Wednesday, April 21, 2010

another shoreline

Our family moved to Juneau when I was a freshman in high school.  It was exciting to leave our small pond and jump into a slightly larger one.  Juneau’s population, at nearly 31,000, more than triples Sitka’s 9,000.

When I came on the scene, Juneau had long since hopped on the coffee bandwagon.  I readily tuned in to coffeehouse culture, undeterred by the fact that I did not actually drink the stuff.  In fact, I would not regularly drink coffee until I turned eighteen and no longer held out hope that I might still be growing.  Mom had convinced me that coffee would stunt my growth and that it may have been partially responsible for stunting hers.  In the meantime, I drank Italian sodas which are said to originate in San Francisco, not Italy.  Whether authentic or inspired, Italian food was the go-to cuisine of the 90’s, with pesto, paninis, focaccia and fettucini alfredo all prevalent on menus everywhere.  Juneau’s restaurants followed suit and I was eager to expand my edible horizons.

Never a fan of brown bagging it, I was thrilled when my high school changed their policy and allowed students to leave campus for lunch.  Without a car, I was limited to the lunch options within walking distance; thus, my newfound freedom only got me as far as my two legs would carry me.  Most good eats were in town but that took up half the lunch hour, leaving little or no time to eat and return for class.  I came up with a creative solution.  I would walk to town with friends, share a fabulous lunch and then hop in a cab, making it back just before the tardy bell.  It worked like a charm with one exception.  While no one would bat an eyelash at the sight of a cab in New York City, Juneau was a different story.  A bright yellow cab parked in front of my high school might as well have signaled the arrival of a foreign dignitary.  I would step out, greeted by blatant stares and mouths agape, and try to remain composed.  Never mind what they thought, I was going to have a respectable lunch and that was that. 
Baking gave way to dining out during my high school years as I found far more interest in experiencing food than in creating it.  Weekends were spent babysitting and a fair amount of my resulting income was funneled into my preferred eateries.   One year, I decided that I would take dad out for a fancy birthday dinner, just the two of us.  I offered to take  him to the Gold Room at The Baranof Hotel.  Dad agreed to go, in part, because he knew that the Baranof offered patrons a free entree on their birthday.  It is possible that I had considered that when suggesting said locale.  For dinner, we ate tender, juicy steaks and fresh king crab legs with drawn butter.  The meal was excellent; the evening, memorable.  High school is not an easy time for parent-child relations but dad and I could always bond over our mutual love of good food.

When my second year French class organized a Fete de Rois celebration, I decided to pick up my apron.  Leafing through  mom’s dated French cookbook, I settled on a recipe for galette de ménage, a yeasty cake with custard filling and an orange glaze.  It was my most ambitious culinary endeavor to date.  The end result was a flying saucer of golden goodness, an immense disc, oozing vanilla cream.  Its heavenly scent, a mixture of  homemade bread, orange zest, sweet vanilla and rich buttery cake.  When I placed the cake on the dessert table, it dwarfed the store bought macaroons, croissants, and pirouettes in a can.  Every morsel was devoured before I had a chance to taste it.  My consolation was a generous helping of praise from my classmates and teacher.

During my senior year, I took a job as a barista at my favorite coffeehouse.  It was there that I learned how to make good coffee and to build the perfect sandwich.  My manager had an illustrated book titled, ‘the art of sandwich making’, with detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to create a sandwich masterpiece.  It was a requirement that every employee read the book and adhere to its sandwich-making principles. 

I loved showing up after school, clocking in, putting on an apron, and possessing the belief that what I did, making food and cappuccinos, was an art form.  I loved the camaraderie I shared with my coworkers and the rapport I established with our regular customers.  It was not my first job but it was my first job working with food and it would not be my last.  I still make sandwiches the way I learned back then: build a foundation with flat ingredients, such as meats and cheeses and end with the least stable items, such as lettuce, sprouts, bacon, etc…   My most recent creation was this  BLT with avocado and homemade mayonnaise, on Essential Baking Company potato bread.  IMG_0253

good food in juneau

Silverbow Bagels – I probably eat these bagels once a day when in Juneau.  This cozy shop serves up super tasty bagels and delectable homemade desserts.  Their sandwiches can be customized with a a myriad of fixings.  The hippy dippy bagel, my favorite, is both nutritious and delicious.  For your sweet tooth, try their Alaskan Spice cake and irresistibly yummy mint brownies.

