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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Anchorage for Ski Lessons

Nora and Stuey with Ski Instructor at beginning of first lesson - note ski jumps in upper right corner

A low grade fear of mine is that Stuey and Nora would never learn how to or enjoy downhill skiing.  Kodiak does not have a ski lift and my attempts at teaching have not gone well.  Why is that kids never want to take advice from parents?  That said I've also had a hard time teaching Zoya to downhill ski.  Maybe it's just easier to take advice from neutral parties.

Last year we even went to Anchorage after Christmas so that they could take lessons at a real mountain.  Only once we got there we discovered that all the lessons had long been filled up.  It seems ski lessons are a popular activity over Christmas break. So this year we booked ski lessons well in advance at the Hilltop Ski Area on the outskirts of Anchorage.

As parents Zoya and I are well aware of the old adage about 'leading a horse to water,' and fully realized that booking the lessons was only half of the battle.  We had to do the 'selling' part very carefully.  Do we tell the kids about the lessons?  Do we even call them lessons?  A big part of the 'sell' occurred during cross country ski trips to the golf course in the weeks before Christmas.  I told the kids that they'd get to use real gear and ride a chair lift up a mountain when we went to Anchorage.  I think the idea of a chair lift ride ended up as the best 'sell'.

Finally the big day arrived and we drove through the gates to the ski area.  Three HUGE ski jumps rose above the spruce trees and Stuey and Nora's eyes lit up.  That's what Stuey wanted to do.

At the ski school we went through the whole very serious process of signing our rights away and gearing the kids up with ski equipment.  The boots looked very tight and uncomfortable, and I had some bad flashbacks to the ski lessons of my youth.  I kept repeating silent prayers to myself that the kids would actually enjoy the lessons.  Ski schools had to have gotten better in the last 40 years, right?

We met Pam their instructor and she explained how these days they teach the kids to ski without ski poles.  She then took the kids out to the bunny slope rope tow.  After a few trips up and down they graduated to the chair lift.  Things were working out!

At the end of the day Zoya and I watched from the bottom of the ski slope for the kids to appear at the finish of their ski runs.  Suddenly there was a fuchsia Nora snow ploughing across the slope.  A few minutes later we found Stuey's bright green snow pants as he snow ploughed straight down the slope.  They were skiing, and better yet they seemed to be enjoying themselves!

A few days later as I waited to pick up the kids after their last lesson I noticed a little placard on the wall near the ski school sign up area.  It read, 'Friends don't let friends take ski lessons from friends.'  Very true, it seems lessons were a good idea after all.


Driving to the airport on Boxing Day - off to Anchorage for ski lessons!

Nora rocks it at the end of the first lesson

Stuey at the end of the first lesson

Some Cookies Nora and Ilsa made at the Robinson's

Lunch with Marie and Brian at the Spenard Roadhouse

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas Feast

On Christmas Day we went for a hike in the rain and wind in the morning and ate a feast with friends in the evening.

For dinner I cooked up Yorkshire pudding, roasted asparagus, mashed potatoes with leeks and garlic, roasted carrots, and a HUGE sous vide elk roast with onion gravy.  Zoya and Nora set the table and made everyone place tags with little drawings.  My favorite was Gregg's which had a deer with a red nose on it and said, 'Please don't shoot me' on it.

Every year (if successful) when we butcher the elk everybody gets one or 2 BIG roast that are supposed to be for big dinner parties.  They all get named something like - 'Mike's Festivus Roast' or 'Patrick's Solstice Roast'.  The one we ate on Christmas said, 'Saltonstall Party like your Lamar Odom Roast'.

We did not do that, but we certainly had a good time.  Patrick

Nora and Stuey's presents to us - art from class at St Mary's!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Hawaiian Beaches and Lava Flows

Just two weeks ago I was on the big island recharging my Vitamin D batteries for the winter, as well as drumming with 7 other women at a Women's drumming retreat. 

The trip was more spectacular than I imagined: the fruit more delicious, stars brighter, volcanos even more awe inspiring and the drumming more beautiful than I ever envisioned. 

