Monthly Archives: June 2008

Yukon Salmon Update

After having made a post recently in anticipation of this year’s Yukon River salmon season, I received some sad news about this month’s openings. Alaska Fish and Game agents moniter the fish heading into the river and will only approve an opening of the commercial fishing season if and when there are enough salmon making their way upriver to assure ample fish to spawn, in turn assuring the health of future generations of the river’s salmon. This is a practice I’ve seen in operation on the Yukon River and on Kodiak Island, where I straddled a wier across the mouth of a small river, alongside fishery agents counting the fish passing through the wier’s gates.

In the case of Yukon River–all 2000-plus miles of it–there is a large population of salmon that call this vast river home. There are also many Native families along the river, both in the United States and Canada, who rely on the fish for their subsistance needs through the long harsh winters. Last in line of priority is commercial catch of the delicious fish. This year, the counts of king salmon in the lower river are so low that the Fish and Game folks have determined that there will be no commercial season for Yukon River king salmon this year. And they’re even having to limit the opening times for subsistence fishing, worried that too might overtax the low populations thus far in the season.

BUT, I just got off the phone with my Yukon River contact and while things look grim, there’s still a chance some of the salmon make their way into retail and restaurant channels yet. King counts are being reevaluated every day and it’s possible they’re just running late this year. Also, other species–keta and coho–are likely to be harvested later in the summer and they’ll make for equally delicious cooking as well.

Much as we might take this as a blow to our backyard barbecue plans for this summer, it’s an even bigger blow to the families along the Yukon who rely on that commercial harvest for their livelihoods. Gas prices have already taken a big bite out of their income. Please do support those families with your dining dollars when any Yukon fish make their way to your area over the coming months.

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On the Road: New York City

Lucky me. I seem to hit New York City at its most memorable extremes. My previous trip was February 2007 and there was a blizzard. I was wearing heavy boots, dressing in layers and leaping over mountains of snow at each curbside. On this recent trip, by contrast, I was treated to a heatwave, 95 degrees at least during my last couple of days in the city, and you can add about 10 degrees thanks to radiating heat from the buildings and streets. I was seriously looking forward to returning to Seattle’s October-in-June weather. The Seattle Times homepage welcomed me home last week with a headline that noted Seattle’s temperatures as lower than those in Siberia.

Enough about the weather. My 5 days in the Big Apple were great, nonetheless. The original reason was to attend the red-carpet-and-black-tie James Beard Foundation Awards last Sunday night. The ceremony and following food fest were held at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Lots of wow power just with the venue, and that’s before you consider all the luminaries around you: from uber-chef Thomas Keller to the doyenne of cookbook editors Judith Jones. MCing the awards was the food world’s Bobby Flay and the celeb world’s Kim Catrall. The Beard web site has all the details of the winners, but of particular interest to me were Holly Johnson’s award for best chef in the Northwest (well-deserved and long overdue) and the fact that Tom Douglas did not win (yet) for best restaurateur in the country. I hope soon to say “well deserved and long overdue” about him winning that honor as well.

I don’t have the stamina that I used to when it comes to eating marathons on trips like this. The extreme heat certainly didn’t help. Lots of my food friends who were also in town were hitting top spots for lunch, checking out two or three others for a progressive dinner, with wee-hour nibbles at yet another flatironmust-go or two. A couple places folks raved about were Prune and Eleven Madison Park (the latter I went to on that blizzardy trip last year, it was out of this world). The one “hot-spot” I went to with a group of friends was WD-50, one of the more avant-guard restaurants in town. Interesting, but it didn’t float my boat. A favorite bar stop from last year’s trip was the Flatiron Lounge, which I only got to walk by pre-cocktail hour this trip.

My welcome-to-New-York dinner the first night (with longtime pal and best drinking buddy Jack Robertiello) was at 81, the new restaurant opened by Ed Brown. He’d long been the chef at SeaGrill in Rockefeller Center, I know him from way back in Simply Seafood days. Really great meal, loved the pea and fava bean soup, served with a crab fritter. I know he can cook fish like a dream (Jack was impressed with his cod entree) but I opted for the lamb, served with favas, artichokes, braised greens, fiddlehead ferns. Really outstanding. Great start to the visit.

