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Alaska Style Southern Food Fest

24 Feb

Miss Tequila's Collard Greens.

Well.  I’d had it. I’d finally wept enough over the distance of Southern food, the geographic distance and the emotional distance, so on Saturday, in recognition of the completion of UAF English Dept’s Graduate Student 6 Hour Comprehensive Examinations I threw together (with the help of a few friends) a Southern Food Fest to end all Food Fests.  Virtually everything was homemade. Here is the menu:

MEATS:

Pulled Pork
Citrus Marinated Pork Tenderloin with Vidalia Onions
Corned Beef and Cabbage (which is arguably not Southern, but I’ve never seen any other folks eat it the way I ate it growing up)

Beef Brisket

The corned beef brisket. Irish? Southern? Who knows...

 

VEGGIES & SIDE DISHES

Texas Caviar (Black-eyed Pea Salad)
Collard Greens
Cole Slaw

Boiled Peanuts (10 lbs! a Valentine’s Day present ordered by the Hot Boyfriend from the Lee Bros. of South Carolina)
Pan Fried Green Beans with Bacon and Onion
Creole Stewed Okra and Tomatoes (although I cooked it in a Paella pan)
Sausage and Cheese Grits Casserole
Sweet Potato Biscuits
Corn Bread

 

I remember helping a matriarch or two snap green beans before cooking.

 

DESSERTS:

Pecan Pie
Peach Cobbler
Old Fashioned Banana Pudding with Shortbread
Red Velvet Cake


Banana pudding with shortbread instead of Nilla Wafers.

DRINKS:

Sweet Tea
Bourbon

 

Two friends (let’s call them Miss Tequila, and The Shark) came over rather early on Saturday to begin cooking.  I also had the help of the Lady Adventurer, the real nickname for Fran Harris, a fantastic travel writer who was visiting from London.  She runs Lady Adventurer, a website for women of means who like to explore new places.  Fran was here for the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile sled dog race that makes the Iditarod look like a practice run.  I had a great time playing hostess, and I think Fran left with only a mild case of frostbite and new found preference for sober Alaskans over the drunk ones.

Miss Tequila (called so because you will never forget this former South Carolinian once you’ve had a few shots with her) was in charge of the Collard Greens and let me tell you, she loaded those babies up with enough bacon grease and butter to make Paula Deen say “whoah”.  They were heart poundingly delicious.  She also made the sweet potato biscuits (which I am not supposed to eat) which I later found out (by eating them in a bourbon and poker induced state) were superbly good with a barbeque sauce made from the Texas Caviar dressing and some leftover tomatoes.  Miss Tequila, bless her heart, kept this little cook’s brigade supplied with mimosas while preparing the feast.

The Shark (called thus because she waited until we were all drunk to start washing the deck, peeling off cards at the speed of light, and using dealer slang… She’s a hustler.  A Pro who apparently kept the table going until 3 a.m.) arrived later in the afternoon and had already made the Red Velvet Cake and put the Pulled Pork in the oven to cook which it did for over 6 hours.  The Shark can clearly hustle as well in the kitchen as she can at the poker table because the sauce on the pork (I tasted mustard and apple cider vinegar, but she can’t remember the recipe) was as authentic as any I may have had from a Georgia pit-style BBQ joint.  She and Fran helped drink the mimosas, turned up the stereo when particularly good CCR or Allman Bros. tune came on, and generally kept us all entertained in my tiny over-heated kitchen.

It was one of the best Saturday afternoons I’ve ever had.

Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts... 5 lbs of Heaven.

Later, when the test-takers had done their best, and the feast had been laid out on the quilt-draped ping-pong table, we all gathered around it and Miss Tequila said a few words to the group.  Now, in the South this would be followed by Grace and maybe we’d all hold hands, but in this Arctic Wonderland we Southerners are surrounded by heathens who don’t take well to anyone saying grace, and they sure as hell won’t hold hands around the dinner table.  Honestly, I’m not religious nor was I ever comfortable with the hand-holding gesture, but I’m glad she opened the meal that way.   She explained to everyone the significance that a shared meal has for Southerners.  I don’t think outsiders really understand the central role that it plays in Southern culture.  It’s not solely about the food, or the family, or the communion.  It’s not solely about tradition, or reciprocation, or sharing the wealth.  The Southern table is, like any other meaningful symbol, more than the sum of its parts. It is Die Gestalt. It’s a zeitgeist. And for me, it’s the very thing that keeps my heart forever divided, split between where I am and where I’ve come from.

