Sunday, December 05, 2010

Snacking State-by-State: Alaska I - From Home Depot to Your Table

When we think of Alaska, we usually think of salmon. True, it is much more than that: it's moose, it's king crab, it's halibut, it's herring, it's pemmican. But salmon really is one of the most important foods - if not the most important. Even the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has created a resource for teachers to instruct students on just how important salmon is to the culture and cuisine of the state. It is so quintessentially Alaskan that for this state's dish, I really had little choice.

Snacking State-by-State: Alaska

Official Name: State of Alaska
State Nickname: The Last Frontier
Admission to the US: January 3, 1959 (#49)
Capital: Juneau (3rd largest city)
Other Important Cities: Anchorage (largest), Fairbanks (2nd largest), Sitka (4th largest)
Region: West (Northwest, Pacific); Pacific (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Salmon
Bordered by: Arctic Ocean (north); Yukon Territory & British Columbia (Canada) (east); Gulf of Alaska (south); Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea & Chukchi Peninsula (Siberia, Russia) (west)
Official State Foods: King Salmon (fish)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: salmon, halibut, herring, Alaska king crab, moose, caribou, pemmican, northern Alaskan berries - and not Baked Alaska

Perhaps the biggest misconception - that I may unintentionally be helping to spread - is that Alaska is all salmon, all the time. Granted, salmon is important, but it is more than that. This isn't the only misconception. Journalist and author Kin Severson writes in her The New Alaska Cookbook about the reaction she got from her fellow San Franciscans when she talked about her many years reporting from Alaska:
Here in San Francisco, a place many argue is the epicenter of the American food scene, people find that funny. "Lots of whale blubber recipes?" they ask. [Severson, p. xi]
Whale blubber - that is, the Inuit dish muktuk - is, actually, something I used to think they ate a lot in Alaska. Of course, not many people eat it there anymore - no more than do many Californians eat things made out of acorns. As to Alaska's many culinary riches, Severson notes:
Nearly round-the-clock daylight in the summer produces an abundance of herbs, greens, and other vegetables, including cabbages so big a single one might easily keep a restaurant in cole slaw for weeks. In the state's interior, morel mushrooms can grow as big as your hand. Unusual game meats, such as caribou and moose, present themselves in the fall and winter... Any serious eater who has visited Alaska leaves pleasantly surprised by the quality of the cuisine served in both city restaurants and remote fishing lodges. [Severson, p. xii]
Long story short: it ain't all muktuk.

What Severson offers in her tome is what, to me, seems like a haute Alaskan cuisine, since the various contributors to The New Alaska Cookbook have many innovative takes on Alaska's native ingredients. They often prepare and plate their unique mixture of Northwestern and international ingredients and flavors in various ways that we in the Lower 48 would find familiar: Southwestern, Southern, New England, Tex-Mex, Creole, California-style, and so on. They even have mini-Baked Alaskas in there. By the way, just to get it out there: no, Baked Alaska is not from Alaska; it was made by chefs at Manhattan's Delmonico in the 1870's to celebrate the acquisition of Alaska from Russia. And yet, despite the innovations of many of Alaska's top chefs (now that is a show I'd like to see: Top Chef: Anchorage), I still wanted less haute Alaska and more traditional Alaska.

One recipe that seemed simple and easy (enough) comes to us from Chef Jens Hansen of Jens' Restaurant and Bodega in Anchorage. His recipe for alder plank-roasted salmon is similar to what Native Alaskans have been doing with either alder or cedar for thousands of years to prepare their salmon. As you probably know, grilling salmon, halibut or other seafood on the wood imparts a mid taste of the wood. And not only can you grill it, you can also bake it in the oven. This is Hansen's preferred method, and it was mine too. There were just three problems for me. One, I could only find cedar, not alder. Two, The cedar planks at the grocery stores were pretty damn pricey. And three, most people recommended that I not use it in my oven. The first was easily solved by buying cedar. The second was almost as easy: with some research I was able to find out how to make my own, much, much cheaper cedar roasting plank. The last one just took a little prep and some careful watching.

The prep work: How to prep a cedar plank for cooking

User "zoetical" from gives some useful instructions for making your own cedar cooking plank. All you need is the cedar plank, a saw, sandpaper and a dab of olive or vegetable oil. And if you go to Home Depot or Lowe's, you can omit the saw because they will saw it for you! Just be persistent about finding cedar. One guy at the Home Depot I went to had no idea that they even sold cedar. In fact, he was fairly certain they did not. Thankfully his coworker led us both right to it.

One thing that is absolutely critical: the wood must be untreated. Think about it: if you're baking on grilling salmon on a piece of wood that's been coated with chemicals to help preserve it, the least of your worries is that the chemicals will get into the food. Beyond the flavor and the, um, toxicity, you also have to worry about the fumes and possibly the ensuing explosion, depending on what the wood was treating with. Please don't let this happen to you! Fortunately, the oils in the cedar act as a natural preservative, so cedar is by and large untreated anyway. The Home Depot guy was pretty certain of this. I imagine the same can be said for alder, but don't quote me on this.

Home Depot sells 8' x 1" cedar planks for about $6. Pretty sweet if you're using it for cooking, since a cedar plank in the stores will run you at least $15 to $20. That's for a whole foot of wood that you might get one use out of if you grill it, two or three if you bake it. I am able to get eight cedar planks out of mine - at $6 for 8 feet, that runs about 75¢ a foot. 1,500¢ vs 75¢. I think I know which one I'm going with.

The tough part was the sanding, which wasn't tough at all. You just need to get out all the splinters, lest you get one in your tongue (that almost happened to me with one of those cheap wooden chopsticks). So sand it, season it (one tablespoon per usable side), and soak it for an hour before using it. That's it.


Severson, Kim, with Glenn Denkler. The New Alaska Cookbook: Recipes from the Last Frontier's Best Chefs. 2001 : Sasquatch Books, Seattle.

Zoetical (eHow user). How to Make Cedar Cooking Planks That Are Reusable. Posted date unknown.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Alaska" page and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "Alaska". It's a lot of info for the enterprising Lower 48'er to process.