Getting Closer

We just visited the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—commonly called “the U.P.” by all but the most uninformed tourists—and absolutely loved everything about it. Our U.P. trip was a short one, but we crammed in quite a few adventures. We kayaked at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, mountain biked on Grand Island, and stopped by Mackinac Island for an overnight on the way home.

Mackinac (pronounced “Makinaw”) is a tiny little island (two miles long) out in Lake Huron, and visiting is like time travel—no cars, lots of horse-drawn carriages, and buildings and hotels dating to the 1800s.

The U.P. seems largely about the fantastic (ok, Great) lakes and the beautiful northern forests, but it’s also about the food—and you tend to see and hear a lot about pasties, perhaps the most well-known regional treat.

But there’s so much more to food in the U.P., in particular the seafood. Coming from the East Coast, I didn’t really associate seafood with Michigan, and yet there is amazing fresh Great Lakes seafood all over the U.P..

On our trip, we fell in love with the local market in the town of Munising, VanLandschoot and Sons. It’s been around for more than 100 years, and it has an amazing selection of whitefish, salmon, trout, fish dip, and smoked fish.

Like a lot of U.P. businesses, VanLandschoot and Sons is a family affair. It was founded in 1914 by a Belgian immigrant named Philip VanLandschoot who initially set up shop on the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1942, he and his family shifted operations to Munising, a town of about 2,500 on Lake Superior. He fished all summer by boat, and then ice-fished all winter—moving his gear around by horse and sleigh. Those were no doubt different times.

In addition to running an amazing market, VanLandschoot and Sons has also been at the forefront of sustainable fishing practices. In the 1960s, they pioneered the use of trapnets, which are a more responsible way to fish than gillnets. With a trapnet, fish are caught live and any fish that are not being targeted (“bycatch”) can be released. In contrast, gillnets typically kill anything that they catch. The use of trapnets are one of many innovations over the years that have help maintain Lake Superior as a very health commercial fishery.

There are 88 species of fish in Lake Superior, including whitefish. They are near the lake bottom in terms of habitat, but clearly near the top in terms of popularity—comprising almost 90% of the commercial harvest. Whitefish owes its popularity in part to its mild flavor, which means that even people who don’t like fish seem to like whitefish (illogical much?).

 

VanLandschoot and Sons is located in a building next to their docks on the edge of town, and there’s nothing fancy about it. But you can see the boats when you are standing in front of their cold case, so I’m thinking you are getting pretty fresh stuff. They also process, filet and smoke everything right on site, with a friendly staff and prices that would make Whole Foods blush.

Back at our spacious and lovely AirBnB rental in Munising (we splurged a bit), we pan-fried our whitefish with a little paprika, olive oil, pepper, and lemon juice, and we also made a smoked whitefish dip with green onions and cream cheese. That’s a lot of whitefish, but it was definitely a Superior meal.

It’s funny to think that time spent together in the kitchen was one of the highlights of our vacation. But there’s something special about supporting a local (and responsible) business, eating what’s in season, preparing your meals from the freshest of ingredients, and doing it right near the source. A lot of people go on vacation to get away, but sometimes it’s fun to get closer.

Magical Place, Magical Pace

After attending a great wedding in Homer and then visiting Tutka Bay Yurt, we closed out our recent Alaska trip with a stay at Water’s Edge Cabin–a fabulous property near Homer that overlooks Halibut Cove Lagoon. Like the yurt, the cabin is well managed by Alison, Melanie, and the great folks at True North Kayak Adventures.

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Water’s Edge is about 40 minutes by water taxi from Homer, and it offers a lot of things that most Alaskan cabins don’t—like a propane stove, a propane oven,  running water (albeit stream water that needs to be filtered), oil lights, and a propane refrigerator (!). There’s no electricity, but that’s part of the charm (and who needs electricity, anyway?). Overall, the amenities at Water’s Edge are rivaled only by the view…well, actually, the view surpasses them!

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The covered porch was awesome, as was waking up in the second floor loft. The cabin was built with windows from floor to ceiling, so Halibut Cove Lagoon was with us every step of the way. The lagoon is full of life, including bald eagles, sea otters, loons, the occasional Dall’s Porpoise, and probably a lot of other stuff we never even saw. The sounds alone, including loons and a ton of bird life, were amazing.

