dinners in denali
or, adventures in cabin catering
Hi. I cooked a lot last week. More than usual.
To toot my own horn from this little cabin in the woods, that is….saying something.
You see, my very next neighbor made me a proposition I could not refuse.
An invitation I could hardly pass up. An opportunity that piqued my interest!
This is the story of how I briefly became the private chef for a tour group.
Like I said, how could I resist?!
Well, first things first, I verified that there were no food allergies (nor any allergies to my occasional sous chefs, meow meow), that there were no big food dislikes, and that it was understood by all that I would make things….vEgAn!!!!...in Alaska ! ! ! Oh, I’m still maniacally winking.
In short, I cleared my head (somewhat) for a good week there. Brainstorming, continuous prepwork, sleep, dough-making, and full days of cooking for seven at my actual next-door neighbor’s house.
Overall, it was a super cool and positively challenging experience, and definitely not one I’d come across since our move in 2019. Sure, I’ve done a lot of event & conference stuff and uh, creative cooking projects throughout the years (helloooo, secret supper clubs & themed dinner parties & cook-offs & cooking classes scattered here & there), but I do declare this rural episode the most convenient and efficiently-orchestrated yet. Ding, ding, ding to maturity ! ? !
Dinner 1 –
Penne alla vodka, cashew cream swirl, fresh parsley, parm* Sourdough focaccia - olive duo/thyme and sesame/flake salt/nooch Roasted asparagus, lemon, balsamic [one must amp up the flavors of asparagus that’s been through a lot] for dessert – Warm cast iron chocolate chip cookie, vanilla ice cream*, date coconut caramel
Dinner 2 –
Massaman curry, acorn squash, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower Jasmine rice, pickled jalapeño, cilantro, coconut cream AK salmon* Turmeric roasted chickpeas for dessert - Hot apple ginger berry oatmeal crisp, vanilla ice cream* (+ all foraged berries, duh)
The Baking –
sourdough bagels scones - citrus sourdough cornmeal and coffee-soaked raisin & date two sandwich loaves sourdough rolls assorted cookies - chocolate peanut butter crinkle, oatmeal cookie biscotti, matcha almond biscotti (all three adapted from VCIYCJ), ginger molasses, no-bake steel cut oat/seed/berry squares
About the menu: I went Italian for the first night, because, who doesn’t like Italian food?! And for that matter, “vodka sauce” seemed appropriate for vacation-ers. I was already advised that these guests “eat everything” and were “big eaters” – and would be spending all day skiing & hiking – hence the carbs!
For night 2, I went riskier with the Thai curry, using a base of homemade Massaman and red curry pastes with yellow curry powder to tone it down, which doesn’t sound like it would make sense, but just trust me here. I wanted to envelop hearty veg & roasted squash in the creamy coconut curry that could work as an entrée or a side with rice, and not-cooked-by-me grilled salmon*. If they wanted to, folks could tone down the heat with coconut cream, or opt for more with the pickled chiles. (It totally worked).
To my recollection, the last time someone legitimately enlisted me to just cook was when I baked & sold two or three dozen cupcakes (for way under their value, I realized too late) in 2006 or so, when the regional vegetarian society mistakenly listed my then new food-blog-thing as a bakery and an actual order came in. Again, I was an early twenty-something with billssss, so, how could I pass that up?
Even then – as I told these guests next-door on my final drop-off of bagels + scones + cookies – I agreed to bake those long-ago cupcakes, and offered to help my neighbor, frankly, because “it was a hoot” (or surely would be!), and I was touched to be asked. <3
Highlights + Real Life:
Rising before the sun to bake bagels and scones!
Balancing baked goods & various supplies from one kitchen to another, boots on, through a snowy moat between houses.
Using every single bowl we owned for dough after dough!
Contemplating pasta and curry for a crowd!
Pondering how to up the flavors, yet tone down the heat of that second one…
Cooking whatever vegetables looked decent from someone else’s Fairbanks run! ! !
Learning…would these strangers….even eat vegetables?!?
Would there be any fresh herbs?! Would there be any decent produce in town?!
& decidedly, sticking to desserts served in cast iron pans – warmed over a wood stove, no less.
Next up, we have a breakfast tray with my favorite bake of the experience: the coffee-soaked date + raisin scones with cocoa glaze. I am shocked to say these were sourdough-less. The recipe comes from the Good to the Grain cookbook and I do have notes I aim to type up cohohesively at some point.
