Probably one of the reasons that so endeared me to the Alaska lifestyle was the many, many campfire cookouts. Fifty years ago, we cooked over a big ongoing fire on the Nikiski beach with our set-net fishing. The sunset bouncing off the tops of mountains across the inlet will forever be one of my best Alaska memories.
I learned a lot from Betty and Gene Coulter and the most fastidious way they cooked over a campfire. A tripod was erected over the fire and a big cast-iron pot was suspended from a chain that could be lowered above the fire. P.S., I still have the cast-iron pot!
The combinations of food you can cook over a fire on the beach are endless. A beautiful salmon from first catch of salmon in the nets was selected, gutted and headed and put in the pot after the potatoes and carrots were almost cooked through in water or chicken broth. The salmon fillets were laid on top and left to do their magic for about 15 minutes. Each fillet was spooned out with carrots and potatoes. Butter and salt and pepper were all you needed. One of the men, who will remain nameless, preferred to eat a bologna sandwich, but the rest of us reminded him what he was missing.
Stewed chicken was another favorite, as you could let it simmer almost all day while you were fishing.
Gene was very famous for his deep-fried beer-battered salmon chunks. I learned how to do this over a campfire and have for years served this for our get-togethers on certain holidays — but not over a campfire! I love the newfangled deep-fat fryers.
Betty made the coleslaw from the cabbage she raised in their garden on the homestead. She said the first thing you need for making perfect slaw was a thin sharp knife. She shaved that cabbage to perfection and mixed up her perfect dressing to go over the top, making sure she had Hellmann’s mayonnaise — ONLY!
The dip for the fish was made by Gene and he took an hour to stir, taste, stir, add and taste again to make it very delicious. Or, maybe we were just hungry by the time he got through!
They both made great food out of the catch from the ocean and from the garden. I learned a lot from them, that is for sure. Plus, my mother was a frugal cook so the combination was instilled in me as a child.
Mom made homemade bread and so did Betty — sourdough bread. Thus, I learned about sourdough and how to store the starter until next time I needed it, another Alaska secret. I fear all this has been lost by the conveniences of big box grocery stores.
Fast forward a couple years — my “other life” as I call it — to a trip to Homer with Ben and Nadine. Ben built and sold aluminum river boats. Every one he built he would have to “road test,” usually in the waters of Homer. We lived in Eagle River at the time and the trip to Homer was always fun — following Ben in his big yellow bus pulling his new boat he had just finished. It had to be tested before he sold it! It always was just a little bit better than the last one he built.
We camped across from the Salty Dawg Saloon on the beach (which you cannot do now). After fishing and digging for clams all day, we would build a big fire and put on the big ugly fire-scorched pot that Ben carried with him for a clam, salmon, shrimp and, sometimes, crab bake. Everything was put in a big pot of boiling seasoned water, with a couple onions a carrot or two, some whole small whole unpeeled potatoes, garlic salt and a handful of pepper.
Wait until the veggies are almost done and lay the salmon on the top of veggies first, then the crab and the clams, and wait five minutes and put the shrimp on top of all that and clams and crab over that. Slam on the lid — Ben’s words — and wait five more minutes. He had big glass pie plates that he served the food on — a combination of veggies and one chunk of fish, some clams and shrimp and a crab leg on top. You got a big hunk of butter on top and an old aluminum spoon so you could eat like a king. He was one proud cook and was always jumping up making sure you needed more of this or that.
Nadine was one cute Texan and so enjoyed being catered to!
Stuffed to the gills — another Ben term — we would lounge around the fire until the wee hours talking singing and telling tall tales.
No wonder the campfire cooking is so ingrained into my brain.
Fast forward many years to my new life — Bob and I living in a cabin on our lake in north Nikiski. David was fishing in Homer with his best friends Brad and Devon Dickey. He would come home with a couple friends and a big gunny sack full of crab legs and shrimp.
Bob, the king of building bonfires, built the big burning pile of old wood he scavenged from the woods around us. This eventually led to him cleaning up the yard of the other three cabins and making the whole area look like a park.
But back to my story! The biggest pot I could buy at the Army Navy store in Kenai was put on the fire and when the water was boiling, in went the crab legs and the shrimp. Five minutes later, they were fished out with a big long-handled serving spoon and put on a “spool table” — everyone had one of these in there front yard — covered with newspaper, and everyone helped themselves. The only noise we heard was the bird-chirping and the slurping of the satisfied guest, sitting around on tree stumps and various odds and ends of chairs.
