In Dandelion Sugar

More than halfway into my first 500 hours on the guitar. Irresistible to take it outside into the yard today, sunshine, swallows swooping, sparrows chirping and singing, warblers chattering from bare alders and newly leafed out willows. Working on my Travis picking patterns. Barbra took this photo for posterity.

After starting off the new year with three consecutive months of not looking at the news, I got sucked in again. A mistake. Monotonous. Depressing. It doesn’t matter which news source you look at, there’s nothing like it to simultaneously rile you up while making you feel powerless. There are better places to focus energy. In fact, we’ve decided to go back off TV altogether. Extra time on the guitar. Extra time to write. I think I’ll start reading Ted Leeson’s The Habit of Rivers this evening.

Still trying to get a decent photo of our Hermit Thrushes. Of course, if I could capture an image of their otherworldly song, that would be the real trick.

I imagine someone will let me know if we go to war.

These final days at The Lake, I want to savor it.

In dandelion sugar.

When Evergreens are too Precious to Cut, Why not Craft Your Own Christmas Tree?

A beaver obliged by stripping the bark from the trunk of this hand-crafted holiday tree. A drill and a few Alder branches were the only other materials required. With almost all of our Christmas ornaments in storage in Sacramento, California, we had fun hanging items on hand here in Chignik Lake. 

The few White Spruce trees around Chignik Lake are not native to the area. They were brought from Kodiak Island and are too valuable for what they add to the landscape and as refuges for birds (they love the dense cover and the cone seeds) to even contemplate cutting for use as Christmas trees. So we crafted our own tree using abundant Alders as branches and a section of a beaver-gnawed stick we’d found while out hiking.

When we lived in Shishmaref and Point Hope, we had a tree we’d crafted from driftwood from the beaches of Sarichef Island where Shishmaref is located. It was nice, but we like our new tree even better. With all the decorations from that first tree carefully packed away and put in storage when we moved to Mongolia for two years, we didn’t have much on hand when it came to decorating our Alder tree. So we used our imaginations.

An assortment of seashells, brass bells (presented to us for good luck), tiny decorative birds and carved wooden trout we’d collected on our recent bike trek in Hokkaido were rounded out with some of our more colorful salmon fishing flies. We placed our collection of Japanese glass fishing floats beneath the boughs along with a decorative lamp made from recycled glass we also sent back from Hokkaido. Two strings of fairy lights competed the decorations.

Lights on we stepped back…

…and had to agree that of all the trees we’ve put up over the years, this is our favorite.

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.

Wildlife Wednesday: The Short, Happy Life of Chippy the Long-Tailed Weasel*

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Alas, poor Chippy. I knew him, Barbra; a fellow of infinite jest; of most excellent fancy…

I was probably about 12 when I read Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. In this book, which surely ranks as among the greatest adventure stories for young people ever written, the 15-year-old protagonist, Sam, leaves his parents’ confining New York City apartment and strikes out for his great grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskills. There, he takes up residence in a hollow Hemlock Tree, catches trout, raises a Peregrin Falcon and…

Finds a weasel in a box trap he’d set in hopes of catching animals for sustenance. Sam allows the weasel to come and go as it pleases. The weasel hangs around and Sam bestows on it the name Barron for its bold, confident demeanor. How cool. wanted a weasel like that.

Imagine my thrill when, shortly after moving into our place here in Chignik Lake, one of these spry little fellows practically ran across my foot as he darted past me and dashed under the steps of our Arctic entrance as I opened our front door. The steps, while inside the foyer, are open and the foyer itself sits atop earth. It is a haven for voles, shrews and, of course, weasels. Chippy (I named him or her almost immediately) spun around, sat up and looked at me through the steps. What a handsome, self-assured creature with those large eyes, round ears, pink nose and whiskered face, dapper in a brown coat and white underbelly. In truth, I only saw Chippy a couple of times after that, and only for the briefest of moments each time. Nonetheless…

We had a weasel living with us.

But winter came, and neither of us had seen Chippy for quite some time. Occasionally in the early morning after a fresh snowfall, we’d see weasel tracks and although they could have belonged to any number of weasels (there is no shortage of them here in the village), we liked to imagine they were Chippy’s, evidence of happy nights spent chasing voles and other small creatures.

