With a bit of planning and flexibility, you can produce a fabulous feast made of locally grown foods
By Amy Newman
The first Thanksgiving celebrated the Plymouth colonists’ first successful harvest and the friendship with the Native Americans who helped them survive their first year in the New World. Since that first Thanksgiving the spirit of thankfulness has remained unchanged. The food Americans serve – not so much.
Here are a few recipe ideas for enjoying delicious locally grown produce (including lingonberries, carrots, leeks, Brussels sprouts and pumpkin) – all perfect for a Thanksgiving table. (For any ingredients list, consider using Alaska Grown wherever possible.)
Today’s Thanksgiving feast has become a glorious excess of food – jumbo-sized turkeys, sweet potatoes topped with melted marshmallows, green beans smothered in condensed soup and fried onions – much of which is neither seasonal nor local.
Alaska’s shortened growing season doesn’t help, meaning when November rolls around, options for local, seasonal food are limited. “If we really were to mimic the original spirit of Thanksgiving, you’d probably want to have Thanksgiving in September,” says Heidi Rader, tribes extension educator with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service and Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks, and author of the Alaska Farmers Market Cookbook. “Everything local might be a little bit of a challenge.”
But for those up to the challenge, we have a few ideas to help you celebrate a homegrown Thanksgiving.
Prepare now, savor later
If you want a farm-to-fork experience this Thanksgiving, you need to plan ahead.
Berries can be frozen or canned and then stored until they’re needed for pies or sauces, Heidi says. Green beans, at their peak in September, can also be blanched and frozen, if your Thanksgiving would be incomplete without the crunchy green bean casserole, she adds. Pumpkins can also be baked, canned and put away until it’s time to make the pumpkin pie.
Root vegetables like potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips and winter squash are available at farmer’s markets or co-ops, or can be purchased early and stored in a cool, dry place.
“They are excellent storage crops,” says Duane Clark, who owns Country Health Foods in Palmer and runs the year-round Center Market out of The Mall at Sears. “They can all be readily available all winter long, in the grocery store or at our market.”
Let’s talk turkey
Turkeys are synonymous with Thanksgiving, but they don’t exactly run wild in Alaska.
For a true homegrown experience, you could turn to Alaska’s most prized edible natural resource, the salmon, which fills many Alaskan freezers. The Native Americans contributed five deer to the first Thanksgiving, so a moose or caribou roast would add both a link to the past and an Alaskan twist. Heidi has served both moose and salmon, but admits a turkey-free Thanksgiving may be a tough sell for some. “I think it kind of depends on how much you’re willing to buck tradition,” she says.
If you simply can’t imagine Thanksgiving without succulent, golden-roasted bird as your table’s centerpiece, several local farms raise “heritage” turkeys, smaller birds that have more in common with the wild turkeys served at the first Thanksgiving than the broad breasted behemoth’s available in grocery stores today. Check the Alaska Grown Source Book, published by the Department of Natural Resources, to find a farm near you.
(View the book online at: dnr.alaska.gov/ag/sourcebook/sourcebookindex2014.html)
Make it Alaskan
Many traditional dishes can be made Alaska-style by simply swapping locally harvested foods for their commercially grown counterparts.
Cranberry sauce is a Thanksgiving staple. But according to Ocean Spray, the country’s leading purveyors of the tart little berry, 74 percent of Americans serve canned sauce – its cranberries pureed in to a shimmering, gelatinous mass that trembles long after it’s slid on to the plate. Instead of canned this year, opt for a homemade version using fresh Alaska berries.
“For cranberries, I’m actually picking what I call low-bush cranberries, but they’re technically lingonberries,” says Anchorage’s Natasha Price, a contributor to the Anchorage Food Mosaic and blogger at Alaska Knit Nat. “They’re very tart and very prevalent in Southcentral Alaska.”
Cranberries are easily prepared on your stovetop and are versatile, allowing cooks to experiment with spices and mix-ins to find the flavor combination that sings.
Stuffing also lends itself to endless preparation methods. Natasha adds boletus, a wild porcini mushroom, which she forages herself and dehydrates to last throughout the winter. If your stuffing includes sausage, there are many locally made versions at grocery stores and farmer’s markets.
For mashed potatoes, try swapping the traditional baker potatoes you’re used to with other Alaska varieties, like peanut or blue potatoes, Heidi says.
New traditions using Alaska’s bounty
If you want to create new traditions and add local flavor to your table, side dishes are good place to start.
Maya Evoy, a Kenai-based food columnist and food blogger at Alaska from Scratch, says Brussels sprouts, small, cabbage-like vegetables available in September, are a “fantastic” seasonal option.
“You can roast them until they’re browned and caramelized, bake them au gratin in a rich cheese sauce or serve them up raw, shredded finely into a crisp salad drizzled with a bright vinaigrette,” she says.
Roasted root vegetables, such as carrots, beets and turnips, are also a welcome addition to the table, and a nice alternative to the traditional sweet potato casserole. Maya suggests roasting them with Alaska birch syrup to enhance the flavor and add an extra local touch.
Alaska carrots are also excellent plain. “You’re not going to beat the carrots up here on sweetness,” says Duane. Buy them in a variety of colors, such as orange, purple or red, for a rainbow carrot salad, he says.
Eat local, reap the benefits
A homegrown Thanksgiving will bring you closer to the holiday’s original intent, but it has other benefits as well.
Eating local supports Alaska’s farms and means fewer chemicals, since Alaska doesn’t have as many pests as in the Lower 48, says Duane.
It’s also healthier. Studies have shown that Alaska berries have higher antioxidant values, and smaller potatoes have more nutrients, than their commercially grown counterparts, Heidi says.
And a 2007 University of California, Davis study found that some fruits and vegetables lose up to 75 percent of their vitamin C within seven days after harvest.
So this year, channel the spirit of the first Thanksgiving and make it a local affair.
And please pass the homemade lingonberry sauce.
For a chart showing seasonal produce availability, visit: dnr.alaska.gov/ag/sourcebook/2014SBimages/Seasonalproduce.pdf