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An Alaskan Cooking School Unlike Anywhere Else

Alaskan king crab. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Alaskan king crab. Credit: Kathy Gunst

It’s close to 6 in the morning, and the sky is muted and streaked with pink, white and blue stripes. I am on Kachemak Bay in a bright yellow kayak, and the water is as flat as a calm lake. A family of otters — a mother and two young cubs — swims alongside. Snowcapped mountains lie ahead in the distance. This is what dawn feels like in Alaska in the summer. The only problem: Alaska is so far north that the sun never sets this time of year, so kayaking or any other activity is done after a fitful sleep spent trying to keep out the light.

The idea of sunlight 24 hours a day sounds great. But, trust me, around midnight — or 3 a.m. or close to 6 a.m. — when your body is exhausted but your mind is saying, “Let’s go for another kayak ride,” it all begins to feel like a cruel joke.

Sleeping was my biggest problem on a recent trip to Alaska. Actually it was my only problem.

I traveled to a small wilderness lodge called Tutka Bay, located at the head of a seven-mile fjord on Kachemak Bay, off the coast near Homer, Alaska. I was there to do the things I love most: write, cook, exercise and see wildlife.

I wrote each morning with the guidance of two mentors, cookbook and memoirist Molly O’Neill and poet Carolyn Forche. In the afternoon we learned to cook Alaskan specialties.

Tutka Bay Lodge’s Cooking School, located in a dry-docked converted herring boat, may be the only cooking school in the world without electricity or running water. You’d think it’s impossible to cook without those two basic elements, but using portable butane burner stove tops and a huge water cooler, matched with the talent of chef and lodge owner Kirsten Dixon, the cooking classes were flawless.

Dixon, who has lived in Alaska for more than 30 years and written several cookbooks, has become a kind of ambassador for Alaskan cuisine. She, along with her assistant Christie Maggi, taught us about the history, influences and current state of Alaskan cuisine.

Alaskan cooking school makes local ingredients shine

Yes, there is such a thing as Alaskan cuisine. And no, it’s not (just) moose stew, reindeer burgers and potatoes. We were introduced to sophisticated dishes like king crab beignets, cold smoked salmon with brown sugar brûlée, local oysters with pickled cauliflower and juniper crème fraîche topping, sourdough biscuits with house-made sweetened ricotta, and rhubarb preserves.

“Most people think we are too far off the beaten track to have a cuisine,” Dixon explains. “But there is a vibrant culinary scene here. Young chefs in Anchorage are beginning to pay attention to local foods, farmers markets and native traditions.”

Using ingredients such as seafood (Alaskan salmon, cod and halibut being the most obvious) and foraged foods such as sea asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, seaweed, mushrooms and wild berries, the food you find in much of Alaska is no longer frozen and flown in from the lower 48, but now focuses on local ingredients.

The state of Alaska even offers subsidies to chefs who use local ingredients. “This subsidy helps promote the use of locally grown Alaskan food,” Dixon notes, “and really encourages Alaskan chefs to shop in-state.”

Eating local, shopping local and growing your own food is something Alaskans feel passionate about. During the summer months, many try to grow, preserve and freeze enough fresh food to last them through the long winter.

“The thing about Alaskans is that we have this homesteading mentality,” Dixon says. “We are a can-do people. There is a degree of self-sufficiency and a joy about living close to the land. Alaskans pride themselves in surviving without a Whole Foods.”

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A sign at the Tutka Bay lodge. Credit: Kathy Gunst

With the longest coastline in the U.S. (33,000 miles), the seafood that comes from Alaskan waters is superb. The extreme cold temperature of the water produces some of the best oysters I’ve ever tasted. But it’s salmon that’s king. There are five distinct types of salmon that come from the Pacific Ocean off the Alaskan coast: Chinook, or King, is highly prized and the largest species (weighing in at up to 150 pounds). Coho, or Silver, salmon is smaller with a fine texture. Sockeye is famous for its deep red color and mild flavor. There’s also Chum and Pink salmon.

Virtually every day I was in Alaska I ate salmon — fresh, smoked, pickled, grilled, barbecued and sautéed — and never grew tired of it. Eating fresh Alaskan salmon was like tasting salmon for the first time. It has such a buttery texture and fresh, explosive flavor that it’s nearly unrecognizable.

Alaskan-born Chef Rob Kinnan of Crush Bistro in Anchorage says when he came to the East Coast and tasted farm-raised salmon for the first time he couldn’t believe the fish was related to the salmon he grew up eating in Alaska. “It was like someone leeched all the flavor, texture and nutritional value out of the fish,” he explained. “Cold water means more fat in the fish, which equals more flavor. The fish create fat to insulate themselves in these very cold Alaskan waters.”

Benefits of an all-daylight growing cycle

Although I had a hard time with the 24-hour a day sunlight, it has its advantages for farmers in Alaska. The growing season is short (a mere 100 days) but intense. Crops can soak in the sun all night and day, which means Alaska grows incredible produce: broccoli and cauliflower the size of watermelons; berries and oversized root vegetables; winter-hearty vegetables like kale, rutabagas and potatoes. Because the state was once dominated by glaciers, much of the underlying subsurface is glacial till, silt and sand. This is rich soil.

With such a short season and the cost of shipping food from other places prohibitively expensive, the cooks at Tutka Bay do a lot of canning and preserving. In my few days there I sampled pickled cherries, fennel and cauliflower, not to mention a gorgeous selection of jams, jellies and preserves from local berries and fruit.

“Putting up” seasonal foods dictates a lot of what goes on during an Alaskan summer. Dixon talks about the troubles she has during berry season. It’s not just the bears that want a piece of the action. “There’s this ritual in Alaska that when the berries are ripe — blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries — women go out and pick for days, camping and make a ritual of it. It’s hard to get people to come to work when there’s berries to be picked.”

Dixon laughs at her own story. She points to a group from her kitchen that has just gotten back from a hike around the lodge foraging for fresh herbs and seaweed for the evening’s menu. Tonight we will eat roast Alaskan duck, a salad with foraged herbs and smoked salmon, and an assortment of pickles. After dinner, while it’s still perfectly light, we will walk along the bay, look for seals and otters and watch the brightly lit night sky. And then I will try to get some sleep.

Kachemak Bay. Credit: Mandy Lindeberg / National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Photo Library

Kachemak Bay. Credit: Mandy Lindeberg / National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration

Quick Pickled Cauliflower

Makes 4 to 6 accompaniment servings, depending on the size of the cauliflower head

At Tutka Bay, Chef Kirsten Dixon serves these pickles on top of fresh-shucked raw local oysters and tops them with crème fraîche seasoned with juniper berries.

Ingredients 

2 cups cider vinegar

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon whole allspice

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

2 cloves garlic

1 head of cauliflower, shaved into thin slices

Directions 

1. Mix all ingredients except cauliflower in a non-reactive pot and bring to a boil over high heat.

2. Place cauliflower in a bowl and pour hot liquid on top. Allow mixture to steep for at least an hour. The mixture can then be used, refrigerated for up to a month or canned.

Top photo: Alaskan king crab. Credit: Kathy Gunst



Kathy Gunst is a James Beard award winning food journalist. She is the Resident Chef for NPR's Here and Now, heard on more than 450 public radio stations, and the author of 15 cookbooks. Based in southern Maine, she teaches food writing and cooking all over the country. 'Soup Swap: Comforting Recipes to Make and Share' from Chronicle Books is her latest cookbook.

 

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