Holidays at the DuBey home are a mix of old and new traditions. His wife is from Louisiana, so that means turkey with bourbon-butter glaze and the green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup and French-fried onions that’s a holiday staple in many Midwestern homes. But DuBey brings on the Alaska with his king crab omelets served Christmas morning and sweet potato and roasted Alaska root vegetable pie.
“If you eat the garbage you get from California and then you eat an Alaska carrot, the difference is like night and day,” he said.
DuBey’s assessment of the high quality of Alaska carrots is based on their greater accumulation of sugars, according to University of Alaska’s Cooperative Extension. Plus Aster yellows, a viral disease that affects carrots in other areas, isn’t found here. Most of Alaska’s root crops share this sweet flavor profile, making them ideal ingredients in holiday meals that relish the sweet-savory combination.
As with root crops, Alaska berries pack a flavor punch. Because of Alaska’s harsh climate, blueberries here grow thicker skins than their Lower- 48 counterparts. They’re also packed with antioxidants. Yet, unlike so many “good for you” foods, Alaska blueberries taste great.
“You could do a pork loin with a blueberry sauce, that would be so nice,” said Jennifer Jolis, who owned A Moveable Feast and Jennifer’s in Fairbanks, and now teaches in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Culinary Arts program. For the sauce, she said, make simple syrup by adding equal parts sugar and water and heating until the sugar dissolves.
“Flavor it with the herbs of your choice, probably sage and thyme,” Jolis said. “Let them steep a while, then add the blueberries, just long enough to cook them.”
After a couple of minutes, she said, strain the blueberries and herbs from the liquid and reduced it as desired to a sauce or a thicker syrup. If you can’t find fresh blueberries, start with blueberry syrup from a store and go from there, she suggested.
Blueberries are only the beginning of Alaska’s berry offerings. Crowberries grow in muskegs and spruce forests throughout the state. Raspberries thrive in gardens. Both make great jams that can be served with biscuits at a Christmas breakfast. And while the strawberries that thrive here are tiny by grocerystore standards, they taste almost impossibly bright and juicy. Plus, Alaska is rich in that holiday berry staple— cranberries.
Both high-bush and lowbush cranberries flourish across the state. The low-bush cranberries, in particular, pack a punch, according to Patrick Hoogerhyde, former executive chef at Anchorage’s Glacier Brewhouse and current partner in Bridge Catering and Bridge Seafood.
“These little guys, one-tenth of what you would need with a commercial cranberry and you get that flavor profile,” he said.
Blueberries are only the beginning of Alaska’s berry offerings. Crowberries grow in muskegs and spruce forests throughout the state. Raspberries thrive in gardens. And while wild strawberries here are tiny, they taste almost impossibly bright and juicy.
Hoogerhyde used cranberries and mushrooms gathered by a forager for dishes at the Brewhouse, as well as jams from Alaska Wild Berry products. Raised in King Salmon, he learned early that “if you cooked, you didn’t have to do dishes,” he said. After culinary school in Portland, he returned to Alaska, where he worked at Anchorage restaurants including Orso, The Crow’s Nest, Marx Brothers Café and Glacier Brewhouse.
“We’re shoved into the Pacific Northwest, but we have nothing in common with them,” he said. “Except that they have salmon and we have salmon.”
In addition to local berries and mushrooms, Hoogerhyde uses Alaska seafood, local greens, even Alaska vodka in his preparations. At the Brewhouse, he said, they stock the wood-fired grill with Alaska birch and the wood-fried oven with Alaska alder. Sometimes he did something as simple as adding reindeer sausage to a pizza to give it some local flair.
“You’re not in Seattle where everything is there and everything’s been done,” he said. “Here really is the Last Frontier and that’s exciting.” In Alaska, Hoogerhyde said, “we have to think bigger because our backyard is bigger.”
Still, bigger does not have to mean more complicated, the chefs agree. A few Alaska ingredients can transform a meal into something extraordinary. Jolis advises any home chef to keep Alaska blueberries and cranberries nearby, “because you’ll find a place for it.”
“Don’t be afraid to try something you haven’t before,” DuBey said. “I don’t think it has to be the main course. Sides are a really easy way to experiment with different things. And if you don’t like it, you don’t have to make it next year.”
The holidays are “definitely a time to come together,” Jolis said. Food is about taking care of people and creating a community. “It’s like an offering.”
Hubbard, who pioneered the stuffed salmon tradition at her family’s Thanksgiving, co-owns J&R Fisheries in Seward. She grew up as a fish-camp cook, but she wings it and doesn’t like spending all day in the kitchen. Still, she knows how to put an Alaska imprint on a holiday. Christmas Eve at the Hubbards’ means an open house with sushi made from locally harvested black cod, along with avocado and green onion. Why not? she said.
“I’d rather have sushi than cookies, myself.”
Lynne Snifka teaches in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Journalism Department. She wrote about Alaska becoming a state in the May 2008 issue.