At the other end of the culinary spectrum, another pilgrimage was to Artichoke artichokeBasille’s Pizza & Brewery on East 14th, which I learned about thanks to my New York Magazine subscription. Lines are a regular thing here, not only because the place is so popular, but because it’s so small: room enough for maybe six salivating patrons in the tiny space, the rest spilling out onto the street. While I was at the end of the line, a local asked me “what’s up with this place, last night the line was all the way down the sidewalk,” she said, waving her arm up toward 2nd Avenue. Feeling suddenly the insider, I told her that I knew their pizzas to be outstanding. I took my pizzalarge slice of their signature artichoke (it’s a very simple operation, just a couple of options available) to a park bench in Union Square and had a perfect Manhattan lunch, complete with repose from the heat and plenty of people-watching.

 

 

 There is so much more to tell about that trip, but I’ll save other tidbits for another time. Just can’t pass up this last shot, however. I was early for a lunch appointment in the West Village and slipped into The Grey Dog’s Coffee on Carmine Street for an obligatory iced coffee (a wonderful hang-out and casual coffeelunch spot). I was checking email, making notes, etc., barely noticing the tabletop. At first, when I thought I saw something familiar out the corner of my eye, I figured it was brain-fry from the heat making me see things. But I cleared away my phone, notepad and map to find that I’d chosen the Seattle table, complete with Boeing jet and sailboats on Lake Washington. It was almost like a cool Puget Sound breeze on an incredibly hot New York day. It’s a great city to visit, New York. But I’m very happy to be home.

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Tastelessness

No judgement here. This isn’t about a person’s lack of fashion sense nor someone else’s questionable “did you hear the one about…” humor. Right now I’m eating a bowl of breakfast cereal that is familiar enough that I feel like I’m tasting it with each spoonful. The crunch and texture help me believe that it’s any other morning of breakfast ritual. All I’m missing is the flavor perception.

Some mean bug has settled in my head, clogging it in myriad creative ways. For the last few days, it’s meant I’ve been able to taste little or none of what I’ve been eating or drinking. I realized over dinner last night that it reduces eating to a mechanical exercise in mastication. It gets pretty boring after a few bites when those waves of flavor satisfaction aren’t in the picture. The bulgur pilaf had great texture to enjoy, but I missed out on the nutty flavor and the richness of the pistachio oil I’d stirred in before serving. The pork tenderloin’s stuffing of blue cheese and walnuts added more textural interest to dinner, but I could only barely perceive the sharp tang of the cheese’s character. Such a drag. Didn’t keep me from having strawberry ice cream after dinner, though! Some comfort transcends tastelessness.

I’m a little worried about the dinner party tomorrow night (a couscous reunion I’ll be writing about soon) and not being able to verify the flavors of all the various dishes on the menu. I’ll have to enlist help from friends for that. And trust the memory in my cooking muscles as I go through the motions without being able to smell or taste the progress.

This is quite a minor roadbump in life, to be sure. And actually kind of a fascinating one. But I am looking forward to getting back on the taste track here soon.

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Glorious Wild Salmon

This is a post I hesitate to start because, like gin below, salmon is a subject near and dear to my heart. It’s hard to not follow various tangents and tell lots of stories about my experiences with the glorious fish once I broach the Yukon salmonsubject. I’ll take it as a personal challenge to try and keep this brief. More will surely follow.

First, in honor of Yukon River salmon season starting up soon, a few photos from my research trip up there in June of 2004, working on my Salmon book in the Northwest Homegrown Cookbook Series. My great friend and photographer Scott Wellsandt (a colleague from the good ol’ days at Simply Seafood magazine) thankfully went along for the ride. Some of the shots ended up in The New York Times a couple of weeks later, no less, accompanying an article on Yukon salmon! Including this one of me holding a huge king just pulled from the water. I recall the Times caption credited me with catching the fish, flattering to say the least. In fact, this was caught by Alaska Fish and Game agents and emmonokthe fish was still alive, it was no small feat to not lose him. I think he was just a spot-catch to check for size or something, due to return to the water.