Lest I leave without sharing a recipe, here is the Grits Casserole.  This is an “open” recipe.  You should be able to use whatever meat, cheese and veggies are around or leftover.

Grits Casserole

  • 2 cups grits (use the instructions on the box to cook them, usually 4 cups water for 1 cup grits plus butter and salt)
  • 2 eggs
  • shredded cheese (I used 1 cup American and 1 cup shredded Manchego, but other cheeses in varying amounts can be used too)
  • 1 package of country style sausage (you can use bacon or shrimp as well, the amount can vary)
  • *1 sauteed onion
  • *1 small can of green chilies
  • *1 small can of chopped jalepenos
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tbsp of cracked black pepper

*use other vegetables in place of these if you want.  This casserole is a good way to use up leftovers like corn, green beans, or tomatoes.

  1. Let the meat and veggies cool, then mix all of the ingredients except for the grits in a large bowl.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
  3. Fold in the grits and then pour the whole thing into a large glass baking dish.  Bake for 45 min or until the center is “set up”; it should only jiggle slightly when you shake it.  I also put cornflake crumbs and a little extra cheese on the top sometimes.
  4. Serve it to everyone except the guy with the heart condition.  He might sue.


Ganesha’s Plate of Sweets: Upside Down Blues Cake

5 Jan

Upside Down Blues Cake with Sweet Cream

“Blues is a natural fact, is something that a fellow lives. If you don’t live it you don’t have it. Young people have forgotten to cry the blues. Now they talk and get lawyers and things.”Big Bill Broonzy

I’ve been thinking about Ganesha quite a bit lately, the pleasant, elephant-headed god from the Hindu canon.  I’m a big fan of Ganesha’s—he is the Remover of Obstacles and the god of new creative ventures.  And frankly, it makes me happy to look at him:

 

Color, a sense of humor, and joy. A good symbol for the Divine in my book.

Ganesha is sometimes portrayed with a mouse at his feet, or sometimes he is actually riding on top of the mouse.  Some scholars claim the mouse symbolizes the desires we must all overcome to receive moksha, or liberation from earthly suffering. The image that keeps occurring to me is of Ganesha riding atop an airplane. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see what’s going on here: unmet desire leads to suffering and my greatest unmet desire is to travel more, hence, the airplane.

Cut to: yesterday morning.  I was enjoying some quiet time in the bookstore as a reward for going 10 days at home with my two kids without killing or maiming either of them.  (I’m not the cupcake-baking-playdate-arranging variety mom.  I bake, but not as a craft activity with my kids.  I would sprint across molten hot lava to save either of them, but staying at home with them 24-7 is insane.  Mothering is something I do best after 6-8 hours at work.) Of course, I’m in the cooking section and I notice a few new foodie volumes on the shelf, one of which is Ginger and Ganesh: Adventures in Indian Cooking Culture and Friendship by Nani Power. It turns out I’m not the only divorced mother of two with an English degree and an interest in food writing.  Just when you think you stand out in the crowd…

I read the first few chapters, and although I think Powers is a kindred spirit, I decided to leave the book on the shelf and take with me the idea that Ganesh as a symbol keeps popping up in front of me for a reason.  And perhaps I should pay attention.

The folks over at Swaha International, an orthodox Hindu organization, say that the “greed and covetous nature” of the mouse is such “that it steals much more than it can possibly consume – hoarding what it cannot eat – and often times, forgetting all about the hoarded food.” I’m not so sure I see the mouse as any greedier than others in the animal kingdom (a raven almost pecked my eyes out over a cheeseburger on Christmas Eve), but the point is one I take to heart.  I often focus on my unmet desire to get out of Alaska to the extent that I don’t appreciate the fullness of the life I have here.  This blog, in fact, is an exercise intended to help me stay focused on the here and now.  I have a pretty rich life, and the truth is, I travel more than most.  As a matter of fact, the Hot Boyfriend and I are packing right now to head for a long weekend in Anchorage.

