Category Archives: Food

Growing the economy — agriculture flourishing on Kenai Peninsula

Redoubt Reporter file photos. Kenai Peninsula growers are finding high tunnels effective for Alaska-hardy produce as well as more exotic fare, such as corn and fruit trees.

Redoubt Reporter file photos. Kenai Peninsula growers are finding high tunnels effective for Alaska-hardy produce as well as more exotic fare, such as corn and fruit trees.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

When people think about the economy of the Kenai Peninsula, it’s usually oil and gas, fishing, and maybe education, health care or government. But there’s a growing trend to add another sector to that list — farming.

“These are not hobby farmers, these are hard-working folks. They are investing in infrastructure, they are buying equipment, they’re building storage, they’re building refrigeration for peonies, they’re putting up more high tunnels planting more. These folks are thinking ahead, and I think the rest of us should, as well,” said Heidi Chay, manager of the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District, speaking at a Kenai Chamber of Commerce meeting Dec. 16.

Commercial agriculture is typically thought of on a big scale, but the Kenai Peninsula is growing its own agricultural revolution, one small operation at a time.

“Today the farms that are making headlines are the small farms under 10 acres, very likely under 5 acres,” Chay said.

From 2007 to 2012, there was an 11 percent increase in the number of farms statewide, and a 62 percent increase in the number of farms selling direct to consumers. On the Kenai Peninsula, farm numbers increased 30 percent in that time frame, and direct-selling operations have increased 111 percent.

A lot of that increase is due to high tunnels. The Kenai Peninsula has the highest number of high tunnels per capita in the country.

“If you don’t know already, this technology has transformed farming and food production in this state,” Chay said. “We can grow crops that we couldn’t grow easily here before. And these high tunnels lengthen the season significantly enough that farmers can harvest earlier than ever before, allowing them to put in a second crop, or even a third.”

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Ripe for the brain picking — Berry walkers harvest abundant knowledge

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service office in Soldotna, points out low-bush lingonberries, pictured below,  to a crowd of participants in a berry identification walk Monday afternoon at Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna. The event was held as part of the Harvest Moon Local Food Festival, ongoing through Saturday.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service office in Soldotna, points out low-bush lingonberries, pictured below, to a crowd of participants in a berry identification walk Monday afternoon at Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna. The event was held as part of the Harvest Moon Local Food Festival, ongoing through Saturday.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Thirty-four people combed the forest floor Monday afternoon, eyes peeled, attention piqued, senses alert. Their quarry was stationary and abundant but the hunt still held challenges. Not so much in the finding, but in telling one specimen from the wide variety of others.

“What’s this?” “Here’s some red ones!” “Are these any good?”

Variations of those comments formed a background of chatter for the hour-and-a-half walk on Tsalteshi Trails, ebbing and flowing like waves on a shoreline, quieting as the hunters became engrossed in their task and crescendoing when someone found something new, exciting and hopefully delicious — or at least safely edible.

“Alaska is blessed with many varieties of berries that are good to eat and very few that are berries lingonberriesbad for you,” said Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service office in Soldotna.

Chumley served as guide for the berry walk, one of a slate of talks, workshops and other activities offered as part of Harvest Moon Local Food Festival. The 26 adults and eight kids who participated Monday did so to expand their knowledge of local edibles, or start to build it from scratch.

“I’m a Native from Arizona and I relocated here and I was very active in my community, which is the Sonoran desert, because our survival in all the hundreds of years depended on that we knew — the plants and the system and what we could eat and what we couldn’t — and so I’m going to do that here in my new home,” said Elizabeth Spinasanto.

She was looking forward to harvesting berries to use in healthy breakfasts — smoothies or with homemade yogurt, which she had learned about in a previous Harvest Moon workshop.

Elizabeth Spinasanto compares a photo she took with her cellphone to a printout Chumley brought along. The convenience of camera phones make them a great tool for berry identification.

Elizabeth Spinasanto compares a photo she took with her cellphone to a printout Chumley brought along. The convenience of camera phones make them a great tool for berry identification.

“I’m taking the fermentation class, as well. I have not missed any of the classes. I’m kind of excited about it,” she said.

