Alaskan Food For Thought
Iliamna: Athabaskan word for Island's Lake
Lake Iliamna: Eight largest lake in America, Reported to harbor a Loch Ness type sea monster. Located on the Western side of Cooks Inlet
Mount Iliamna: A volcano located on the Western side of Cooks Inlet.
On my return trip from Alaska I was awaiting my bags at the Baggage Claim, in SGF (Springfield, Missouri) when I noticed that the majority of the frozen fish boxes were labeled "Halibut" and not "Salmon" as I thought it would be. A fellow passenger asked how my trip in Alaska went, when I inquired just how she knew I was returning from Alaska she laughed and said after such a long overnight flight I looked like I was run over by a bus. She also was waiting for her frozen halibut. When I asked why halibut and not salmon her reply, "Halibut is the king of fish".
Many people who do not like the taste of fish such as salmon are partial to the clean taste of halibut and it can be cooked in so many ways, (except smoking due to the lack of heavy oils in the meat). One of the very best halibut recipes is Halibut Iliamna, a baked dish with a white cheese topping, an Alaskan iconic offering not seen except for in Alaska. I asked a friend from Alaska for the recipe and she sent me the recipe from a local Kenai newspaper. There a hundreds of variations of this recipe
according to ones personal taste but all the basics are generally the same. My recipe is more closely related to another I've read but remember that I have a rather different method of cooking, what I call a "plop, sip and dash" method ( a plop of this or that, a sip of wine and a dash of that). Here is my recipe, for two people but you can easily adjust the recipe for more if needed.
Halibut is the king of fish
1 pound (about 500 g) thawed halibut filets (see note #1)
About 4 oz. (about 100 g) softened cream cheese
About I tablespoon (15 ml) of mayo
About 1 teaspoon (5 ml) sour cream
4 oz. (about 100 g) diced artichoke heart (see note #2)
a small can (about 5 oz/150 g) crab - fresh or canned (see note #3)
1/2 onion diced
1/3 cup (about 75 ml) parsley (see note #4)
1/2 cup (~120 ml) grated parmesan cheese (see note #5)
1/2 cup (~120 ml) Swiss cheese (see note #6)
A pinch of pepper
2 dashes tobasco (see note #7)
2 dashes Worcestershire or soy
Mix all the ingredients except for the Parmesan cheese. I prefer that my mixture be a lot stiffer than the usual fare which is a sauce rather than a topping, either way it's all good.
Preheat oven to 350 deg F (175 deg C)
Place the halibut steaks in a glass ovenproof dish, salt and pepper the fish (sea salt works best, Mediterranean salt if you have it, for pepper I prefer Tellicherry pepper which is a bold Indian pepper)
Stack the sauce mixture on the fish, place in the preheated oven (uncovered) and cook for about 30 minutes (after about 20 to 30 minutes check that the fish is getting close to getting done by seeing that the fish will flake away). If you are satisfied with the doneness of the fish sprinkle the parmesan cheese over the mixture, return to the over for about 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted. Remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes, if the sauce is a bit soupy it will thicken quickly.
We prefer to serve the fish with rice Pilaf but then again it's your choice.
#1: Halibut isn't always available around the globe, even in here in the USA it can be very spotty so any other mild white fish can be substituted. Sea bass is a good bet and I've even used cod steaks in a pinch. The recipe really doesn't work well with a fish with that has lots of flavors.
#2: A small bottle of marinated artichoke works great, just be sure to drain the pieces on some paper towels. Chop the pieces so you don't have big clumps of artichoke, how much you put in the mixture is strictly a matter of taste, we like it a lot so a whole 7.5 oz (213 g) jar goes in our coating
#3: The original recipe listed artificial crab, what ever that crap is it doesn't in any way taste like crab. The recipe works only if you can taste crab so canned crab is fine but not all canned crab is worth the time to open the can. Canned "wild caught" crab from Thailand or Indonesia is my choice. If you are lucky enough to have fresh crab, all the better for being among the very lucky few.
#4: Dried spices are OK, just use about one half as much. Dill weed is something I add to the mixture, it just goes well with any fish. If you have fresh basil and like the flavor, that makes for a brighter taste. The object here is not to have one overwhelming flavor but in each morsel a different taste experience.
#5: You'll want a parmesan cheese that melts not that stuff in a can that looks like sand, it just lies there and burns. Any domestic Parmesan in wedge form is ok, just grate it yourself fresh. Melted Parmesan can get tough if melted too long, that's why I wait till the fish if partly cooked.
#6: The original recipe calls for mozzarella cheese but again it doesn't do much for the recipe. I think the theory is the melted acts as a binder for the mixture but a far as taste, "forget about it". Any decent Swiss cheese does the same thing, my favorite cheese for this dish is Gruyere, a very nutty but horribly expensive cheese. Choose what you like, it all works.
#7: The original recipe gave Cayenne pepper as an alternative, I tried it once and rejected it as I felt it did nothing to enhance the overall flavor. Tobasco sauce was much better but again I felt heat wasn't what I was looking for so I went to the milder tobasco (green bottle) which I use in other recipes. However if you like the taste of the hot tobasco by all means go right ahead.
This and that: None of this is rocket science, being exact isn't the way I cook and this is the type of cooking that comes easy to me. Of course nothing taste the same twice in my house, a lot depends on my mood at the moment or how many sips of wine I've had by the time I'm ready to serve.
The so called Sea monster in Lake Iliamna is a source of great controversy in Alaska, everyone having a theory as to what it is. The Hillstrand brothers (co-captains of the crab boat "Time Bandit" which plays a major part in the TV series "Deadliest Catch") went on a monster catching expedition (more misadventure than adventure) and sort of concluded that the monster might be in the Lake but couldn't prove it one way or another. The more scientific theory says the so called monster is actually White sturgeon but the local residents by the lake stick to the monster theory and that's that.
Food holds a very important spot in Alaskan culture. In my visits up there I found most Alaska residents cook, most of them having very sophisticated
tastes. Trading recipes seems to be a major activity among those I came in contact with. Eating out can be very expensive plus in many places outside the major towns there aren't many places to catch a meal so being able to cook is a necessity and not a luxury. In many of the Native Alaskan villages when ever there are notable events (funerals, marriages etc) a potlatch is in order, an event so important that the fish and game authorities suspend the rule of not taking a moose out of season. Of course this is only in effect for a particular potlatch and not a general rule all over the State.
In my travels around the World I found that fly tiers love to eat and thus cook a lot. Probably a hand eye thing (or so my resident Ph.D. says, wife to be exact), whatever the reason some of the best meals I've had came from fly tiers. I hope you enjoy this recipe from Alaska.