Heritage Coffee Co. – Heritage coffee is to Juneau what Starbucks is to Seattle.  The difference is consistency but I let that slide for nostalgia’s sake and for lack of alternatives, not to mention the inherent charm of human err.  They used to have more of a sit down menu but the food offerings have dwindled so now I just go for my daily cappuccino.  

Twisted Fish Company – This is the place to go for fish.  The service is outstanding, the setting light and bright with warm varnished wood throughout.  Food is fresh and well-prepared and they serve delicious homemade bread ‘knots’ with your meal.  Last summer, I ordered seared halibut with a huckleberry chutney.  It was sublime.  The wine list is just okay.  The real downside is that the restaurant is seasonal, open only from May – October.

The Hangar on the Wharf – Go for the halibut and chips and make sure to pay extra for tempura-style.  This restaurant is run by the owners of the Twisted Fish meaning you can expect a similar standard of quality and service.  The salads are fresh and the atmosphere is lively with a picturesque view of the Gastineau Channel.  Their beer selection is extensive with over 20 on tap.  Interestingly, you’ll find a bottle of malt vinegar on every table as an homage to the seasonal plethora of British patrons who work on cruise ships during summer months.  Apparently, the Brits like to dip their fries in the stuff.  

Paradise Cafe – This darling bakery, across from the wharf, has a retro cowgirl theme and the sweetest staff around.  They also have the best sweets around.  I buy their pastries even when I’m not hungry and then tuck them away to accommodate my late night sweet tooth.  I have yet to try their lunch fare but it all looks homey and satisfying. 

Seong’s Sushi Bar – When I was pregnant with my daughter, I craved the chicken soup from Seong’s.  Too bad I was in Seattle.  Chicken soup may sound like an odd thing to offer at a Sushi joint but it sells out every night.  The soup is loaded with Japanese-style noodles, fresh veggies, and chicken breast in a clear broth.  Their sushi is outstanding, too, with fresh fish shipped in daily.  The owners are gracious and accommodating and the clientele is mostly comprised of locals.

Alaskan Fudge Co. – Yum.  Only an iron will could resist walking into this shop as the scent of warm chocolate, butter and cream wafts out the door.  While you wait in line, you can watch as they make the fudge in big copper pots.  I recommend the penuche, glacier chip, and divinity.  I also recommend gifting this fudge as they can shrink wrap it for you and it will last up to two weeks.  Who wouldn’t love the gift of fudge from Alaska.  It beats getting a tee-shirt, which they sell in their adjacent gift shop. 

Rainbow Foods – We do most of our grocery shopping here when visiting Juneau.  They carry a good selection of organic foods and fresh produce and their small but tasteful selection of artisanal cheeses and cured meats is a bonus.  The prices are steep for some items, reasonable for others.  During they week, they offer a number of organic lunch specials and wholesome baked goods.  The berry scones are a favorite.

Fred Meyer – It’s not local but they have an impressive organic section and it is definitely the economical way to eat organic in Juneau.

Monday, April 19, 2010

it takes an island


Growing up, I loved when dad would reminisce about his youth.  One of his fonder memories was of reading ‘The Yearling’, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.  Her mouth-watering descriptions of farmhouse fare left him craving foods he never knew he wanted.  I experienced similar longings when I first read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series.  I pined for the floury baked potatoes, thick wedges of cornbread with cracklings, freshly churned butter and earthy sweet maple syrup which were staples of the pioneer diet.  While the food itself was modest, both authors used rich narratives to to whet their readers’ appetite.  I would emerge from reading filled with an overwhelming desire to eat whatever the characters were eating.  Throughout the seven book series, I consumed countless baked potatoes, made ‘snow candy’ in our backyard, and ‘churned’ my own butter by shaking heavy cream in a glass jar.  I made fried cornmeal, the rectangular slices like little packets of sunshine with crisp brown edges all pooled in maple syrup goodness.  These were my first lessons in cooking, no recipe required.  I am now reading the ‘Little House’ books to my daughter, Annabelle.  We try to read a chapter each night and, inevitably, the last two words I hear as I close the book and turn off the light are, “I’m hungry.”

