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Continuing Education

That DIY permaculture “class” I posted about a few weeks back took off over at Homegrown. There are about 12 participants reading The Manual, as well as an offspring ‘beginners’ group reading Gaia’s Garden. It’s great.

I have been devouring Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, the 560 page textbook/bible. It is essentially earth science as it relates to ecological food production, coupled with a very methodical approach to the design process. I love it. Bill Mollison is the scientific counterpart to Wendell Berry’s decidedly literary work, and you know how I feel about Wendell. They are both extremely thorough and concise, dense enough to be academic but with heart and pulse (and a healthy cynicism about academics). Putting them together fulfills all my fantasies of intellectual stimulation.

And, guess what? I had fantasies. They were unspoken, nearly unconscious. I was jealous of My Man when he was in school. Not because I wanted to be in law school, hell no! But because the idea of taking one’s knowledge to the next level, of devoting oneself to studies and furthering oneself intellectually, was delicious.

But, I gave up on the idea of finding the things I wanted to learn in a school setting long ago. I love to use my brain, to challenge my brain, but the things I like to use my brain on are the domestic issues never ever discussed in universities. Everything else just seems mundanely boring. I have always been mildly interested in ecology, but never interested enough to put any time into it. Ecology as I’ve read about it before seems so unrelated to me. It was not until now–reading about it in the context of learning to grow food based on natural ecological processes– that it became fascinating.

At first I thought it was because permaculture relates everything back to food and/or design (my two top favorite subjects, hands down!) but there are plenty of food history books that I find boring. After some thought I realized that it’s the fact of being related to something I can do, and furthermore want to do! It’s the possibility of involvement and participation that compels me.

That’s all good, but what I really wanted to share with you today is just how much blissed-out fun I am having learning something big! Considering that the manual is 560 pages of dense, sometimes technical reading, coupled with the self-made ‘final project’ of creating a genuine permaculture design for our property, I have given myself and the Homegrown group 5 months to get through it. It’s like a real college course! And since it builds on what I already know, it is quite literally ‘continuing education.’

I think my ecstatic joy at the learning process might be particularly based on where I’m at right now, mama-wise. I was at a kind of a shifting point, well primed for a learning phase; and having just moved back to our own place, I am ready to re-immerse myself in the project of living sustainably in this environment.

Whatever the reason, my oh my, does it feels wonderful. If anyone else is feeling the need for some continuing education, I highly recommend taking a good book on the subject and turning it into a DIY class. I did this once before, years ago (Tom Brown’s Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking, doesn’t that explain in 8 words the shifts my life has made?) and also really loved it. The right book is important, but I think equally important is treating it like a real class. Which means setting aside consistent and adequate time. That’s the hardest part. After that, if the subject is of interest and the book is good, the rest unfolds itself.

Forgiveness

She was trying to explain something to me, just exactly how she wanted me to open the cheese so that the wax held together, and I wasn’t getting it. She was getting increasingly frustrated, her voice rising. I was getting increasingly agitated, my voice rising and hardening. Eventually she was yelling at me and I was yelling right back at her not to yell at me, which always feels so stupid. So I changed tact. I summoned all kindness and patience and carefully evened my voice out. “I can’t just let you yell at me anymore. I’m going to stop listening until you stop yelling.” A threat obviously, in retrospect, though it didn’t seem so at the time. I don’t believe in threats, partly because we are incapable of upholding most of them. But there I was.

She immediately broke out into tortured sobs and I felt the regret flood in for a move I could no longer take back. She crawled under the table and wailed for several minutes before the words finally came. A pivotal moment in any mama’s life.

“You don’t love me! You don’t love me!”

There was some mad in her voice, and certainly a little drama, but so much raw emotional devastation that I wanted to cry. I came over and crouched beside the table, explaining as I have before that no matter how mad I get, or how much I don’t like the things she is doing at the time, I always, always love her. “The love is the part that doesn’t go away, ever.” I say.

