Big Fish and Endless Roe: More from Alaska

July 11, 2014


The Adventure Continues

Five days in Alaska has left me with an extraordinary respect for the last wild food we eat – the people who catch it – and the way this fishery is managed.

And a new understanding of just how difficult fishing can be. I managed to catch a rockfish, but the big fish, the one that might have been a fairly large halibut – got away.  I struggled with that fish for what seemed like forever, fighting the mysterious unseen creature, feeling his strength, trying desperately to haul him from the water.  And then, suddenly, the line went slack; I pulled my line out of the ocean to find nothing but an empty hook.

Fishing, for those who choose it, is more than a  job.  It's a mission, a calling, a way of life. We met entire families who live on ships, the children helping out as soon as they can toddle. And we began, slowly, to learn the mysterious hierarchy of fishermen.

Trollers put out hooked lines, catch the highest quality fish – but get the least respect. Their small boats require the least capital outlay.  Gill netters are next up the food chain – they set long nets into the ocean, hauling them out 6, 7 or 8 times in a day, counting the catch.  

They pull the salmon quickly from the nets, counting as they go, throwing them into icy holds filled with chilled saltwater (salt water does not freeze).  

Then the nets go out again.  And again. Tenders- big storage boats, under contract to the fish processors – come by periodically to collect the fish, allowing the fishermen to continue fishing. It's light here, this time of year, from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.  The days are long.  (One fisherman told me he makes enough in 2 months to support his family through the year. But these are long days. Summer's not for sleeping.)




Meanwhile fish and game people are carefully counting the catch, ensuring sustainability. The King Salmon catch was so abundant this week that the season closed early; they'd caught enough, and the fish got a break.

We did a little fishing ourselves. This is Francis Lam with his gorgeous rockfish.  (I caught one too, but it was smaller, and not nearly as pretty.)


Meanwhile, I learned a few things about cooking fish.

1. Be patient; don't cook it too soon.  You want the fish to go into rigor mortis, and then out, before it sees heat. We cooked this rockfish the day Francis caught it.  It was mushy. We cooked a just-caught ling cod too, and it was bouncy.  It would have been smarter to wait a day, rest the fish; they would have tasted better.

2. Spot prawns are awesome!

This is a spot prawn trap.  We set out three.

Shrimp pot

Although the catch was disappointingly small, it made great eating.


The wonderful Renee Erickson (Boat Street Cafe, The Whale Wins, etc.) was in charge of this. She served the bodies raw, then quickly crisped the heads – my favorite part.  I could have eaten these forever.

3. And then there's roe. It turns out that a great deal of the salmon – and most of the herring – caught in Alaska is prized for the roe.  Almost all of it goes to Europe or Japan.  What a shame!


This is salmon roe being processed. The sacs are pulled apart, the roe swirled in a brine bath, then sorted. 

Big roe

In Japan they like soft roe; Europeans tend to like the more mature roe, later in the year, which has a harder shell.  Me?  I like roe of any kind.  We took the roe from the salmon we caught, and I combed through it, removing the outer casing.  Then – having absolutely no idea what I was doing – I briefly brined it in a salt water bath, strained it, then cooked it in butter in a double boiler.  I added some rice vinegar, a splash of soy, and served it over scrambled eggs.  I think it was one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten.

Eggs and eggs

A few more Alaska moments….


Imagine this cove beneath the moonlight, mist hugging the mountains, whales cavorting through the water. Imagine the sound of their spouts, the low moan as they converse, the splash as they leap, tails waving, into the night air.  I can't remember a more magical evening. 

The next day we landed at Elfin Cove, an improbable settlement straight out of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Strolling the boardwalk that curves through town, their version of a sidewalk, you hear the plash of water, continually encountering these small, enchanting waterfalls.



This is the longest zip line in the world, in Hoonah.  Completely exhilarating, zooming through the air.


And this is the one must-have Alaska souvenir. People were trying to buy them off our feet. They're the epitome of Northern Chic.



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Best Meal in Juneau

July 6, 2014


But first, a little scenery.  We flew up to Taku Lodge on a seaplane, soaring over five massive glaciers. It's wild, empty, so beautiful….


All ice and water, green and blue.


Soaring eagles, goats… and at the lodge, a bear in a tree


And then, back to Juneau, and dinner at the Rookery.  A casual, ambitious and fascinating restaurant.

