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Cooking Wild: Eating Alaskan
Few places in the civilized world retain a stronger connection to hunting, gathering and eating well from the land than Alaska.
One late-September evening years ago, as I hiked with my trapping partner along a birch ridge down the lake from our cabin, a bull moose charged out of the alders to face what it apparently mistook for a rival. Startled, I unslung my rifle, took aim just as the animal realized its error, and spent the lion’s share of the night in a sporadic drizzle, butchering by the light of a gas lantern.
The subsequent feast was a spontaneous event, our appetites honed the following morning by backpacking 125-pound moose haunches through the woods. At the cabin that afternoon, I kindled the cook-stove with dry spruce slivers and stoked it to a roar with split birch. We propped open the cabin door with the spring of an old No. 4 trap, allowing fresh autumn air to circulate as I prepared our first round of back-strap steaks.
The procedure was simple: Slice a couple of steaks off one of those beefy back straps (long, choice cuts that run down each side of the backbone), dust them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, and drop them into the melted butter that bubbled and browned in the bottom of a cast iron skillet.
The steaks were cooked perhaps three minutes per side – overcooking may be the sin most frequently committed in preparing wild game meals – before I placed them onto our plates. Accompanied by slices of bread baked the day before, the result was delightful. Golden brown and slightly crisp on the outside, pink and tender on the inside, the flavor was succulent, reminiscent of free-range beef; a sum of summer sunlight, spring water, willow and sweet grass. One skillet of steaks led to another, then another. In fact, it is impossible now, more than 30 years later, to remember just how long that feeding orgy lasted. I do recall that the amount of meat that disappeared off the cutting board was more than a little shocking.
In hindsight, a rich merlot – something peppery and bright to stand up to the meat and match the ripe berry fragrances of fall – might have added dimension to the meal. But we were young men then (in our late teens, actually) and our appreciation of wines remained undeveloped. Nonetheless, that dinner remains in my mind a milestone in rustic cooking, and a tribute to a kind of innocent gluttony known best to hardworking adolescent males.
Few places in the civilized world retain a stronger connection to hunting, gathering and eating well from the country than Alaska. Our 365 million acres of land mass, three million lakes, 3,000 rivers and 6,640 miles of coastline brim with natural bounty. Five species of salmon flood our streams each summer, and the sea bottom from Ketchikan to Kotzebue and beyond yields a bouillabaisse of halibut, cod, mollusk and crab. Caribou here still outnumber people, prancing across the tundra by the hundreds of thousands; Dall sheep and mountain goat (a misnomer that belies the species’ kinship to antelope) are found in the high crags, with moose, deer, bison and bear roaming the forests and river bars in between. All the while, wildfowl in both upland and migratory forms cackle, cluck and quack, growing fat on berries and the various plants that make the Far North so extraordinarily verdant from May to September.
Our season of fishing, hunting and gathering span the calendar year, beginning in April when the sun climbs high and the snows recede, accelerating through the warmth of summer with the salmon runs. The heart of the harvest occurs in the fall when the berries ripen and the fish and game grow most active in anticipation of the coming winter.
Some years ago, I caught the turning celestial tide in April when I took a trip with two friends to temperate Prince of Wales Island in Alaska’s own “Deep South.” The goal was to embrace the season in its infancy while spending a few days catching and releasing steelhead.
As it turned out, unseasonably warm weather and low stream levels conspired to make fishing slow for the big, sea-run trout. We did, however, pluck from the tannic waters some ocean-bright Dolly Varden so, with fiddlehead ferns popping up on the shady stream banks, our menu seemed obvious. The dismal cans of chili con carne we had packed for the trip were set aside and, in another triumph of simplicity and commonsense cooking, my friend Tony Route steamed the tender greens in a camp pot while sautéing the char in butter. I can’t recall what I had for dinner two nights ago, but I can still smell in those steaming fiddleheads the sprucy essence of springtime in Southeast, and in the pink, hot flesh of those Dollys taste a distinctive flavor that spoke of pristine estuaries and remote coastal streams.