Later, when I arrived home, I realized that perhaps an offering of sorts was in order.  One that recognized my unmet desires and my willingness to look beyond lack, towards fulfillment.  In one of his hands Ganesha often holds a modaka or a plate of sweets, which represents the rewards that life offers, and so I figured a desert was in order, and most likely would involve Alaskan blueberries as symbolic of my willingness to love this place as much as I can.  And as for the mouse, Ganesha did not destroy desire, he offered it a place at his feet.  So knew I’d have to include something gritty, maybe something from home.  My desire for travel isn’t always about exploration, sometimes it’s about the fact that I miss my family so much, and the South, and the food, and the communion, that I physically ache.  True to Southern form, one of the few things that makes me feel better is straight-up, broke-ass, drunker-than-a-skunk, life-can’t-git-much-worse blues.  Not the slow whiny stuff, but the gritty, guitar driven stuff.  So I decided that cornmeal and some kind of liquor might have to make an appearance.  Ultimately, what I came up with is the following recipe.  It’s not a sticky, gooey, cloying desert.  It has body and flavor and grit.  It’s best served with ice cream or sweet cream.

Upside Down Blues Cake

  • 3/4 cup corn meal flour
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup blue corn meal
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/2 cup baker’s sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 cup milk

Blueberry sauce

  • 2 cups wild Alaskan blueberries (or fresh, or frozen)
  • 1 cup Triple Sec liqueur
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice

For the cake mix: combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar and then cut it into the dry ingredients.  Mix the milk and egg yolks and then fold it into the rest of the mix. It should resemble a very loose cookie dough.  For the sauce: boil the blueberries, orange juice, and triple sec until a thick syrup forms.  Add the honey and set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.  Grease a bundt pan (other regular sized/shaped cake pans should work) and add the blueberry sauce first, then using a spoon (or your fingers) place the cake batter lightly into the sauce, being careful not to submerge the batter.  It will look something like this:

Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.  It will look something like this after baking:

Finally, cover the pan with a large cake plate, hold on tight and flip it over.

And if you’re lucky, Ganesha will love your offering and clear the obstacles from your life.  Or, at the very least, your Hot Boyfriend will think it’s delicious and kiss you passionately in your kitchen, removing the obstacles of clothing that get in his way. And well, if that doesn’t happen, at least he will clean his plate.

Fairbanks, AK: Hipsters and Foodies Need Not Apply

30 Dec

Summertime is civilized and delicious. Memories of local fare from Rosie Creek Farms at the Tanana Valley Farmer's Market

In Alaska, no matter how hard you try to maintain your sense of “civilization,” ultimately the natural world overwrites the man made world: snow and ice cover up the lines on the roads and drivers follow the grooves left behind by braver pioneer drivers; parkas, hats, gloves, and scarves cover up whatever fashionable or hideous clothing you have on underneath; snow blankets both the pristine and the unkempt lawn; and even the nicest of cars gets pretty ugly come spring break up.

In a recent conversation with the Hot Boyfriend (he’s smart too) about contemporary Alaskan Culture, he remarked that at its heart, Alaskan culture is about giving one another space.  I’m inclined to think that this has more to do with the number of folks living in cabins with no running water, which creates a unique “musk”, but really, I think HB is right.  Apparently, there was once an attempt to start one of those “Jackets Only” supper clubs back in the 70’s.  I find this hilarious.  If there is one consistent truth about living in this place, it’s that Alaskans wear whatever the hell they want, whenever the hell they want to wear it.  You want to wear dirty CarrHart overalls and Bunny Boots into the nicest restaurant in town? Go right ahead. How about that ironic Cap’n Crunch t-shirt with your skinny jeans and bomber hat in church? No one will bat an eye, and more importantly, no one will think you are “hip” to anything other than the local second hand store. Only novel, never-before-seen cold weather gear (like the snow skirt I saw recently) will get you a second glance and maybe a question or two.  This freedom extends to houses: neighborhoods in this part of the world are a hodgepodge of McMansions, what we call Handi-Man Specials (houses cobbled together by a do-it-yourself-er (usually with some combination of spray insulation and blue tarps), rustic cabins, a gutted out trailer, and maybe a duplex or two in between.

“Space” is a concept that we Alaskan extend to one another as well: everyone here has a story, and I swear to all that is Holy, that every story is interesting. You are safest in assuming that no matter how boring an Alaskan seems on the outside, the stories she will tell you after a few beers will blow your mind.  As a result, the idea of “hipster” really has no bearing here.  You can dress like a hipster, think like a hipster, and talk like one, but that will only get you labeled as a Lower-48er, an outsider, a temporary Alaskan.