Reading was my portal to life outside our tiny island.  My insatiable appetite for literature was the one obsession that rivaled my love of eating.  Mom instilled a love of books in me from early on, reading classics like ‘Babar’ and ‘Eloise’ alongside more contemporary titles.  By school age, I was making weekly pilgrimages to our local library where I would comb the shelves for enough reading material to sustain me until my next visit.  It was possible to borrow up to twelve titles per week and I often did.  After stacking my selections at the checkout desk, I lugged the books home in a brown paper grocery bag and devoured them one by one.  When I had polished off the allotted dozen, I moved on to my mom’s impressive stash of cookbooks.  I salivated over cake decorating books, filled with page after page of dazzling designs in technicolor frosting, and my first knowledge of calories came from the lone healthy cookbook in the stack.  I was intrigued by a 1960’s tome on French cooking and I pored over recipes for scones, cakes and tea breads, in a dainty series on baked goods.  Mom even had a copy of Martha Stewart’s very first cookbook,  published during her catering days.

It wasn’t long before my fixation with cookbooks led me to the kitchen.  I first tried my hand at savory scones from Elizabeth Alston’s book titled, ‘Biscuits and Scones’.  I made blueberry tartelettes from my ‘Anne of Green Gables Cookbook’ and spicy snickerdoodles from mom’s tattered copy of ‘The Cooky Book’.  Never mind that my scones were a tad tough, my tartelettes more attractive than edible or that my first cookies had the density of a hockey puck; I was baking.  I felt like Audrey Hepburn when she learned to properly crack an egg in the classic 1950’s film, Sabrina

In middle school, my homeroom teacher assigned a semester-long project on South America.  I was apprehensive about the presentation portion which would be graded by my classmates.  On the big day, I arrived at class fully prepared with my in-depth report, a neon poster board map, and dessert for everyone.   I had baked chocolate caramel shortbread which I loosely tied in by explaining that cocoa beans are a product of South America.  I have no recollection of the content of my assignment but I recall the collective  moans of approval as my class sunk their teeth into that buttery cookie crust swathed in chewy caramel and blanketed in chocolate ganache.  My project won second place in a school wide competition.  I may not have been a geography whiz but I had discovered that I could bake it and fake it.

Baking was the springboard that launched my culinary bent; my interest in cooking came later.  A lack of exposure to inspired cuisine and limited island resources do much to explain the delay.  The 80’s were not what you would call a foodie decade.  Fine dining was often a stuffy affair and menus were dominated by red meat, potatoes, and heavy sauces.  The affordable alternatives were usually fast food, takeout or the ubiquitous sit down chain.  My dad, an accountant, celebrated the end of tax season with an annual dinner at The Channel Club which, at the time, was the best and only steak house in town.  This was a place where steaks had three sizes.  The smallest was the ‘Channel’, next was the ‘Texan’ and finally, the behemoth ‘Alaskan’.  Surprisingly, many people are not aware that Alaska is more than double the size of Texas, hence the tongue-in-cheek steak sizes.  The Channel Club was also the fanciest place to eat, making it the go-to spot for prom night.  When I was a little girl, my mom would drive me to the restaurant, on the night of prom, so that I could peek inside for a fairytale glimpse of high school girls in fancy formal dresses.  The restaurant was a sea of hot pink, hunter green, and electric blue satin.  Those nights, I went to sleep dreaming of ruffles, lace and a nice juicy steak.

Our family rarely ate out for dinner but, before I was old enough to go to school, mom and I would occasionally drive to town and have lunch with dad.  One of our favorite spots was Revard’s Restaurant, a greasy spoon with a loyal following.  We would slide into a well-worn, red vinyl booth and place our order.  No menu required, it was always the same, the Reuben sandwich.  Two slices of grilled rye bread sandwiched the perfect ratio of  tangy sauerkraut, juicy slices of corned beef, melted swiss cheese and creamy thousand island dressing.  Accompanying the Reuben was Revard’s trademark, a side of inky, purplish red pickled beets.  I adored those beets.  Dad would surmise that a well seasoned grill was Revard’s secret ingredient.  Maybe it had something to do with their venerable cook, Alice.  Whatever it was, it kept us coming back until the day they closed their doors in 1992.