The small village of Emmonak is one of the commercial centers where area commercial harvest is processed. Don’t think “commerical harvest” means fishing fleets and big holds full of salmon. The fishing camps we visited were all small, rustic and wonderfully dynamic multi-generation family camps, living a culture of salmon fishing that is largely unchanged for countless years. Much of whatSalmon drying

they catch is subsistance supply that will feed them well into winter and early spring. Fish are filleted and trimmed with ulu knives, laid over wood rods to dry and then smoke in their custom smokehouses. 

We’re due to be seeing Yukon keta salmon and kings beginning next week. It’s expected to be a lower than average season for kings, so availability may be limited. It’s might delicious eating though. The Yukon river is 2,000-plus miles long, much longer than the Copper River for instance, so those fish really need to have a full tank of fuel (in the form of their delicious fatty reserves) to make it back up the river. That fat translates into rich flavor, smoke housesomething Yukons have in abundance.

The folks at Seattle-based Marx Foods contacted me a few weeks ago asking permission to run a few recipes from my book on their web site (which is in process now, hopefully they’ll be posted soon). But they did go ahead an cook up a few recipe for photos, which are already posted, what a treat it was so see them. They’re running a salmon recipe contest right now, deadline is June 20, so if you have a killer way you cook salmon, pass it along. The grand prize is hard to beat: 3 separate 5-pound deliveries of wild salmon, one each in July, August and September. Get cracking on polishing one of your best recipes!

ulu knife

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Gin Dandy

One of the best monikers that’s ever been given to me is that of “gin connoisseur.” I wrote a review of a really engaging, informative little book called The Joy of Drinking by Barbara Holland, which appears in the current spring issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. My friend and joy of drinkingcolleague, Darra Goldstein, is the founder and editor of the journal, and that’s the title she added to my byline for the review: Cynthia Nims, gin connoisseur. She and her husband are a couple of the converts I’ve helped turn on to the world of top-quality gins in the past couple of years. They became particularly enamored of Hendricks and are apparently now never without one of the distinctive stubby brown bottles on their liquor shelf.

While I was preparing to moderate a panel on gin for the conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals last year, I made a diligent effort to collect as many gins as I could for sampling, amassing as many as 9 or 10. One evening, a half dozen colleagues joined me around our back patio table for a blind tasting, one of the most fascinating spirits exercises I’ve ever been through. I was honored to have none other than Robert Hess on hand to help orchestrate the proceedings (check out his great cocktail videos here). We first sipped the gins straight, as is, then again with a small drizzle of water added. Scotch drinkers know that a small drizzle of water into the pure spirit really opens up the character and aroma of the drink without diluting its flavor. Even if you just try two different gins side by side in this way, you’ll start to appreciate the nuances that separate one brand from the next.

What I found so inspiring in my research was the aviationnumber of small-batch gin producers there are in this country, from Chicago’s North Shore Gin No. 6 to the wonderful Aviation gin distilled in Portland, my friend Ryan Magarian one of the collaborators on that tasty product. There’s really a wonderful renaissance of gin going on. I think the most salient reason is that people are increasingly seeking out flavor, variety and craftsmanship in their bar selections the way they have been in their food choices for so long.

I consider gin to easily be the most “culinary” of all spirits. The distiller, like a chef, has choices to make about which ingredients to use and what technique to employ in the distillation process. Juniper is a required base ingredient, but countless spices, herbs, flowers, roots, zests and other aromatics can embellish the spirit. For gin lovers, it’s a joy because there are plenty of different styles of gin to choose from, with broadly different flavor profiles, so you can pick a specific gin to suit a particular mood or cocktail. I love Plymouth for a smooth martini, classic Bombay for a gimlet and Hendricks or Martin Millers simply on ice with a dash or two of Fee Brother’s Grapefruit Bitters.

I’ve just gotten a press notice about the launch of a new gin distillery on Vancouver Island, Victoria Gin produced at Winchester Cellars. And there’s a victoria ginnew gin distillery in the works for my own backyard: Woodinville. Claiming a little spot of real estate among all the winery tasting rooms is Pacific Distillery; the copper  still is en route and they may be bottling their first gin later this year.

Heavens, once I get started on gin, I just can’t seem to stop. (Writing about it, I meant, but I guess the same is sometimes true of sipping it.) I’ll surely revisit the subject again soon. Especially after I get a sample of those new Northwest gins coming on the scene. I’m off now to add “gin connoisseur” to my resume. And maybe my business cards.

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