And lately I’ve been thinking about the “Foodie” (thoughts inspired by the screamingly funny episode of South Park mocking the Foodie), but I think maybe that label doesn’t hold much water here either. Those kinds of labels, Foodie and Hipster, only arise after some subset of like-minded people begin to think they are a special subset of people, that they are entitled to elite status as a result of their maniacal interests and obsessions. Once I came out of the closet about my obsession with food (it’s become hard to hide it) I realized how many other Fairbanksans have something interesting to say on the topic. Fairbanks has always been, and remains by economic necessity, a locavore community.  Who hasn’t had moose tacos or salmon cheese cake in these parts? The muskox stew a friend (let’s call him the Mathematician) served at a dinner party one night was to die for.  On my very first date with the Hot Boyfriend we gathered gallons of blueberries and a mutual friend made a blueberry pie for desert, after we ate a stir fry made from vegetables that still had dirt from his garden on them. I know more than a handful of people who raise and kill their own chickens and not because they’re Locavores, but because this is a place where raising your own chickens makes sense.  In reality, this is Foodie Heaven, but you can’t call yourself a Foodie, because there is no subset.  We’re all foodies here.

One of the many giant berries we gathered in Seldovia, AK

Your idea of the Civilized Self gets overwritten, just like the lines on the road, by your life here in Alaska, which is inevitably tied to the unique geography of the place. So, yes, I’d love to commit to this label of Foodie, and eat out every weekend at the restaurant of the hottest Rock Star Chef in town, but the chef at the Lemongrass is the same chef that was cooking great food there 10 years ago.  I’d love to make a fig compote and serve it to elegantly dressed dinner guests, but I can’t get any damn figs here and most of my friends are too busy chopping wood or hauling water.  And really, the more I think about it, Alaska may have overwritten me… urban life seems foreign to me now, an exotic life.  There’s a saying around here: Fairbanks never really grows on you, it just makes you unfit to live anyplace else.


You Can’t Go Home Again: Part III in a Series on Thai Food in Fairbanks

21 Dec

Thai cuisine is so popular here, we even have drive thrus!

Thai food is not only Fairbanks’ favorite cuisine, it’s also turning out to be a theme in this blog.  Thai flavors are as ubiquitous as snow, so it’s no mere coincidence that when folks leave this place, they are sentimental about many things and Thai food usually ranks in the top 5.  My friend, writer and gastronome Alison Singer, recently sent this piece to me:

“Alaska is always in my thoughts. Always somewhere there on the horizon, along that furthest downward arcing of the horizon, where the sun meets the land, or the sky meets the water. And sometimes in winter, when I look up at a clear sky, flashes of the aurora appear in the periphery of my vision, but when I turn my eyes it is gone. And then I remember I’m not in Alaska anymore.

When I think about cheese, which I do daily, I think about Alaska, and I think about Alaska when I do dishes, and I think about Alaska when I bake cookies. I think about a day spent with a good friend, a day in which we learned what a KitchenAid mixer is capable of, and what it isn’t (multiple loaves of sun-dried tomato bread). On that day, in another small cabin with no plumbing, we made a feast of cookies and treats: cashew brittle, pumpkin rolls, meringues, sun-dried tomato bread, and many other things that I can no longer recall. Perhaps more than I have ever cooked in one session since. Perhaps.

Alaska is where I attribute the beginning of my food obsession. And I wasn’t obsessed with food in Alaska, and so it seems strange, even to myself that I see Alaska as the beginning. Something about the water though. I lived in a little cabin with no plumbing, and so I did the dishes with a thin trickle of cold water, after I had let the dogs lick off the important bits. And I had a boyfriend who was always happy to spend money at Thai restaurants. So between the water and the boyfriend, I didn’t cook that much.  But still.

I never made this dish in Alaska, but it is Thai, and nowhere have I eaten more Thai food than in Fairbanks.