Meanwhile, the area beneath the owl trees has become a veritable boneyard. Magpie feathers, skulls and wishbones litter the ground along with smaller avian skulls, vole-sized pellets of mashed together bone, teeth and fur, jawbones of small mammals and…

The skull of a weasel. We’re very happy that our resident Great Horned Owls are making it through this unusually cold winter, but… Chippy, we hardly knew ye.

Short-tailed Weasel, Mustela erminea (Photo Credit: Steve Hillebrand, USFWS on Wikipedia)
Also known as Stoats and Ermine, Long-tailed Weasels are related to otters, mink, martens and wolverines. Although they’re only about 10 inches long (25 cm) from nose to tail tip, like their biological cousins, they are fierce predators, sometimes preying on much larger animals. In winter, their fur becomes snow white except for the tip of their tail which remains black. Six years is a long life for a Short-tailed Weasel.

*It is unlikely that the skull we found beneath the White Spruce Grove is actually Chippy’s – or that this is the only weasel Chignik Lake’s Great Horned Owls have dined on.

Fans of Shakespeare will recognize this passage from Hamlet’s musing on mortality as he holds in his hand the exhumed skull of a favorite court jester, Yorick.

This is the first article for Wildlife Wednesday, a new column on Cutterlight. Stay tuned (or sign up) for weekly articles on birds, mammals, insects, wildflowers and more.

Blueberry Jam Bars – The Best Part of a Survival Kit for Stormy Afternoons

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Stormy afternoon survival kit: A great book, freshly brewed tea, and blueberry jam bars still warm from the oven.

My morning chores were to make a batch of yogurt, sourdough loaves for the week and sourdough pizza crusts for the freezer. Those tasks complete, it would have been nice to go outside for a walk. But this Saturday’s weather turned it into a stay-inside kind of day. We’ve heard that October is the month that Chignik Lake earned its name. Chignik means big winds in the native language. Saturday, it poured rain sideways. The lake was blown into a froth of whitecaps. Our little home here hunkered down solidly, just like our little house in Point Hope. It was the kind of day to curl up with a warm drink, a book, and a blanket. In our house, this scene also begs for a home-baked accompaniment. With a shelf of preserves made from berries we picked earlier, I had no trouble baking up a batch of oat bars filled with jam. The hardest part was to choose which jam – blueberry, currant, raspberry, or cranberry. Blueberry! In just over 30 minutes, I had delicious bars ready to go. This recipe is as easy as pie… or as blueberry oat bars.

Blueberry Oat Bars

Serves 9 polite eaters, or 2 ( if you have limited willpower)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • pinch salt
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup homemade blueberry jam (substitute any jam you have on hand)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. Grease 8 inch square baking dish.
  3. Combine sugar, flour, baking soda, salt, and oats in a medium bowl.
  4. Drizzle melted butter into flour mixture.
  5. Toss until mixture is crumbly.
  6. Press 2 cups of the mixture evenly into bottom of baking dish.
  7. Spread jam on top of flour mixture.
  8. Sprinkle remaining flour mixture atop jam, as even as you can.
  9. Lightly press flour mixture into jam.
  10. Bake for 35 minutes. Finished bars should be lightly browned.
  11. Allow to cool before cutting.

Almondtella – A Twist on the “Other” Chocolate Nut Spread (without the Palm Oil)

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Everything tastes better when you make it from scratch.  One taste of this homemade spread, loaded with toasted almond yumminess, and you will forget the name of that decadent stuff you used to spread on your toast. …what was that called again?

Headlines Inspire Kitchen Creativity

Recently, France’s Minister of Ecology put Nutella in the headlines because of its environmentally hostile ingredient, palm oil. Like many large scale agricultural operations, palm oil plantations require the deforestation of vast tracts of natural forests. In Indonesia and Malaysia, where the largest palm oil plantations operate, many species of native animals and plants are being pushed toward extinction. The process of slash and burn forest removal is releasing stored CO2 and generating tremendous amounts of smoke, contributing to Indonesia’s sudden jump to third place among the world’s emitters of greenhouse gasses. It’s estimated that 40-50% of household products in the U.S. contain palm oil. This product extends beyond food items to cosmetics and cleaners. Yikes.