Despite the extremes of our northern climate, a close family friend, Mary, kept an impressive vegetable garden in her backyard.  She could grow any vegetable that would withstand the cold and it was Mary who introduced me to the pleasures of home grown produce.  This woman was composting, using organic fertilizer and growing her own food long before it was fashionable to do so.  When I was around three years old, the two of us trudged out to her garden in frigid rain to pick the first spinach of the season.  I was decked out in my yellow rain slicker and hand-me-down black rubber boots.   Mary sang to her plants as she tended to them while I stood nearby, shivering, thinking she was pretty kooky but equally entertaining.  After we gathered the spinach leaves, we headed back to the house.  I watched from my perch at the kitchen table as Mary washed the spinach, steamed it and as a finishing touch, sprinkled it with salt and a little vinegar.  She placed the dish in front of me and I gingerly scooped a forkful of murky greens from the mound, raised it to my mouth and proceeded to chew.  The subtle tang of vinegar balanced the spinach’s acidity and the salt brought out its earthy flavors.  It was love at first bite.  Eat your heart out, Popeye the sailor man.

favorite food spots in sitka

Sitka has come a long way since I left in 1993.  These are the places where you will most likely find me when I am back in my old stomping grounds. 


 Highliner Coffee Company – I love this place because the coffee is good and because you consistently get service with a smile.  The setting is pleasant and clean with no frills.  A fishing vibe is reflected in framed photographs of boats covering the walls throughout.  You might even have the good fortune to stumble upon an impromptu jam session, as we once did.  My husband (center) even got in on the action.

Ludvig’s Bistro – This itty bitty gem makes their own bread and and serves up outstanding cioppino, chock full of fresh fish.  Just about anything in the seafood category reigns supreme here.  The wine list is pretty great, too.  I love that they feature organic produce from Full Circle Farm, in Washington State.  The bistro’s warm walls and eclectic decor are inviting but not pretentious, much like the city in which it dwells.

Back Door – This pleasant cafe makes homemade breads and bagels, delicious sandwiches, soups and baked goods.  They are located on the back side of Old Harbor Books which conveniently merges my two great loves.  The downside is that their hours are sporadic and they only accept cash and checks.

Monday, April 12, 2010

space cake

Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake and nothing’s the matter! – ‘In the Night Kitchen’ by Maurice Sendak


My husband calls me ‘space cake’.   He moved to the United States from Holland, ten years ago, but even with near perfect English, some of our common expressions remain foreign to him.  Once after I made a particularly absentminded remark, he replied, “You are such a space cake!”  For a moment, I thought he had cleverly invented a new expression and I was about to congratulate him on his wit when it dawned on me that he really thought I was a space cake, not a space case.  It sounded so much nicer and given my affinity for dessert, I considered myself aptly named.


I have a thing for cake.  And by cake I mean frosting.  I was not the kid who ate the frosting first.  I was the kid who ate the cake to get to the frosting.  It was advance atonement for the sugar to butter ratio I was about to consume.  It was my cake logic, which I equated to eating dinner before dessert.   At birthday parties, I would strategize, waiting in the wings until a corner piece was cut.  As a rule,  the first corner was a casualty, automatically given to the birthday girl or boy.  That meant that I was in the fray for one of the remaining three.  If the corners proved elusive, I could be wooed by a side piece or perhaps one with a big fondant rose.  Last resort was a dreaded middle piece.  I loathed those forlorn squares of near naked cake with their meager veneer of frosting, usually bearing a fragment of someone else’s happy birthday greeting.  I have since surmised that round cakes are the most diplomatic.  With their fine balance of frosting and cake, everybody wins. 

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I was ten years old when I baked my first cake.  My mom was bedridden following major surgery and I decided to bake a cake to cheer her up.  It was with newfound independence that I entered the kitchen.  With mom incapacitated, I was feeling a bit like the lady of the manor.  I settled on a recipe for a white cake with buttercream frosting and got to work.  I followed the directions and was pleased when the cake came out of oven smelling warm, sweet and vanilla-laced.  It was miraculous to place pans full of pale yellow liquid into the oven and have them emerge as perfect golden rounds of oven-baked goodness.  While the cake cooled, I made the frosting.  The consistency seemed all wrong and I had no idea whether I should fix it or start over; so I did neither.  Rather, I attempted to frost the cake with pathetic, drippy frosting that was so runny, it refused to stick.  It just pooled like a moat around the base of the cake.  The end result was reminiscent of the scene in Sleeping Beauty when the three good fairies attempt to bake a cake without using their magic wands.   I have baked a good many cakes since and my conclusion is that magic wands and lots of practice are synonymous.

cakes I’ve made

I baked this cake for my husband’s birthday, nine years ago.  I found the recipe on the internet.  It is chocolate genoise cake with mocha buttercream frosting and chocolate ganache accents.  It looks much better than it tasted, which was a lot like a kitchen sponge iced with butter. 