For five years, we had cookouts at a firepit Bob built down by the lake in front of the cabins. Many, many people spent many, many pleasant nights eating, singing and telling tales of the day around the glowing embers, which Bob would poke once in a while and throw another log onto.
Those nights we were warm and full of potluck food and singing with the strum of a guitar or two. Morning would roll around and usually one or two of our friends were sitting fast asleep in the same spot we left them in. I would put on a huge pot of coffee as Bob would poke up the fire and throw on another log or tree stump. Have you ever eaten pancakes and bacon around a morning bonfire?
We have had many cookouts at our home that Bob built on the next lot over from the cabins. I learned from our friend John Turnbull about roasting whole onions on a stick. I learned and perfected baking bread in the cast-iron pot, placed on a hot rock very close to the fire and turned the pot every 15 minutes to get it browned on all sides. I have done this in our woodstove in the winter too!
Well, I cannot forget for the past 30 years that we have had many, many beer-battered salmon potluck picnics, and many hotdog picnics with marshmallows — my kids called them warshmeddows — and Hershey chocolate squares on a graham cracker.
This August we will have another big Bob bonfire potluck picnic to welcome my longtime (52 years!) friend Jo Anne (Adams) Wahlstrom and her daughter Kandi from Washington, who are visiting and meeting up with Leatha and daughter Tia, who live in Soldotna. Tia and Kandi went to school with my Susan. We have known each other since 1967! We plan a trip overnight to Homer also.
Summer time is HERE. Time to have cookouts, campfires, bonfires and see friends you have not seen who live down the road or far away.
This article put a smile on my face. I hope you have great memories to put a happy smile on your face.
This recipe is requested every year and this year is no exception. Here are three different recipes. All good. I mostly use recipe #3.
1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon each paprika, garlic salt and black pepper
1 cup or more of Bob’s beer, at room temperature
Stir and blend until smooth. Set side for an hour and dunk paper-towel-dried salmon or halibut into batter and deep fry until golden.
Gene’s recipe, but I added to it.
1 cup pancake mix — has to be Krusteaz
1/4 teaspoon celery salt, garlic salt, lemon pepper, garlic powder, onion powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1 cup or more of Bob’s beer. Gene uses Ole beer.
Stir until smooth. Batter should be medium thick, not too thin
Paper towel dry fish, roll in flour and dip in batter. Fry to golden brown.
This is especially good for shrimp and halibut.
1 cup flour
1 cup cornstarch
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/3 cups very cold water
Mix until well blended.
Dip towel-dried fish/shrimp in mix and let drip a few seconds. Fry at 375 degrees until golden. Drain and serve with your favorite sauces.
HALIBUT COATING FOR FRYING
I worked in a big hotel restaurant in Anchorage — this was the most requested on the menu.
Prepare halibut by cutting off skin and cut into large 4 x 4-inch squares.
Dip in beaten egg.
Roll in flour with salt and pepper added.
Fry in cast-iron skillet with about 1/2 inch vegetable oil until both sides are golden brown — about 4 minutes on each side, depending how thick the fish is. Test to see if halibut is done in the middle.
Garnish with a twist of lemon slice.
Serve with steamed broccoli and a soft potato bun.
Blueberry pie was the most requested pie with a dip of vanilla ice cream.
So simple so elegant and so delicious!
HALIBUT OR SALMON HERB CHEESE COATING
2 cups Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup minced parsley
2 tablespoons oregano
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon each salt and pepper
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup milk
Dip halibut in mayonnaise and milk. Roll in dry ingredients and place on oiled foil-lined baking sheet. Bake 35 minutes at 375 degrees until the middle of fish is done. Do not over bake. Doneness depends on thickness of fish.
Serve with garden fresh lettuce and tomato salad and sourdough roll.
CAMPFIRE FISH ON A STICK
Fun for kids, but you have to watch and assist them.
Catch, gut and wash a small salmon, trout, grayling or pike.
Sharpen a green stick that has been peeled.
Stick fish — making sure it is very secure.
Position high over hot coals and turn and turn until done. This possibly takes a half hour.
Serve for breakfast with scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and ever-so-good hot camp coffee or hot chocolate.
• By ANN “GRANNIE ANNIE” BERG, For the Peninsula Clarion