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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.

Where Can I Get Durian Fruit In Fairbanks, Alaska?

17 Dec

First of all, it’s still -37°F here, and we are down to 3 hours and 44 minutes of light.  The sun will rise a paltry 2.1° above the horizon today.

Second of all, I got quite the culinary shock yesterday.  After all the bitching I did in my last post about the lack of novelty here, I’m eating my own sour words for breakfast.  I remembered the other day that many years ago there was a tiny, shoebox sized Asian Market in an ugly but useful part of town.  It turns out that the Market is now slightly larger but located in the arse end of the industrial section of Fairbanks; but the best adventures are the ones that take you into uncharted territory.  Sometimes you end up with the Holy Grail.

Here’s a short list of what I found in this poorly marked storefront: durian fruit (no kidding! It was frozen, but who cares? Durian, by the way, stinks to high heaven but apparently tastes really good), balut (what’s that? a fertilized duck an embryo inside, boiled and eaten in the shell), loads of octopus, beef blood, pork blood, keffir lime leaves (this was my favorite find), salted black beans (like the ones in Korean restaurants), saffron flowers, fish balls (not testicles, more like meatballs), gunpowder tea, and tasty little anchovies that had been fried to a crisp and coated in sugar and sesame seeds.  I could go on.

So why does a Market like this exist in the Tundra? The Asian population in Alaska is at 5%, which is higher than the national average.  There are, by my estimation, in a town of less than 100,000 (we are, after all, the Fastest Growing Small Town In America!!), 11 Thai, 8 Chinese, 5 Korean, 3 Japanese, and 5 generic Asian restaurants.  I’ve always wondered why this is.  Here is Bob’s theory, the white, Alaska-born part-owner (his Vietnamese wife is the other half) of the Asian Market: In the days of yore, when men were men and few women had little interest in roughing it in the Wilds of Alaska, some men decided that they would mail-order their wives.  Most of the orders were filled by places like Thailand and Korea.  I can’t imagine what some poor, young Thai girl in the 70’s thought when she first stepped off the plane into “America” and found herself in the Circumpolar North.  She probably started a restaurant so that she could afford the plane ticket to get the hell out of here and back to Thailand.

Also, Bob reminded me, there are two army bases and one Air Force base in town, both of which increase the Asian populations here and the familiarity of Asian food on the local palate.


So, last night I brought home a significant booty:

And with that, I made a delicious but paltry imitation of Thai food.  Just because you have the ingredients doesn’t mean you will get the proportions right.  I have a lot to learn about Thai cooking, but at least I have a source for the ingredients now.  Next entry: “How to Cook an Octopus”

Eskimo Ice Cream and the Appeal of the “Exotic”

13 Dec

“I want to shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I want to explore the world. I want to watch TV in a different time zone. I want to visit strange, exotic malls…I want to live, Marge! Won’t you let me live?” -Homer Simpson

I teach college English in this little one-horse town (or, should I say, one-moose town). I teach a World Literature course most semesters, and during a recent class discussion we monkeyed about with the idea of animals as symbols.  At some point we came around to the special case of dead animals as symbols, in other words, food as symbol.  And since we’re dealing with literature from many different cultures, most of my students were referring to the foods in question as “exotic food.”  But it isn’t exotic if you live there, is it?

This is diced raw whale skin and attached blubber. I found it tasty, like a savory chewing gum.

After having lived in Alaska for over 15 years, I’ve eaten a number of foods outsiders consider exotic or at the very least unusual: muktuk (diced, raw whale skin and blubber), aqutak (sometimes called “eskimo ice cream“, many variations but most made from animal fat, sugar, and wild berries), salmon cheesecake, fireweed honey, and even bear meat (which was just terrible).  None of these things are part of my main diet.  Fairbanks is as Westernized as any Alaska town can get, and I have wonderful access to almost any kind of foodstuffs I could ever want.  Except for figs. There are never any figs.  And oddly enough, we have 11 Thai food restaurants here.  11.  Foreign cuisine is actually somewhat plentiful, but one can only visit those 11 restaurants so many times until they too become as appealing as visiting the outhouse at forty below.