But she’s too wild to hear me. If you don’t have a child like mine, you might not understand what I’m talking about. You might make the mistake of thinking I am describing a fit. It is not a fit, she has those too sometimes. These are different. I understand them because she is my daughter and the fruit did not fall far from the tree. We are sensitive. Not that we are easily thrown into oblivion– in fact we are both, in a sense, fairly stable. But that oblivion, when we do hit it, is exceptionally engulfing and terrifying. The difference is that I have always been stoic and private. I experience life and emotions on an extreme level, but I do no share that level with the world or almost anybody at all. I keep it all locked up healthily inside. My Girl on the other hand, is expressive.

At any rate, she screams at me to talk to her, then when I do, screams at me to stop talking. There is a lot of screaming, while I go back and forth between trying to calmly and undramatically reach out to her, and tending the soup on the stove (see this old post about her 2yo fits for the story of how I arrived at this “technique”). Eventually she starts to calm down and, still teary, asks to watch a movie. “Sure,” I say. “Will you come out and sit with me for a minute first?”

She hesitates, but climbs out onto my lap. “Mama,” she says, still upset but quickly deflating, “You never say ‘please’ when you’re mad!” She says this to me often. I don’t think it’s really about the please, I think it’s about the way that I get mad and then stop being kind and caring, the way she thinks a mama should be. I think that she feels upset that I am not consistently nice, not realizing that she is asking me to be inhumanly perfect.

“You’re right.” I say, “You know I honestly just forget. When we’re mad, we kind of forget how to be nice.” Which is certainly true. Ideally, as perfect people, we would hold it together even when we were mad, and all of our actions would be intentional. We would be like practice scenarios at the counselor’s office. But in real life we get mad and lose it. We are all of us imperfect, by a long shot.

I try to explain all of this to her, and suddenly I realize that the solution to human imperfection is forgiveness, and that I have to explain forgiveness to her. That the concept is essential to her right now. She needs to be able to forgive me, and to understand that I forgive her. She needs a way to deal with the budding knowledge that I am not perfect and that that’s okay, she is not perfect and that’s okay. That we get mad, and we get over it, and we have a special way out of it, a special human way that we move forward with love.

I stumble around, trying to figure out how to define forgiveness to a 5 year old. I tell her that when someone does something you don’t like and it makes you mad, forgiveness is “accepting that they aren’t perfect and loving them anyway.” To which she says, predictably, “What’s ‘accepting?'”

….Shit. Then I have a little brilliance. “When you were under the table, you were still really mad at me. And when I asked you to come out and sit with me, you kind of didn’t want to, right? ‘Cause you still felt mad? But you did anyway, you came out and let me put some love on you. That’s what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is when you came out from under the table.”

I don’t know if it worked. It’s a big concept, and probably takes time. I had honestly never even thought about it before. Like so many milestones my kids have hit that I had never thought about. And maybe she’s not even really ready yet, but it’s a start.

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Solo Parenting

Straight from working full-time away from my kids, to 24/7 solo parenting for three weeks. Geesh, we are writing a case study for crazy-making this year.

The good news, the great, fantastic, thank dog news, is that My Man passed the Bar. Although I have no doubt that the next year of setting up his practice and finding work will be very hard, at least we know (more or less) what lies ahead. We can make plans now, stability of a sort has been found. Waiting the three months for his test results, and not knowing what the future held, were absolutely excruciating.

This also means I am back to full-time mama, pretty much indefinitely. And I am glad. It was really excellent to have a break, and do some other work. I felt almost guilty with the enjoyment of it. But to work away from home year round would get wearying for me, in a different way. Overall, if given the choice, I still choose the mothering and revolutionary housewifing. I made my first batch of granola since the move this week, and I feel ridiculously satisfied.

It also means all this is once again my responsibility.
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I swear this floor was pristine less than 48 hours ago. I have a witness.

But, not unrelated to the mess, I have time to do projects with my kids! I didn’t miss playing, and I certainly didn’t miss the endless hours of fight-breaking-up, but I did miss projects. Currently underway is a T Rex costume–
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She’s painting the teeth gnarly and bloody. That’s my girl. While she was painting she said, “Mama, when something is really fun, I like when it takes a long time.” My sentiments exactly.