Over the course of the next four days, we hiked on the awesome trail system in Katchemak Bay State Park, we kayaked, we cooked (of course), and we spent as much time as we could on that amazing porch.

In addition to the fridge and stove/oven, Water’s Edge boasts a spacious kitchen that was very well stocked. Forgot cumin? No problem, it’s right there on the shelf. Need more olive oil? Got it. It was a luxury for us to have so much room to cook, and so many supplies on hand.

With access to a fridge, we were able to have a fresh seafood theme on the trip–with halibut, king salmon, and king crab headlining the menus.

For the halibut, we used our friend Steve’s recipe. He cubes halibut into one inch squares, dips them in pancake batter, then rolls in Panko, and fries the cubes in an oil that can handle high temperature (peanut oil, grapeseed oil, etc.). Steve tells us he just made up the recipe, quite the imagination. I imagine we are going to be making this dish again.

A highlight of our trip was our kayak/hike to Grewink Glacier. It was fun to combine a paddle and a hike, as getting to the trail head required timing the tides pretty carefully. It was also a great chance for Souzz to be Survivor Woman, as I forgot to bring rope to secure our kayak. With the tide rising, Souzz scrounged a piece of rope off of an old buoy on the beach and saved the trip!

Grewink Glacier was stunning, even though the weather was pretty spotty on our visit.

In addition to paddling and hiking, we fished, we picked blueberries, salmon berries, and watermelon berries, we read, and we relaxed a lot on that amazing porch. We got into the easy pace of the lagoon, and yet the days seemed to fly by. When our water taxi came to bring us back to Homer, we really didn’t want to leave.

Alaska is a big geography and we try not to visit the same place twice. But this was a magical place with a magical pace, and we might just need to go back.

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An Odyssey In Homer

Souzz and I were just at a wedding in Homer, Alaska, a few hundred miles south of Anchorage. Traveling to Homer from Virginia is a bit of an odyssey—9 hours in the air, a few airport layovers, and then a five hour drive…so of course we tacked on a little adventure to our trip.

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But first, the wedding was…um, fabulous! It was an outdoor celebration for great friends at a venue that overlooked Katchemak Bay–with glacier views, whales swimming by, a surprise visit from a guy on horseback, and an after-party with a big bonfire on the beach. Granted, we’re from “Outside,” as Alaskans say about folks from the lower 48, but it felt like a very Alaskan event to us.

After the wedding, we (along with a lot of gear and food) took a water taxi ride to Tutka Bay, just across from the Homer Spit. We headed to a yurt that was our home for the next few days. There are a bunch of yurts in Katchemak Bay State Park that can be rented through Alaskan Yurt Rentals; all are well maintained by Alison and the fabulous folks at True North Kayak Adventures. Ours was very secluded, up on a cliff about 30 feet above the bay.

If you aren’t familiar with yurts, the are sort of a cross between a tent and a cabin. Yurts are somewhat portable and offer a lot of space, as well as storm-proof shelter. They originated in central Asia and have been around at least 3,000 years.

Our yurt thankfully was a little newer than that, and it offered a propane stove for cooking, a wood stove for heat, bunks, and a lot of flat space for cooking. Best of all, its location on Tutka Bay also offered us the chance to kayak around watching humpback whales, sea otters, bald eagles, loons, and one (very surprised) black bear.

As for our meals, we of course shopped ahead of the time, including a stop at a terrific local seafood market called Cole Point Seafood Company. Over the course of the next few days, we enjoyed steamed mussels, halibut fish tacos, king salmon, and fresh shrimp with garlic and lime. We also made a Julia Child favorite called potato gratin a al savoyard.

For dessert, we took advantage of the ample space and made a key lime pie, tapping into some advice that we got from Chef Scott Fausz, the pastry chef at nearby Alyeska. He gave us a bunch of tips, including recommending that we use meringue powder instead of egg whites (due to the high humidity).

Based on a sample size of one, we agree about the meringue powder. Our pie came out excellent, and the meringue had soft peaks despite the rainy weather. To bake the pie, we used a frybake with 12 coals on top and 6 on the bottom for 30 minutes, and we made the meringue with a hand-crank mixer (16 minutes of cranking!).

