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Or at least I was. I was cooking at a remote lodge when it happened. One of the fishermen came into my kitchen and told me he was going to show me how to make Gravlox. Grrrrrr. If you’ve never been a cook, let me tell you that it’s extremely annoying when customers try to tell you how to do your job. But this was a pricey lodge, where my job was to make clients happy, so of course I said, feigning eagerness as best I could, “Oh, please do!”
He took a fresh salmon fillet, set it in a baking dish, covered it with salt, sugar and dill and stuck it in the fridge. “Tomorrow it will be ready!” he said, and I avoided a skeptical look. The next day he told me to slice it super thin and serve it with crackers, cream cheese and onion. Which I did. I looked around at the 10 other pretty square looking guests and wondered if anyone was going to complain about me serving raw fish and calling it an appetizer. No one did. They were all busy eating.
So, I ventured near, took a cracker myself, loaded it up, and took a tentative bite.
Wow. That is some good shit. I have since come to accept that I just like raw fish, and even raw meat. But I still remember that first time…
You too can shock and awe your friends by making this incredibly simple appetizer. Some tips though:
- Use only premium quality salmon, “sushi grade” if you’re buying it. If it’s home pack, it should be your freshest most prime piece. What you taste in the gravlox is salmon, no holes barred. It must be a fantastic fish. If it smells at all “fishy” use it for something else.
- By “fresh” I mean freshly frozen. Freezing kills any of the beasties that could make eating raw fish a bad idea.
- You could skip the cream cheese, and even the lemon if you must, but don’t skip the red onion. It’s a lovely counterpoint. Really, the whole spread makes it so fabulous, it’s worth it.
Okay, so, here’s how. Thaw your fish (fillet, not steaks) in the fridge overnight, 2 or better 3 days before you want to eat the gravlox. The next day, put it in a baking dish, or something with sides, ‘cuz it makes a little juice. For one 2 lb fillet, sprinkle heavily with:
2 t. salt, preferably freshly ground sea salt
1 ½ t. sugar
2 t. dill (1 T. if fresh)
Now, put it in the fridge for 24-48 hours, 48 is better.
To turn this cured fillet into a fabulous appetizer you’ll need a sharp knife. First slice some red onion as thinly as possible. Cut a lemon into small wedges. Fill a little bowl with softened cream cheese. Arrange these things on a large platter or cutting board. Fill a large bowl with some flaky, buttery kind of crackers. Now remove your gravlox from the fridge and slice as thin as you possibly can, this is the hardest part of this whole process, and the most time consuming. Don’t save it for 5 minutes before the guests arrive, do it earlier in the day. Take your time and be patient. Thin slices are essential for the luscious texture. If you cut your fillet into thirds, then slice lengthwise (head to tail), you can remove the strip of flesh that has all the bones in it. However you do it, make certain that there are no bones in your finished appetizer.
Now just arrange the gravlox on your platter, and return to the fridge until you’re ready. Having this gorgeous dish set out on the table when folks arrive, along with a big bowl of salmonberry punch, makes everything seem special.
We live in a place with lots of bears. They are in fact the only native large mammal– deer and moose were both introduced here. In Haines, where I lived for four years, black bear was basically the only large game animal. That’s where I started eating them.
Certainly there will be some readers so appalled by the idea of eating the wild and majestic bear that they will give up this blog altogether. I’m not in the mood to defend my actions, though I do feel them to be entirely defensible. Read some Gary Snyder if you’re interested. I’m here to talk about Tamale Pie, and why I have too much burger.
Here’s the thing. A fair number of good ole’ boys from down south come to Alaska every year to hunt bear. They are not (unfortunately) thinking “I want to feed my family good wild food, and show my abhorrence of the commercial meat industry!” They come here, shoot bears, and take just the hide home as a macho wall hanging. They are the reason so many clear thinking people hate hunters.
But, thanks to the Alaska state government, they are required by law to salvage the meat from black bear. If they don’t want it, they’re supposed to find someone who does.