All this glowing pontification on motherhood is quite sweet and absolutely true, but I didn’t plug my kids into netfl*x so that I could write because I was so overjoyed. Nope. I did really good for the first 5 days of solo-parenthood, but about day 6 I started to crack. Last night I let a really shrieky-mean yell loose on them right at bedtime. They were caught off guard and looked genuinely scared. I realized that with these few months of doing other work, of getting my own separate physical and mental space for 8 hours/day, I had not had many attacks of mama-rage.

Solo parenting is hard. Three weeks will definitely be my longest stint yet, though My Man’s finals while in law school probably compared in hard-ness. These next two weeks will be pretty rough. But, good news for you, you’re likely to see more of me here! Desperation makes for the best blogging.

I’ve just finished my second reading of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, and have been obsessively listening to a set of free online permaculture lectures given by Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton. The world outside my window has been recently blanketed by snow, and temperatures have fallen to 20 degrees F. The long winter is here, and I am feeling the need for some juicy brain-work.

Although I had dabbled in it before, I have only recently started serious exploration into permaculture. I am attracted by it’s depth. I’ve been doing and thinking ‘sustainably’ for long enough that I have fully exhausted all the classic beginner books. Permaculture seems to me to take things to the next level.

For those many of you who have only the vaguest idea what permaculture is, let me take a moment to explain. Permaculture (permanent agriculture) was coined by an Australian named Bill Mollison back in the 70s. It’s about conscious design of functional landscapes; it’s about following absolute ecological principles, but keeping human needs as the end goal.

It’s also a lot about thinking outside the box, creatively turning ‘problems’ into ‘solutions.’ (Your garden doesn’t have a slug problem, instead you have a lot of duck food in need of ducks.) Sadly permaculture has grown to a full on religion, complete with a living prophet and an actual bible, the $85 Permaculture Design Manual. It’s ironic that something intended to push us past our mental boundaries has created new mental boundaries, but– that’s humanity for you. We love a dogma.

Anyway, I’ve gotten better about looking past the dogma for the pearls. All widespread religions are based on something really good, that’s why they take off. And I just can’t resist permaculture anymore. Permaculture is all about design, and I am a designer, above all else. I am designed to design. I love to garden, and I love to read about gardening, but designing my garden has always been my favorite part of the process by a factor of 12. I have reams of designs for gardens I never even planted, I once designed a homestead for a piece of property I coveted but knew for a fact I would never own. Just for the shear joy of the brain-work.

I can’t help myself, sometimes it’s actually a problem. Because although I love the work, I love thinking about the work even more, and doesn’t that make me one of those dreaded ‘dreamers?’ But permaculture tells me it’s not so. Permaculture instructs me to spend 100 hours observing and thinking for every one hour of doing, thereby insuring my actions will be appropriate. Whether or not this is a truth for the world, it sure sounds attractive to my brain!

So, winter is coming on. The perfect time to do a lot of thinkering, and I am primed. With limited free time, you all might be thinking, ‘Damn her! She should spend those free moments writing posts for us!’ And I do hope to do a little of that as well. But there are times in one’s life for sharing, and times for learning. After several years of mama-induced intellectual stagnation, I think I am ready for some serious learning.

For the uninitiated, permaculture is an international phenomenon with accredited Permaculture Design Courses offered all over the world. There was even one in Anchorage last summer! They are a minimum of 72 hours, sometimes spread over a full year, other times done all at once as an intensive. They’re a big damn deal, and priced accordingly– starting at $1,500 and going up considerably from there! Even the online courses range from $800-$1,600.

I would LOVE to take a course, but 1. I’m poor, and 2. I live in the middle of nowhere. I started thinking about it, and realized this must be a boringly commonplace problem! Surely there are other perma-curious folks out there willing to spend the time, but not the money….

Reading books is all well and good. I read a lot. Drawing up my own plans at home over and over is great fun. A teacher would be fabulous, and I do not mean to diminish the value of a qualified mentor. But I think what I would value most out of an actual course is the commraderie and idea sharing of a group.