I flew to Kona with few expectations and left feeling inspired and rested. 

On my second day in Hilo, I took an 8 hour volcano tour which took us first to Rainbow falls, then to the recent lava flows-where they flow into the ocean.  Then to an underground lava tube, as well as to scenics of the volcano at night. And the stars-so spectacular. 

The best part was soaking it all in, enjoying it with no one else to worry about. Being a singleton on a small group tour was lovely. 


Sunday, December 27, 2015


 For the first time in my memory the kids did not wake up at 5 AM on Christmas morning!

The night before we went to the St Mary's Chruch Christmas Eve service.  Nora and Stuey each had  a short reading in the service and there were lots of beautiful readings and holiday songs sung.

This was the year of "no toys, no battery operated anything" under the tree and it was lovely. Books, pajamas, sweaters, knives….simple.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

Snow to Rain

Stuey cross country skiis earlier in the week

With Christmas came rain, but it was good at the golf course while it lasted.  I got in almost 2 weeks of cross country skiing.  Also it looks like it still snowed rather than rained up on the mountain.  So I do have a lot to be grateful for - maybe there will be skate ski anywhere crust up on the mountains.

On Christmas morning it was raining and blowing hard.  Zoya called the people we had planned a hike with and we were happy to hear everyone still wanted to go.  We got out to the Boy Scout Lake area and even in the woods it was pouring and the trees overhead were swaying back and forth against the sky.  I found at later that we went for our walk at the peak of the storm - sustained 50 mph winds with gusts in the 60s WOW!

A dramatic way to begin Christmas Day!

Practicing downhill ski with Brewster chasing

Last day of cross country skiing before the deluge
Intrepid hikers on Christmas morning

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Making Pastrami with Game Meat

First step is to harvest the game. .... . 

Lately with a friend from work I've been working on perfecting a recipe for making pastrami from the various types of animals I have in the freezer here at home.  So far we have used Reindeer, Sitka Blacktail Deer, and Roosevelt Elk meat.  Next I plan on trying Mountain Goat.  The main difference between game meat and domestic beef is that game is far less fatty.  Consequently, you have to be very careful to not dry it out during the cooking process.  That said, not all cuts of game meat are created equal.  I found that neck meat is fatty and that some cuts make better pastrami and corned game meat than others (more on this later).

About pastrami - what exactly is it?  Basically from what I read (click here and here for 2 good reads on making pastrami, and here for what is probably the most basic recipe) pastrami is corned beef that has been smoked.  And unlike corned beef it is typically made from a fattier flank cut of beef - the best recipes seemed to even include the ribs.  The details in all the recipes differ - some use brines, some use rubs, some boil in water or steam, some cook in the smoker etc.  But basically the recipes all call for making corned 'beef', rubbing it with different spices for a final 'rub', and then smoking it.

Most corned beef recipes also use 'salt peter' or sodium nitrate to get that pink processed meat color.  I wanted to find a recipe that did not use nitrates and would work well with less fatty game meat.  And I will add that fatty meat and the use of nitrates give one a lot of leeway in terms of cooking.  With lean meat and no nitrates the cooking process becomes the essential key to a moist and tender final product.

I have been making corned game for a few years now and have already got that recipe perfected.  I basically use a Cooks Illustrated method that foregoes sodium nitrate and is itself based on an older Julia Child recipe.  The main difference between the two is that Julia Child's recipe includes sage in the 'dry' brine.  Both are recipes for 'grey', 'New England' style corned beef that lack the chemical bath.

I used to follow the Cooks Illustrated recipe pretty faithfully, and while I like the 'dry brine' recipe for the 'cure' part I have not liked the cooking process at the end.  Basically the recipe calls for boiling the hell out of the meat for 3 or more hours.  When I did this my corned game meat would shrink up to half in size and totally dry out.

So for the recent tries at making pastrami we used the Sous Vide cooking method for the final product in an attempt to keep the meat moist and tender.  As it turned out, it worked GREAT and even kept the final pastrami product an appetizing pink color sans the nitrates!

