Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Alaskan Seafood

I spent the last ten days in Southeast Alaska. I ate at some of the best restaurants in the region. I was underwhelmed.

Alaska is known for its seafood: wild salmon, halibut, black cod, PEI mussels, and Alaskan king crab. The region produces great fish. But they do not do such a great job of preparing it.

Most of the preparations I tried were severely dated. The recipes tended to overwhelm the fish with creamy, fatty sauces. Or they overcooked and underspiced the fish, leaving it dry and bland. For instance:

-Halibut is a thick, flaky white fish. When I ate it in Gustavus, it was smothered in a layer of sour cream thicker than the fish itself. I tasted the cream much more than the fish.

-Black cod and halibut were served in one of Juneau's most expensive restaurants with Chinese sauces that completely overwhelmed the fish. Both dishes were over $25, yet the sauces tasted no better than standard Chinese American fare. Neither sauce did justice to the fish.

-I tried Alaskan king salmon and coho salmon in Gustavus, Ketchikan, and Sitka. In the first two locations, it was overwhelmed with a fatty brown butter sauce. But when I ordered it grilled without sauce in Sitka, it was overcooked and dry.

-Clams in curry sauce were fairly good in Ketchikan, but the chef added far too much cream to the broth. Why do Alaskans eat so much butter and cream?

-Even at pricey restaurants, most seafood dishes were served with a side of baked or mashed potatoes and frozen vegetable medley. A few of the mashed potato dishes were almost certainly reconstituted from a dried mix.

Alaska's idea of Mexican food.

I was saddened at how chefs squandered great ingredients with unimaginative preparation. I would love to help these kitchens improve their dishes. For instance, I would tell a restaurant with a drier variety of salmon to poach it in a simple ginger broth with leeks, leaving the fish moist but not overwhelming its flavor. With a fattier king salmon, I would suggest grilling it quickly so it remains moist and flaky. With a nice piece of halibut, I might suggest pan searing it to create a contrasting texture while leaving the basic flavor intact. Serve it with a light pinot noir sauce. Or roast the halibut with tomatoes, olives, and basil.

As my trip ended, I did not want to leave the beautiful coastline and snow-capped mountains. But I knew I would find better preparations of Alaskan seafood in Houston.


Anonymous said...

"Why do Alaskans eat so much butter and cream?"

Because the cows are frozen most of the year.

Anonymous said...

great mexican/pizza photo!

Sam said...

Good seafood doesn't need elaborate preparations. Halibut soaks up strongly flavored sauces effectively, but its own mild flavor can also be showcased in many dishes with mild ingredients. Fresh is better, but since the fish in this dish is breaded and fried, frozen is just fine in this simple and homey recipe.

Authentic Alaska Halibut Fisherman's Recipe:

Slice fillets thinly, preferably between 1/2 and 1 inch thick.

Lightly bread with beaten egg and flour, salt and pepper, herbs if desired.

Heat a shallow layer of butter, olive oil, or other fat, in a large, flat-bottomed pan with a decent rim.

Slice thinly many cloves of garlic, and fry them in the fat until they begin to brown. The oil should be not but not smoking.

Before the garlic has become crispy, add the fillets in a layer and fry until golden. Turn them over and brown the other side, and remove from the pan. Once the breading has become golden brown on both sides, remove to a plate. Season with salt now if you haven't already.

Optional step:
At this point, you could hit the pan with either some parsley, dry white wine, or both. Another herb or acid that suits your preference would work fine as well, cilantro and a dark beer perhaps. Cook briefly or until the alcohol has burned off, pour over the cooked fish and serve.

Really, there's not too much good food to be had in Alaska, though I recommend the Homestead in Homer if you're ever over that way.