So, here’s my idea. We make our own online class! If we are so keen on doing everything ourselves, why not education as well? So, I’ve put together a permaculture study group prospectus, over at Homegrown. I hope to find at least two or three other folks interested in committing to 6 months of serious independent study, I’m thinking 3-4 hours/week. If that sounds like a good time to you, come on over, join up and introduce yourself!

Why, Hello There

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Yes, I am still here. I’ve been deep in my studio for weeks, cranking out pots in a mad dash. My Man leaves in a few days for three weeks, and I needed to get all my throwing done. Next week, after this three month hiatus, I will just be mama again.

It has been quite a whirlwind. For those of you who’ve not done it, the working mama business is hard in it’s own way. Not harder, but different hard. Life in general is harder when you work 40 hours a weeks and play mama in your off hours– cleaning the house and getting supper on become nearly impossible, let alone finding a moment for anything extra like time to write. But, for me at least, in the context of our family, my psychological/emotional life as a mama is easier. Working away from home gave me the personal space that I have so missed and needed as a full time mama, the previously coveted opportunity to simply complete tasks, to go about my job without anyone hanging on my leg or yelling at me.

The work itself….? You know, it was a taco bus. But oh, these past few weeks in my studio– joy! I get to do quiet, contemplative, creative, satisfying and productive work! I feel blessed. And yet, at the same time, getting in a full 40 hours a week at home is a unique challenge. Which resulted in no days off, furthering that stretched tight feeling even more.

So, even though I know I am a fool, I am looking forward to next week when I’ll just be able to ‘relax with the kids’ and get my house in order, no other job tugging at me.

Important things have happened during my absence here. My mind is full of big posts. My boy turned three, started (finally!) sleeping through the night on a regular if not reliable basis, and weaned. Not in that order. My girl started kindergarten. My Man still doesn’t know if he passed the Bar (10 more days…) We secured ourselves the title of ‘real Alaskans’ by acquiring a chest freezer, another load of ten fish, a $350 pick-up truck, and consequently 4 cords of firewood. It snowed. Followed by frenzied attempts to get all the outdoor shit done that we still hadn’t finished. I began seriously investigating permaculture in the wee hours of morning.

Of course, mothers of toddlers will know that the rest of that paragraph hardly matters after the first pivotal point. Sleep! Has finally come to me. There was an adjustment period, after he started sleeping through the night, in which I suffered from some infuriating insomnia, but all appears to be smoothed out now. Which is why I can manage to rouse myself at 7 am, in the pitch black still-night of an Alaskan October, to read about permaculture.

And why there is some hope that I will soon take back up with regular writing. I do miss it.

The last several months have meant big changes for our family, for me personally and consequently for this space. As I consider how to re-enter this whole blogging business, I am realizing that my current life and self are rather different from what you have all come to know. Well, I am the same I suppose (more on that in an upcoming identity crisis post, months in the making), but the details are different.

Today I thought I would acquaint you with those changed details, orient you to my new/old place. My posts are bound to change a little up here in Cordova, not their spirit or intent, just their ingredients, and it would be best if you kind of knew your way around.

So, allow me to (re)introduce myself. I am Calamity Jane. I live in the big gray house at the top of the hill with the willow fence and that long row of raspberries, the totally overgrown garden beds and trashy scattering of buckets. Careful not to trip over the kids’ bikes.

This yard was almost all gravel and weeds when we moved in, in 2004. Little token patch of lawn in front, which I busted up practically on arrival. Built up dirt by hand, with river silt and peat hauled in buckets from actual bogs. There’s no topsoil here, none at all. Can’t buy it for any price. This land just barely crept out from under the glaciers.

I had a few years to throw my unbounded energy into garden building before our first babe came along in 2007. I’ve got a long way to go towards my dream of an edible Eden, but the basic framework has been laid, now it just needs to be reclaimed from three years of neglect.

Those hard won beds are now choked with buttercup and the scavenged boards I used to build them are finally rotting. I only had time to clear and plant one small bed this summer, put my energy into the perennials instead. That beautiful raspberry hedge didn’t trellis, weed and mulch itself, you know?

