Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Glance at the Life: Good Friends and the Winter Project 2008

It does not go unnoticed by me that I owe any and all ability to post a picture to this blog to my friends. More particularly, to two friends: Carolyn and Genevieve.

Carolyn (unpictured....for now) was my college roommate. Currently, she is my generous and witty and quick and just entirely-too-much-fun-to-be-around buddy in Anchorage. She is also the reason that I live in Alaska instead of 2 blocks from the Union Square Greenmarket. It was, you see, her wedding in Girdwood that brought me to Alaska for the first time. And when I couldn't stay away, and less than a month later I was back for more, it was the trip to her family’s cabin at Whiskey Lake that confirmed I would move mountains to be able to live here myself. About two years ago, Carolyn gave me my very first digital camera. (A year before that, she also set me up with pillows and a futon and even – I swear - a car, and gave me my first and only DVD player, but these are topics – and gushes of appreciation – for another time. Suffice it to say, Carolyn made moving to Alaska much, much easier and fun than it could have been. Carolyn, my friends, is simply talented in fun.)

It was generous. And I was so excited to finally be able to send pictures to the people that I've been earnestly attempting to persuade into visiting. But, I’ll admit it, the camera scared me. It took me a long while to learn how to turn it on. It took, in fact, importing my little brother up to Bush Alaska to set it all up for me. He installed a memory card (gifted also by Carolyn) into the camera, and installed software into the laptop. With the smugness that only one’s little brother can demonstrate towards a technologically inept big sister, he even tried to tutor me towards using it. Luckily, I finally learned. I even learned how to take a picture with it, and to upload the picture, and to email the picture, and – obviously – how to post a picture here. But, I never quite mastered it. And, oh, it was bad at one of those several times where I found myself lamenting (for weeks) that I had broken it only to be slammed by an epiphany that perhaps I simply need to put in new batteries. And it has “modes” and “menus” - and these cause me such consternation that I never even really try to understand them. I never even sampled them. I turned it on, and shot, and it took pictures, and I could upload them. And life was good, and easy and – from time to time when I remembered to update the batteries - recorded.

Slowly, with time, came comfort. Confidence with digital photography. And gumption. So much gumption, in fact, that a few months ago I whirled and whimmed myself into buying a new, complicated, and big camera. A Nikon D-80.

It arrived. I was so excited! I started to take it out of the box. But it had so many pieces. So many manuals. So many different languages and plugs and contraptions and stuff like that…..oh, I get breathless with angst all over again just thinking about it. It required, my friends, assembly. It was all too much. Assembly! Ugh. I promptly put everything right back in the box, and carried the box right up to the spare room, and set it right up in the middle of a pile of stuff, and decided that it would be best to ease into it. Months passed. Occasionally I’d go up and look at the box and contemplate trying again. But then I’d remember all the pieces and all the programming and all that other stuff, and I’d just turn around and leave.

Fast forward a few months, and this email popped into my inbox:

any plans for next thursday and friday? i'm thinking of dropping in for a

"G" is my friend Genevieve. She is a witty, adventurous, berry-picking, baking, renaissance-worthy island-dweller out in Unalaska. Genevieve, in fact, is diversely talented. Leonardo da Vinci would have definitely invited her to his table. Think it would be fun to learn how to play an Irish tin whistle? She already knows how to! Think it would be fun to pick up 12 ungutted silver salmons! She’ll come over with 5 minutes notice, and set up a cleaning station, and bring a Food Saver, and patiently – oh! so patiently! try to show you how to fillet them. She won’t laugh at your attempts. Think it would be fun to buy 5 gallons of already fermenting cloudberries? But then realize you have absolutely no idea what to do with all those berries? The answer – call Genevieve. Similar tales could be told about sleuthing town for the one remaining cucumber, and cutting down sugar in jams, and finding berry patches, and crawling over, and under, and around pipes to take short-cuts to the Cultural Center. Genevieve, my friends, is the guide you want on your tundra island. It was a very sad day when she left it.