Prior to the walk in the woods, the group met at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank for a quick course on berry processing with Linda Tannehill, health, home and family agent with the Cooperative Extension Service. Processing doesn’t need to be time-intensive, she said. Berries are usually good to eat straight off the plant — the key word being “usually.”

“You don’t have to wash them depending on where you pick,” she said. “But if it’s a place where there is a lot of dogs or traffic, you might want to rinse them off.”

Pick as cleanly as possible to save work later, but removing detrius from most berries is generally a simple affair. Some people pour their harvest from one bowl to another on a windy day or in front of a fan to blow off any leaves, stems and other debris. Tannehill prefers more control in her cleaning method. She rubber-bands a terrycloth towel onto a cutting board, rolling the edges to form a channel down the middle of board, then holds the board at an incline and pours the berries down it and into a baking pan with raised edges. The knap of the towel grabs the litter while the berries roll down into the pan — and hopefully no farther.

“I have to have bumpers,” she said. “I’ve chased blueberries across the floor and my dogs get there first. And so I’ve learned to put bumpers on my towel here.”

Sometimes berries contain insects. They aren’t harmful, but soaking firm berries in a solution of salt water can draw out any creatures that might be lurking inside.

“If you’re grossed out by bugs then maybe you want to soak them. It’s all your own comfort level,” Chumley said.

Frozen berries keep for a few years, especially when vacuum-packed in a good-quality bag with a good seal. But freeze the berries first to avoid a squished mess, spreading them in a baking pan and putting them in the freezer for a few hours.

“Do not try to vacuum-package berries unfrozen. There’s no problem if they’re frozen. It’s a big problem if they’re not frozen,” Tannehill said.

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Cooking up health — Workshop highlights better living through whole foods

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Ionia elder Eliza Eller provides instruction during a cooking class that was part of Healing Our Future, a workshop to exchange ideas revolving around diet and health.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Ionia elder Eliza Eller provides instruction during a cooking class that was part of Healing Our Future, a workshop to exchange ideas revolving around diet and health.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Obesity, diabetes and digestive issues are few of the numerous maladies that can result from dietary habits, and in Alaska, perhaps no cultural group is more susceptible than Natives.

“Now in the grocery stores, there are potato chips, Coca-Cola, alcohol. It’s not at all like the foods from the world they’ve come from,” said Barry Creighton, who serves on the board of directors for Alaska Mental Health and Peninsula Community Health Services.

Creighton also is an elder member of Ionia, a Kasilof community where members live by a different structure and sense of time than mainstream Americans, with a macrobiotic diet being a cornerstone of their approach. Ionia partnered with the Alaska Sobriety Movement to offer a Healing Our Future three-day workshop over the weekend to exchange ideas relating to diet as a cornerstone of health.

“A lot of what we do has resonance with the Native world,” Creighton said, explaining a little about the Ionia lifestyle. Members begin their day by sitting in a circle, with all ages talking to each other, sometimes for more than two hours.

“No subject is too mundane,” Creighton said. After 30 years of these daily, group-therapy-type meetings and sustained participation with the Alaska behavioral health system, Ionians have developed ways to address numerous forms of mental health illness as a community, he said.

“This is what Natives have been doing for 6,000 years — the village, taking care of the family, taking care of the individual,” he said.

Ionians also operate on a different perception of time. There are no clocks in Ionia, and members don’t feel compelled to adhere to strict schedules.

“I’ll talk to someone for 24 hours if they need it,” Creighton said.

Diet also sets Ionians apart from the convenience-focused approach of eating fast food, highly refined and processed ingredients, and egregious amounts of sugar and salt.

“For some people, it’d be easier to change their religion than change how they eat,” Creighton said.

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Taste of success — Chefs battle for fame, raise fortune for food bank

Photos courtesy of Mark Pierson, www.facebook.com/MarkPiersonPhotography. Steve England, a chef with Kenai Catering, examines his ingredients in the entrée round in the Clash of the Culinary Kings fundraiser held Saturday at the Challenger Center of Alaska in Kenai.