Speaking of perennials, there’s my prized rhubarb. It looks humble enough, straggly to be frank, but those crowns we brought back on a bush plane from some old homesteaders down the coast in Yakataga. We were there to do reforestation work, with our little girl just a babe in a wrap.

This big shed in the backyard is supposed to be my pottery studio some day, when we have an extra several thousand dollars to fix it up. And, if I can talk myself down from converting it to a barn and getting two Nigerian dwarf milking goats.

There’s the old chicken coop, it looks like a witch’s hut under all those drooping hemlock boughs. I am so excited to finally spread around my own aged chicken shit– we left just as my first “crop” was maturing. I also have a giant pile of well-aged compost, having duly done my good work years ago, before even the second baby. I feel rich. This is the stuff of dreams by my standard. When I do finally get those annual beds cleared and rebuilt– boy howdy, they are gonna grow some goodness.

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Come on inside I’ll make some coffee. I make a fine cup, if I do say so myself.

Our house is nearly always a wreck, but I’ve learned not to be too embarrassed about it. Occasionally I keep it really clean, and I’m not embarrassed about that either. Sit right here at our wobbly almost-antique kitchen table, it’s the best seat in the house.

If you get a break in the clouds you’ll have a fine view of Mt. Eccles. I climbed that mountain once, alone, without really meaning to. Got stuck right at that last rocky hump, afraid to go any further but damned if I was going to stop so close to the top. Finally got my gumption up just as a thick blanket of mist rolled in, obscuring what would have been a phenomenal view. But, that’s life in a coastal temperate rainforest….

Over here’s my pride and joy– my jar shelf. Built to the exact specifications of a year’s worth of quarts, pints and half-pints. Just a token number of jars now. I’m not gonna show you the bottom five shelves which are just full of cluttery junk. I look forward to crowding that junk out with more local bounties.

“Local food” looks quite a bit different up here. Cordova is a tiny town stuck between ocean and mountains, with no farmable land whatsoever. There is not a single hoofed farm animal for hundreds of miles, there’s no place to grow hay, what would you feed them? I am one of maybe ten people who grows any kind of vegetable garden, and it is meager by anywhere else’s standard. Cabbage is a big stretch here, kale the mainstay.

Instead I fill (or used to, and hope to again!) our larder with sockeye and silver salmon; bear, deer and moose; salmonberries, blueberries, cranberries; chantrelle and hedgehog mushrooms; wild plant pesto and pickles. Not to mention the dumpster, the most productive form of subsistence by exponential degree. (Back where I feel comfortable going out at night, I have been dipping into The Big D again. Last week an entire case of eggs– 30 dozen. Not a single crushed or drippy edge. One day past date, and eggs last practically forever. I would rather be eating eggs from our own chickens obviously, but short of that, I will gladly accept a $90 savings on our grocery bill.)

Cordova has a year round population of 2,500 people. Stop and read that again– 2,500 people. True that in summer it swells to 4,000, but nevertheless, there are no stop lights in this town. There are no fast food joints, no box stores. We leave the keys to our car in the ignition. Kids can walk to school by themselves just like the old days. The small town feeling of it is doubled by the fact that there is no highway connecting us to somewhere else, you cannot drive in or out– you have to fly or take the ferry.

Cordova is a genuine fishing town, home the Copper River fleet. The harbor and canneries dominate the town physically, fishing dominates mentally. Coming back from New Orleans, I’ve been relishing a place so ruled by actual physical, productive work. There are some profoundly ass-backwards things about Alaska (as exemplified on an international scale by Miss Palin, thank you ma’am) but on the flip side are many truly wonderful old fashioned values. In New Orleans, particularly from our ‘safe’ mostly white upperclass neighborhood, I was beginning to wonder if these values were just gone from our country. It made me feel sad and lonely. But here I am again, among kindred! Not to say that this town is all of one mind, not at all, but generally people here place strong value on hard physical work, on practical use over aesthetics (and a consequent acceptance of dirtiness), on trust in our fellow humans, strong community, and an honestly slow pace of life.