So imagine my glee, my joy, my celebratory cartwheels when I got an email saying that Genevieve was coming to town! Now, my friends, let’s be honest here. I don’t live in a place where one can just “drop in.” And Genevieve, in Unalaska, doesn’t live in a place that permits her to just drop by. She lives in the middle of the Aleutian Chain. She lives on an island – a real one - in the middle of the Aleutian Chain. But in addition to all the talents described above, Genevieve is also an Alaskan Airlines guru. A traveling wonder. A multi-mile millionaire, I suspect. Most definitely a deal spotter. One of those real kinds of deal spotters. One of those kinds of traveling wonder deal spotters that cut their teeth traveling around the Caucasions and Central America.

With such a plethora of talents, is it a surprise to anyone that, while in town, Genevieve put together my new camera? She came to town for 48 hours last week and assembled my camera for me. She even read the manual for me. (Yes, there does seem to be a pattern of me putting guests to work. I shall introspect on that at another time, though.) She could have gone to the A.C. to see who was buying $15 gallons of orange juice. She could have gone to Swanson’s to see if they ever got another shipment of ramekins. She could have walked along the river and looked for glimpses of Tom’s John Deere Green boat. But she is kind, and generous – and she spent her time gifting me with an assembled camera and distilled suggestions for operating it. I'm indebted.

In sum, it is a direct result of Carolyn and Genevieve, and their generosities and patience with me and my technological waywardness, that I have started taking pictures with a Nikon D-80. Sure, it has menus and modes enough to send me crawling under the covers. But I think I found a solution. I 'm making digital photography my Winter Project 2008. Let the cold come. Let the dark return and the whipping winds of below zero flay. I shall be safe, and warm and utterly enraptured with my Winter Project, photography. Now I don’t promise anything fancy here. I don’t even promise anything interesting. And we all know I’d be courting something stinky if I promised anything talented. But I do promise Pamela that there will be a lot more pictures of the dogs.

Here are a few pictures from the start of this project:

Here is Paxson grinning at his proximity to Puck's tail.

Here is Puck realizing Paxon's proximity to his tail.

Here is Puck attempting to hide his tail. It didn't work.

But before you feel sorry for Puck........

Here is Puck moping after Genevieve and Paxson left - and it wasn't just because
there were no longer stray cheerios to nibble on.

And here is Clyde.......ahhh, Clyde! So handsome!

With the first camera,
here is a glimpse of Paxon's state of awe when he first saw Clyde.

And here are some snapshots of Paxson (clearly the son of his parents) going from awe to adventure -

it's amazing how quick of a crawler he is!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Marion Cunningham's Beet Marmalade

Last winter, when the blizzard hit and the radio told us to stay where we were, I was at home. On my lunch hour. And because the town closed the road due to the blizzard, I was forced to stay there. I made a mug of milky tea and set about to make Marion Cunningham's Cream Biscuits. They were deliciously easy to prepare, and abundantly warm and lovely. I have never more enjoyed a tundra blizzard.

In February, when the light was returning but doing so slowly (oh so slowly) and arm-in-arm with a bone-breaking cold, I made her Baked Rice Pudding. Such delicious anticipation. While the stove warmed up our home with heat and the perfume of rice pudding's humble goodness, we listened to the town council on the radio and tossed balls for our dogs. Forgive me for the lack of modesty, but I do believe our little hovel radiated with good living that cold February night of the Baked Rice Pudding.

In May, when the internet was literally chirping with pictures of daffodils and fresh asparagus but our river was still frozen solid and Winter lingered, I made her Lemon Curd. Literally skipping with the glee of a Spring to come, we took a jar of Marion Cunningham's bright, gold Lemon Curd to a friend's house. Our friend ate the lemon curd on Wheat-thins, and fed us her homemade salmon liver pate and shee-fish chowder. It was hard not to love our lives with such bounty.

