Life Amidst the Tundra: Susie Jenkins-Brito

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WESTERN BRISTOL BAY IS YUPIK LAND. IT’S A LAND AWASH WITH RICH TUNDRA LANDSCAPES, BOUNTIFUL WATERSHEDS, RANGING MOUNTAINS, AND AN ANNUAL RHYTHM OF ABUNDANCE THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES HERE HAVE DEPENDED ON FOR CENTURIES. IT IS A PLACE I AM NOW FORTUNATE TO CALL HOME.

I was born and raised in South central Alaska to parents who instilled in me an appreciation of the natural world early on with a backyard sled dog team and a large garden. I grew up knowing we would count spring shorebirds on the Kenai Peninsula for the Audubon Society, go fishing for silver salmon on the Deshka River, pick ripening blueberries in Hatcher Pass, and that tracks from our dogsled would be seen leaving the yard as soon as the snow began to stick. Moose would eat our lettuce and at times fill our freezer, wood smoke often smelled like salmon in the fall, and the dogs would always howl on clear cold nights. Yet it wasn’t until I was grown that I fully realized how fulfilling a life in tune with the seasons, and the edible foods each season brought with it, could be.

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“I grew up knowing we would count spring shorebirds on the Kenai Peninsula for the Audubon Society, go fishing for silver salmon on the Deshka River, pick ripening blueberries in Hatcher Pass, and that tracks from our dogsled would be seen leaving the yard as soon as the snow began to stick.”

As a young adult I came to Bristol Bay seeking something I didn’t even realize I needed. Growing up I pictured myself as a chef in a hopping kitchen downtown, anywhere with bright lights and big crowds. I left small town Alaska looking for just that as soon as I was old enough to drive away, only to find myself in a remote field camp counting salmon on the Togiak River some four years later, thinking, “How can I ever leave this place?” On the tundra and rivers here I found someone I’d never have become anywhere else. I dove in, knowing the life I wanted to cultivate was already being lived, I just had to reach out and learn it. Now, some fourteen years after stepping off my first bush plane into Bristol Bay, my young family’s life revolves around what is happening just outside our front door. My kitchen is alive with the bounty we harvest and my hands are often tired. I am a chef here in my own right, creating meals I hope people remember long after they visit and teaching my children joy found in a meal brought about through their own doing.

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Our family table is set by the season, dishes holding nourishment harvested and/or preserved for the occasion are the spread. Breakfasts of blueberry pancakes or steel-cut oats are on regular rotation, salmon salad or strips fill lunch boxes, dinners range from moose roast to salmon curry to halibut stir fry to spruce grouse meat pie and the list goes on. Spring brings the herring into near shore waters, roe is harvested on kelp and dipped in soy sauce and, if you’re lucky enough to know someone to give you a jar, perhaps into seal oil too. Birds begin nesting and long line skates are set with baited hooks hopeful for halibut on every pull. Geese fly overhead and are roasted fresh; fiddlehead ferns and fireweed shoots emerge from brown earth filling pesto and pickling jars.

The earth warms enough to turn for planting as wild lovage becomes fragrant on the shoreline and birch leaves unfurl for steeping in olive oil. The net goes out and salmon begin to arrive, the mighty Chinook first as well as a few errant chum, the precursors to the overwhelmingly abundant sockeye run. Spruce tips divulge their papery coverings and bake, chopped fine, into shortbreads and brighten pastas; flowers fall from berry bushes across the boggy to high tundras. If the wild chamomile is thick, some elders say, so will be the berries. Smokehouses and freezers fill, trout are caught on dry flies bright as rainbows, and the sun begins to actually go down again sometime in the night. Chythlook (wormwood) and yarrow hang to dry in bundles for baths, steams, and teas. Berries ripen. The cloudberry first, followed shortly by the huckleberry, crow, and blue. Buckets are filled to the brim for pies, jams, freezer bags, shrubs, and more, a job for even the smallest hands. Silvers put up a fight on rod and reel and the tundra begins to redden as low bush cranberries darken to wine. Moose quarters are hung in the shed, the heart savored fresh with over easy eggs at breakfast, and grouse fill the bellies of even the newest hunter. Snow flurries fly and rabbits begin to leave tracks across the snow amidst the trap line. Ptarmigan may rustle bushes, a quick shot if you have an eye for it. Late winter hand jigs and nets find smelt moving in the rivers and along the edge of the Bay and everyone knows spring will be upon us again soon, while waiting chaga is harvested to dry. Each year we learn more ways to live immersed in the world around us. We call things by their names and are careful what we take. I am always learning and my door is always open to those who want to eat with us.

