Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Raw and the Cooked (apologies to Jim Harrison)

Last night after dinner I decided to do a food/cooking post. I made salmon patty and salad, and it was good. I'm not a gourmet cook by any stretch, but I like to cook, and enjoy good food. I can't account for this; growing up I was neither exposed to good food/cooking or adventurous eating. My mother was an indifferent cook at best, the standard meal I remember was hamburger or liver fried, boiled potatoes and canned vegetables. Her method of cooking any meat was to fry it until it was reduced in size by half. My first year at university I ate dorm food, and thought it great.

It wasn't until my late 20's that I started cooking passable food, and for some time followed my mother's example of overcooking what would have been good food. My time in the military and living in Japan helped, I was exposed to Vietnamese and Japanese food, and first had sushi.  Living in Alaska in the 70's helped, having access to freshly-caught King and Red salmon and halibut. And, oddly, this is where I first had good wine.

In a previous post I mentioned 'happy hour' in the ICU at Anchorage Community Hospital. Every Friday we would get wine and cheese from Madeline's Wine Shop, and Madeline would pick the wine. Prior to this, my wine exposure was limited to Mad Dog 20/20 for camping trips (high alcohol content for volume), and Tavola Red or Boone's Farm.

I 'cut my teeth' on Madeline's wines: 1970-71 French Burgundy...Grand Cru Pommard, Bonne Mares, Echeczeaux, Rhone wines like Hermitage, etc. The downside to this is when I had developed a taste for these delightful wines, I later had to pay for them. A few years later in grad school, I lived in Sonoma County and sampled the big reds of that bucolic area. This was also when I started sampling the food of the area: Italian and Chinese, San Francisco had it all. Abalone was readily available and cheap, and the Sand Dabs at the fabled North Beach Restaurant were fantastic. My friend David and I had a house in Sebastopol, he tended our large garden, and we cooked.

Neither of us were of a disposition to follow recipes, and my ad-hoc style of cooking developed. So if I were to write a recipe for last night's salmon pattys, it might look like this:

A nice large Salmon Fillet, cut up into smallish pieces
A bunch of green onions, also chopped fairly fine
A couple garlic cloves, crushed up
A bit of mayo and good mustard
Some bread crumbs, panko if available
A sprinkle of salt and pepper, fresh parsley is ok too

Combine ingredients in a bowl, shape into pattys

Saute (ok, fry) in a big pan with olive oil till nicely brown on both sides, roughly 4 or 5 mins on each side on medium to high heat.

Serve on a nice salad.

I'm now limited somewhat in what I cook, due to where I live. Butte has no good seafood markets; the closest is Bozeman, some 75 miles away. We're luckier with meat, there is a good butcher only a couple miles away. In the summer we have the Farmer's Market every Saturday for 4 months, and for that short period some great, fresh vegetables and fruit are available. Other than that, it's pretty standard supermarket fare. One of them has a fish counter, and occasionally has a decent selection. In the Spring, Summer and Fall of course there is fresh trout from the streams and lakes, but frankly I find trout a bit bland. Nice once in a while, but I want Grouper, Monkfish, Smelt and Flounder. And rabbit. Rabbit is fantastic.....a saddle of rabbit, slow cooked in a burgundy, mushroom and garlic stock. Sigh. When I lived in Germany a few years ago, rabbit was available in the markets, as was a hundred different kinds of wurst. And don't get me started on bread. Good, fresh, crusty bread. The one good bakery in Butte is long gone, and in Germany there were 6 bakeries within walking distance, each with different 'brot' every day.

I almost forgot duck. Another post perhaps.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Road Trip 1973, pt. 3

We got back to Dawson, re-supplied and headed onwards, crossing the Yukon River on a ferry, then climbing up the hills towards the border crossing near Chicken, Alaska.

Nearing the border, the road went over the tops of rounded hills, there was little traffic. We had been on the road for over a week, the Land Cruiser was caked with mud, and we probably looked like the Snopes, just getting to California.

The US custom's agent at the border either thought we looked suspicious, or perhaps was bored from inactivity. He had us out of the vehicle, and we watched as he crawled in and leaned over the front seat, rummaging through the chaos in the back. We heard him yelp, then swear. He got out, holding a jacket of Tim's, his hand still in one pocket. Tim had done what I often did at his age; when fishing and changing lures it was easier to put a lure in your pocket than find the tackle box. The poor guy had a treble hook firmly embedded in his finger. I'm sure he thought we'd set a trap for him, and he was not happy. Despite assurances this was not the case, after getting the hook out he proceeded to empty the back, putting our stuff on the ground. An hour or so later, finding nothing, he reluctantly let us pass back onto US soil.