As for the cookies, I’ve been toying with the cranberry white chocolate biscotti recipe in VCIYCJ for a while now, working in toasted oats, a bit of whatever suitable dried fruit I can find in my cabinet (often minced prunes!!!!! although two types of raisins went into this batch) and appropriate spices for an oatmeal cookie ode. If you ever receive a care package from yours truly, this will surely be in it. Biscotti really travels well, and relevantly, is accompanied by a note that practically demands you “DIP THIS COOKIE” for best results (and to not break a tooth).
Moving on in cookie-land, we’re back to my little kitchen for the cookie pies.
These are inspired by the clear concept in a recent read: Joanna Pruess’ Cast Iron Cookbook, where, well, everything is as expected. You bake a giant chocolate chip cookie in a cast iron pan! These particular cookies again come from VCIYCJ, where I doubled the recipe for two pies, subbed half the oil for applesauce for more chew, and threw in a teeny tiny pinch of bonus baking powder to portray that I really know what I’m up to.
For the record, this was not my first cookie pie in personal history (because I had a childhood love of blondies), but it definitely had been years.
Glad I remedied that - with a practice run the week prior, too.
Technically, March is the start of asparagus season. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
I want to add…
Every time I try to sit down and process (let alone attempt to write) about what’s been going on in my own life lately, I buckle with the realities (& surreal-ities) of being & living, simultaneously, while the devastation of humans-at-war heaves on in Eastern Europe. I won’t tell you it’s too close to home, because, it always is.
Even tip-typing a few mere words about this here cooking project, or trying to take a picture of last week’s snow falling in granola-esque clusters, leaves me….trailing off…..hooked in the minutiae, and the immense. I won’t ask “how” we go about our normal lives and upload photos of food into streams & do our work & make dinner & try to relax & be whatever normal is when we know SO MUCH BAD is happening. We go about it all because we…do. Deep breaths, everybody (especially if you read this, and it resonates at all ♥).
There’s a ton about Alaskan politics alone that’s kept me focused/irate/dedicated in very recent days – for example, testifying against one anti-trans-kids-in-sports bill on Saturday, and for another more positive LGBTQ+ proposed bill on Monday. I didn’t see that one coming a decade ago, and that’s not even getting into the horrors and corruption of oil, gas, corruption and our shared planet - and humanity.
Sigh. Back to the sub’scrap.
*Okay, okay, the asterisks in the menus way, way above indicate cow dairy components, and my other neighbor did grill some moose steaks and salmon as a supplement, as previously agreed upon, and it was chill, literally & out in maybe 20F on their deck, naturally. Alaska, indeed.
A night or two later, I cooked a real dinner at home again. I had beans soaking for days amidst all the other cooking! It happens.
& kept going…
Speaking of ‘going’……
So, thank you to those years of Portland-ing, the events-centric career experience and that clipboard + checklist life, the peace of mind up north in trees (mostly), Alaska’s fairly chill cottage food laws, and my neighbor’s endearing vote of confidence. Toot, toot.
I seriously have been contemplating selling bread and baked goods at the tiny, brief farmer’s market in our borough one summer, and this was that one sashay closer. TBD, yadda yadda.
References + Relevant Reads:
Authentic Thai Recipe for Massman Curry Paste, Thai Cookbook.tv - miso subbed for shrimp paste, ginger for galangal, frozen lime leaf and actual lime juice for the lemongrass & lime peel (hellooooo, rural Alaska here)
Crackle Top Ginger Molasses Cookies, Allrecipes - I used half applesauce for the oil + straight up aquafaba egg
Escarole and White Beans, Lidia’s Italy
Everyone’s Table by Gregory Gourdet - see: red curry paste - I have a bag of frozen pieces of this fierce mix
Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce - I adapted the date scones from the currant scone recipe
Ilya Kaminsky Reads “We Lived Happily During the War”, Poetry Foundation November 15, 2019
No Bake Steel Cut Oat Bars, Breeze did what now - maple/brown sugar/jam syrup in lieu of honey
Ukraine as a ‘borderland’: a brief history of Ukraine’s place between Europe and Russia, The Conversation March 3, 2022
Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jars aka ‘VCIYCJ’ by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero
Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero - I used the Penna alla Vodka recipe, skipped the almonds, and added a cashew cream swirl upon serving family-style, topped with parsley