Halibut, spot prawns and chanterelles

Note from Amy: In mid June I abandoned my computer and Fish = Food posts for the decks of my fishing boat Duna. A summer in Alaska away from my office strengthens my desk weakened frame and restores my sanity. It also reminds me of why once home in Port Townsend I work to keep commercial fishing a modern-day trade and not a tale of yesterday to be viewed in an exhibit at a maritime museum or read about in history books.

When done right, commercial fishing is sustainable for the fish and the fishermen who make a living at it. Each boat and the crew that fishes that boat are unique, often to the extreme. They inspire me to do what I can to keep wild fish coming over the rails, into the holds and wages in the pockets of fishermen who will spend that money in their home ports once fishing season is closed. Call it a triple bottom line result or just good business. Either way, we should be proud to support our fleets and thank them each time we sit down to a dinner of wild caught seafood.

The boat is tied to the dock in Port Townsend and I am trying to reacquaint myself with my keyboard. Here are the results…

Greg and I made the decision mid September to call it a season. With the last salmon off the boat, we stowed the trolling gear away and turned Duna, our 40 foot wooden boat, south for the trip home from southeast Alaska to Port Townsend. Our route down Chatham Strait would take us by the Baranof  Warm Springs. The magnetic pull of hot water bubbling from the ground into rocky pools was more than we could stand. A turn to the starboard and we soon found ourselves sliding up along the floating dock in Warm Springs Bay.

Sarah, captain of the 82 foot power skow North Wind , saw us coming in and as good neighbors do, she  was soon taking the lines from my hand. With a few easy turns she had Duna secured to the dock. On the way back to her boat Sarah called, “Come by later for dinner after you’re done soaking.” A highly coveted spot at the dock, a friendly welcome, dinner plans and hot springs only an easy walk away through the woods; as Greg likes to say, “It’s all coming together now.”

Fishermen simmering in the Baranof Warm Springs

Power skows are famed for their welcoming galleys. The cooks who work these galleys know how to tease from an unruly diesel stove meals that restore a hard-working crews’ energy and improve sullen attitudes at end of a day. Lazy from our soak in the hot springs we climbed the steps to the North Wind’s galley knowing we were lucky as good food was just through the door ahead of us.

On the menu that evening were halibut, spot prawns & chanterelles, all beer batter coated, fried crispy and light. I have to admit I had my doubts. Halibut, yes, but spot prawns and chanterelles? These aren’t pub fare and are darn expensive if you’re buying them, hard-won if you are pulling shrimp pots or hitting the woods to forage for chanterelles. We cracked a beer and settled back to watch George work his galley magic.

With tattooed arms efficiently working a sleight of hand, George lowered beer battered chanterelles into hot oil, rendering them golden, delicate and sweet . This was totally different from my method of a dry saute for chanterelles followed by a hit of olive oil and butter with leeks added last and moved around the pan until just past wilted. As for the spot prawns?  Like the chanterelles the plump spot prawns responded nicely to George’s beer batter treatment. Who ever has enough of these critters to do anything other than boil them in salted water or saute them in garlicky goodness for a peel and eat treat?

In this case, the answer to the question of who has both the luxury and bounty of wild caught and foraged foods to stray from tried and true cooking methods is commercial fishermen. To answer your next question, no, chanterelles are not a staple food of commercial fishermen. Come mid September fishing season in southeast Alaska is winding down as the gale force winds are winding up. You find your boat with more frequency tied to the dock or swinging on anchor as you wait out the latest blow. With any luck, if so inclined, it is only a short jaunt to the forest to kill some time and slay some chanterelles.

Folklore tell us that Eskimos have a gazillion words for snow due to the sheer abundance of it. Anthropologists have disproved this tale but concur that without a doubt keen understanding of snow in all its forms has allowed indigenous people near the Arctic Circle to survive. On commercial fishing vessels our great abundance is fresh caught fish.

As fishermen, we eat what we catch as meat in Alaska is expensive and not always of good quality. If you have a boat load of [insert your target species here: Chinook salmon, halibut, blackcod, spot prawns, etc.] you get really good at finding ways to make your staple protein taste different at each meal. It is hard to imagine that a person could tire of eating any one of these fish or that the words ‘salmon again?’ could ever be uttered. But if that is what you catch, that is what you eat. The dinner time utterance will change as the fishing seasons change: salmon season rolls into Dungeness crab season, Dungeness crab into spot prawn season. If you hold individual fishing quota for halibut or blackcod, one or both of these fish will make it to your galley . Blackcod again?

To be honest, I never tire of eating fish or seeing the fillets on my galley table. However, this isn’t always the case with your crew. Each meal is an opportunity or an Iron Chef challenge, depending on my attitude that day, to see what can be done with the catch. Sometimes I reign victorious in Iron Chef Kitchen Stadium and other times it’s back to Alaska’s Test Kitchen to see if I can save dinner. In any case, there is plenty of product to bake, grill, fry, saute or poach if your culinary  imagination runs wild and time allows for other than throwing together a quick meal to refuel the crew.

The next time you don’t know what to do with your fish, ask a fisherman, preferably a season galley magician.

2 thoughts on “Halibut, spot prawns and chanterelles

  1. Jenn Plummer says:

    wow! this is an insight to the on-board kitchen that I’ve never had. I know this glimpse is one of the good days, and it’s a relief to know there are a handful of these thrown in with the daily struggle to be an independent fisherman.
    Thanks!!

  2. Hi Jenn,

    It is never the same twice. The days on a boat can be long and full off all or nothing – ‘hurry up and wait’ as we say – but rewards can be sweet!

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