Pad Kee Mao, from the kitchen of Alison Singer

Pad Kee Mao (Drunken Noodles)

  • 1 14-ounce package wide rice stick noodles
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped (or, you know, more. Because it’s garlic).
  • 1/8 cup chopped fresh Thai chiles (or not, depending on your spice desire)
  • Some meat. Or tofu. Like a couple chopped chicken breasts, or a half package of drained, chopped extra-firm tofu (my preference, and I’m not a vegetarian).
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 1/8 cup black soy sauce (if you don’t have this available, just toss in a tablespoon of molasses).
  • 1/8 cup Golden Mountain sauce (can use regular soy sauce)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 large plum tomatoes, each cut into 6 wedges (or diced – you know, however big you want them)
  • 1 green bell peppers, cut into strips (or red pepper, if you’re like me and don’t like green)
  • 1/4 cup fresh Thai basil leaves (or regular fresh basil)

A note on ingredients: My best advice as a wannabe chef is to not limit yourself to what the recipe says. You think mushrooms sound good in this? Hell yeah they do! And shiitake are awesome in it. And you think garnishing with scallions sounds good? It is.

Directions:

Cook noodles in large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to bite, stirring frequently. (Or follow directions on the package.) Drain.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a wok (if you don’t have a wok you can use a sauté pan with almost as good results) over medium-high heat.

Add garlic and Thai chiles; saute 30 seconds.

Add chicken and next 4 ingredients and saute until chicken is cooked through, about 4 minutes. If you use tofu, you might want to fry tofu before and add it at this phase. Add noodles, tomatoes, and bell peppers; toss to coat. Transfer to large platter, sprinkle with basil leaves, and serve.”

Alison Singer hates writing things about herself. Like biographies. But in the spirit of things, she lives in the mountains of North Carolina, where she spends most of her time thinking about food, cooking food, and eating food. And drinking. And playing with dogs. And playing outside. And occasionally going to school. And she loves it all. Especially the eating.

Cabin Curry: How to Avoid the Outhouse at -25F.

19 Dec

The outhouse at the Kitchen Vixen's cabin.

Thai Curry, Round 2: Last night I visited my friend, a well known (but paradoxically private) poet who will henceforth be known as the Kitchen Vixen.  The Vixen lives, like many people in Fairbanks, in a cabin with no running water and an outhouse.  I love cooking with her in the cabin because, although there is no water, there is a phenomenal collection of cookbooks, old issues of Gastronomica, and plenty of Le Creuset cookware.  I brought over some of my booty from the Asian Market in the hopes that I could make another Thai curry, and that, this time, it would not send my American intestinal tract to the outhouse.  Especially since it was -25°F last night.

Yellow curry in a delightful bowl from the Tanana Valley Farmer's Market.

Here’s the recipe we managed to throw together:

Yellow Thai Curry with White Shrimp and Green Beans

  • 15-20 peeled, raw white shrimp
  • 1 small, finely julienned ginger root
  • 3-4 keffir lime leaves
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 1 large handful of fresh green beans, ends removed, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 large lobe of shallot, julienned
  • 1 can of coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp of yellow curry paste (I used Mae Ploy brand)
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp Marukan seasoned gourmet rice vinegar

1. Get the peanut oil extremely hot (peanut oil is preferred both for taste and because it has a high smoking temperature, which means you can get it super hot before it begins to smoke and subsequently catches your cabin on fire).

Slightly more than caramelized? Maybe.

2. Add vegetable ingredients except for a smidge of the ginger and 1 or 2 of the lime leaves.  Turn the heat down when the ingredients begin to caramelize.

3. Add 1/2 the coconut milk, curry paste, and the peeled shrimp.

4. Let it simmer while you throw another log on the fire.

Chop wood. Drink wine.

5. Add the rest of the coconut milk, ginger, and lime leaves.

6.  Serve over rice, or, if you forgot to bring the rice (like I did) eat it as is.

 

 

 

 

Caveats: First of all, let me say that this recipe is good, but I’m not going to claim it’s genius. I have a lot to learn about the proportions and cooking order of Thai ingredients.  Also, I’m the kind of cook who thinks cooking from recipes is The Man trying to stifle my creativity; therefore, I have to learn the hard way sometimes.  And that often means making food that can be improved upon. By all means, if you have suggestions for this recipe, fire away.

In other news: It turns out the Hot Boyfriend couldn’t get home for Christmas, which means I will have company for Christmas.  He’s hoping I will cook his grandmother’s  Ham Balls, which I will share with you so long as I don’t utterly destroy a cherished family meal because I refuse to follow directions.


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