Saturday, October 18, 2008

Good Eats in AK!

Everyone has something different that they like to do in places they live and visit. For us, the parks and hiking trails are one, and trying new restaurants is another. I thought I would share our favorite restaurants we have discovered in Alaska to date. If anyone has a good one to share, please let us know so we can try it out as we travel!

Cosmic Kitchen in Homer: You know a restaurant is good if it actually has 2 of them in a town the size of Homer! One is in the main part of town, while the other is out on the Spit. The smoothies are the best: they fill up a big cup with real fruit (not the imitation flavoring) and blend it up. Yum! The nachos are great, the burgers are delicious, and the only thing we have found that we don't like are some of their soups (they turn some things into soup that I wouldn't expect to be soup!). Overall, they are a good standby that we can always count on getting a good meal at.

Blackwater Bend between Homer and Anchor Point: I know, they're a coffee shop, not a restaurant, but I can't resist mentioning them. They're in the middle of nowhere (actually, across the road from Norman Lowell's studio & art gallery), but they nearly always have a line of cars at their drive-up window, which signals to me that they must be good! I tried a coffee smoothie there and it was divine! They have gigantic cinnamon rolls, and a nice selection of other on-the-go foods.

Hash Browns in Anchor Point: No restaurant is perfect, but I sure appreciate when they own up to their mistakes. When we went here a few weeks ago the waitress accidentally wrote down the wrong order for the kids. When I pointed it out to her, she didn't question it, she just took it right off the bill. It seems like most of the time if a restaurant makes a mistake you have to fight them to do anything about it, and it is more stress than it is worth. Hash Browns earned my loyalty by not making me fight. The pace of service is small town slow, so it is best to have plenty of time when you go.

The Crossings in Soldotna: This restaurant has the look of class, so I was not sure we would be welcomed when we wandered in one Saturday after a morning of berry picking, stains on our knees and twigs in our hair. When I asked the hostess about our attire, she just said meaningfully, "This is Alaska," so I guess dress is not an issue. This is a classy restaurant. It overlooks the Kenai River, has multiple levels, lots of windows, conservative and trained waitstaff, pleasant music, and good food. It was a gem to discover. We've spent $60 on plenty of meals in Alaska, but usually it was at a hole-in-the-wall with terrible service and bad food. We left The Crossings fully satisfied with our dining experience and happy to pay the restaurant for it. I am looking forward to an excuse to go there again when we're in town!

Alcapalco in Kenai: Again and again, the Alcapalco Mexican Restaurant is mentioned as a good place to eat at in Kenai when we ask people for a good restaurant. It has an extensive menu, and the two times I have been there the service was excellent--really outstanding. The food is good and the prices in line with what you are getting. It's nothing razzy dazzy, just a great place to go out for lunch with a group. Oh, and we really like their salsa. It will now be a regular stop for us when we are in Kenai to take some salsa to go.

There is an awesome Oriental buffet in Anchorage, and a great steakhouse/pub in Skagway, but I can't recall the names...I'll have to track them down.

The most fascinating thing about eating out in Alaska is the lack of chain restaurants. It is refreshing! Back in Gaylord, Michigan, I think the town was down to maybe 5 non-chain restaurants. It was hard to find a place to eat that actually had unique food. In Alaska the pendulum is far off in the other direction (at least in the non-metropolitan areas), with chain restaurants few and far between. I believe McDonald's is the only chain restaurant in Homer, out of something like 30 restaurants (in the summer). So we lose the consistency, but we gain when we find gems of culinary delight in out-of-the-way places. It takes much patience and trial and error to find good places to eat out. These are our favorites to date. Hope you enjoy them if you're in the area!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

First snow...and still snowing

Sunday morning we woke up to a white world. Six inches of snow had collected overnight, transforming our green and brown world to black and white. The local pond (above) had a thin sheen of ice on it, and the ground was almost completely frozen. Just one week ago I cleaned out my garden: dug my veggies and pulled everything up. This was the day I was going to rent a rototiller and till in my compost. Looks like I missed the moment, and it's not going to happen till spring.