“On the tundra and rivers here I found someone I’d never have become anywhere else. I dove in, knowing the life I wanted to cultivate was already being lived, I just had to reach out and learn it.”
Halibut Head & Seagull Egg Miso Ramen

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You’ll need:
● 1–2 halibut heads with collar left on and cheeks in

● Sesame oil for sautéing

● 2–3 large leeks, diced (white and light green parts only)

● 8 cups dashi or vegetable broth

● 6–10 cloves garlic minced

● 1/4 cup red miso paste

● 1/8 cup white miso paste

● 1/4 cup soy sauce/shoyu

● 1 heaping tablespoon of doenjang (fermented soybean paste)

● 10 dried shiitake mushrooms, roughly chopped or broken up

● 16 ounces ramen noodles, cooked and drained

● 4–8 fresh seagull eggs, washed well

● Whole leaf baby spinach

● Snow peas, chopped in pods

● Green onions, diced

● Furikake

● Wasabi powder/paste/sauce, Ly-Yu chili oil, shichimi to taste (optional)

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To make:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and place the whole, cleaned, halibut head white-side-down onto the tray. Drizzle with sesame oil and season with a sprinkle of salt. Bake until fragrant, when the meat on the collar is white, tender, and easy to flake away—depending on size, 30–45 minutes.

While the head bakes, in a large heavy-bottomed stock pot, sauté leeks in sesame oil over medium heat until tender, add garlic, and cook for an additional minute, stirring frequently. Pour in dashi or vegetable broth and bring to boil. Remove a cup of the hot liquid, pour into a small bowl, whisk in miso and doenjang paste until dissolved, and pour back into the pot along with soy sauce and mushrooms. Lower the heat and allow to simmer while you prepare the eggs, noodles, and bowls for serving.

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Image by: missbossy

In a second pot, bring enough water to boil to cover the eggs, and then cook the ramen noodles. Carefully place the eggs into the boiling water and cook for eight minutes. I strongly recommend timing them, the goal being perfectly soft-boiled yolks, a little creamy and runny but not at all raw, and fully done whites. Remove with a spoon to ice cold water and toss your desired amount of ramen noodles in to cook according to package directions. Peel eggs once they are cool enough to touch.

Drain and divide noodles into bowls, topping each with a generous handful of spinach, chopped snow peas, and diced onions. Pluck meat from the halibut head into waiting bowls, paying special attention to the collar and the area below the face plate, peeling away skin and turning the bones to find all the meat that’s hidden away. Ladle miso broth over the bowl’s contents until they are submerged, and finish each bowl with a halved egg and a generous amount of furikake. (We, when cracking the egg, slurp out the juice within before peeling fully.) Garnish with wasabi, Ly-Yu chili oil, and shichimi to taste if you want a little heat in your dish.

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Image by: City Foodsters

To adjust this recipe to what’s available to you, ask your local fishmonger for any fish heads they have on hand and how to clean them; most are easily baked in the same manner listed above. If halibut heads are in stock, buy them prior to cheek removal or after, there is still so much meat retained despite these being cut away. Canned salmon or herring can sub in easily, and chicken eggs swap for seagull: The beauty of this soup is that it is so versatile and adaptable.

You can find many more of Susie’s recipes on her blog: Set the Net

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