We don’t even know where to start with this one. We have just returned from a two-week vacation in Alaska, and the prospect of adequately capturing the magic of the experience seems about as overwhelming as the state itself. You know that feeling you get when you’re on vacation, the one where you just keep looking around and thinking “How can I get more of this into my life at home?” Well multiply that by a thousand and you’ll get a taste of what we’re dealing with. Even though Alaska is now 4500 miles away and almost a full week behind us, we are still living on (and, in the case of our gravlax and halibut) dining on the memories.
We were lucky enough to be staying with our friends Jenny and Dan in and around Homer, a five-hour drive from Anchorage. (Dan is the man behind The Talent Code blog and book empire, and a big DALS favorite, as longtime readers know.) They have four kids and roughly seventeen thousand friends, so visiting them was like being folded into a giant family reunion, complete with glacier hikes, midnight beach picnics (it never gets dark in a Homer summer), and a weekend at the family camp, which was a long boat ride away, and the scene of, among other things, an epic Fourth of July party worthy of an entire post — no, an entire blog — in its own right. Actually, it would be easy to devote every DALS post for the rest of 2014 to this trip — that’s how much fun we had — but we have somehow managed to whittle it down to 21 rules, recipes, and stories from the Last Frontier. And because we don’t see our post-vacation high waning any time soon, you can be sure there will be some Alaska-inspired recipes coming down the pike later on this week as well. Trust me, you’re all in for a treat. — Jenny & Andy
21 Things We Loved and Learned in Alaska:
1. We don’t know how to do anything. People in Alaska, on the other hand, know how to do everything. And by everything, we don’t mean, like, caulk their bathtubs and install new wiper blades. We mean, like, build their houses and find water sources and install sewage systems and mill their own lumber and navigate stuff without getting lost or dead and clean fish and roast whole pigs and read tidal charts and tell edible plants from ones that will kill you and drive boats and not just fly planes but BUILD planes. (Yes, we met a guy who builds his own freakin’ planes, and he was awesome.)
2. Frosted Cherry Pop-Tarts are the perfect snack for a hike, particularly when eaten on the deserted shore of a glacial lake with bald eagles and sea planes flying overhead, and SUV-sized chunks of blue ice out there, melting slowly in the sun.
3. “There is always a lucky spot on the boat.” This is what Capt. Dan told us as we headed out to spend the afternoon fishing in the cold blue waters of Kachemak Bay. Capt. Dan is as trustworthy as they come, but we had our doubts: When you’ve got five lines in the water, how could one really be any better than the others? But sure enough, Phoebe and her new pal and fellow 12 year-old, Zoe, proceeded to spend the next two hours hauling in fish after fish — three halibut, between 15 and 20 pounds each (shown above) along with a few black cod — as the rest of us looked on. Later on this week, we’ll show you what everyone made with the day’s catch.
4. We’ve celebrated the Fourth of July in New York City, Cape Cod, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, DC, Long Island, and we are here to tell you: Alaska puts them all to shame. Head-to-toe red-white-and-blue ensembles, pig roasts, pillaged keg-er-ators, patriotic temporary tattoos, flag cake, and lots and lots of singing, including the state song, “Alaska’s Flag.” (You know your state song, right? Right?)
5. All in. There must have been sixty people at that Fourth of July party, but as far as I could tell, no one was nervous or fussy about the food or the prep or the clean-up. The reason for this is pretty simple: Everyone was expected to bring something to the party, literally. Whether that something is your signature quiona dish, your pig-carving expertise, your mad dishwashing skills, your violin, your bottle of Irish whiskey, or, in our case, your best barbecue sauce and slaw. The result? Think potluck on steroids.