We had a plate of cheese, with the most wonderful homemade kimchi and pickles (those pickled cherries were especially impressive)…


And what may be the most delicious scallops I've ever had.  They were poached in coconut, just barely, and served with a scallion-scattered quid ink adobo sauce.  Black and white…


And then this bibimbap, spicy with kimchi, crunchy with the well-cooked rice on the bottom, rich with egg…


Lots of other fascinating foods on this menu, including a crisp salmon collar and king salmon glazed with lemongrass and served over a salmon chorizo.  Can't wait to come back.

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Notes from Juneau

July 5, 2014


The air here is so invigorating that you gulp it down like food.  Crisp, cool, completely refreshing. 

There's a waterfall next to the glacier just outside of town, and the rushing sound, the calling birds, the ice melting beneath your feet becomes a natural symphony.


Then there's the food….


Tracy's Crab Shack, where you sit on the water, a huge cruise ship rising out of the water behind you, looming like some nightmare urban vision, as you crack crabs and drink beer.


The giant crabs are regal, tender, and so sweet you find yourself cracking one claw and then another, eager for more of this amazing flavor, knowing you're not likely to encounter anything so delicious soon again.  The snow crab are wonderful too. The Dungeness, oddly golden here, can't hold a candle to the big guys.  And still….

Tall crab

They serve the crabs with melted butter and lemon.  You don't need either. This is fantastic food, all by itself.

It's good to be here…..


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Crunch Crunch Crunch

July 2, 2014

I was at a party last night, and a friend reminded me that I'd given him this recipe years ago.  I'd forgotten all about it.

"You served them at your house," he said.  "You said it was stupid to buy crackers when they're so easy to make.  And then you gave me the recipe.  I've been making them ever since."

I haven't made these crackers in a while – but I will now. Kind of perfect for this holiday weekend.

Mustard Comte Crackers 

Grate enough Comte or Gruyere on a box grater to make 2 cups. Put it into a food processor with a stick of sweet butter, cut into cubes, and pulse until fairly smooth. Add a cup of flour, 2 teaspoons dry mustard, 2 teaspoons mustard seeds, a teaspoon of salt, 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard and an egg yolk and pulse to combine.

Turn out onto two sheets of wax paper and roll each into a log about 8 inches long.  Freeze for a couple of hours, until firm.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut each roll into quarter inch slices, put onto buttered baking sheets and bake about 15 minutes until golden.  Cool on a rack.


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Seductive Little Shrimp Cakes from Tacolicious

July 1, 2014


Got this book the other day, and decided to try the shrimp cakes as a little snack last night, when a group of friends were standing around the kitchen, drinking wine.  Straight out of the pan, the shrimpcakes were an enormous hit. There was one left over, and I ate it cold this morning. Better warm – but still completely irresistible. Definitely a recipe I'll do again.


Shrimp Cakes with Corn-Tomato Salsa

(very slightly adapted from Tacolicious by Sara Deseran)

Shell a pound and a half of wild shrimp and pulse them very quickly in a food processor so that there are still a few chunks. Stir in an egg and 3 teaspoons of lime juice.

Chop a stalk of celery very fine.

Chop 3 scallions very finely.

Chop enough parsley to make a third of a cup.

Stir the vegetables into the minced shrimp mixture.  Add 3 tablespoons of mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon of adobo sauce (from a can of chipotle chiles in adobo sauce), 2 teaspoons of salt, a good grind of black pepper, 1 1/2 teaspoons of paprika and a half teaspoon of celery salt.  Stir in 1 cup of panko.  The mixture should be loose.

Pile some panko into a plate.  Scoop up about a twelfth of the mixture and pat into a loose little cake about 2 inches in diameter and a half inch thick.  Plop it into the panko and quickly coat each side. Set on a wax paper lined baking sheet; repeat until you have 12 to 14 little cakes. Cover with plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator for at least half an hour (and up to a day).

Just before serving, heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a large skillet and cook over medium heat about 3 minutes on each side, just until lightly browned.  

Serve with this salsa.

Tomato-Corn Salsa

Scrape the kernels from 3 ears of corn (you should have a cup and a half) into a bowl.

Chop one medium tomato (again, a cup and a half), and add to the corn.

Add a cup of diced Armenian cucumber, a half cup of finely chopped red onion and a diced jalapeno chile.  Stir in a couple teaspoons of salt and the juice of half a lime.  Allow the flavors to marry for at least a half hour, then taste for seasoning. 

This will seem like too much for the shrimp cakes; it is, in fact, the perfect amount. 

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