I suppose everything humans consume has a detrimental effect on the environment due to the sheer number of humans that consume. What to do? We limit our consumption of products by using them until they can’t be used any longer. For example, we have been using the same box of zip top bags for almost a year by carefully using the bags, washing them and reusing them. We also try to make as much as we can from scratch in order to limit the addition of chemicals and unnatural ingredients into our bodies.

Our answer to the controversy swirling around Nutella is to make our own spreadable delight using more Earth-friendly ingredients. Before you quibble with me about almonds and how much water it takes to grow them… I know. However, a friend was moving from Ulaanbaatar and offered us her unused pantry items. Among those items was a three-pound bag of almonds. Other nuts would work well in this recipe.

Who knew a post about a delicious nutty spread would be so political? Moving away from the political, let me tell you this spread is better tasting than any commercial product. And with less sugar, no processed emulsifiers and no artificial flavorings (what is vanillin?) this is arguably a much healthier spread. The top two ingredients in that other spread are sugar and palm oil. The top ingredient in this recipe is pure, natural almonds. And the vanilla extract is real vanilla extract.

The key to the standout flavor is the toasted nuts. The delicious end product makes the slightly arduous process of skinning the almonds totally worth it. Now we have a sweet chocolate spread that is packed with protein and tastes great on toast or as a topping on the all-fruit banana and mango ice creams we’ve been enjoying on these warm summer days. Or how about cheesecake swirled with homemade almondtella?

Chocolate Nut Spread aka Almondtella

Ingredients

  • 1 cup whole raw almonds
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • up to 1/4 cup vegetable or light olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Skin almonds by pouring boiling water over them in a bowl and letting them sit for 2 minutes. Drain off hot water and replace with cold water. Almond skins should pop off when you squeeze the individual almonds.
  2. Preheat oven to 350° F (175 degrees C). Place almonds in a single layer on a shallow baking pan. Toast for 10 minutes. Stir the nuts halfway through baking to ensure an even color.
  3. Process nuts in a food processor, or use a stick blender. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary until the nuts have liquefied, about 5 minutes. First, you will get coarsely chopped nuts, then a fine meal. After a little while, the nuts will form a ball around the blade. Keep processing. The heat and friction will extract the natural oils from the nuts and you will get almond butter!
  4. When the nuts have liquified, add the sugar, cocoa and vanilla. Slowly drizzle in enough oil to make a spreadable consistency. Since the mixture is warm, it will be more fluid now than at room temperature.
  5. Transfer the spread to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator.

Here are some ideas for using your “Almondtella.”

Vanilla-orange cookies with chocolate nut filling

Place almondtella at the bottom of crème brûlée for a nice surprise.

Read more about the problems with palm oil at: Palm Oil, What’s the Issue?

Cowboy Soup – The Day After Wagon Wheel Ribs

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The leftover stock from oven-cooked Wagon Wheel Baby Back Ribs is the base for one of the best soups we’ve ever enjoyed. 

This soup doesn’t really have much to do with cowboys, except that if we were cowboys, this would be what we’d want to eat around the campfire. A cold night, wolves howling in the darkness, shooting stars above, a roaring fire cracking and sparking, a properly chilled Riesling… (We’re the kinds of cowboys who pack stemware.)

Cowboy Soup

Ingredients

  • 2 cups leftover liquid from Wagon Wheel Ribs
  • 1 pound leftover baby back ribs, meat cut from bone and sliced into bite-sized chunks
  • leftover bones, cracked
  • leftover potatoes, beans and onions
  • fresh sweet corn from one or two cobs (1 – 2 cups)
  • 1 cup smoked gouda cheese, shredded
  • bay leaf
  • additional potatoes, cut into large chunks, salted and seasoned as desired
  • additional spices and seasonings such as chili powder, jerk rub, Cholula sauce, Mongolian fire oil, oregano, mesquite seasoning, salt and pepper, as desired
  • sour cream

Directions

  • Place leftover ingredients from Wagon Wheel Ribs (liquid, meat, bones, potatoes, beans, onions) and bay leaf in a medium-sized pot and heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Simmer.
  • Meanwhile, place olive oil in a skillet and heat over medium heat. Add chunks of additional potatoes, seasoned as desired with salt, pepper, Cholula sauce and jerk rub. Cook till tender.
  • Add potatoes to soup. Stir in sweet corn and gouda cheese. Add additional seasonings if desired.
  • Serve piping hot with a dollop of sour cream.