Photos courtesy of Mark Pierson, www.facebook.com/MarkPiersonPhotography. Steve England, a chef with Kenai Catering, examines his ingredients in the entrée round in the Clash of the Culinary Kings fundraiser held Saturday at the Challenger Center of Alaska in Kenai.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Needing to make a quick meal with whatever is on hand isn’t that unusual a premise for home cooks. It can go surprisingly well — like discovering that pulverized Doritos makes a great breading — or turn into something best labeled as “surprise.”

But the circumstances Saturday were a bit more stressful. For one thing, the ingredients were odder than most cupboards offer, including puffed rice for an entrée dish and creamed corn to use in dessert. The consequences for getting food to the table late weren’t just whines from the family about being hungry. And the diners were far more judgmental than even the pickiest 6-year-old. But the rewards for success — delicious, creative, well-executed dishes presented elegantly and on time — were much greater than a stack of scraped-clean dishes.

There was foodie fame and fortune at stake, as this was the Clash of the Culinary Kings cooking competition, held Saturday at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

Fortune for the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, as the event was a fundraiser for the organization. And fame for the winning chef — temporarily, at least. The winner’s trophy, created by Metal Magic, will never spoil, but the event was such a success that the bragging rights might expire with a second competition next year.

“It was a great event. We’re super happy to be involved in this, and we’re looking forward to next year. We’ll have to have a rematch,” said Steve England, of Kenai Catering.

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In the market for community — Farmers markets set to sprout up

Redoubt Reporter file photo. As the growing season continues, more and more locally grown produce goes on sale at area farmers markets. Organizers say they haven’t yet seen an end to the rising demand.

Redoubt Reporter file photo. As the growing season continues, more and more locally grown produce goes on sale at area farmers markets. Organizers say they haven’t yet seen an end to the rising demand.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Among the sure signs of summer on the central Kenai Peninsula are the return of salmon and the crowds come to harvest them, the grow-while-the-growing’s-good burst of wild foliage, and the efforts of the green thumbed to similarly make the most of what climate, ecosystem and science allow.

Starting soon, the fruits and vegetables of those local labors will be available for customers at a bounty of farmers markets in the area.

One of the most food-oriented of the seasonal markets is the Farmers Fresh Market, opening June 3 and running from 3 to 6 p.m. every Tuesday into September. It’s in the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank parking lot, on Kalifornsky Beach Road and Community College Drive.

“This is a collaborative effort by local growers, the food bank and Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District to promote local sustainable agriculture, provide an outlet for producers of small quantities of products, raise awareness about nutritious local food and provide healthy, fresh, local food to everyone in the community,” said Dan Funk, an organizer for the market. “Our vendors are farmers. We only sell food, plants, flowers — no crafts.”

Cauliflower and tomatoes are just a few of the options on offer at a previous Soldotna Saturday Market. Growers, arts and crafts makers as well as musicians are invited to participate in the seasonal, community-based markets in Kenai, Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank.

Cauliflower and tomatoes are just a few of the options on offer at a previous Soldotna Saturday Market. Growers, arts and crafts makers as well as musicians are invited to participate in the seasonal, community-based markets in Kenai, Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank.

The virtues of buying local produce are many, Funk said, including that food is fresher, lasts longer once purchased and reduces the carbon footprint by not having to ship produce from the Lower 48.

“At the height of the season last year we had nine farmers selling honey, flowers, plants, fruit trees and bushes, lots of different greens, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, radishes, jams, strawberries, raspberries, herbs, cabbage, eggs, squash — you name it. We try to keep what’s available updated on our Facebook page,” he said.

Having the market on Tuesdays gives customers who spend weekends fishing, hiking and otherwise recreating an opportunity to still purchase local goods, as well as those working in town during the week.

“Our farmers picked Tuesday so as not to compete with the weekend markets and make it easier for local restaurants and people on the way home from work to shop there. We did have restaurants and lodges as regular customers and hope to have more this season,” he said.

food farmers market tomatoesThose interested in becoming a vendor can learn more from the market’s policy handbook. Vendors must be willing to sign a statement of intent, agreeing to follow state and local laws governing the use of certified scales, safe food handling, sales tax collection and agreeing to sell only local food, Funk said. There’s a one-time $20 startup fee for advertising, and a minimum weekly $10 donation, in produce or cash, averaged over the whole season for a space at the market. The donation goes to the food bank. Produce is used in the Fireweed Diner kitchen at the food bank.