6. Foolproof Alaskan conversation starter: “So, how’d you end up living in Alaska?”
7. Foolproof Alaskan conversation ender: “I don’t really like salmon.”
8. It’s Impossible to Get Sick of Salmon in Alaska. On our second day at camp, we received a special delivery down at the dock: A cooler of six beautiful 10-pound-ish sockeyes, dropped off by boat, and dropped off by the man who caught them himself. (This is taking “Know Your Fisherman” to a whole ‘nother level of the game.) Over the weekend — and into the following week — we ate: smoked salmon, pickled salmon, cured salmon, broiled salmon, salmon roe (on crackers, with sour cream and sriracha), grilled salmon, salmon spreads and salads of all shapes and sizes. And it was not nearly enough! This is salmon the way salmon is supposed to be — sweet, meaty, and deep, almost glow-y pink. We’ll be sharing some of our newly discovered salmon recipes in the very near future.
9. But We Will Start With this One. What do you do with your gravlax, besides putting it on a bagel slathered with cream cheese? Apparently, you put it on a a pizza or flatbread crust, slathered with sour cream, and you add some capers, fresh lemon juice, and dill and serve it as an appetizer, AND THE CROWD GOES WILD.
10. Here’s a 1200 page coffee table book we’re waiting for: The Trucks of Alaska (Abridged).
11. Sourdough is My Kind of DIY. I have never been a huge sourdough fan — even in San Francisco, I tried and failed to embrace it. I’m now thinking that maybe it’s because I never tried sourdough pancakes with homemade lingonberry jam and sour cream. Dan’s mother, Agnes, cranked out about 400 of these on the morning after the Fourth of July party, and Oh. my. God. you’ve never seen a happier kitchen. Alaska is as famous for its sourdough as San Francisco — Klondike Gold Rushers carried starter with them back in the 1800s — and because of this, you can always find an Alaskan talking about the 100-year-old heirloom starter sitting in their fridge at home. You know how much I love this kind of thing, so I decided to pick up a packet at a touristy gift shop, and, as of this post, my starter is officially two days old. (Only about 36,000 more days to go!) Here’s a link that gives a quick tutorial if you are making your starter from scratch. Give it a try, and check in later this week for the pancakes. For me to go to the trouble of making my own starter, you know they have to be killer. – JR
12. On the Other Hand, Not Everything Has to be DIY. On morning number two, breakfast was a platter of hot doughnuts, pressed into sugar or drizzled with maple cream. How does one do this for sixty people without having a nervous breakdown? One starts with store-bought bread dough, preferably Rhodes — which we had never heard of, but which is apparently available nationwide? How do you people not let us in on these things? (This recipe for Maple Cream looks legit, but I haven’t tried it yet.)
13. Don’t Live in Alaska? There is a very easy way to get good salmon (sockeye and king), shrimp, and halibut, delivered right to your door — for about as much as it costs you to buy the wild-caught stuff at the supermarket. Coal Point Seafoods is now on our speed-dial. Twenty pounds of the stuff just landed on our doorstep today.
14. Shooting at road signs is apparently a fun thing to do when out driving.
15. There is good jerky, and there is bad jerky.
16. If the only way to get to a restaurant is by boat, there’s a good chance that restaurant is going to a) be in Alaska and b) be worth the trip.
17. Sea Salt Makes an Excellent Souvenir. At all times during our stay in Homer, you could find a giant pot of seawater boiling down to sea salt on the stovetop. Jenny says she started making her own because she liked the idea of reuniting her freshly caught salmon with the essence of the sea where it had just been swimming. She was experimenting with lemon- and garlic-infused salts when we showed up, but the jar she sent us home with was simple and sentimental, boiled down from the waters of the Kachemak Bay. The best kind of going-away present.
18. The egg toss is an underrated party activity. And not just for the kids.
19. A shocking number of things taste better on Ritz crackers. Exhibit A: Halibut salad with a drop of Sriracha.
20. This is what a bathing suit in Alaska looks like.
21. Midnight has never looked so beautiful.
Coming soon to a post near you: Recipes for Andy’s First Gravlax, Agnes’s Famous Sourdough Pancakes, and the Definitive Fish Nugget.