Plenty of people here live just as they would live in any city in the US, they drive their car everywhere they go, buy all their groceries at the store, watch cable TV on the weekends and don’t think twice about the world outside their window. But a very good sized portion of people are here because they love this place and they love the rural Alaskan lifestyle. I would say most Cordovans “recreate” in the out-of-doors, if only because that’s just about all there is to do. Hiking, hunting and berry picking are all very popular and, at the very least, everyone drives out the road now and again just to lay eyes on some wilderness. Most folks in this town put up something, usually fish in the chest freezer, if not home canned jars of smoked goodness. Homemade jam is practically pedestrian. There is a salmon festival, a wild berry festival and a mushroom festival. During deer season, the attention turns to hunting. Not everyone in this town participates or even cares about this stuff, but enough people do that it is normal. In July folks on the street are talking fish and boat engines, in September they’re talking deer and firewood.

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Having just said all that, it bothers me that I put a “regular American lifestyle” at odds with my supposed Cordovan one, because that is the real genius of this place– People span the whole distance. We spend the day hunting then come home and watch TV, we eat fish from the freezer with potatoes from the store, we drive our car when it rains and walk when it’s sunny. Some people are all on one end, and others are all on the other end, most of us are somewhere in the middle, but there seems to be an unusual amount of mutual respect. It’s no utopia, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve lived in a number of small Alaskan towns and chose this one partly because the feeling of community and togetherness and acceptance is, I think, truly unique.

But this is not an unabashed love song to Cordova. Being back in this place after the extreme urban charm of New Orleans is not all peaches and cream. We do miss that steamy press of humanity, the bright garish clang of it all. Architecture, history, music, festivals, amazing restaurants, balmy weather; people in all kinds and colors. Coming here was a surreal spatial shift. Everything is just exactly the same as when we left, and I popped right back in like a puzzle piece…. But having led such a different life for three years I find it mind-bendingly weird to just ‘pop right back in.’ As an old friend said in the comments on that Where to Now post, the culture shock is much greater coming back home because I wasn’t expecting it.

The first few months were wacky, mentally. As soon as we stepped off the ferry, New Orleans felt like a black hole which couldn’t possibly have been real. But Cordova didn’t feel real yet either. I was floating in some kind of numb limbo which I am just now starting to ground out of. I’ve still got all kinds of twisty stuff going on in my mind, as you know, but at least I think that I am finally starting to feel physically here. Which is doubtlessly why I was finally able to finish this post, started over a month ago.

It’s seems a bit vain-glorious to explain my homeplace at such length, but context is everything for a girl like me. At some point in the near future, once I get a foothold on it, I am hoping to write about the emotional and psychological process of moving home. I figured you ought to understand where and what home is first. It certainly is a unique place in the world.

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Rather than dwell on the unnamable ball of twisty angst in my gut, today, let’s talk fish. This post is one of those that lay foundering in my draft box, and it’s really not fair to you to keep it locked up. Silver season is upon us.

Now that we are back in Cordova, you are going to be hearing a lot about fish. Namely sockeye  and silver salmon. I know this is a cruel taunt for most my readers, but some fair number of you live in Alaska or the PNW and might appreciate a recipe here and there. Not to mention that most fish recipes are adaptable to whatever species you can lay hands on….

Sockeye season is over here, we are fully in to silvers. For those of you buying from the market, silvers are considerably cheaper and still a great fish. There are other species of pacific salmon sometimes in stores too. Pink salmon has gotten a bad rap from years of shitty canning practices, but can be perfectly fine food. Chum salmon, called “dogs” here, are also entirely edible by humans. I ate them and canned them and enjoyed them before Cordova turned me into a hopeless fish snob. Folks here can get snitchy about these “lesser” species, and it’s true they don’t have near so much flavor and luscious fat as sockeye and king salmon. But that doesn’t mean they can’t spell dinner.

