Friday, September 19, 2008

The Great Herring Experiment

I love seafood, really really LOVE seafood! I love it cooked simply, or with elaborate preparation and exotic ingredients. I love it plain, or wrapped, or stuffed, grilled, baked, sauteed or pickled. It's  terrific  raw (sometimes), hot or cold. I just love seafood. But... Petersburg herring have challenged my love of cooking with fresh seafood.

The herring are so plentiful around the Petersburg docks that anyone can jig up a bucketful in no time… and they do. You can see youngsters barely old enough to hold a pole sharing tips and dock space  with oldsters who could be their great grandfathers. It’s a local pastime, and a popular time filler for visitors with unscheduled moments or a desire for free bait.

Our freezer drawers would not hold any more bait, and the captain needed a diversion that wasn’t another boat project.  After some prompting I volunteered to try pickling his next catch of large herring. Volunteered, mind you. A quick search through my various seafood cookbooks turned up a seemingly effortless recipe. Pickled shrimp is already a regular menu item, so how tough could this be? Uh huh.

Capt. caught, washed, beheaded and gutted the critters. That left me to do the easy part -“open the fish out flat. Pinch the bone at the tail end and carefully lift out, pulling the bone towards the head. Remove any small bones with tweezers.”  This was too easy to believe, right up to the end and the tweezer part. You can’t imagine how many tiny little bones poke through the flesh, and don’t want to release. (Flashback memory to childhood and how I hated to pick through a serving of fish to find the bones.)  Tweezers didn’t work so I opted for needle nosed kitchen pliers. Hey, they work on salmon pin bones. After one or two pulls the tips gummed up too much to close on any more bones. A boning knife proved too large to lift just the bones and leave the meat intact. Sigh, back to my thumb and forefinger pinching out each sharp, stubborn, almost invisible little bone. Hundreds of them, lurking everywhere, resisting detection.

One hour and ten herring later, these flat, butterflied little critters are brining in a saltwater bath in the refrigerator. They are waiting for their final resting place, rolled around an onion slice and gherkin in a spicy vinegar pickling brine and stuffed inside inside glass jars. Me, I’m thinking of how easy it will be next time - when I buy rollmops at the store.
Tasting note 1: Omigod! those suckers are sour.  At the Capt’s suggestion I poured off a third of the vinegar brine and added water and a bit of sugar. We’ll be brave and schedule a second tasting for tomorrow. Did I mention buying pickled herring at the store in the future?

Note 2: The following day Swedish friends thought the herring were quite tasty as appetizers and we polished off the entire batch. Pickling herring will stay an “interesting” experiment and memory. Me? I’m sticking with pickling shrimp.

Burnett Inlet

North Burnett Island anchorage is one of the prettiest spots to linger on the west shore of Etolin Island, and one of the quietest.

One troller transited the long inlet, in and out, and a small cruiser powered in toward our cove, made a u-turn and powered out again. The occasional seaplane passed overhead, one circling the boat twice before disappearing over the ridge. The rest of the time it was us, a lone resident loon, one transient seal, scores of eagle and hundreds of jumping salmon.
We followed the sound of rushing water and found two stream outlets, a small one choked with downed trees and brush and a larger, rushing torrent tumbling down rocky hillside ledges. Eagles flew up and down the channel, perching on boulders, ledges and tree branches, looking for stranded fish who misjudged their leaps or were resting or just spent.

While the captain was out fishing (yes! he returned with yet another big coho/silver salmon) I sat out in the cockpit and tried to read. It’s tough to relax and concentrate with the plop! and splash! of so many fish jumping every couple of seconds, the warbling trills of eagle cries, the whoosh and roar of the streams, and an occasional call from the resident loon. I’ll welcome this kind of noisy distraction any day.

It’s August 8 and finally we can break out the tank tops and shorts for 75+ degree weather. I wonder where the hot weather clothes are stored. All visible storage is packed with long underwear, polar fleece, rain gear, etc. I guess it’s time to dig into the secondary storage lockers under the bunks, behind the seats, and into other forgotten spots. The captain is an ultra-organized guy who enters all boat items on an Excel spreadsheet so they are easy to locate. Hmmm, it would have been helpful if I had entered summer clothes on that file.

