By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
Not really. I can’t see my hand in front of my face as we sail on a ferry up the Inside Passage from Sitka to Juneau, Alaska’s state capital. The Inside Passage is a narrow route through the dramatic coast of steep mountain peaks and many small islands. It’s August and we’re experiencing an unseasonably atmospheric river. What does that really mean? Beautiful wilderness vistas of pine tree forests and mountains? Nah, just ceaseless gray rain and fog. I’m glued to the expansive windows, hoping for a glimpse of a bear, a moose, a whale, or a wolf. Nope. I’d take a squirrel at this point. Nada.
My husband Bob and I have always wanted to visit Alaska. We’re not cruise people, so I carved out an itinerary traveling around on the large ferries of the Alaskan Marine Highway system. It’s more complicated than boarding a cruise ship, where you don’t have to think about anything except what’s being served at the dinner buffet. But I made it happen. Planning trips is a favorite hobby of mine. We love nature, beautiful vistas and wildlife, so we chose the Alaskan frontier.
We landed in Sitka, a town of about 8,000 people on a small island. Other than when tour ships drop off thousands of visitors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. there isn’t anyone around. Really. What a charming spot, situated right on the ocean surrounded by snow-capped mountains covered with evergreen trees.
We stayed in an apartment right on the main street of Sitka. There was only one street light. No one was around and it was summer! What does desolate winter look like around here? The people (when you find them) are very friendly and helpful. The Native American population is made up of members of the Tlingit tribe, who are very much integrated into the town, its businesses, and its schools. Learning about their history and culture was a real highlight. Tlingits still live off the land and sea to a large extent. Many fish, hunt, and forage.
I happened upon a wonderful small business, Alaska Pure Sea Salt, owned by Darcy and Jim Michener, a local couple. They accidentally discovered that they could harvest their own sea salt while staying in a remote cabin along the Alaskan Pacific coast. Through years of trial and error, and after creating a proprietary method in 2007 for sanitizing and drying salt right from the Sitka shores. The Micheners have established their company as one of the few American purveyors of natural flake culinary sea salt.
Darcy’s delightful shop on Sitka’s main street offers a variety of sea salts infused with natural products. One of her most unusual and popular salts is Sitka Spruce Tip. Other flavorings are vanilla, wild blueberry, and smoked alder. The shop also sells unique salt cellars and gift items. The knowledgeable staff introduces you to all the flavors via a salt tasting. It was very exciting to sample the subtleties among the different infusions. I learned that flake salt is made up of pyramid shape crystals while coarse salt is a cube. There is nothing added to sea salt as there is to table salt, so it has a pristine clean taste.
When I travel to new places, I try to identity the flavor profiles and common ingredients that show up in restaurants. Let’s say you eat something with tomatoes, garlic, basil, and Parmesan. You think Italian. Alaska seemed to be devoid of specific seasonings and foods, other than fish, seafood, and reindeer, and forageable produce such as mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns (in spring), and wild berries. I really couldn’t get a handle on what Alaskan food tasted like. When I was in Santa Fe, N.M. last month, I knew where I was because the flavors were quite specific to that region. Here in Alaska, not so much. I would sum it up by saying it’s “earthy” or “from the sea”.
After spending time tasting the different infused flake sea salts in Sitka, I chose a steak entrée to highlight them in today’s recipe. Keep in mind, that flake salt is a finishing salt so it can be enjoyed on salads, vegetables, and desserts. When seasoning steak, I start with coarse salt. Just before serving, I finish with the flake salt. I’m using the steak of all steaks, tenderloin filets, but feel free to substitute the steak cut that you prefer. I also am using button mushrooms. You may choose to use portobello or crimini, for example. I just HAD to do some roast potatoes with it, the whole meat and potatoes thing!
Go out and buy some flake sea salt if you don’t already have it in your pantry. Tell us here at The Insider in your saltiest language about your culinary experience!
Spicy Beef Tenderloin Filet with Mushrooms
Yield: 4-6 servings
4-6 6 oz. beef tenderloin filets
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 1/2 tsp. coarse salt
1 1/2 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. chili powder
2 slices bacon, chopped fine
1/2 medium onion, chopped fine
6-8 oz. button mushrooms, diced into 1/4” pieces
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 c. chicken stock
2 Tbsp. fresh chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. pure maple syrup
1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
Mix the marinade ingredients together in a small dish. Rub thoroughly on both sides of the filets. Marinate for 1 hour at room temperature or up to 4 hours in the refrigerator.
Preheat oven to 400°. Heat a large heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over moderately high until hot. Add the filets. Sear on both sides for about 2 minutes per side, or until nicely browned. Put the steaks in a shallow roasting pan; reserve.
Turn skillet down to moderate heat. Add the bacon and cook until the fat runs and the bacon is cooked but not crisp. Drain off as much fat as possible, leaving about 2 tablespoons. Add the onions to the bacon. Cook until the onions are tender. Add the mushrooms, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Cook for 5 minutes.
Pour any collected juice from the meat into the skillet. Put the beef in the oven. Add the stock to the mushroom sauce. Bring to a boil; reduce for 3 minutes. Add the parsley, maple syrup, and lime juice. Adjust the seasoning.
Remove steaks when desired doneness. (See chart below.) Use an instant-read thermometer if desired. Put a filet on each dinner plate. Cover with the mushroom sauce. Sprinkle with additional parsley garnish. Serve at once.
Steak Doneness: Temperature:
Medium rare 130-135°
Medium well 145-155°
Well done 155° +
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.