On a leisurely Sunday morning in July, while J's mother was visiting but J. was at his office prepping for 9 trials in a row, I made us a breakfast featuring Marion Cunningham's Yellow Cornmeal Buttermilk Pancakes. I added some blueberries to celebrate the special occassion, and confessed to J's mom that cornmeal pancakes remind me of her father, R.C. I never actually ate cornmeal pancakes with R.C., but he was a cornseed farmer. And a tractor-pull champion. And a wit. A great wit. I have no doubt that eating cornmeal pancakes with R.C. would be a witty adventure of good living. And that July morning, we two ladies spent a few hours at the sticky table, eating Marion Cunningham's cornmeal pancakes with blueberries (which I have further personalized and named "R.C. Cakes") and chatting about R.C. We actually talked about many things. But I especially loved talking about R.C. and how he once drove a Model-T across the country, fed a pancake to a bear, and drove back. I don't know if there is a cookbook more appropriate for a leisurely Sunday morning in rural Alaska with one's visiting future mother-in-law than Marion Cunningham's cookbook, The Breakfast Book. I doubt that there is a finer breakfast than Marion Cunningham's R.C. Cakes.

Well, those Dutch Babies are pretty good too.....On August 5th, for Sunday breakfast with just J., I made Marion Cunningham's recipe for Dutch Babies. I baked them in two castiron skillets and served them with homemade blueberry lime syrup, powdered sugar and bacon. They were delicious. We were loving our life, though this shouldn't be too surprising. It is not hard to love one's life when one is looking at their own cast-iron skillet of dutch baby, and tarting it up with homemade blueberry-lime syrup. I made a silent shout of thanks to Marion Cunningham for, again, adding to the perfect meal moment.

And on August 28th, for no reason other than I had picked up two bunches of the Meyer family beets at the Saturday Market, I made her Beet Marmalade. I served it with slices of cold pot roast and hot, creamed mushrooms. It was delicious! We loved it so much, in fact, that I immediately went around distributing the remaining jars of this surprising treat to our neighbors. Life - can you see the pattern? - was loved.

Even though I have never met Marion Cunningham, she has certainly has made quite a contribution to the life we're building up here. I wish I could meet her in a person. I'm sure I'd stammer and stutter. Just how is one supposed to be cool and calm in front of someone to whom they owe such a grace of good living? But even with this likelihood that I'd make a complete and utter fool of myself, I still hope that someday, maybe, hopefully, I might bump into Marion Cunningham whilst perusing the new shipment of eggplants at the A.C. Who knows? Maybe it can happen...? In the meantime, I should probably be proactive and write her a letter, thanking her for all the moments of humble magnitude that her recipes and cookbooks have led us to. I should do that. Or maybe Marion Cunningham googles her name every now and then, and maybe up will pop up this little itemization of the "simple, easy, flexible meal[s] marked by the intimacy of family or friends" that she has inspired up here on this little tundra island. You just never know what can happen, aye?

In any event, here is Marion Cunningham's recipe for Beet Marmelade. I could lose my voice in an effort to describe its perfection. It's surprisingly easy to prepare, yet startingly beautiful. I gave a jar of it to Tom, who also thought it was pretty. "It looks like salmon eggs," he explained. It is also delicious. An intriguing burst of flavours. Refreshing, but complex. It is a bit like cranberry sauce, though it has the peppery bite of a chutney rather than a tang of a jelly. Partnered with pot roast, it is divine.

I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.


Beet Marmalade
(copied from Marion Cunningham's The Supper Book, page 168)

4 medium-large beets, boiled** and peeled
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 large lemon
2 tbsp chopped fresh ginger

Put the beets in a food processor and process until coarsely chopped, or mash the beets by hand. Transfer the beets to a heavy-bottomed saucepan and stir in the sugar.

Cut, seed, and quarter the lemon. Put the pieces and the giner into the food processor and process until finely chopped, or chop by hand. Add the lemon and ginger to the beet mixture and stir to blend. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the marmalade has thickened a little. This takes about 2 minutes - remember that the marmalade will get even thicker as it cools.

Put the hot marmalade into clean jars, cover and refrigerate when cool. This will keep for a month. For longer preserving, fill sterilized jars with the hot mixture, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Put on the lids and tighten, and process in a boiling-water canner for 15 minutes.

** Instructions for boiling the beets are on page 11. They are pretty standard. But in the interest of sharing as much Marion Cunningham wisdom as I can, I'll summarize them here. Basically, she advises that you cut off all but an inch of the beet tops and drop the beetings into boiling water for 30 minutes to an hour. Don't trim, pare or otherwise remove the roots. When they are cooked, drain and cool them down in cold water. When you can, slip off the skins.