Strange things always happen in election years, but watching Alaskan food get reduced to mooseburgers has been a bit surreal to me. Ever since Sarah Palin loped onto the national stage, even political bloggers have been wondering how to turn a tough meat tender. I guess they never heard of halibut. Let alone how to make a great fish taste fresh longer.
My consort and I headed way up north back in 1992 for our ill-fated book on American harvests, one chapter of which was devoted to the halibut derby. At that time, conservationists were restricting the catch to two 24-hour periods a year, which meant fishermen were in a frenzy to haul in as much as they could for only two days in June and September. We flew into indescribably gorgeous Kodiak and tramped the docks until we wangled our way onto a boat for about a week -- three days getting to the best fishing ground, three days motoring back -- and it became clear very early that the crew would be thrilled with alternatives to candy bars and microwaved sandwiches when they had one of the best-stocked kitchens (okay, galleys) I have ever encountered. Multiple freezers were full of steaks and legs of lamb; storage bins under the seats were full of cake mixes and chocolate chips and sticky rice. As soon as the violent seasickness sort of subsided, I was in there blissfully cooking, with Bob's help when he wasn't shooting. The biggest request was for "noodle dishes," a k a pasta, but we also learned all you could do with canned berries.
The bummer was that the law -- enforced by helicopters constantly hovering overhead and boats snooping nearby -- forbade actually eating the catch of the minute. So when we got back to Anchorage , I found a local fish shop that would ship halibut home and bought a whole, gutted 10-pounder for $20, paid $53 for freight and opened my carton five days later to one pristine meal. From then on I had to tweak to make precious aging flesh taste fresher: folding fillets into corn husks with green chilies and cilantro to steam; coating fillets in beer batter to deep-fry or chopped hazelnuts to saute; poaching steaks in a sort of gazpacho; turning chunks into chowder with fresh corn and thyme.
For the book I had to come up with 12 recipes for each harvest, but with halibut I kept going, with reinforcements from local fish markets with long-distance markups: deep-fry it in tempura batter, baste it with pesto on the grill, chunk it into tacos with green salsa and avocado. And along the way I learned substitutes for the high-priced white meat, like grouper for the fillets and swordfish for the steaks.
Even that long ago, though, I drew the line at fishburgers.
Regina Schrambling is best known for her acerbic Web site, gastropoda.com, and blog, gastriques.blogspot.com, but proudest of being a two-time refugee from The New York Times. She left the national desk in 1983 to enroll in the New York Restaurant School and was lured back as deputy editor of the Dining section, from which she resigned in 2002 to become a contract writer for the Los Angeles Times food section. She writes for magazines including Metropolitan Home, New York, Real Food, and Edible Brooklyn, as well as Slate and Salon.
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