No hurry, today is August 10 and we’re back to 55 degree water/57 degree air temperature. There’s plenty of time to find summer clothes for 2008, if summer weather ever stays for more than a day at a time. 

Cosmos Cove

The Cosmos Cove of memory (MY memory, not the captain’s) was a pleasant anchorage with a lot to recommend it. On a previous trip a group of seiners clustered at anchor near the entrance, waiting for an early morning opening the next day. We were snug and comfortable near the head of the bay, anchored in the sunshine. Capt. even caught a salmon off the boat deck while we were anchored (and wasn’t it fun trying to net that one?!) After dark the seiner deck lights and anchor lights glittered like some magic floating kingdom.

Fast forward to 2008 and there is NO, I repeat NO rerun of that memory. In a SE storm it blew like crazy from all directions in Cosmos. A southerly 37-knot gust was be followed by a 32-knot northerly, and the lines of approaching williwaws could be seen sweeping across the water. With a 6:1 scope on the anchor chain we didn’t drag a bit, but Oh! did we rock and kite in these winds. It felt like we rode the wild end of a pendulum. While there was no official anchor watch, we both woke repeatedly during the night to check our position on Nobeltec and the radar. 

Was I seduced by a memory of sunshine when I suggested Cosmos as our anchorage? Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. The captain has announced we don’t need to overnight in Cosmos again.

Monday, September 8, 2008

One more day in town

Sunday, August 3

What kept us moored at the dock for "just one more day" in Petersburg? It was a not-to-be-missed invitation to join friends on a berry picking adventure. A thoughtful Petersburg resident loaned them a family car while Doug waited for winch parts to be flown in. Overnight or even two-day shipping has a whole different meaning in SE Alaska. It usually means a minimum of two days to Anchorage, and then another day or two to arrive where you want it to be - unless it's a weekend, or it was shipped by barge instead of plane, or it was bumped off the plane for lack of space. We have learned to request shipment by US mail instead of UPS; mail takes priority over cargo. This works for small items, but not refrigerators (but that's another story from 2007).

We drove about 12 miles south on Mitkof Island, stopping occasionally to check out roadside shrubbery. The first good berry patch was at the turnoff to the city dump. Hmmm, both berries and garbage dumps attract bear so we stayed alert and made a lot of noise while harvesting blueberries and huckleberries. One for the bucket, two for me, two for the bucket, more for me... Farther south along the main road Britt and Ron scouted promising real estate with muskeg, bogs, ditches and hills. Swell stuff for berries, but tough to tromp through in our rubber boat boots. With each squishy, sinking step I expected a boot to be sucked off my foot.

Blueberries I recognize. Huckleberries I know. Salmon berries are distinctive and easy to identify in yellow, orange and red. But whoever heard of cloudberries? Well they do exist (Rubus chamaemorus) but are nearly invisible groundhuggers that live on the uphill rise beteen the soggy ground and the low hummocks. Red when immature, cloudberries are a pale creamy yellow when ripe and taste faintly like vanilla, or maybe baked apple. Once you spot a few, others pop magically into view, especially in ground you have already covered. We put a lot of energy into picking a few Ziploc bags apiece of these berries and loved the cross-country romp out of town. Too often we just see the shoreline as we travel.

Lunch was a decadent afternoon potluck of Britt Marie's homemade Swedish treats and my typical picnic fare, enjoyed at a sunny picnic site on the boardwalk at Blind Slough Park. The best deal of the day? we traded our day's berry hoard for two jars of Britt's huckleberry sauce.

Huckleberies and blueberries are fun to pick and eat straight off the bush - until you clean your first batch. Fill the sink with fresh water, pour in the berries, and watch the tiny green worms wriggle out of the fruit and float to the surface. Yuck! It's an effective way to sort the produce from the protein, but nibbling berries straight off the bush will never again be as tempting.