Growing up in the South, there were things we ate that outsiders to the Bible Belt might consider exotic: boiled peanuts (I would have given one or two of my toes to have had a batch of these while pregnant), collard greens, grits, a handful of salty peanuts thrown into a cold bottle of Coke, and all manner of pickled meats and meat byproducts (pig’s feet, calf’s brains, eggs).  But it’s a modern world, and honestly I can get all of these things, except for the boiled peanuts, at my local grocery store.

I would revel in my access to unusual Alaskan and Southern foods, but when you have regular access to these things, they lose some of their appeal.  My lust for travel, for novel experiences rages unabated most days.  It’s 10:30 a.m. right now and the sun has yet to make an appearance here.  My office window only reflects the indoors back at me; it isn’t light enough for a window to be a gateway, only a mirror.  I’m sick of seeing myself, sick of what I already know.

In honor of my boredom, I offer you a recipe for aqutak.  It’s a recipe one of my students from Chevak gave me over the summer, and she remarked that this is the “white” version of akutaq, claiming that real akutaq uses animal fat and seal oil, not anything store bought.

This is a nice mix of berries we gather every fall in Alaska.

Agutuk (or Akutaq) Eskimo Ice Cream

  • 1lb boiled, shredded halibut (or other white fish if you don’t regularly go halibut fishing in Homer, AK)
  • 3 pounds Crisco shortening
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 gallon of wild hand-picked berries from the arctic (or from your freezer section if you don’t live in Alaska)

Combine the shortening, oil, and sugar and whip into an exotic frenzy. Mix in the fish and berries and wear a parka while eating for authenticity.

A Lusty Salad of White Shrimp, Campari Tomatoes, and Ginger

16 Nov

So good it will make you want to take your clothes off...

This guy I know, henceforth known as The Hot Boyfriend, is an absolute animal, tearing into a plate of  my Gruyere scalloped potatoes the same way he tears off my clothes…with lusty enthusiasm. He’s a poet and an ultra runner (no small feat in Fairbanks, Alaska) who comes to my table with seductive words and a ravenous appetite.  But when I first met him, food was merely a utilitarian task to be undertaken as a matter of necessity.  Pleasure was irrelevant; he thought his body a machine and food merely its fuel.  I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had disabusing him of that notion.  This morning, while lying in bed, he said to me “Food, sex, and poetry” and, forming the fingers of both hands into a triangle, “This is my Holy Trinity, my triangle of pleasure. That’s where life is, right in the middle.”

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote one of the finest treatises on food and its intrinsic connection to all sensual pleasures.  Of course, he also helped create the notion that for women, a love of fine cuisine is merely a sublimation for their sexual appetites, which must be denied.  Well, Mr Savarin, I for one do not deny my sexual appetite and the preparing of and consuming of tasty fare is a necessary complement to sexual pleasure, not  a replacement for it.

“The limits of pleasures are as yet neither known nor fixed, and we have no idea what degree of bodily bliss we are capable of attaining.” -Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste (1826)

This is what I shall make my ravenous lover as a midnight snack, after our clothes have been replaced, the nighstand righted, and my underwear removed from the ceiling fan:

A Lusty Salad of Ginger, Campari Tomato and White Shrimp

mix, into a beautiful bowl, the following:

equal portions (about the size of the cork in that bottle of wine you just drank) of finely julienned fresh ginger root, Vidalia sweet onion, and shallots.

6 lusty Campari tomatoes (cut into eighths)

25-30 peeled, lightly sauteed, white shrimp

1/2 cup white balsamic fig infused vinegar

2 tbsp truffle infused oil

garlic/rosemary pepper to taste

fresh herbs (oregano, cilantro, or parsley)


The truffle infused oil…the smell is unique.  Supposedly there is good truffle hunting ground in and around Fairbanks.  I seem to recall there was even a newspaper article about it a few years ago.  However, internet searches turn up nil and I’m starting to believe there is a Truffle Cabal afoot.  This oil smells faintly of sex, some damp and dark crook of a knee or a salt crusted neck after a long run.

The fig infused vinegar, a lovely flavor.  We don’t get figs in Fairbanks.  I had fresh figs in Anchorage once, but here we have none.

Use raw, white shrimp.  You want the oceany flesh of these little crustaceans to remain tender.  If you don’t have time to let this salad marinate and mellow in the fridge, you can throw the onions, shallots, and ginger in the pan with the shrimp to cut the bite a bit.

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