Again to The Lake

It is good to be back. This was the view from our living room window this morning. If you look closely on the water, you can see the rings and dimples of salmon parr feeding on emerging midges.

May 22, Chignik Lake: After a day of glorious sunshine – which prompted us to go for a hike (a crane, two snipe, our first-of-the-year Savannah Sparrows, several other birds, wild violets) I woke this morning to drizzle with more in the forecast for the next few days. We’ll still get out. There’ll be sunbreaks, and we have rainwear. 

This rainbow arcing over the village featured in the view out our front door this morning. Our home is part of the school campus, to which these buildings also belong – additional housing (mostly vacant) to the right, the school itself to the left. Situated between the far house and the school is the diesel generator building, indicated by the two small smoke stacks. The mountains in the background received fresh snow just yesterday.

The department of Fish & Game will begin counting salmon on the first of June, just 10 days from this writing. A spate of small planes flying in personnel and supplies to the facility at the weir will occur any time now. Two friends set nets yesterday, but I haven’t yet had an opportunity to talk with them to see if they caught any early salmon. 

The landscape goes from brown to green with amazing rapidity this time of year. The lawn will be permitted to grow wild until after the dandelions have gone to down. Our finch population – Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls – feast on the seeds. (See “Finches of the Dandelion Jungle.”)

The landscape is beginning to really green up. At 56.25° north (about the same as Edinburgh, Scotland), the climate here is perennially cool. First light, announced daily by a Golden-crowned Sparrow singing in earnest from the alders outside our bedroom window, came at 5:09 this morning. Last light won’t depart till 11:51 PM, so we’re already getting more than 19½ hours of daylight. Sunrise and Sunset times occurred at 6:04 AM and 10:56 PM – nearly 17 hours. Even obscured by clouds, that’s a lot of solar energy for plants rooted in rich volcanic soil and receiving abundant rainfall. During summer, the peninsula coast is as stunningly verdant (and the seaside cliffs, waterfalls sheeting from the tops, nearly as spectacular) as any imagination you might have of the Hawaiian Islands. Inland at The Lake, the summer’s deep and varied hues of green rival that of any emerald land. Already, the beginnings of Chocolate Lilies, Lupine, Wild Geranium, Iris, Horsetail, Cow Parsnip, ferns and more are pushing up… willows decorated with soft, fuzzy catkins, leaf buds on alders and salmonberry bushes near bursting.

I keep meaning to test my guitar against the Golden-crowned’s song – three notes, four if he begins with a slide on the first note. Coltrane, Davis and Armstrong had greater range, but for sheer clarity of tone these birds are masters. Blow, little sparrow! Blow!

We’ve been working each day to bring our home into shape. Having gathered in a couple of new interior decorating ideas while putting our place in Newhalen together and having had a year away to reimagine a few things in this house, we’ve got it looking better than ever. Yesterday, with Barbra’s help I hung 10 acrylic photographs I took in far flung places from Hokkaido to Mongolia to Alaska’s Kenai Fjords to here in the Chigniks. There’s even a favorite shot from a trout lake in Oregon. 

“Barbra!” a small boy cried out upon seeing us from a Covid-safe distance the other day. “Where did you go? Your whole class missed you!” Both of us were, in the words of Bob Dylan, “born a long way from home.” Amidst a peripatetic life, we finally found that place here at The Lake. Leaving when the school closed last year was difficult. The return has been stirring… at times overwhelming. 

Although the school district provides these rentals as “fully furnished,” at the modest prices they charge one would be correct in assuming that overall the furniture is pretty so-so. The beds are the exception; the mattresses are terrific!

Thinking that we’d be in Newhalen for several years, we acquired a few items – decent bookshelves, coffee and end tables, a small but elegant writing station that adjusts for working while either standing or sitting… even details such as nice throw pillows for the sofa… all of which have added up to make an appreciably more congenial living space. Perhaps our favorite item is a pub-style dining table – a high table with tall chairs. ”Up high” is more comfortable than “down low,” especially for us longer-legged types, and the additional six inches in height is just enough to enhance the vantage and view out the windows. 

A group of Greater Scaup has been showing up to dive for aquatic vegetation in a cove visible from our dining window and it was from that window that this photograph was taken. Into the breeding season now, most ducks have paired up and dispersed, but along with the scaup, we regularly see both White-winged and Black Scoters on the lake.