That’s where I come in, and several of my friends. I call Fish and Game every spring and leave them my name and number, and I have one guide who calls me up whenever he flies from his remote lodge into town, with 6 or 7 frozen black bear in garbage bags. It’s a strange way to get meat, like some extra perverse dumpster diving. But life’s full of strangeness.
Anyway, for those of you left reading, the thing about black bear meat is that it’s tough. I don’t know if it’s actually tougher than deer or moose, but unlike those two which are usually aged a week or more for flavor and tenderizing, bear meat is much better when the flavor is clean and fresh—no aging, no tenderizing. It’s just too tough for steaks or rare roasts. But it’s great for all day pot roasts, and burger. Which lands us with a lot of burger.
Now, you gentle reader, wherever else in the world you are, probably don’t have an identical problem. But, if you’re operating on a limited budget, and still trying to buy quality organic, free range meat, you probably end up with lots of burger too. Burger is just plain economical.
What to do with all that burger? Well, besides the obvious burgers, meatloaf and spaghetti, here’s a few other tasty, easy meals:
- brown rice, burger and veggies
- tacos, burritos, nachos
- SOS (Shit On a Shingle—gravy on toast)
- shepherd’s pie
- curried meatballs
and let’s not forget—Tamale Pie!!!
Something about Tamale Pie is so satisfying, more than it’s ingredients let on. Since it bakes for 40 mins, it has to be started an hour and a half ahead of dinner time, but I sometimes find that quality quite handy. You can make tamale pie with cornbread topping, and it’s great. But this polenta topping is every bit as delicious, maybe more, definitely easier and no need for eggs, milk, etc.
So here’s a roughed out recipe:
Bring to a boil
4 c. water
½ t. salt
stir while adding
1 c. polenta (coarse cornmeal works too)
Bring back to a boil, if you have an electric stove, just turn the burner off but leave the pot on it to continue cooking, if you have gas, turn it to low for 10 minutes more. Either way, stir every couple of minutes, then just let it sit while while you make the filling.
Turn your oven on to 400 degrees. Brown
1 lb burger
if your burger is xx-lean like a spring bear, use plenty of oil. Season with
chili powder (or cumin, garlic, black pepper and cayenne)
a little oregano
1- 1 ½ t. salt
Chop and add
some leeks or onions
whatever other veggies you have on hand
You’ll want to undercook everything, and if you use greens add them at the very end, right before you assemble the pie. They’ll cook in the oven. When the veggies are half done, add
a can (or 2 c.) of chopped tomatoes
a can (or 2 c.) of black beans
Cook till the juice is almost all gone. Add
1 c. frozen corn
(now’s when to add those greens)
Grease up an 8 or 9 in round baking pan, not aluminum if you want to remember your illustrious youth when you’re old. A cast iron skillet works great, or a large glass pie pan. It doesn’t have to be round, obviously.
Spread a little more than half the polenta on the bottom and sides of the pan, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Shlop in the filling, top with
½- 1 c. grated cheese
then the other half of the polenta. This top layer should be pretty even and smooth.
Now pop into the oven and go about your business. Bake for about half an hour. Let sit at least 10 minutes before you bust into it, it will be much more pie like, and you won’t burn your taste buds off.
If you have and use a pressure canner to preserve meats or veggies, you could also be making your own delicious “Hunger-Emergency Solutions!” TM
I’ve gotten almost addicted to having these things around. They’re actually pretty energy efficient, when you really weigh it out.
Our pressure canner holds 16 pint jars. One jar feeds one person, so that’s 8 meals for two people. It takes about 2 hours of actual work, and 1 ½ hours of stove time. If I were to cook 8 meals individually it would take me about 8 hours of work and 8 hours of stove time. See? it really does make sense.
The best soups for canning are bean soups. Creamy chowders will curdle, and most vegetables are nasty after the excessive heat of pressure canning. The exceptions are carrots, corn, tomatoes, onions and celery. Potatoes are borderline, I personally don’t like their mealy texture after canning, but give it a try, some people don’t mind it at all.