“We hope customers will also donate to the food bank,” Funk said. “We do ask farmers to commit to the entire season, but I want as many farmers and variety as possible. I haven’t turned anyone away.”

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Kefir? Not to fear — Workshop offers recipe for health

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A clump of kefir “grains” are strained from the yogurtlike, probiotic-filled product that results from allowing the kefir to ferment in milk, during a workshop Saturday in Kasilof. The finished product is consumed as a nutritional and holistic healing aid.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A clump of kefir “grains” are strained from the yogurtlike, probiotic-filled product that results from allowing the kefir to ferment in milk, during a workshop Saturday in Kasilof. The finished product is consumed as a nutritional and holistic healing aid.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

There are few things in life where hearing, “The slimier it is, the better,” can be equated to good food, but that was the case at a workshop in Kasilof over the weekend.

Pepper Pond, a naturalist, gave a presentation on making and using kefir, a fermented milk drink, to a group of health-minded attendees.

“It seems disgusting but it has innumerable health benefits,” she said, while rolling in her fingers a dime-sized piece of the white, spongy kefir “grain.”

Pond explained that while the kefir grains look like a tiny piece of gooey cauliflower, they are actually a symbiotic culture of yeasts and bacteria that grow rather quickly when a kefir grain is added to milk. It works in almost any kind of milk, from cow to goat, raw to pasteurized, whole to skim. Even almond and coconut milk will eventually ferment.

“As long as it has lactose in it. It breaks down the lactose as food,” Pond said, and it does so at an exponential rate.

“From this dime-sized piece I grew all this in 24 hours,” Pond said while straining a quart-sized jar of fermented milk to reveal a softball-sized clump of kefir grains. She had fermented it in the jar with a loose-fitting plastic lid by letting it sit for a day at room temperature out of direct light.

She passed out small chunks to the workshop participants to begin their own kefir colonies by adding milk to their own jars at home, then went on to explain the uses and benefits of the fermented milk product, which is the palatable part of the process.

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Eat locally for sustainability globally — Family lives a year off only local foods

By Joseph Robertia

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Saskia Esslinger, of Anchorage, her husband and infant son took part in the Alaska Food Challenge to eat local for an entire year, and shared her experiences during the Harvest Moon Local Foods Week.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Saskia Esslinger, of Anchorage, her husband and infant son took part in the Alaska Food Challenge to eat local for an entire year, and shared her experiences during the Harvest Moon Local Foods Week.

Redoubt Reporter

Eating a banana for breakfast is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in Alaska. For thousands of years Native Americans, followed by explorers and traders, followed by homesteaders, made up the bulk of their diet from what they could grow, catch, hunt and trade.

In more modern times, the types of foods consumed are not so limited, but eating a tropically grown banana in Alaska means a lot of resources were used to get the fruit this far north. But not everyone believes this type of eating is environmentally friendly or ecologically sustainable.

“There is a misconception that Alaska can’t support its own food needs,” said Saskia Esslinger, of Anchorage, who, along with her husband and infant son, took part in the Alaska Food Challenge to eat local for an entire year. She presented her experiences last week at several venues on the central Kenai Peninsula as part of the Harvest Moon Local Foods Week.

Esslinger is not entirely new to the concept of being “green.” She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s in regenerative entrepreneurship from Gaia University. She was certified in permaculture design in 2004 and as a permaculture teacher in 2010. Most recently she founded the Williams Street Farmhouse in Anchorage, where much of the food for her challenge was grown.

“People think you need 5 acres to grow enough to sustain yourself and your family, but that’s not the case,” she said.

Esslinger and her family transformed a few hundred square feet of lawn in an urban neighborhood into their garden. She said that this was a great way to start saving money, since lawns — with a need of water, fertilizers and mowing — use a lot of resources and give little back, while a garden could be used to grow food, rather than grass.

Esslinger and her family grew a variety of crops, including rhubarb, cabbage, cucumbers, kale and other greens, zucchini and other gourds, and carrots, potatoes and other root crops. They also grew a variety of herbs to use in the dishes they would be eating for the next year.

“The total harvest was 1,622 pounds,” Esslinger said.

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