Upon returning to The Lake, we were asked to agree to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days. Thus far there have been no cases of Coronavirus in The Chigniks and everyone wants to keep it that way. The Lake is a village of 50 people, many of them elders. Right now, we don’t have a permanent health aid, so our tiny clinic isn’t regularly open. There are two positions available… 

Even by Alaska standards, Chignik Lake is truly tiny and remote. No restaurants. One small store that would just about fit inside an average living room. A short, bumpy, dirt airstrip. A shed with a pair of diesel-fueled generators that supply the village’s electricity and that can pretty much be counted on to cut out or to be shut down for maintenance periodically – (you’re well advised to frequently save any work you’re doing on the computer).

A stunningly plumaged Male Tree Swallow stands watch near a nesting box occupied by his mate. Each time I think I’ve counted all the boxes put up for swallows in this village, I notice a couple more tucked away under the eaves of a house or mounted on a utility pole. Suffice it to say there are dozens. Native Americans’ happy association with these birds goes back beyond recorded history. Having lived in communities that don’t extend such welcoming to these insectivores, we can testify that their presence makes a huge difference in the number of flying bugs. 

Just about anything we need – screws, batteries, wood for birdhouses, baking powder, clothing… everything, really – has to be planned for ahead of time, shopped for online, ordered, and its arrival patiently awaited. Though it’s not common, there have been times when even groceries have taken weeks to make it out here. (The record has been three weeks.) One learns to think about it before ordering anything perishable, and it pays to advise people shipping goods out here to package them with special care to accommodate multiple plane changes and the bumpy landing. A dentist and an eye doctor fly out once a year to spend a day doing examinations. I suppose I’ll take student portraits for the school this year…

You simply can’t be of a frame of mind of “needing” anything “right now.” This is a wonderful place to hone the arts of planning ahead, a mindful approach to living, taking joy in the moment, and patience.

And here’s a male Violet-green Swallow. With midges hatching on the lake on and off throughout the day, the village is frequently filled with the chattering and aerial displays of these beautifully accomplished pilots that seem to redefine air.

There are, of course, difficulties associated with all this. While we do manage to usually have on hand fresh fruit and vegetables (potatoes, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, apples, avocados, grapefruit and Brussels sprouts ship well and can survive the typical two or three-day journey out; cauliflower, sweet corn, snap peas and pears are riskier. But forget about lettuce and most other fruits – those are city-visit foods unless a friend comes out and hand-carries them). Dried mushrooms take the place of fresh, and we go through canned diced tomatoes (and salsa!) like they’re goin’ out of style. 

Of course, we usually have some sort of wild berries on hand – fresh or fresh-frozen blueberries, lingonberries and salmonberries, and from time to time we make a salad of Fireweed shoots or Dandelion greens. We’re lucky in that we love salmon – which we take on flies we’ve tied – and are frequently gifted with moose meat, which we find superior to beef in most dishes. Every once in awhile we luck into some locally-gathered seafood: Tanner (Snow) Crab, clams, urchins, halibut, sea lettuce.

Getting other meat out here is expensive. If we go into town (into Anchorage), we bring back a tote filled with chicken, pork, beef and sometimes seafood such as scallops, shrimp and crab from Costco. Otherwise, we pay one of the bush airline employees to shop for us. She makes the purchases in the morning, gets our meat and and perhaps a few other delicate perishables on the plane that same day and with luck we have it by afternoon. We buy meat once or twice a year, repackage it into serving-sized portions, vacuum seal it and freeze it. 

We bake all our own bread – the best way of assuring fresh, quality loaves.

I took this photo, one of many tributaries in the Chignik drainage, as we flew into The Lake on May 12. One of these tributaries has a small run of Steelhead… and we finally figured out which one it is. So… If we can get up there…

There are other inconveniences. We’ve been waiting eagerly for our Hondas (ATV’s/quads) to ship out. Getting our boat out here is proving to be quite a logistical puzzle. Shopping online can be challenging. Often you’d just like to hold an item you’re thinking about purchasing in your hands – leaf through a few pages of a book, try on a pair of jeans, feel the grip of a kitchen utensil, evaluate fly-tying materials with your fingertips or see for yourself just how large or small a certain item is. But you can’t, so you make your best guess and hope whatever it is fits well enough or suits the purpose you have in mind.