Beans however, can beautifully. In fact, I heartily recommend canning your own beans just as beans, instead of buying cans. Saves you $1 or more per jar, saves the earth from a bunch of tin extraction and subsequent disposal. It’s ever so handy to be able to pop a jar of black beans for burritos– if you keep tortillas and cheese on hand, dinner’s almost done!
Of course, with your home canned bean soup, dinner is done.
The idea is pretty simple. You soak your beans overnight, drain, pour boiling water over and soak another 30 mins, then pack into jars with chopped raw veggies and meat, top with boiling broth, seal, and process!
The trickie part is that, since the soup cooks in the canner, you can’t taste and adjust the seasonings as you go along, it has to be right from the get-go. So, I will share with you a couple of the recipes I’ve developed. Try them once, then make adjustments in your next batch. These recipes are for 16 pint jars, if your canner is smaller, resize accordingly.
These soups, and anything with beans or vegies must be canned in a pressure canner, you can’t use a regular open canner/boiling water bath because of the risk of Botulism. Of course, if you don’t have a pressure canner, you could make half this recipe, keep it in your fridge, and just eat over the course of your week. If you cook it on a woodstove, you’ve got the most efficient energy use of all!
Black Bean Soup
Soak 4 c. black beans overnight in plenty of water. In the morning or as soon as you can get to it, drain beans, rinse well, and pour boiling water or unsalted broth over. Allow to soak another 30 minutes, while you get everything else ready.
Chop 2 onions, 2 small stalks celery, 2 or 3 carrots, and 10-12 Roma tomatoes (you can use canned chopped tomatoes too if, like me, you can’t get a decent fresh tomato) Distribute veggies evenly between all 16 jars.
Dry fry (cook in a skillet with no oil over medium heat) until fragrant, but be careful not to burn:
3 T chili pwdr
1 T cumin
2 t. cinnamon
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. black pepper
1 T. paprika
(Or, if you want to make it easier on yourself, and you like spicy food, just go with 4-5 T. of chili pwdr, and skip the rest of those spices)
When the spices are smelling good, add
1 T. oregano
1 T. garlic pwdr
2 lbs of burger
Brown meat over high heat, it doesn’t need to cook through, just brown nicely for flavor.
Distribute meat among jars.
It’s probably been half an hour by now, so drain your beans again, but this time reserve the soaking liquid. Measure it into a pot, then add enough water to equal 11 cups total (if you used canned tomatoes, add in their juice here, as part of your liquid). Stir in a 6 oz can of tomato paste. Bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, back to your jars. Distribute beans between them, then add to each jar
½ t. salt and
a big pinch of frozen corn
Jars should be full to within 1 inch of top. Don’t be tempted to overfill, the beans are still going to expand a tad.
Get your canner and lids ready to go. When the broth boils, pour into each jar, to within ¾ inch of top (ie: should just cover the chunks). Process as per canner instructions, for 75 minutes at 10 lbs pressure.
Here’s another, so simple, but shockingly delicious. It’s those chick peas, they are one fantastic bean.
Moroccan Style Chick Pea Soup
Soak overnight 8 c. chicks. In the morn, drain and rinse. Cover with
10 c. boiling unsalted broth and let soak 30 minutes.
Erstwhile, mince 2 large onions and divide among jars. Add also to each jar:
1 bay leaf
½ t. salt (if you used commercial bullion or other salted broth, decrease to ¼ t.)
1 T. good quality olive oil
1/8 t. fresh ground black pepper
Get your lids ready, etc. When the 30 mins is up, drain beans, reserving broth, and divide between the jars, leaving 1 inch head space. Bring broth back to a boil and pour over beans to cover. Process at 10 lbs pressure for 75 mins.
Now, when you eat this soup, you must garnish it with at least a pinch of ground cumin and a drizzle of olive oil. To make it uber delicious and exotic, squeeze some fresh lemon in, and top with a quartered soft boiled egg, and a chunk of sourdough bread. Yumm!