I can’t help it, as a devout Alaskan, I have to preach for just a minute here. Please don’t buy farmed salmon. It’s bad. Bad for fishermen, bad for the environment, and certainly not as amazingly good for you as it’s wild counterpart. Be aware that stores will often label farmed salmon, misleadingly, “Atlantic salmon” as if it came from the Atlantic ocean. Atlantic is in fact the species name, and although there are wild runs of Atlantic salmon, it is the species of choice for farming and that is what you will be looking at in the grocery store. You can be pretty sure unless it is labeled wild salmon, it’s farmed, probably in Chile.

Someone commented awhile back on the conundrum of too much salmon and what to do with it. I have never personally gotten sick of good sockeye salmon, though I have at times eaten it about as much as person possibly can. I think the trick, as for using up any bountiful food item, is two-fold.

1. Take excessive care to preserve it in the highest possible quality. I have most certainly not always done this. In fact, I’m quite sure I have made all the mistakes available to the novice. For example, it’s not at all hard to get tired of frost-bitten, fishy tasting salmon that was packed into zip-locks for reasons of thrift. This is what I believe they call “penny wise, pound foolish.” Ahem. Over smoking is another way to make yourself sorry, as I can also attest. My ex and I once smoked a batch of jerky so much that it made our mouths numb to eat (yes, we ate it anyway).

2. Don’t think about recipes for salmon, per se. Just cook the way you usually cook, but forgo your internal food rules and substitute salmon for every other flesh you might have used (bear in mind that it must never be overcooked!) I love a plain sockeye fillet baked or fried with nothing more than salt, if the quality is very high. But when you are tired of that, or using up a cheaper lesser flavorful fish, just use it in everything you ordinarily cook. Soup, casserole, pot pie, tacos, spaghetti, stir fry. If your fish is getting a little “fishy” use lemon, tomato or a tiny splash of white wine to cut the fishiness back out.

That said, here are my favorite ways to cook salmon, after the thrill is gone.

Ceviche

The only hard part of making unbelievable salmon ceviche is removing the skin and pin bones. Those bones run in a single line down the length of the fillet, and if you are careful you can cut out the whole strip of ‘em without losing much meat. Bear in mind as you cut down that they angle toward the belly. Or, you can use pliers to remove each one individually. To remove the skin of any fish, lay it on the cutting board skin side down and run your sharp (essential!) knife right under the flesh. Ceviche is a good time to practice these techniques because you’re going to be chopping up all the fish anyway, so mistakes don’t matter.

Mix 1 lb chopped up fish with 1/2 red onion, 1 red pepper, 1 bunch of cilantro, 1/2 cup fresh lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt or more to taste. Let the mix sit at least 1 hour, 3 or 4 is even better. Serve with a pile of warm corn tortillas (fried in a lightly oiled pan) and black beans. So, so good, with any species of fish.

Fish Sticks

Everyone loves homemade fish sticks. They convert people who think they don’t like fish, and blow the minds of fish snobs who think they are too good for something that usually classes with TV dinners. They’re just as good with silvers as reds. De-bone and remove the skin as described above. Cut into stick sizes. Use a “bound breading” with Panko and cornmeal, and pan fry in half an inch of olive oil for a phenomenal stick.

Bound breading is a good trick to know, if you don’t already. It makes a perfect, crispy crust. Get three bowls. Put flour in one, an egg or two whisked smooth in another, and Panko, breadcrumbs and/or cornmeal in the last (Panko is a secret to itself, just some incredible kind of  Japanese breadcrumb stuff that blows everything else out of the water.) Dip the fish pieces first in flour, then egg, then Panko. It’s messy, but worth it. Panko is meant for deep frying, but pan frying (just a half inch of oil) works fine for these fish sticks.

To complete the experience, mayo + pickle juice + dill weed=tartar sauce.

