. But to satisfy my craving for a  summer creation, I found myself drawn to the beautiful, multi-colored gems that are salmonberries. They have a tangy, sweet-sour flavor that pairs perfectly with almond – an ingredient I wanted to feature.

I was very happy with how this cake turned out. The diminutive dessert was just right for the two of us to share. The berries baked into the batter, retaining their jewel-like beauty. The cake was delectably moist. The flavors incorporated the lovely balance of natural sweet and sour. Each bite was complimented by the crumbly sweet almond topping. Full disclosure – it was intended for two desserts. We managed to finish the whole thing off in one delicious fell swoop.

Salmonberry Sour Cream Crumble Cake for Four (Or two. Or one.)

Ingredients

Topping

  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

Cake

  • 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 extra large egg (1 1/2 large eggs)
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 1 1/2 cups salmonberries (if frozen, let thaw and drain off extra liquid)

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F (180C).
  2. Line bottom of 7-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Grease the sides of the pan with butter. Set aside.
  3. In a small bowl, mix together topping ingredients. Stir with a fork until mixture is crumbly. Set aside.
  4. For the cake, in another bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
  5. In a bowl of a stand mixer, mix together eggs, sour cream and almond extract.
  6. Add flour mixture for cake into the egg mixture. Beat until smooth, about 2 minutes.
  7. Pour batter into prepared springform pan.
  8. Top with salmonberries.
  9. Sprinkle crumble mixture evenly over berry layer.
  10. Bake until topping is golden brown the the center is cooked, about 40 minutes. Test this with a toothpick. It should come out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake.
  11. Let cake cool on wire rack in the pan for 20 minutes before removing springform sides.
  12. Cut into slices and serve warm or at room temperature.

Three Cheese Dungeness Crab Ravioli

Dungeness Crab RavioliGiant ravioli stuffed with creamy cheese and sweet Dungeness Crab. Happy 2021 from The Lake!

“Jack?” It was Donny on the phone. “Come down to the beach and get some crab! Bring a tote. There’s lots!”

I’d been photographing kinglets in a copse of spruce trees a two-minute walk from my house when I got the call. Crab?! I didn’t waste any time retracing my steps. Back home I went straight to the living room window. Sure enough, there was Donny talking with a man and a woman I didn’t recognize who had nosed an unfamiliar skiff into the lakeshore. On the beach near Donny were three or four large tubs. I set my camera gear aside, grabbed a bright pink plastic tote, slipped my feet into boots and made my way down to the scene.

The skiff and its occupants were with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Apparently, they’d been sampling the Dungeness Crab population in the Chignik estuary and nearby waters and with a good haul of the tasty crustaceans had made the six-mile run up the river to share the bounty. I greeted Donny, introduced myself to the ADFG crew, and surveyed the tubs heaped with crab. There were indeed “lots.”

“Go ahead and fill that tote,” Donny advised. “And make sure you get some big ones.”

They were good-looking crabs. Legal males. Clean, shells filled out, two-pounds on average, still kickin’, sea-scented.

That night, quite literally everyone in the village of Chignik Lake feasted on fresh Dungeness Crab. All 50-something of us.

Barbra and I spent a good bit of that evening steaming Dungies three at a time in our big soup kettle. We picked two that night for dinner, complimented  with a bottle of Chard. The rest were frozen for later use. We did this by first freezing the crabs in regular zip-seal plastic bags. Similar to berries and other fragile items, once the crabs are frozen hard they can be vacuum-packed without being crushed. Frozen this way, the crabs are perfect and keep a long time. Which is a good thing; we ended up with a lot of crab.

The ravioli? Once you’ve got the pasta made, there’s really nothing to it.

I combined equal amounts of mozzarella, goat and feta cheeses along with a blend of Italian herbs. To this mixture, I added an equal amount of Dungeness Crab and hand-tossed the ingredients together.

Meanwhile, Barbra rolled out the pasta and cut it into nice, big three-and-a-half inch squares, filled them with the crab and cheese mixture and crimped them closed with a pastry roller. It is important to use a sharp tool for the crimping. It helps to ensure that the ravioli remains sealed.

To avoid crowding these large raviolis, I used two pots, each with a good amount of water. Once the water came to a boil, I added the ravioli. After three minutes, I gently flipped them to ensure even cooking of the pasta and the filling – a total of six minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet on a back burner, I heated extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. When it was hot, I added shallots and garlic sliced as thin as I could manage along with a tablespoon of butter and a couple of healthy pinches of sea salt. This is a wonderfully simple accompaniment for delicately flavored pasta. I finished the dish with a grind of black pepper and a bit of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

By the way, these raviolis freeze well. Simply lay them out on a cookie sheet, freeze them solid, and then pack them in plastic bags. Cook them frozen, adding a minute to the overall boiling time.

