At Winterlake Lodge, where I live during the winter months, the kitchen is wide and open. A bank of stoves and prep areas fill the far wall. A big wooden kitchen table that seats 10 people runs along the opposite side of the room. In the middle is an expansive prep table that my husband Carl built to fit the height of my hands as I work.
Employees take their meals at the kitchen table and they take frequent warm-up breaks in from the cold outside, usually with a cookie in hand. It's a constant parade of visitors sitting and talking at the table throughout the day. For those of us who are cooking and prepping at the table opposite, it's an ever-changing and often entertaining scene.
Many events have happened in my kitchen over the years. Newborn sled dog puppies have warmed up here. Sammy, our old black Labrador, spent her last days lying on the oriental rug near the back door. We stabilized a woman's broken arm as she rested it on our table. We saved a hypothermic man's life. The kitchen table is often used as a tool-shop surface to repair dogsled runners or engine parts. One night an "Asian mountain guide" and her lover slept underneath the kitchen table because we had nowhere else to house them. Famous people have dined here. People have met and fallen in love at our table. A thousand stories about the trail and the snow conditions and the temperament of sled dogs have taken place here.
This week we are preparing for the Iditarod. We make special meals for the Alaska Ultrasport racers who travel along the Iditarod Trail by foot or bicycle. And, just a few days later, we make the same kind of meals for the Iditarod sled dog mushers on their way to Nome.
To accommodate the nonstop schedule and the number of people we feed, we've designed a one-plate menu that's crafted with the athlete in mind.
First, we make homemade corn tortillas, adding in Manchego cheese from Spain and a little cumin to the dough. Manchego is delicious mixed into corn tortillas and it is also a little joke on our part. Manchego is a slightly nutty-tasting sheep's milk cheese from La Mancha, the home of Don Quixote (and, in fact, Cervantes even mentions it in his book). I am not saying that I think people who walk, bike or dog mush to Nome are nutty, or on a Quixotic quest, but it seems a good fit.
We serve our homemade tortillas with black beans seasoned with fresh orange juice and spices. Black beans are always in our pantry and we use them for all sorts of dishes. If we make too many black beans for our racer meals, we can always create a hearty black bean soup or a spicy sausage-filled Brazilian feijoada (pronounced fay-jwa-da) served with a bowl of salted and fried greens. Or, we can make vegetarian burgers for the crew.
We make basmati rice, an Indian long-grain rice, because it holds up during our sleepless nights when racers are arriving at all hours hoping for a hot meal. We add in a half a cup of yogurt to our basmati rice for a little extra flavor. Sometimes we sauté onion and cardamom pods and add these in to the pot. And in summer, we throw in a handful of herbs such as cilantro or mint.
Finally, to our musher meal, we add a single fried egg on top. These aren't just any eggs. They are fresh eggs from our chicken coop. Actually, the coop is a little converted A-frame greenhouse along the trail to the garden. There's a hand painted sign that hangs near the front door of the coop announcing "The Egg Plant." We have mostly Rhode Island Reds in our flock. They are the breed that seems to hold up best with our winter conditions.
So, then -- beans, rice, tortilla, fried egg, some tomato, lime and garlicky salsa -- that's what you'll eat if you ski, bike, walk, or mush into Mile 198 on the Iditarod Trail this week.
Homemade corn tortillas
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups masa harina corn flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups hot water
1/2 pound Manchego cheese, grated
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Mix the salt into the masa harina corn flour. Slowly pour the hot water into the dough, adding in just enough to make a firm but not dry and cracked dough. Let the dough rest for about an hour, covered.
Preheat a griddle or cast iron skillet. Divide the dough and roll into 2-inch balls. Make an indentation in the center of each ball and place some of the cheese into the center. Re-roll the dough into balls, covering the cheese with dough. Roll or flatten the dough between a tortilla press into a 1/8-inch disk. Place the disk onto a hot dry griddle or cast iron skillet and cook until the top of the tortilla starts to brown, about 1 minute. Flip the disk over and heat for another minute or so.
Makes 12 6-inch tortillas.
Kirsten Dixon is an award-winning chef who has cooked and lived the past 30 years in the backcountry of Alaska. To learn more about her, visit www.kirstendixon.com.