The more I settle in and get to know the Alaska food scene, the happier I am to discover the dedication of local food lovers, writers, and organizations here. This year for Food Day -- a nationwide event that helps promote healthy, affordable, and sustainably produced food -- Anchorage was right in the hub of it all with a Sustainable Seafood Cook-Off, which also benefited the Downtown Soup Kitchen. Sponsored by the Alaska Food Policy Council, The Alaska Marine Conservation Council, and Rob and Carolyn Kinneen of Fresh49, the Cook-Off was held on Thursday, Oct. 24 at the newly-opened Soup Kitchen, which serves close to 450 meals a day.
The cook-off was reminiscent of popular Food Network challenges. Four duos battled it out in one hour to produce the best seafood dish for five local judges -- author Laurie Constantino, Ian Dutton of the Rasmuson Foundation, Diane Peck of the Alaska Food Policy Council, chef Darren Peacock, and myself. The Catch: The contestants only found out what the main ingredient was just before the clock started ticking. If you're a Food TV geek, think: Iron Chef meets Chopped.
While all the entries were compelling, only one could win. And the judges agreed that the dish created by The Salty Sisters (Kate Consenstein and Heidi Drygas) was the outstanding plate of the competition.
As both Drygas and Consenstein are born-and-bred Alaskans, they were thrilled to win this year's Alaska Seafood competition. "As a harvester from a commercial fishing family and a marketer, I'm committed to Alaska seafood in a serious way," Consenstein said. "It's the kind of industry our state feels proud of and emotionally connected to. We feed the world with our sustainable, nutritious seafood, and we feed our own families with it, too."
As for the outstanding recipe, the Salty Sisters created a dish that was both beautiful and fresh tasting, and that really highlighted our local spot prawns, the secret ingredient. The inspiration behind the dish? Drygas explains that they were looking for a combination of flavors that would basically enhance any seafood.
"We both love the interplay of sweet oranges with the unique, crisp anise flavor of fennel, and the buttery taste of Castelvetrano olives," she explained. "And no one can deny that pork and shrimp are a match made in culinary heaven. At first, it was just going to be the shrimp with the raw salad on top, but I love the flavor and texture of fennel both raw and roasted, and we added the toasted citrus Panko breadcrumbs to give the dish a little more interest as well as to use the other fantastic part of the orange -- the zest!"
They knew exactly what they were doing. My fellow judge, Laurie Constantino, and I reminisced about the dish a week later. "The Salty Sisters' dish was sheer genius," Laurie said. "It mixed perfectly cooked Alaska spot prawns with earthy fennel root, juicy oranges, briny green olives, and smoky bacon. Just the memory makes my mouth water; their recipe is a definite keeper."
Drygas, who grew up salmon fishing all around Alaska, said she's only ever known fresh, local seafood. "When all you know as a child is how good it can taste, because you caught it fresh in your backyard, you never complain about the "fishiness" of fish. We are completely spoiled with the bounty of seafood here in Alaska. It's the best in the world."
Try your hand at the winning recipe:
Roasted Alaska Spot Prawns with Fennel, Orange, Olives and Toasted Citrus Breadcrumbs
Adapted from The Salty Sisters: Kate Consenstein and Heidi Drygas. (Serves 4)
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Trim the outer layer of one of the fennel bulbs and slice using a sharp knife or the medium thickness setting of a mandolin slicer into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Toss with olive oil and season with salt and pepper and spread in a single layer on a shallow roasting pan. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes or until soft and golden.
3. Place orange segments and their juice into a bowl along with the olives. On the thinnest setting of your mandolin slicer (or by using a very sharp knife) thinly slice two fennel bulbs crosswise, being careful to reserve the fronds as garnish. Add sliced fennel to the bowl, along with the lemon juice and 1 to 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and toss well.
4. Cook diced bacon on medium-high heat in a large cast iron skillet. When bacon is partially cooked and some bacon fat has rendered, add shallots. Once shallots have cooked to translucency, remove from heat. Layer shrimp over shallots and bacon and season with salt and pepper. Bake at 425 degrees until the shrimp just barely become opaque, about 5-7 minutes.
5. Mix the breadcrumbs with 1 teaspoon of orange zest, a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. In a large skillet on medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter and add the breadcrumbs to the skillet. Toss the crumbs around in the skillet until the breadcrumbs appear toasted, about 5-7 minutes.
6. To serve, place the roasted fennel on the bottom of the plate. Top with the shrimp and shallot/bacon mixture. Place the salad of orange, fennel, and olives on top of the shrimp along with a drizzle of the juices. Sprinkle with the seasoned breadcrumbs, additional orange zest and fennel fronds. Enjoy!
Kim Sunée ate and lived in Europe for ten years before working as a food editor for Southern Living magazine and Cottage Living magazine. Her writing has appeared in Food & Wine, The Oxford American and Asian American Poetry and Writing. Sunée has appeared several times as a guest judge on the Food Network's Iron Chef America. She is currently based in Anchorage and working on a cookbook, "A Mouthful of Stars," to be published by Andrews McMeel in 2014. For more food and travel, visit www.kimsunee.com.