A few years ago, I requested that my husband and daughter bake this cake for my birthday.  I ended up making it for myself when he panicked at the prospect of separating eggs.  The recipe is from Tasha Tudor and has a sweet story to go along with it.  It is white cake with boiled white frosting, tinted pink.  The roses are real.  The cake itself was quite airy, like biting into a pink sugar cloud.

When my daughter Annabelle turned four, she asked for a blue cake with pink flowers.  I used a recipe for hot milk cake.  I felt that the frosting needed work but everyone’s plates were empty, so it must have tasted alright.  I like to use the same hot milk cake recipe for berry shortcakes.  It is a very simple but delicious cake that works just as well, god forbid, without frosting.

If my omnivorous tendencies were ever in question, this cake proclaims the definitive answer.  Our friends had us over for dinner and barbequed pork shoulder was on the menu.  I baked this spice cake with penuche (maple fudge) frosting and added an homage to the tasty pig we ate that night.  The pork was delicious.  The cake was good but very sweet.  I get a toothache just thinking about it.  As is the case with many cakes, it tasted better the next day.  It is not easy to ice a cake with fudgy frosting.  You have to work fast.  The recipe is from a very cool cookbook called Birthday Cakes, published by Chronicle Books. 

My most successful cake to date was the one I made for Annabelle’s birthday, this year.  She had hoped for another entirely blue creation but this compromise was more palatable.  Annabelle and everyone else loved it.  The cake is a recipe by Alice Waters, called 1-2-3-4 cake.  Both the cake and the buttercream icing recipes can be found in the Birthday Cakes cookbook, by Chronicle Books.

IMG_4585 These nesting egg cupcakes are a happy springtime treat.  I make Alice Water’s 1-2-3-4 cake batter and then ice the cupcakes with vanilla buttercream before sprinkling coconut, dyed with green food coloring, and nesting chocolate eggs in the center.  Something otherworldly happens when you bring together a moist vanilla cupcake, silky buttercream, flaky coconut and creamy milk chocolate.

IMG_3161  I frequently make these individual molten chocolate cakes when guests come for dinner.  They are very simple to prepare and the batter can be made ahead and refrigerated.  I use Scharffen Berger chocolate and add vanilla bean and a pinch of fleur de sel to the batter. The soufflé style cakes are baked in ramekins, until a nice outer shell forms but the very center remains fluid.  I always serve these with good quality vanilla ice cream and organic raspberries.

best cakes in seattle

I have had my share of cake in Seattle.  Many bakeries offer it by the slice, making it possible to eat cake without the hoopla.  No party required.  If you love the stuff as much as I do, it is both ideal and dangerous to make cake an occasion unto itself.  I took up running a few years ago, and in conjunction with healthful eating, I lost around 65 pounds.  I have managed to stay in shape because I run six days a week, but more importantly, because I eat in moderation.  Thus, I can now have my cake and eat it too.

Lemon Chiffon Cake, B&O Espresso.  This cake is lighter than air, with layers of  lemon sponge cake and tart lemon curd, frosted in lemon buttercream and garnished with candied lemon peel.  It is refreshing and beautifully balanced.  A perfect summer cake.

The Chocolate White Chocolate Cake at Simply Desserts, in Fremont, is easily the best chocolate cake on the planet.  The white chocolate moniker does not accurately describe this cake.   It is moist, rich, full of chunks of chocolate, iced in white chocolate buttercream frosting and generously scattered with chocolate shavings.  A close second is another cake from the same bakery, called Chocolate Caramel Cake.  It is a chocolate cake with a caramel mousse filling, enrobed in chocolate ganache with caramel drizzled over the top.  The bakery is very tiny and has limited seating.  I always take my cake to go.

The white cake with white frosting, at Madison Park Bakery was my cake of choice the year I turned 29.  My birthday fell shortly after we returned from vacationing in Paris, hence the French birthday greeting.  This white cake is nostalgia to the hilt.  Its simplicity is its charm.  The cake is moist and not too sweet, a perfect host for the sugary delicious frosting which has a hint of almond flavor.  I dream about this cake.  Their cake decorator, Hilary, does a great job and can accommodate most requests.