Looking back, our first yurt experience was pretty awesome. We saw a ton of wildlife, we went tidepooling, and we just generally forgot about the city life. The days went by too fast–and it was easy to see the allure of the lifestyle in and around the bay, where everything revolves around the water.

With our adventure complete, we headed back to Homer by water taxi and found our way to another cabin in Halibut Cove Lagoon (but that’s another story for another blog). The only thing missing from our Homer odyssey was hearing the sirens sing, but maybe that comes later?

Happy as a Clam

We are right at home in a rustic cottage on a tiny privately owned island, Little Lazygut, just off of Deer Isle on the Maine coast. At high tide, Little Lazygut is only about 300 yards wide, but there are nice beaches all around and it’s been all ours for the past few nights (cottage renters only here, kind of nice). We came over from nearby Stonington by boat shuttle and brought a tandem kayak along, which has been great for exploring nearby islands and coves.

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We’ve had killer sunsets, a full moon, outdoor fires, and lots of wildlife (birds, deer, even a mink). As for the cottage, there’s no electricity or running water, but there’s a propane powered fridge, stove, and oven, which has been the ticket to some great meals. And now that we are on day three, the name Lazygut seems to fit.

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Mainers seem to have their own vocabulary, and we are starting to catch on a bit. And in addition to learning some new expressions, we are also learning a bit about old expressions. For instance, the saying “happy as a clam” is actually abbreviated. It’s really supposed to be “happy as a clam at high tide.” And now I know why.

Clamming is most certainly a low tide affair, which was at 6:30pm yesterday. Just 50 yards from our front porch, there’s a long sandy beach that was just perfect. Basically you look for air holes or squirts of water and then dig down six inches or so with a clamming rake (we brought a garden rake along and it worked just fine). We had a half dozen clams in less than 20 minutes and set our sites on dinner.

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To clean up the clams, you scrub the shells and then soak them in salt water with a bit of corn meal (the clams eat the corn meal, which helps rid them of sand). Another 30 minutes of prep and we were looking at the freshest of appetizers, clams casino.

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Clams casino is an old fashioned recipe (think 1970s dinner parties) that comes in a lot of variations, and there’s a reason it’s still around. We used shallots, red bell pepper, garlic, oregano, olive oil, and pancetta. It’s a bit of effort to shell the raw clams, but this is an excellent dish and in particular was good using a fresh catch. One taste of these and we were happy as clams (at low tide).

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Mussel Beach

This past weekend we took a little overnight sea kayak camping trip out at Assateague National Seashore. Gusty winds to 25 mph took a little wind out of our sails, but it was perfect prep for a trip further afield that we are planning later this summer—and we’d do it again in a heartbeat. Assateague is bug-free and beautiful this time of year, with wild horses cruising through camp at full gallop (no kidding) and a sunset that seems to last a full hour.

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Sunset from Tingle Island

We are new to sea kayaking, but we learned a lot on our maiden voyage. For further practice for our summer trip, we cooked pretty light, but we happened into a lovely surprise appetizer. As the tide went out on the bay side, we did, too, and we discovered that the shoreline was teeming with mussels—just what our team needed, and an unexpected windfall.

When the backcountry kitchen isn’t about planning, it’s about ingenuity. With that in mind, sand substituted for a cleaning brush, a nesting pot substituted for a steamer, and red wine filled in for white wine.  In the end, the mussels came out perfectly. Prep was easy, and a big key was soaking them IMGA0046in fresh water for about 20 minutes to allow them to breathe out built-up sand. We also had to “de-beard” a few of them–a new term for me that triggered an endless stream of bad puns, but a task that was easily done by hand. It was twenty minutes from ocean to table, and it was a delightful little warm-up to our unremarkable boil-in-bag dinners.

While mussels were the only delicacy of the weekend, we did experiment a bit on Sunday morning with a new breakfast dish made with dehydrated hash browns and “no refrigerate” bacon that we named Old Bayside Quiche, inspired by the Old Bay IMGA0079seasoning that we sprinkled liberally while cooking.  Mixing up fresh eggs ahead of time at home and then freezing them in a ziplock bag was just the trick. While not exactly a new concept, the egg mixture works well and the resulting baggie is way less bulky than those plastic egg carrier thingies. It does make you look weird(er) when you do the prep before a dinner party at a friend’s house in Annapolis the night before—but at least I shaved beforehand, which is more than I can say about those mussels.