You learn to look past some things. A shirt with slightly frayed cuffs still has “some good wear in it.” Something that could use a fresh coat of paint “can go awhile longer without one.” A window pane that has a bit of a problem is lived with, because getting the materials out here and figuring out how to make the repair… isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

There are benefits of making a mental contract to live with these inconveniences. (Many benefits, actually.) One of which is that none of the three Chignik villages have had cases of Coronavirus. A health team recently flew in and tested all three villages.

Of all the places I’ve lived, it is in this house that the rain falls on the roof like music and sometimes reminds me of similar music that lulled me to sleep in the Philippines and a small house where I lived in a quiet part of Japan. 

I’ve never lived any place where each morning begins with birdsong as it does here. In that regard, it’s like a permanent vacation on a favorite childhood lake – three far-too-short days in a tent or rented cabin supplanted by a life in a tidy, cozy lakeside home.

And there’s this… which only recently (upon moving back here) came to me. Imagine a sort of stock “beautiful view” from a window. An apartment high up in a skyscraper overlooking a city; a house commanding a view of a beach or a rocky coastline; or a window framing a vista of mountains – the Rockies, the Alps. 

All of these images are lovely.

Yet they are somewhat static. 

Except for the effect the relatively slow progression of seasonal change may bring to the view, or the changing light from day to day and hour to hour… to take in these views once is to take them in for the next several weeks or even months without much anticipation of change.

The view outside our windows is dynamic. The weather moving from sea to sea across this narrow peninsula is dramatic, the moods set by changing light sometimes stunning. There is wildlife – birds, bears, shoaling and leaping salmon, insect hatches, hungry seals, otters, foxes, an occasional wolf, eagles, owls… and there’s the comings and goings of friends (and everyone in this village is a friend) as they launch their boats or come in with the day’s catch, a freshly taken moose, or a shipment that was delivered to The Bay. 

Male Common Redpoll outside our kitchen window.

This morning, as I was proofreading this piece of writing, I saw the season’s very first school of salmon heading up the lake. Between now and October, hundreds of thousands more will follow, mostly Reds but also Pinks, Silvers, Kings, a very few Steelhead, lots of sea run char and close to the ocean, Chums.

Pine Siskins (above), redpolls, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Pine Grosbeaks and magpies have been daily visitors to our yard to take advantage of the seeds I put out for them. Watching them as we wash dishes makes the chore go faster.

Quiet. The entire time I have been writing this morning, (both yesterday and  today) the only sounds have been the off and on hum of the refrigerator (sometimes at night, I unplug it for awhile… real, blessed quiet), the gentle whistle of water coming to boil in our coffee kettle, the songs and cries of birds – thrushes, swallows, warblers, sparrows, redpolls, siskins, magpies, ravens, ducks, gulls -, and the steady music of rain on the roof. 

Today we will tackle the organization of the fishing & photography room.

I’ve been striving to practice three hours a day on the guitar. 

          O snail,
          Climb Mount Fuji
          But slowly, slowly!
                                   Issa

   

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*

weasel-skull-02-2017-n

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

blueberry-jam-bars-n

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)

Almondtella n

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

cowboy sparerib soup n

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.

Wagon Wheel Baby Back Ribs

wagon wheel spare ribs

Look Ma, no grill! Seasoned just right and slow cooked in the oven in a large pan along with potatoes and onions, these baby back ribs come out sweet, spicy, tangy and falling off the bone. See recipe below.

Oftentimes camp cooking proves to be the mother of invention. On a rainy, windy evening in Seward, outdoor grilling was out of the picture. But our appetites were already set on baby back ribs…

This one-pan method for baby back ribs is sure to be a crowd pleaser and is as close to no-fuss cooking as you can get. Cleanup’s a breeze, too. We use a 12.5″ Swiss Diamond pan – our wagon wheel – for this kind of cooking. It’s heavy, oven-safe and non-stick. Mirin, a very sweet rice wine used liberally in Japanese cooking, gives this dish a pleasant sweetness complementing the heat.