Two days later we got to Anchorage. I decided to splurge, and we got a room at the Cook hotel with a view of the end of Cook Inlet, looking north towards Denali (Mt. McKinley).

I remember being surprised at how warm it was, mid-eighties and sunny. The trip thus far had been cool, frequent rain, and even some sleet while were on the Dempster. I thought that Alaska had great summers, not knowing that we were there the week when they had record high temps. We moved up to Anchorage the next April from Grants Pass with our infant daughter, and I waited for the summer to start....I think it might have gotten up to 70 that next summer, and it was then I found out what summers were really like up there.

We spent a day doing laundry and seeing the sights. I liked Anchorage a lot, and was determined to move there.

We decided to drive down the Kenai Peninsula as far as we could go, to Homer. The road goes along Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, so named because when Cook explored the area he thought he'd found passage back to the Pacific, but alas, had to 'turnagain'. Up over Moose Pass, past lower and upper Summit Lake.

After half a day or so we got to the Kenai River, where I'd planned to fish. I saw the masses of fishermen lining the banks of every access and drove on to the Russian River, where I saw my first scene of 'combat fishing'. It was what I later came to call a 'welcome to Alaska' moment.

For the next two days the hard reality of fishing near roads in Alaska was driven home. Few roads, lots of people. After moving there the following spring I learned that there were places that had few people within hiking distance, or unmarked roads that led to 'secret' salmon spots, but for now this was the reality.

We continued down to Homer, the 'end of the road'. Homer was and is, I suppose, one of the most picturesque places on earth that includes a town.

The end of the road is at the end of this long 'spit' of land that sticks out into Katchemak Bay, with Cook Inlet off to the north. At the time, Homer was around 3 or 4 thousand people. In the next few years I spent a lot of time in Homer, and grew to love it. The inhabitants seemed to be either back-to-the-earth hippies-with-guns, living on their gardens, fishing and hunting, or right-wing religious conservatives. My next visit there would be in late April, after moving to Anchorage. I drove down, arriving in early evening. I stopped at a large, barn-like structure that proclaimed it's self to be "The Palace". A tavern, filled with hippies that looked like me. The bartender at the crowded bar walked by, handed me a joint, saying he'd be back in a minute to get me a beer. I was quickly elbowed by the gent next to me, wondering if I was going to just hold on to that thing. But I digress....

Somehow, I decided we were going to experience 'real Alaska fishing', and after asking around, went to a float plane outfit on the small lake just visible in the lower part of the above picture. For a hundred bucks, he loaded the three of us in his Beaver, and we took off on floats. Across Katchemak Bay there was a small lake he knew, Leisure Lake. A short flight took us over the first mountains, we spiraled in and landed on this lake and stayed for three days.

I have no pictures of the lake, having either lost them over the years or one of the boys have them. I remember the fishing was good, rainbows up to 20", and the weather was wonderful. In later years I learned the lake was accessible by trail from the shore, but had infrequent visitors. In the months it was ice-free, there was just too much good fishing more easily accessed.

After two nights, the plane came back and flew us out. We drove back to Anchorage, camped in a city park, and started the marathon drive back. I remember little about that drive, except that for some reason I was in a hurry to get back. I do remember that roof rack had disintegrated, and Tim was really crowded in the back. Russ had long since stopped trading seats with the poor lad. Also, somewhere in the Yukon, I was pulled over by a RCMP. I had apparently gone through a small village going 50, and not even seen it. He gave me a ticket for 15 Canadian bucks, shook his head, and let us go.

We got back to Bend some days later in the early evening, I dropped the kids off at my sister's place, and drove back to Grants Pass. Going past Diamond Lake, in the dark, I hit a deer. It had come out of the trees onto the road, and the sturdy fender of the Land Cruiser whacked it's head. I got out, saw it was undamaged but for the head, quickly gutted it, loaded it into the back with the trips detritus, and drove home. Somehow a fitting end to the trip.

During that fall and winter I wrote hospitals in Anchorage and Fairbanks, seeking work. Getting offers from both we decided Anchorage was the best place, and moved up in late March. In the next years I experienced some of the finest hunting and fishing in the world. I caught large salmon and steelhead from streams I'd driven by the previous summer without a glance, and grew to love the place.

It wasn't all roses; it was the pipeline years in Anchorage, I was working long hours and various other 1970-ish things took their toll on my marriage. But that's another story, and perhaps not for this forum.