Ten years ago, a coworker told me how much she loved the red velvet cake at Kingfish Cafe.  It was five years before I finally tried it.  Before I tasted it, I doubted how good a cake chock full of red food dye could be.  It is very good.  The cake is dense, moist and mildly sweet with tangy cream cheese icing and butterscotch whipped cream.  One slice is enough for a group of four or more.  It is enormous and decadent.  Occasionally, the Cafe has Pineapple Upside Down Cake with rich and buttery layers of yellow cake and sugary white icing accented by gobs of gooey caramelized pineapple on top.  In addition to their fabulous cakes, Kingfish Cafe is a great place to eat, offering Southern foods like catfish, gumbo and buttermilk fried chicken.  The ambiance is laid back vintage and the service is always friendly.

The cupcakes at Cupcake Royale are so near perfect, it is absurd.  The Dance Party, a straight up vanilla cupcake with dreamy vanilla buttercream, makes me weak in the knees.   Their Salted Caramel cupcake is its sophisticated counterpart, a fudgy chocolate cake with salty sweet caramel buttercream, topped with tiny dark chocolate curls.  Also fun are their seasonal cupcakes, such as Skagit Valley Strawberry, in the summertime.  My favorite location is their newest one, in Capital hill.

favorite cakes in seattle

Best Chocolate Cake – Simply Desserts, Fremont

Best Old School White Cake – Madison Park Bakery, Madison Park

Best Red Velvet Cake – Kingfish Cafe, North Capital Hill

Best Pineapple Upside Down Cake – Kingfish Cafe, North Cap. Hill

Best Lemon Chiffon Cake – B & O Espresso, Capital Hill

Best Brownstone Front CakeVolunteer Park Cafe, N. Cap. Hill (available whenever Heather makes it)

Best Carrot Cake – Vios Cafe and Marketplace, North Capital Hill
(when available - not on their menu)

Best Cupcake: Salted Caramel – Cupcake Royale, Capital Hill

Friday, April 9, 2010

quelle salade

My high school French teacher was a force to be reckoned with.  At scarcely five feet tall, she commanded her classroom with an unyielding abidance for order that belied her limited stature.  I knew that under her surly facade, she was a kind soul with a wry sense of humor and I held her in high esteem.  Whenever she was exasperated by a poorly executed assignment,  she would wave a dismissive hand over the paper and remark, “Quelle salade!”, which roughly translates to, “What a mess!”

By the time I was eight, I had developed an interest in making food.  One of my earliest attempts involved a foraged salad, akin to what you would find in a hip new bistro with an eco-conscious bent.  At said locale, the menu might boast local ingredients such as ‘organic dandelion greens, tender fireweed shoots, fiddlehead ferns and spruce tips, lightly tossed with a smoked paprika balsamic vinaigrette.’   If you swapped the gourmet dressing for an ancient bottle of Catalina dressing, unearthed from the darkest recesses of our pantry, you would have my first attempt at salad making. 

My friend and I were playing in my back yard when inspiration struck.  More often than not, this amenable friend was willing to take part in whatever scheme I dreamed up, making her the ideal accomplice.   I had recently taken a nature walk with someone well-versed in the field of botany and was flush with newfound knowledge on the subject of edible plant life.  How thrilling to discover that the forest and even my own backyard were teeming with wild growing things that I could eat.  We had at our fingertips everything we needed to prepare our very own gourmet salad.

Dandelion greens, essentially glorified weeds, are fairly ubiquitous on the food scene.  Fireweed grows like wildfire in Alaska, hence the name.  Their shoots are savory and delicious, with a texture and flavor reminiscent of baby spinach, only more concentrated.  Fiddlehead ferns have a short season and are coveted in many culinary circles.  They also happen to be the namesake of a beloved, now defunct Juneau restaurant with has a bestselling cookbook of the same name.  Fiddleheads are cooked and prepared simply, in a risotto or tossed with pasta, to allow their flavor to shine through.  Spruce tips are another story.  Consumed raw, their taste is acrid and unpalatable.  The most common use for spruce tips is in brewing beer, where the flavor is subdued and imparts only a hint of pine rather than the feeling that you’ve been punched in the face by a tree.  There are even spruce tip jellies and spruce sorbets, where one can assume that the sugar cuts the intensity.

I got to work, fervently plucking the bitter dandelion leaves, delicate reddish green fireweed shoots, tightly coiled fern heads and pale green tips from Sitka Spruce trees.  My friend gamely followed my lead, gathering  bits of this and that for a salad which she no doubt deemed unfit for human consumption.  While she was reliving the days of making mud pies, I was inadvertently channeling Alice Waters.  I transferred the accumulated greens to a salad bowl before unceremoniously dousing them with half a bottle of the Catalina dressing.