It’s no accident that some of the best meals are the simplest. Wild fish, meats and greens, properly handled, have mild characteristics that provide direct links to the lands or waters of their origin. Masking these flavors with excess spices or by overcooking can render the entire process pointless.
On the other hand, a chef can go only so far with a skillet and a hunk of butter. The most important ingredient in cooking wild fare is discretion. And in the end, how a particular cut of fish or game is prepared depends upon your taste and the nature of the food with which you’re working.
Along these lines, it is rumored that connoisseurs of wild Alaska salmon can sample a forkful of fresh-broiled fillet, chase it with a shot of wine and announce with astonishing accuracy the origin of the fish. These claims seem largely unsubstantiated but might be explained, at least in theory, by differences in the texture, flavor and fat content of salmon adapted to particular drainages. Many believe that the finest-tasting salmon come from the Copper or Yukon river drainages where fish adapted for long, difficult runs carry more fat and oil to see them through their freshwater travels. Salmon whose spawning grounds wait closer to the sea tend to be proportionately leaner, drier and more coarse. Fillets from sockeye dipnetted in the Copper near Chitina are rich and moist with fat, making them perfect for grilling because they don’t easily dry out. Marinate them for a few hours in a homemade teriyaki prepared with minced garlic, soy, fresh-ground ginger and orange juice, then place them on the grill skin-side down until the scales begin to blacken. Flip the fillets briefly, until just cooked through, and serve immediately.
King salmon caught from waters such as the Kenai Peninsula’s short Kasilof River aren’t as fat as Copper River fish and often taste better poached or covered and baked. They also can be cut into small pieces and deep-fried. A good example of this is the coconut salmon prepared by the Double Musky Inn in Girdwood. Battered and cooked quickly in hot oil, the flavors are sealed within and the fish remains moist. The shredded coconut provides a pleasing outer texture and the restaurant’s tangy, sweet-and-sour sauce is an exquisite accompaniment. The sauce recipe calls for brown mustard, horseradish and grape jelly, but currant jelly made from berries picked in Southcentral forests works equally well.
Of course, Alaskans eat fish year-round, but fresh salmon grilled outside on warm July evenings is a hallmark of summer. For those of us who live to fish, cook and eat, summertime is salmon time, and the livin’ is easy.
Our wild berries ripen by late August – blueberries, raspberries, currants, and highbush and lowbush cranberries, among others. By September, their sweet and sour fragrances mingle and lend the air a tartness as distinctive and bright as a fine cabernet. Meanwhile, bull moose grunt and thrash their antlers in the spruce thickets, ptarmigan cackle from alpine willows before dawn, and trout and grayling dimple quiet lakes as they feed with a sudden urgency. This is autumn in Alaska, and it is, in many ways, the wild harvester’s finest hour. The season is on the move, like the caribou that cross the tundra in waves. The weather can be schizophrenic: One day may be clear and brittle with frost, the birch and aspen leaves glowing yellow and vibrant against powder-blue skies; the next may be misty and drizzling, leaving the cottonwood duff smelling sweet, like banana peels, the aura cool and moody.
It all comes and goes within a month, allowing only four weeks of frenzied picking, hunting and fishing. No matter how hard you try, there’s no way to accomplish everything you wish. The best advice is to choose those things dearest to your heart and attack them passionately.
The elements of taste, smell and color are particularly abundant in the fall and never more apparent than on upland bird hunts along the cranberry ridges of Susitna Valley or among the high-country willows of the Kenai Peninsula. Alaskans are fortunate to have grouse in several flavors. Berry-fed spruce grouse appear on frosty mornings along remote gravel paths and are frequently swatted by boys (young and old) toting .22-caliber rifles. Ptarmigan of three varieties are found above timberline and sharp-tailed grouse lurk around the barley fields of the Interior’s Delta Junction region. Ruffed grouse provide supreme wing-shooting sport over pointing dogs, while the sooty grouse that hoot from tall Sitka spruces in Southeast each spring can be hunted near tree line in the fall.