Gravlox

Do you know this stuff? It’s “cured” salmon, meaning you salt it heavily and let it sit (in the fridge) for a few days, then eat it uncooked, sliced thin on crackers. Sounds very unpromising, right? I was incredibly skeptical the first time I had it. But I could hardly stop eating it! If you like salmon sushi, you will like Gravlox. This isn’t exactly a using it up recipe, you need absolutely prime perfect salmon to make it, and a little goes a long way. But it is soooooo good, and so easy, I just have to share it. Silvers make equally wonderful Gravlox. Just take a fillet which has been frozen for several days at least (to kill any potential parasites since you won’t be cooking it), lay it into a glass baking dish and cover with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar and 2 teaspoons freshly dried dill (not ancient tasteless dill from the bottom of your spice drawer that you’ve had longer than your children, throw that shit away right now!) Cover and leave in the fridge for at least one, preferably 2 or 3 days.

Now, this is the hardest part, slice the cold Gravlox paper thin (a 15-30 minute stay in the freezer will help, but don’t forget about it!!!!) and serve with crackers, cream cheese, finely sliced red onion and lemon wedges. I assume you will do this for a special occasion, but don’t pre-assemble them, or the crackers get soggy. Let folks make up their own, squeezing just a few drips of lemon onto each bite. Oh glory! It is a show stopper. Absolutely mind blowing.

An entire fillet makes a huge crowd’s worth of Gravlox. Too much for all but the most enormous party really. This year, I made up a fillet and then cut it into four chunks, vac-packed and froze each separately. I think it will slice up even better when it’s still mostly frozen, making it a relatively quick, totally fabulous treat to share with unexpected guests.

The Best Salmon Burgers Ever

Here is the requested recipe that started me on this post in the first place. It makes the best salmon cakes or burgers you’ve ever had. I have at times in my past nearly lived on very humble canned salmon patties– a jar of salmon with just enough flour mixed in to hold things together, shaped and fried. Very spare, very emblemic of a particular period in my life.

These are not they. These are made with fresh (or thawed) fish, a bit of old bread and that coy magic– mayonnaise. Nothing makes good like mayonnaise.

The original recipe is from Cooks Illustrated, crown glory of annal retentive perfection in the kitchen. I discovered it via a friend, who explained that rather than take a perfectly good fillet and mince it up into tiny bits as the recipe instructs, she scrapes down her filleted carcasses with a spoon and uses all that residual goodness. Having done both, I can say that the latter actually makes for a better texture, and certainly a more profound frugal housewife righteousness. It is an especially useful trick if you are still learning how to fillet and leave lots of good fish of the carcass. Myself– not to toot my own horn, I am incredibly slow– I have gotten to be pretty good at removing all the flesh intact to the fillet. So good that I am actually a bit disappointed how much is left to scrape up for burgers.

But, when I did up those 20 sockeyes in July, I did get a giant bowlful of scrappy bits. I made a whole big batch of these and popped most of them into the freezer. You can cook them straight from frozen, and you will really feel like a rockstar.

Note: I think these would work with any kind of fish, though they might be a tad dry with a less fatty kind. Maybe add more mayo…?

The Best Salmon Burgers Ever

  • 1 1/4 pounds salmon, or a pint sized mason jar packed full and heaped up high
  • 1 slice stale (but not dried out) bread, ground up in the food processor or very finely minced
  • 2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 2 Tablespoons grated onion, don’t be tempted to just mince it, grating is important
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • a bit of fresh parsley or dill if you have it, minced super fine

for the breading:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 3/4 cup Panko or regular breadcrumbs

If you are using a fillet of fish, use a sharp knife to finely slice/chop/shred the flesh, you want it to look like ground meat. Do not be tempted to put it into a food processor, which will turn it into a disgusting paste. I have however had great luck running fish through my Kitchen Aide’s grinder attachment using the coarsest blade.

Once you’ve got the fish looking right, just mix it with the rest of the ingredients up top. It will be very sticky. Form patties as best you can and lay onto a baking sheet dusted heavily with flour. Put the sheet into the freezer for 15-30 minutes (don’t forget!) until they are very firm.

Now get set up for a bound breading experience as described in the fish sticks section. Bread each patty and set back onto the sheet pan. Obviously you can skip this step, they will still be very good, but this is what really what blows them out of the water. So to speak.

Fry the patties in a half inch of oil, till nicely browned on each side. Serve hot, on buns with full garnish, or just plain jane on a plate with some fresh steamed rice and a salad. Yum!