With a surfeit of tasty Dungies in the freezer, expect more crab recipes in the coming weeks!

Salmon Cheddar Bisque with Morels

Salmon Cheddar Bisque with Morel Mushrooms

I’ve been making A. J. McClane’s Lobster Cheddar Bisque for quite a few years. The original recipe appears in my all-time favorite book on cooking fish, McClane’s North American Fish Cookery. Although by now I’ve strayed from the original recipe, spending time in the kitchen with an icon whose books and articles influenced me to seek the life I’m now living is invariably pleasant.

In addition to the connection with one of my personal culinary and angling heroes, I enjoy creating this bisque with ingredients that are in their own right touchstones. The Tillamook cheddar I use takes me back to the years I spent on the Oregon coast; the Coho salmon I used to catch in those days is replaced in this current iteration with Chignik River Sockeye. In Oregon, a friend’s gift of a large paper bag filled with freshly picked chanterelles inspired one version of this soup; the morels we recently came into from interior Alaska have inspired another.

The last time I published the recipe for this soup, I used lobster mushrooms. You can check out that recipe at: Salmon Cheddar Soup with Lobster Mushrooms

Here’s how I made it this time around.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound pan-fried Sockeye salmon, boned, skinned and flaked or cut into bite-sized pieces
  • *1¼ cups or so of morel mushrooms, cut so that a slice of morel and a chunk of salmon might both fit in a soup spoon
  • soy sauce
  • part of a red bell pepper, diced fairly fine. (I used a little over a tablespoon of Penzeys dried bell pepper.)
  • ¼ cup shallots, diced fine (I used Penzeys dried shallots.)
  • 2 tablespoons flower as a thickening agent. (White rice flower works best for this as it imparts very little flavor. But regular all purpose flower is fine.)
  • 1 tablespoon each olive oil and butter (for sautéing the mushrooms)
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1¾ cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 or two tablespoons Better than Bouillon lobster base (optional). This is salty, so if you use it, be sure to taste as you go.
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon smokey mesquite seasoning
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika

*When sautéing the mushrooms, a splash of Sherry or Chardonnay and a dash of soy sauce can be nice. It’s up to you.

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil and butter in the pot or sauteuse pan you will use to make the bisque. Medium heat.
  2. When the butter mixture begins to bubble, add the sliced mushrooms and toss to coat. Sauté the mushrooms for about two minutes. Add the shallots, bell peppers, a splash of white wine and soy sauce to finish. Lower heat.
  3. Vigorously stir in flour. Add milk, seasonings and lobster base. Stir till mixture begins to thicken. Keep it hot, but don’t let it boil.
  4. Add salmon and cheddar cheese. Taste the soup and add additional seasonings as necessary.
  5. Garnish with a pinch of paprika. Serve piping hot with a favorite bread.

Provided the soup wasn’t allowed to boil, it refrigerates well.

The Chignik Jack: Panko Crusted Coho Jack Salmon Stuffed with Dungeness Crab

panko crusted salmon stuffed with Dungeness crab

The perfect marriage of River & Sea – Dungeness-stuffed whole jack salmon.

Each year we try to take a couple of char or salmon in the pound-and-a-half to three-pound range, the perfect size for presenting head and tail intact. When I lived in South Carolina, I sought Puppy Drum (small Red Drum), Speckled Sea Trout, Summer Flounder and keeper-sized Striped Bass for these dishes. If I lived in the American midwest, I’d target Walleye or bass from cold water. In Japan, small suzuki (Japanese Sea Bass), hirame (Olive Flounder) and kurodai (Black Porgy) fit the bill.

The salmon in the photo was about 17 or 18 inches in length and weighed just over a pound-and-a-half. Jack is the name given to precocial male salmon that mature early and return to the river after only a year at sea. Were I running a restaurant, I’d offer this dish as a special and call it The Chignik Jack, as in,

“What’ll it be, Mac?”
“I’ll have the Chignik Jack.”

The recipe here couldn’t be more straightforward. The stuffing is comprised of the back meat of a Dungeness Crab, steamed or boiled and lightly seasoned, perhaps a bit of fresh lemon juice added to the cleaned meat. Crab meat tends to be wet, so use paper towels to gently squeeze out excess moisture from the cooked meat. You might even heat the meat in a dry, non-stick skillet to remove additional moisture.

The fish is scaled, gilled, gutted and cleaned. Spritz the stomach cavity with lemon juice, rub in a little salt, add the crab meat and then roll the fish in panko that you’ve seasoned with salt and Italian-style herbs. This is a relatively light dish; you don’t need any batter, just the seasoned crumbs.