Basically we made the corn beef with a dry brine (this takes a week), soaked out the salt for an hour or so in warm water, coated the meat in a coriander and brown sugar heavy rub and smoked it at very low heat for 2 hours, and then cooked it using the sous vide method at 122 degrees for 9 hours (with the temperature topping out at 130 degrees).

At that point I thought we were done, but while the resulting pastrami tasted great it was way too salty.  So we put it back in the water bath for another 2 hours at around 115 degrees to soak out some of the salt.  Interestingly the neck meat with its extra fat retained the smoke flavor the best.  Also the 'rump' roast cut ended up much more fine grained and better than the 'flat' roast cut (quad).  Another interesting discovery was with the neck meat that was not soaked pre smoking and simply smoked with the corn beef rub - it tasted the same as the others smoked with the elaborate coriander and brown sugar rubs.  I also think next time I will be smoking the meat longer before the final sous vide bath.

Anyway, as it stands now this is the recipe that I will be using in the future to corn 2 large chunks of meat - ie one whole neck roast and 1 'pineapple' or rump roast of game.  Up to 10 pounds of meat total.

Corning Dry Brine Recipe:

1/2 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper corns
3/4 tablespoons of unground Allspice
1 tablespoon of thyme
1/2 tablespoon of Paprika
2 Bay leaves
3/4 tablespoon of sage

Steps to corned game
1) add peppercorns, allspice, thyme, bay leaves, sage to a coffee grinder and coarsely grind up.  Add with salt, and paprika to gallon sized zip lock bag.
2) add meat to bag and toss meat around inside of bag to fully coat each piece.  Then 'burp' as much of the air out as possible and seal.  I double bagged it at this point.
3) place meat in large pot and place another small pot on top inside the first one (I use nesting La Creuset pots) and put a heavy weight in the top pot (I use a 10 pound dumbell).  If cool enough put the nested pots outside or, if not, into the fridge.
4) Turn meat once or twice a day for a week.  After a week the meat is 'corned'!

The next step is smoking the corned meat, and I'm wondering if a different 'smoking rub' is even necessary.  We smoked one piece of corned deer neck meat directly after corning with no 'smoke rub' spices on it and it tasted virtually the same as the other pieces with the rub.  For this reason I am thinking of adding coriander and brown sugar to my corning spices and skipping the 2 next steps.

5) (optional) soak corned beef for an hour or so in warm water and lightly brush meat with hands to get most of the corning rub off of the outside.
6) (optional) add smoke rub ingrediants (see below) and meat to zip lock bag and toss to coat.  Really push the spices into the meat.

Smoke Rub Recipe (Optional):

7 tablespoons brown sugar
7 tablespoons salt
7 tablespoons black peppercorns (coarsely grind)
6 tablespoons coriander seed (coarsely grind)
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon juniper berries (I could not get a hold of these and did not use them but they are in the recipe that I used)
1 tablespoon chili flakes

Now comes the smoking part - the step that turns corned meat into true pastrami!

7) remove meat from bag (and with either 'smoking rub on it or the corning 'dry brine' on it if you skip the above 2 steps) and smoke at low heat (try and keep it under 120 degrees).  My friend did this in a 'Lil Chief Smoker' and put it on the top rack.  He used a thermometer to check on the heat.  He smoked our meat for 2 hours but I think 3 hours would be better.

Sous Vide to Finish - I do not own proper sous vide equipment, and I am not going to clutter my kitchen with some any time soon.  I have found that 'low tech' sous vide works very well and is simpler and clutter free (click here to see my 'red neck' sous vide roast recipe).  But if you have vacuum sealers and temperature regulated cooking pots by all means use them!

8) This time rather than use the oven for my sous vide (see link above) I made a water bath by filling up my largest cast iron La Creuset pot with hot tap water and, using a simmer plate underneath, put it on the stove.  I put my thermometer in it and the water right out of the tap was 119 degrees.

9) I put each piece of meat into a separate zip lock bag and purged as much air from each bag as possible.  I then tightly wrapped them up and put a rubber band around them to keep them wrapped.  I tucked the thermometer under one these rubber bands to hold it off the bottom of the pot.  I also found that the little bit of air that I could not get out of each bag served to keep the packages floating off of the bottom of the pot.