Wagon Wheel Ribs

Ingredients

  • 1 set baby back ribs, cut into individual-sized servings of 2 to 4 ribs each
  • a few small potatoes, some cut into large chunks, others left whole
  • 1 large sweet onion, chopped coarse
  • 2 cups black beans, already cooked
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped coarse
  • mirin (or substitute a little sherry and honey)
  • olive oil
  • Cholula sauce
  • Mongolian fire oil
  • mesquite seasoning (optional)
  • a chili-based dry rub with some heat such as Jamaican jerk rub or any rub featuring powdered chili, oregano, cinnamon and similar seasonings
  • sea salt
  • freshly cracked pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. (The oven in our camper only goes down to 300 degrees. You can cook these ribs more slowly and at a lower temperature if you prefer.)
  2. Rub plenty of the dry chili-based rub into each set of ribs. Set aside.
  3. Place roughly equal portions of mirin, Cholula sauce and olive oil in a large, oven-safe frying pan (one that has a lid) and mix together over low heat. Stir in a little Mongolia fire oil or similarly spicy oil. Stir in mesquite seasoning, salt and pepper. There should be enough liquid to amply cover the bottom of the pan.
  4. Add the ribs to the pan, turning each piece so that they are coated with liquid. Place meat side down, cover the pan with a lid and place in the oven. Cook for 30 minutes.
  5. Remove the pan from the oven. Turn the ribs over so that they are bone side down. Add garlic, onions, potatoes and beans. Cover the pan and return to the oven. Cook for an additional hour.
  6.  Test the meat and potatoes with a fork for tenderness. Meat should easily come off the bone. (Save the liquid for delicious Cowboy Soup.)

A dry or semi-dry Riesling is an ideal wine to pair with spicy pork ribs.

Braised Elk Roast Camper Style: One Pan Cooking in The Wagon Wheel

elk roast n

Elk roasts liberally rolled in freshly cracked pepper and slow cooked with sweet onions, baby Yukon Gold potatoes and the chef’s choice of additional vegetables is an appealing meal that can be prepared virtually anywhere. Recipe below.

Over the years we’ve become big fans of Swiss Diamond cookware. Covered eggs cooked over very low heat in their non-stick frying pans are a revelation. Nothing sticks, and as long as the manufacturer’s instructions regarding overly high heat are followed, the surface on this cookware remains in excellent condition through years of regular use.

My favorite Swiss Diamond pan is their big, 12.5  inch frying pan. We call it The Wagon Wheel and it’s perfect for everything from baking a pizza to frying fish to slow cooking a roast in in the oven. The challenge with a pan this large is fitting it into some ovens – such as the one on our Lance truck camper. In fact, even storing a pan of this size in a camper is no mean feat.

So I removed the handle. Permanently. It’s around somewhere, safely tucked away along with the hardware used to attach it. On the camper, we don’t need the handle. Oven mitts suffice.

The elk roasts were a gift from a friend. The recipe is uncomplicated. The finished meal is hearty and has great eye appeal – the perfect meal with a glass of old vine Zinfandel on a rainy evening in Seward, Alaska.

Braised Elk Roast

Ingredients

  • 1 pound elk rump roast or similar cut from wild game or beef
  • 1 large sweet onion, chopped coarse
  • whole small potatoes
  • other vegetables as desired: parsnips, carrots, brussels sprouts, garlic cloves, mushrooms and even chunks of pumpkin or squash are all good candidates
  • olive oil
  • freshly cracked pepper
  • sea salt
  • sherry or red wine
  • additional seasonings such as rosemary, sage or thyme, if desired

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F. (Our camper oven only turns down to 300 degrees F – a little hotter than perfect, but still fine.)
  2. Heat light olive oil or similar frying oil over sufficiently high heat to create a sizzle when the meat hits the pan. Sear the meat on all sides. Use tongs to hold the meat if necessary. About 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove meat and set aside.
  3. Lower heat on pan to medium low. Deglaze pan by adding sherry or wine and use a spatula to gently scrape the brown fond created during searing. Slightly reduce liquid over medium to medium-low heat.
  4. Meanwhile place seared roast in a bowl. Roll the roast in olive oil, salt and freshly cracked pepper to give the roast a coating.
  5. Add additional olive oil to the pan as necessary. Add onions and other vegetables along with salt and pepper, stirring briefly to thoroughly coat with oil. Add the meat, cover the pan with a lid, and place in oven.
  6. Cook covered for an hour for a small roast, longer for a larger roast. Add additional wine or a little water to maintain a broth on bottom of pan, if necessary.