Meanwhile, set the oven to 400° F and put enough olive oil on a broiling sheet or pan to cover it and heat it on a center-positioned rack till the oil is hot. I use a heavy, rectangular, well-seasoned cast iron pan for this kind of cooking, but a thinner baking sheet will work. The fish should sizzle when you place it on the pan. After about 4 minutes, check the down side to make sure it’s not browning too quickly. Continue baking for a total of about 8 minutes, and then carefully turn the fish to the other side. It can help to have someone man an additional spatula to help with this.

Bake for another 8 minutes, again checking  halfway through to make sure the skin and panko are browning properly. In the above fish, I set the oven to broil for the final couple of minutes to further crisp the presentation side. The tail came out crunchy as a potato chip – a delicacy in its own right. And speaking of delicacies, don’t forget the cheek meat just in back of the jaw; the scallop-like morsel has a texture unlike any other part of the fish.

Paired with a buttery chardonnay, this is a lovely meal to enjoy with your best friend.

Tomato Tarragon Halibut

I suppose that like many people, I grew up inculcated with the idea that dill and fennel are the quintessential herbs for fish and other seafood. Lately I’ve been circling back to rediscover the pleasant tang of dill, prompted by small bunches of the feathery stalks occasionally showing up in boxes of fresh produce sent to us from The Farm Lodge at Lake Clark. These days even when I don’t have fresh dill on hand, I’ve been making dry dill a regular part of certain salmon and shellfish recipes, particularly when I’m going for a bolder flavor than what might be supplied by, say, lemon grass.

Fennel is another matter. Neither of us have ever entirely warmed to the sharp anise taste and aroma it imparts. We like licorice, but not so much on salmon and subtly flavored seafood. When I discovered tarragon while searching for a fennel substitute some decades ago, it seemed I’d stumbled upon the perfect seafood herb. There’s an anise-like savor to it, but to our palate tarragon profiles as gentler and sweeter than fennel. It’s wonderful on steamed clams and mussels, makes an excellent a-little-something-extra in drawn butter dipping sauces, and beautifully complements virtually any white-meated fish from catfish to cod. In this recipe, tarragon brings together the flavors of garden-fresh tomatoes and halibut in a dish that is simple, beautiful and sumptuous. 

Try serving this dish with very thin slices of sourdough French bread or baguette pan-toasted in butter till crisp and seasoned with garlic.  

Tomato Tarragon Halibut

Ingredients

  • halibut fillets, patted dry to remove excess moisture. We prefer skin-on, but it’s up to the chef
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • onion, diced
  • garlic cloves sliced into fairly large pieces
  • sherry or other dry wine
  • tarragon, fresh or dried, to taste
  • fresh tomatoes, seeds removed, diced
  • Better than Bouillon clam base (optional) or use sea salt
  • soy sauce

Directions (You will need two frying pans.)

  1. Add olive oil to the first pan, apply medium heat and add the onions. You want the onions to caramelize, so don’t stir them too much. They’ll caramelize better if you mostly leave them alone.
  2. When onions begin to caramelize, add the garlic and stir. Cook for about 3 minutes – just until garlic begins to soften. Then add a little sherry and the tarragon. Stir and allow most of the wine to cook off. This only takes a minute or so.
  3. Add the tomatoes. Cover with a lid and reduce the heat so that the mixture simmers steadily. You want the mixture to cook down to a fairly thick consistency.
  4. As the tomato mixture is cooking, stir in either the clam base or salt. The clam base itself is quite salty. Don’t use too much. You want just a hint of the clam flavor. Alternatively, simply add a little sea salt. The mixture is very tasty either way.
  5. When the tomato mixture has cooked down, add olive oil to the other pan. Heat over medium until the oil is sizzling hot. Continue allowing the tomato mixture to simmer.
  6. Place the fillet(s) in  the hot oil presentation side up (skin side down if you’ve left the skin on.) The fillets should sizzle when they hit the pan. Pour a little soy sauce on the fillet. This will impart a pleasant umami flavor and will enhance the browning color when you flip the fillet.
  7. Cook uncovered for 3 minutes. Flip the fillets and cook the other side for 3 minutes.
  8. Place the fillets presentation side up in the tomato mixture. Cover with a lid and continue cooking for about four minutes. The general rule of thumb for fish is 10 minutes cooking time per inch of thickness. You can test the fillets for doneness by carefully inserting a knife and parting the meat. A perfectly cooked halibut fillet will be an opaque white all the way through and will flake cleanly. Don’t worry if you don’t get this perfectly right. If the fillets are a little overcooked, they will still be very good.
  9. Spoon out the tomato mixture on serving plates, add the fillet, and served piping hot with pan-fried toast. 

Any style of Chardonnay will pair well with this dish. Dry Riesling is another white option, but there’s enough oomph here to make a Pinot Noir a good choice as well. 

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 arrive 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 that 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 small, only inches above thick, spongy mats of the 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 our present, 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 Owl siblings waiting for a vole or two from their parents.

Abundance.