One of the more delightful game bird recipes I’ve discovered is Szechwan grouse in peanut sauce. Young spruce grouse or ptarmigan taken early in the season have light, nearly translucent breast fillets that cook up white as chicken. Simmered in Szechwan peanut sauce and served over steamed rice, they are fitting tributes to the best days afield. Mature spruce grouse, ptarmigan and sharptails have dark meat. For these birds – and waterfowl, too – my old friend Ben O. Williams (a wing-shooter, author and chef known to some as “The General”) once offered the following:
“First, pour some of your favorite wine in a glass and take a sip.
“Next, take your grouse (breasts filleted from the bone and soaked for several hours in milk) and dust it in flour. “Have another sip of wine.
“Melt some butter in a skillet and cook the meat over moderate heat until just cooked through. You may need a refill on the wine to complete this process.
“Transfer the meat to a warm plate and deglaze the skillet with a half-cup of bourbon (scotch also works), whisking up the bits from the bottom of the skillet. Cook the liquor down to a quarter cup, then turn the heat to low and whisk in a cup of sour cream. Have a sip of wine and return the grouse to the pan and cover in the sauce. Serve hot.”
I first enjoyed the General’s recipe on a blustery October day near Cold Bay when the jovial old cuss prepared a mixed bag of Canada goose, black brant and ptarmigan for a hunting party of five. The meal was outstanding, the combination of sour cream and whiskey essence pleasingly powerful, nicely complimenting the mild wild flavor of those red-fleshed birds.
Ruffed grouse, whose splendid white breast meat and wily ways make them Alaska’s finest fowl for table and sport, should be handled differently. For starters, the birds are best taken on the wing with light shotguns. From there they should be drawn and hung for a day or two in a cool place, then the meat prepared gently and with care. Any recipe designed for chicken breasts works well. I’m partial to ruffed grouse tarragon, adapted from The New York Times Cookbook recipe for chicken tarragon.
By November, when the darkness descends and the auroras dance over the hills, the cycle of gathering begins to slow. We still pick up the occasional late-season moose or caribou, and burbot (a sort of freshwater lingcod) caught through holes in the ice promise savory chowders on lazy winter Sundays. But for the most part, the season is reserved for memories of the days when food ran rampant in the streams and over the tundra.
It is now that the products of the snow-free months, all nicely wrapped and stacked in the chest freezer, come into play as edible media. Stored on one side, lucky hunters may have packages of moose or caribou steaks, roasts, hamburger and sausage; on the other, perhaps salmon and halibut, maybe some late-season ducks and geese. A few quarts of lowbush cranberries or lingonberries, collected after the first hard frosts left them purple and sweet, wait in the center to be made into cranberry sauce, or used to add a colorful and vibrant tang to banana nut breads and muffins.
The kitchen this time of year is a warm, cozy retreat, a place where the imagination reigns and those wild fillets, chops, roasts and steaks promise to fill a void as primal as the seasons. During these short days, the cutting board is best placed near the window where the winter sky’s pale hues may be absorbed as you work. From there, the creation of feasts from the year’s wild harvests may begin.
How about some moose goulash, or Dall sheep shoulder roast stuffed with tomatoes, peppers, onions and rice? Or maybe seafood strikes a chord – perhaps some halibut marinated in lime and chili sauce seared on the grill? Do something French with that brace of mallards you took one cold morning in October. Try a stir-fry with a package of thinly sliced Kodiak deer. And always remember: Cooking wild is an art as broad and colorful as Alaska itself. The rules are up to you.
Ken Marsh is Regional Information Officer for the Division of Sport Fish in Anchorage. He is a freelance writer, author of the book Breakfast at Trout’s Place: The Seasons of an Alaska Fly-fisher, and a lifelong Alaskan.
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Juneau, AK 99811-5526