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 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.