My friend’s vivid memories of our salad misadventure are generally accompanied by a shudder and some good natured finger pointing.  I admit, I may have coerced her into partaking of my ‘inspired’ creation.  Not long after her valiant efforts to choke down her serving, the salad made an encore appearance.  I maintain that the dressing was to blame.  I should have gone with a vinaigrette.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

one of the family

There is compelling evidence that my love of eating began in the womb.  I have a newspaper clipping announcing my birth which reads that I "tipped the scales" at eight pounds, four ounces."  Additionally, there is a home video, filmed shortly after I was born, where my mom cradles me in her arms as she coyly suggests that she should hold me at a different angle to better disguise my chins. 

Loving food is the prerequisite to knowing food.  The former asks little more than a willing participant.  The latter requires that the eager eater have an open mind and ongoing exposure to the ever-evolving world of food culture.  The fact that I grew up in Alaska does much to explain the lag in my transition from food lover to scholar.

Alaska is known for its extremes and the diet of its residents tends to follow suit.  One one hand, Alaskans are blessed with an abundance of fresh fish, game and wild berries.  On the other, they face hefty markups for perishable foods such as produce, dairy and meat.  Although less so than when I was growing up, foods with a shelf life make up the bulk of many shopping carts in the checkout line.  Point in case, I had my first fresh asparagus when I was twelve.  It took some getting used to as I had long considered the bloated, chartreuse variety a delicacy.
Ignorance did nothing to deter my love of food.  The passion that began in the high chair and transitioned to the table was reinforced with my initiation into a family of good cooks.  My dad’s father is the son of Yugoslavian immigrants who left their country to eventually settle in Juneau, Alaska.  My great grandfather found work in the coal mines.   My great grandma Baba, a self-deprecating woman with twinkling eyes and a thick accent , clearly spoke the language of food.  She cooked for her family and she loved to eat.

My grandpa and his siblings were brought up observing the ways of ‘the old country’.  They spoke the language, wrote to their family back home, and regularly ate the cuisine of their native land.  Baba prepared traditional foods such as savory beef and tomato filled cabbages, called sarma, cheese filled crepes, called palacinka, walnut studded dessert bread, known as pita, and rostulas, which are subtly sweet, fried cookies with a dense crumb and a  crisp golden exterior.  They are dangerously addictive.
Baba’s love of food was personified in her reverence of the connection between table and family.  She raised a family of good cooks and instilled in her children the belief that food brings families together.  Baba died shortly before I was born but her legacy has lived on through the devotion of her family.  During my childhood, we made frequent pilgrimages from Sitka to Juneau, usually by ferry, to take part in family gatherings.  These were not timid affairs, mind you; the average attendance hovered around thirty.  Regardless of the occasion, food was indubitably the focal point. 

Our visits were often timed to coincide with holidays and each occasion had a set of foods to go along with it.  Some dishes remained the specialty of one particular family member; whereas others changed hands over the years.  Aunt Helen’s homemade crescent rolls were delicate, buttery half moons, with a texture that fell somewhere between that of a brioche and a croissant.  Aunt Carol, from Japan, made sushi rolls or a refreshing salad with glassine rice noodles, tart mandarin oranges, briny shrimp and cool cucumbers.  Her contributions were the ideal antidote to the richer fare that dominated the table.  My great aunties, the baking queens, produced tantalizing cakes, pristine pies and irresistible cookies, known to challenge even the most fervent resolve.
Rumor has it that when I was a few years old, I approached a table laden with Christmas treats, hands clasped behind my back.  Salivating, I reached for a cookie and then proceeded to slap my own hand, admonishing myself, saying, “No, Sarah!'” 

When my family gathered, we ate together and we ate well, as Baba intended.  More often than not, the spread was comprised of traditional American cuisine rather than that of the Eastern European variety.  The exception to this was Serbian Christmas, better known as Orthodox Christmas, on January 7.  Family members provided a designated dish, which included Aunt Nat’s sarma, Uncle Don’s palachinka’s, Aunt Vi’s rostulas and Aunt Helen’s pita.  This immersion into my family’s culture provided me with a respect for my heritage and a budding passion not only for loving food but for getting to know it, as well.