Colorful signals, intense harvest activity and arduous migrations herald the coming of the autumnal equinox in the Pacific Northwest. Shortening days and cooler temperatures influence both animals and plants to complete their growth cycles and/or migration rhythms in preparation for the colder and darker months of winter.
On the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, the leaves on our big-leafed maples help to set the scene of this activity by giving a golden glow to the forests interspersed with the red of the vine maples amid the shimmer of gray, leafless bitter cherry and Indian Plum branches already stripped of their leaves by the winds.
Bird activity picks up and some of my favorite small birds such as the red breasted nuthatch move down from the high mountains to spend the winter in nearby woodlands; however, others like the melodious Savannah sparrow who frequent our meadows and fields during the summer months leave the area entirely. Before the birds that nest and raise their young locally depart, I see them spending more time balancing on wires and then take wing to seemingly practice their flock-maneuvering techniques before disappearing from the fall scene altogether. Some birds having summered farther away and only seen during the spring and fall migrations, now dot the hedgerows, woodlands and fields attracting the ever-vigilant hawks searching for an inattentive, tired or injured bird.
Overhead, large flocks of migrating birds such as the snow geese, swans and Canadian geese are often heard first before sighting as they fly through on their way to warmer lands to spend the winter. Many travel thousands of miles and return in the spring to their nesting sites which may even take them to the high arctic tundra.
During the day, local and migrating geese take advantage of the area’s recently-harvested grain fields for rest and last-minute fattening on the spilled kernels left by the threshers. Sometimes I swear the locals who remain throughout the year act as tour guides to the newcomers, welcoming them vociferously and then showing them choice dining and resting spots. The many species of ducks and shorebirds stick to the waterways and ocean shores seeking sea vegetables, worms, insects and aquatic organisms suitable for adding extra calories.
Scores of birds take flight at dusk and fly during the night before finding resting spots along their travel routes to feed and recuperate. Curiously these migratory birds and their flyways are picked up and registered on weather radar and on especially clear nights when many birds are actively flying, the screens fill with countless halo-shaped, reflective images.
Special hunting seasons allow human hunters to harvest a quotient of the migratory waterfowl for their own larders. I come from a family of hunters and many a fine fowl has made the ultimate sacrifice to feed us. Back in the late 60’s, Michael and I taught in a four-teacher school for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in an Alaskan Bering sea coastal village named Kipnuk, which rested amid the flyways of thousands upon thousands of birds. Although gifted with many water fowl from local hunters, Michael also brought in a few birds. A favorite dinner was to slow-roast the ducks and geese in the oven on a lower temperature setting for several hours. The birds were so fat from having fed on the rich grasses, berries, insect life and sea organisms such as mussels found in the surrounding environs that they self-basted to an exquisitely tender degree, staying moist and so, so flavorful with only a sprinkling of salt and pepper necessary as the perfect condiments.
Another migratory animal for which the Pacific Northwest coastal states of Oregon, Washington and Alaska, plus British Columbia are famous is salmon. Five species make migratory runs into their ancestral waters to spawn spurned on by instinctive habits and the first fall rains. Firm and fat as they enter the fresh waters, they no longer feed but are intent on finding spawning areas which may be located hundreds of miles upstream. Once found, the travel- weary female uses her strong tail to dislodge the gravels and sand to make a nest or redd. She fills it with her orange-colored eggs and the male swims close by and squirts the eggs with his milt or sperm. Other males may do so, as well. Unlike the sea-run Atlantic salmon, the Pacific NW salmon do not return to the ocean; instead, they spawn and die, returning their body’s nutrients to be utilized in countless ways by the animals and ecosystems along the creeks and rivers. DNA from the fish has been found in the trees even deep in the forests where the foraging bears, cougars, ravens and eagles among others, carry the fish to eat and leave the remains to decompose.
Fishermen also harvest the salmon before the spawning process takes a toll on the fish’s firm flesh. Caught by hook and line or netted, I’ve enjoyed salmon smoked in traditional smoke houses with alder wood producing the smoke or backyard smokers featuring applewood. I’ve eaten salmon pickled, canned, barbecued, salmon as sushi, pan-fried, boiled, roasted, half-dry smoked, roasted over open coals, and their eggs or roe fresh or batter-fried. I’ve also tried traditional Native people’s manner of preparation for cheeks, eyes, nose cartilage, and fish that has been dried in the sun on driftwood racks, fish that has been fermented, or dipped in seal oil and fish eaten raw-frozen fresh off the snow. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some other way, too. Oh, yes out of the dog-food cooker when we were cooking for our dog teams.
One of my favorite methods of cooking entails taking a fresh whole fish, rinsing its gutted interior well, then laying it in a baking pan large enough to accommodate its length; even a cookie sheet will work. Cutting off the head is optional. You might have to chop off part of the tail but hopefully not as one of the best pieces is the tail section and losing the tail may lead to that slender section drying out during the baking process unless basted liberally. I then cut a lemon and an onion into 1/4 inch slices and fill the interior cavity alternating slices of butter, onion and lemon. Sometimes I’ll even cut the cavity larger to accommodate more stuffing. Dribble olive oil over the fish’s skin, coating it evenly by gently spreading it with your fingers. Sprinkle it with sea salt and cover lightly with the lid or foil. Roast at 375 degrees until the meat flakes and pulls apart when pricked with a fork. Leaving the lid ajar lets the steam escape making the outer skin crispy. The fish’s fatty juices will keep it moist as it slowly bakes and fills the house with its roasting aromas.
Sometimes I’ll also fill the cavity with herbs, garlic slices and spices in addition to the onions, lemon and butter depending on my mood or the type of meal where it will be honored. Filling it with chili’s, turkey stuffing mix or apples, orange slices and cardamom seeds, etc. definitely makes it an adaptable meat. Any left overs can be stripped of bones, an egg added along with bread crumbs, herbs and then pan-fried in little patties; or the de-boned pieces also taste great tossed into salads or soup. The fish bones and skin can then be slowly processed into a hearty broth for soups adding a splash of vinegar to bring out additional minerals.
Another favorite way I like to use salmon is in a fish soup or chowder. Here’s a standard recipe that can be adapted as needed and used for other fish such as halibut. Measurements are only approximate and please feel free to add seasonings to suit your taste.
Basic Fish Chowder
Cook until tender:
3/4 C chopped onion
1 T minced garlic
1 to 1 1/2 C chopped carrots
1/2 C diced tomatoes (canned, stewed or chunky sauce tomatoes work fine)
3 C diced red potatoes (reds seem to hold up best when boiled, only suggested)
6 C chicken broth, water, vegetable broth, etc.
1/2 C tomato sauce, preferably homemade
1/4-1/2 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. to 1 Tbl. dried basil
1-2 Tbl. medium or hot salsa
1/2 tsp. curry (I like the spicier Muchi curry)
After the above ingredients are tender, add
1 # fish, cut into bite-sized pieces, carefully stirring in the soup.
Simmer gently until the fish is cooked, then add:
2/3 C frozen peas, broken apart and sprinkled about.
Gently simmer until the peas are warmed through. This last step won’t take long and the peas taste like fresh spring peas done this way, a nice touch to the chowder.
Serve in warmed bowls with fresh bread and butter with a salad making a nice complement.