It is early evening, yet the Alaska summer sun is still angling through the windows of The Widgeon, a former troop carrier and crabbing boat now run aground and turned into a cooking school. Inside, Chef Mandy Dixon instructs a small group of visitors on how to make beignets from Alaska king crab, dropping gobs of blended crab, flour, eggs, spices, and cheese into bubbling canola oil.
“Kirsten likes to be all neat and shape them into quenelles,” Mandy says, referring to her mother, Chef Kirsten Dixon, who is working as her sous chef for this session, “but I like to make them free form.”
We are at Tutka Bay Lodge, which overlooks an inlet of Kachemak Bay—a 40-minute floatplane flight south of Anchorage—learning more about Alaska seafood and how to prepare it. But almost as important as the seafood itself, at Tutka Bay, the Dixons and their guides wouldn’t think about meal planning without first foraging in the dense woods and along the rocky seashore for ingredients to accompany the bounty from the nearby oceans and rivers.
For example, we dip Mandy’s rich crab beignets into an aioli spiced with dried sea lettuce, a type of seaweed. And the salt used to season the beignets was a few days ago ocean water that has since been dried and harvested in Tutka Bay’s greenhouse. Open Kirsten’s and Mandy’s Tutka Bay Lodge Cookbook (Graphic Arts, 2014), and you’ll find recipes for sweet and spicy pickles made from bullwhip kelp, jelly made from salmonberries, sea lettuce relish, wild mushroom sauces, and desserts and salads which utilize a variety of Alaskan berries.
Whether you live on America’s East Coast, the plains of Texas, the mountains of Northern California, or the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, foraging depends on knowing what is edible and enjoyable—and what is not—and which is the best season to harvest each plant. Typically, edibles fall into a range of categories:greens, mushrooms and other fungi, berries and other fruits, nuts, roots and tubers, seeds, and flowers. Tutka Bay also can add sea vegetation to the list.
“We are at the northern edge of the rain forest that begins in Oregon and Washington,” Karen, a Tutka Bay guide, advises me as we go in search of wild edibles. “In Homer, across the bay, you have the boreal forest, which has a lot more conifers.” That means there is a lot of rain-enriched, bio-diverse plant life on the small, hilly peninsula where Tutka Bay Lodge is located.
We begin our foraging adventures at water’s edge, then climb up a rugged trail and back down to the seaside again. The first thing the guide notices is bladder wrack, a type of seaweed with alien-like green fingers. “It’s used in soups and as a garnish for oysters,” she says. Then we encounter the bulbous bullwhip kelp as well as sea lettuce (“dried, it’s a great seasoning for popcorn”).
Along the trail, we encounter the painful, annoying, and abundant devil’s club with its nettle-like sting. But early in the spring, like the eastern nettle, it can be harvested as a flavorful salad green. Blueberries, in abundant bushes at trailside (“a bit smaller than domestic ones”), are just getting ripe. The new growth on spruce trees, the tips, are used to make spruce-flavored sugars as well as teas. There are also berries I don’t recognize—the bright red watermelon berry, the salmonberry (a wild strawberry look-alike) and bunchberries, tiny and red, growing on a ground plant with a white flower that looks like dogwood. We see few mushrooms, but I am told they are abundant in the spring.
We emerge from the forest to a beach facing a different direction and with different plant life from that we had seen earlier. Here are beach peas, much like garden peas with purple flowers; beach grass with its long, narrow leaves, salty and spicy and often boiled before serving, and shiny, small-leafed beach greens.
The next day, we go along a different trail to harvest blueberries and are entertained by a nearby eagle hunting for its own fresh seafood. That evening for dinner, after a meal of scallops followed by king crab dipped in smoked egg yolk, the blueberries appear in a panna cotta for dessert.
Outside, as if on cue, a steady downpour of rain begins, feeding the abundant—and quite delicious—wildlife of the Alaska rain forest.
Alaska Crab Beignets
by Chef Mandy Dixon, La Baleine Café and Tutka Bay Lodge
Canola oil for frying
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup chicken stock
Pinch of salt
1 cup bread flour
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¾ cup Gruyere cheese, grated
¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated (plus extra for dusting the finished beignets)
Freshly ground pepper
1 ½ tablespoons fresh chives
½ pound Alaska crabmeat
Add the canola oil to an electric deep fryer or deep-sided saucepan about half way up. Bring the oil to 350 degrees. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the butter, chicken stock, and salt and bring this mixture to a boil. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add in the bread flour and ground nutmeg. Using a sturdy wooden spoon, stir until the dough is formed and is smooth and shiny. Return the pan to the heat and stir constantly until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan, about 2 minutes. Add in the eggs, one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Add in the grated cheese, pepper to taste, and the minced chives. Fold in the crabmeat. Drop the dough by tablespoons into a small deep fryer (or a saucepan filled half-way with oil). Remove the beignet with a slotted mesh spoon after 2-3 minutes and golden brown. Drain the beignets on paper toweling. Sprinkle with medium-grain sea salt and the extra Parmigiano- Reggiano. Makes 24 servings.