So Sunday was a play day, with the kids and I cross country skiing all over the local pastures, exploring the world from a different perspective! Snow forts went up, snowball fights ensued, hot cocoa was consumed and it was a joyous day. I fully expected the snow to all melt, as it was a sunny day, but it only melted a tiny bit, and snow has continued to drift down each day since adding to the base. It occurred to me that snow usually "sticks" till May 15 up here, so if this snow "sticks," that will be over 7 months of snow! Any takers??!! Or you can live in Homer where there's no snow (yet)!!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Butchering the Local Cows

Friday our neighbors called and said they were butchering their cows, and did we want to come and watch or help? I was actually pretty excited to see the process, so Saturday was set aside to discover what it is like to butcher a see firsthand how food goes from a living animal to a steak on our plate.

Note: These are not the typical beautiful Alaskan pictures I post on my blog. However, if this blog is about "Life in Alaska", I don't feel quite right editing out the "rougher" or "baser" parts of life up here. People everywhere butcher cows (and goats, pigs, chickens, etc.), but for our family, it is not something we encountered or experienced in our lives up until now, so that makes it part of our "Alaskan" experience. My 10-year-old daughter used 2 words to describe this process: "interesting" and "boring". I agree. I hope you enjoy, or at the very least appreciate, this photojournal of the process.

Our neighbors are hunters, so it was a simple thing to choose the gun and bring it down to the cow pasture. Compared to being mauled and eaten by a wild animal, being shot is an easy way to go. The cows didn't know they were about to be killed, and even after a couple had been killed, skinned and gutted, the others just stood around watching. The was no sense of agitation at all. This is part of what surprised me about this process. Even chickens (which I have butchered myself) get more upset than these cows did.

Bleeding an animal needs to happen fairly quickly, so the moment the cow is down (one shot between the eyes), someone cuts the artery below the heart. It takes a few minutes for the reflexes to stop so that the cow stops kicking. I've seen this same reflex at work on moose that have been hit by a car. Once the cow has been bled, it is hung. In this case, our neighbors have a Cat with a forklift, which is very convenient. If this were a moose out in the woods the process would be a lot messier. The cow is brought to a good spot and laid on its back, propped up between a couple of logs to keep it steady.

Skinning the cow was the part I was dreading the most, I think, but I was amazed at how clean it was. The only blood is what might have gotten on the cow when it was bled. Other than that, it seems the blood is contained and so it is not a gory process at all. Really, sterile is the word that comes to mind. The skinning is routine work, and fairly simple. There were 4 of us "newbies" there to observe and help how we could, and we all felt pretty competent by time we were done. After the legs are skinned they are sawed off mid-leg, and after the belly has been sliced open, the sternum is sawed as well.

This entire process, from shot to the end when the cow is quartered and hung took less than an hour. Normally it takes them less time when they don't have inexperienced people helping. They take their cows to a processor so that they get good cuts, sausage, stew meat, etc. made up. Apparently the meat can hang for 10 days in cool weather before it begins to go bad. The heart is the only internal organ that they keep, and they give the tongues to someone who enjoys cooking them up.
For people who have been raised in hunting families or on farms, this is probably all old hat. I was not, so this was a new experience for me. I don't think I would go and start raising myself a cow and butchering it myself, but the whole concept of growing your own food--meat--is not quite so foreign to me anymore.

The carbon footprint for these cows is very low. They are raised on the farm over winter, fed grass, butchered here and driven a few miles down the road to the processor. Part of the problem with typical meat bought in the stores today is that it takes an immense amount of energy to grow, butcher, process and ship to stores all over the country or world. The carbon footprint is large, and much of the nutritional value of the meat is lost due to being corn-fed animals. It is neat to see how it "should" be done, or at least seeing that some people still have the skill, equipment and know-how to actually feed themselves.