10) I then turned on the stove burner as low as I could get it.  With the simmer plates I found that I could hold the temperature pretty steady.  I tried to keep it at 122 degrees.  I did this for 9 hours and intentionally let the temperature creep up to 130 degrees for an hour or so at the end. I started the process at 3 PM and turned the stove off at 11 PM and when I went to bed at midnight the water bath was still in the 120s.

11) On waking up I took the cured meat out of the bags and placed them gently into the still warm water bath (but maybe try the pastrami first and see if you think it is too salty or not - mine was and hence needed the de-salinization bath).  I turned the burner on low and let the temperature creep back up to 120.  After 2 hours (from first putting it in the water bath) I removed the cured meat from the bath.

12) Slice it thinly and enjoy!  Since the recipe does not use nitrates or cook the meat to high temperatures I think it does need to be kept refrigerated and eaten within 4-5 days.  But this should not be a problem - especially if you like hot pastrami sandwiches!


Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Break is better with snow

What a difference some snow and cold makes!

Last Friday the kids went on Christmas vacation - no more school to keep them occupied for a good portion of the day.  Last year we had no snow for their Christmas break.  Worse yet, for much of the time it was raining and dismal grey.  The family spent much of the break all cooped up in the house looking out the windows at the overflowing gutters.  It was sort of like being in prison only worse because you were in prison with irritable, grumpy kids who needed entertainment.  An eternal sort of torture that would fit right in with that of Sisyphus or Tantalus of Greek mythology.

But not this year!  With some snow and cold there are outside activities.  We've been going to the golf course to go skiing and yesterday, for the first time in I can't remember how long, I saw the kids sledding in the backyard.  Whooo hoooooo real snow and cold, and bright nights.  Thank you Ullr!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Favorite Photos of 2015

My favorite photo of the year - the composition is well balanced

It's late December and time to pick my favorite pictures of 2015.  This year I had a very hard time editing my choices.  I realized that I liked some because of their content, or just because I remembered how beautiful it had been in 'real life'.  For instance, I really wanted to include one of the panoramics from my fall float hunt through the Refugium just because the colors had been so fantastic. It was without a doubt the prettiest place I was all year.  However, all of the photos I took were flawed for one reason or another.  Another picture that I still included but do not really like compositionally is the one of Nora on Afognak.  It's a great moment but somehow I did not really capture it perfectly.

To narrow down my options I decided to include pictures that 'told the story' or captured the moment.  Hence I include a float hunt picture with people in it - you can see that we are looking for animals and there are the canoes on the river.  Also Stuey playing hide in seek in the snowy woods with beautiful light - I like the photo because the viewer should know exactly what was going on.

On the flip side I also cut a bunch of really pretty pictures that somehow felt like cliches.  A lot of landscapes at dawn while on hunting trips had brilliant colors and showed spectacular views, but it felt like they were somehow all the same - cliches.   Same goes for mountains and spruce trees covered in snow - they reminded me of 'Hallmark Christmas cards'.

Anyway these are the ones I came up with along with a critique of each in the captions - enjoy!

This one tells a story of a family hike through the woods and the exposure on Zoya just seems so perfect that I had to keep it

Green, green green and lots of details - I kept it because I seem to have caught everything in focus

A balanced and dramatic landscape that just happens to show the archaeological site where I excavated last summer

The composition is flawed but it is such a perfect moment that I had to keep it

Father and son meeting in the backcountry - good composition and a nice story

Whole lot of story to this one and a beautiful moment

Is this a cliche?  I like it and don't know why

This one might be cliche too - but I love the pink with yellow dots thing

My best artifact picture - this is a tiny microblade and they are very difficult to show off, and guess who found it?

This one captures hanging out by the stove on a hunting trip perfectly

Seeking out animals while floating through a spectacular place - one photo tells the whole story

Peekaboo - this is my second favorite photo

Another snow photo - ughhhh cliche (I dumped a bunch of mountains and snow) -  but I kept this one because you can feel the wind and approaching storm - something I rarely capture