INTRODUCTION “P.S. You should write a cookbook.”
Just like that, she said it, handwritten in pen on creamy off-white lined paper. She discreetly placed the letter on the kitchen counter just before she left Alaska on a flight back to San Diego. She knew I was sure to find it there waiting in the kitchen after our tear-soaked goodbye in the driveway. At the very bottom of the note, I found this simple postscript, disguised as an afterthought, but very much not. That pesky little P.S.
carried so much weight for me and stirred me to the core, just precisely as she knew it would.
Everyone needs someone like her in their life—that one person who pushes you, believes in you, fights for you, continually reminds you, “You have it in you.” The one who has a way of getting you to verbalize all of the things inside of you that do not yet have words, the person who sees the unwritten book within and demands you let it out. We all need at least one person who helps us find the courage to lean into exactly whom we were meant to be.
Amid the chaos of my three young children on vacation from school, the bustle of summer houseguests, and the frantic clicking of my springer spaniel’s paws on the wood floors, I swirl about the kitchen preparing dinner for eight—a large pot of ginger peanut hoisin noodles fit for a crowd. The unmistakable aroma of garlic lingers heavily in the air. I grab my stack of mismatched Alaska pottery bowls and dish up pile after pile of glistening noodles tangling together with cilantro and scallions.
“Who wants chopsticks?” I call out to no one in particular and everyone at once, holding about a dozen of them in my hand. “Don’t forget the Sriracha,” I suggest, nodding my head in the general direction of the essential red bottle as I continue to plate the last of the food. Someone eagerly jumps up and grabs it, transferring it to the table, where it gets passed around.
All the seats are now full, including the dark wood piano bench from downstairs that creates extra space for guests. The overabundant summer sunlight pours in the unshaded windows, casting everything in gold, illuminating the shapes of the tall evergreen trees just outside. A hush falls over the house as I look on from behind the kitchen counter, that sudden quiet when everyone contentedly comes to rest at the table and begins to eat. I live for that moment. I pause to soak it in, slowly scanning the room to make sure everyone has what they need. Then, finally, I let out a deep breath and lean over the counter to rest my legs, taking a couple of bites of noodles.
One head turns and watches me from the dining room. She stops eating midbite and keeps looking in my direction, waiting. Her eyes break away, scanning the table briefly, a flicker. “Maya, come sit with us,” she urges. Two other guests look up from their bowls, suddenly aware, and they chime in. One of them jumps up to locate a chair for me. I lower my head, my face flushed with embarrassment, and wave my hand dismissively to say I’m fine. She insists with her eyes. I reluctantly agree as another chair is placed and I am out of excuses.
This was the day I realized there was no place for me at my own table.
Somewhere along the way I had become like Mrs. Patmore on Downton Abbey
who pours her life into preparing and serving dinner each day, but never emerges from the downstairs kitchen, where she can be found eating leftovers and washing dishes. I was hiding in plain sight. The food was the representation of me at the table, but I had become invisible. I hadn’t set a place for myself, nor had I demanded one be made for me. I was nourishing others but didn’t feel worthy of the same nourishment myself.
That night over those noodles, someone saw me. She didn’t just see the Maya leaning over the kitchen counter, but she saw the little Maya within, the child with food insecurity standing in the schoolyard trying not to look longingly at everyone else’s lunch. The little girl who quietly hoped someone would share their sandwich, yet who felt deeply ashamed when someone actually did.
So I set out in life, rather subconsciously, to fill that empty stomach by nourishing those around me, attempting to ensure that no one I loved would ever know that same sense of hunger, unworthiness, lack of belonging, or shame. I strive to feed people, take care of them, and make them feel safe and at home. When I open up my kitchen, I open up myself, and somehow that vulnerable girl within me feels a little bit fuller and a little less small.
Writing this book is a daily exercise in making a place for myself at the table.
Come sit with me. FOOD PHILOSOPHY
There are a few things I’d like you to know about me and my food philosophy as you read this book. I live in a modest three-bedroom rental home on the Kenai Peninsula with my family of five, along with our dog, Rosie. My kitchen is not large; my appliances are not new; my countertops are not big, and they are not made of marble. Or granite. Or butcher block. Although I think all of those are splendid and beautiful. I don’t have a lot of expensive kitchen equipment or an expansive collection of dishes and props. Heck, I don’t even have a pantry. I have a lazy Susan inside of a low cupboard that I use as a makeshift pantry. We bought our dining room table on clearance, and it seats all of us comfortably in the small dining space adjacent to the kitchen. I do nearly all of my cooking, eating, and food styling in these spaces. While it may not be fancy, it is cozy and simple and adequate. There is ample space for both food and memories to be made. There is plenty of room for love and nourishment to take place. That’s all I really need. The rest is gravy.
I like to think that I’m not so different from your average working mother of three. On school days, I’m the earliest riser. The coffeepot is my alarm clock, and I wake up to the smell of dark roast brewing and the faint sounds of trickling and intermittent puffs of steam. I’m up at 5:30 a.m. drinking my first cup of coffee in an attempt to ready myself for the long day ahead. I proceed to wake up the kids one by one, make breakfast, and pack three very standard sack lunches. While it’s still dark, I drive my kids to the bus stop in my Subaru Outback with the cracked windshield. A great many windshields in Alaska are cracked. It’s a thing. I imagine it’s due to the frigid temperatures and all the gravel roads tossing rocks around. One hardly knows, but it adds to my Subaru’s rugged Alaska-ness, so I embrace it. Most mornings, my wife and I sit together at the table over the crossword puzzle, coffee in hand. My second cup, her first. Mine with vanilla creamer, hers black. We then enjoy a small breakfast—almost always a couple of eggs on a shared plate, two forks.
If I have a deadline for my newspaper column looming, I’ll go straight from the bus stop to the local market, shuffling into the store in my fuzzy slippers and sweatpants, with a knit beanie on my head, to pick up a few ingredients for recipe testing. The grocers all know me there, greet me warmly, and joke about how often I visit the store, but none of them have any idea what I do for a living. No one has ever asked, and it’s not usually information I volunteer. I go incognito. Anonymity is hard to come by in this small town, and in Alaska in general, so I tend to guard it fiercely whenever I can find it.
When I pull back into my driveway after shopping, my retired neighbor across the street might be shoveling snow. When he sees me, he’ll wave to me, his big yellow dog somewhere nearby. I might offer him some baked goods in exchange for bringing his snow blower over and clearing my driveway. His face will light up and he will gladly oblige. Because in Alaska, we help each other out, trading one kindness for another.
At the end of the day, there is nothing particularly glamorous about this pajama-clad food writing gig of mine. If I can make this food, you can make it, too. I am self-taught. I grew up reading cookbooks and devouring cooking shows, and I have always had an unquenchable curiosity about ingredients, new flavors, and the food preferences of those around me. I collect people’s food preferences like a secret recipe box stashed inside my head. I pride myself on knowing both the favorite and most despised flavors of my friends, family, and guests. I am well acquainted with their food allergies and diet restrictions, too. I suppose it’s the way I’m wired. SALMON BURGERS WITH SESAME SLAW AND WASABI MAYO Makes 4
Salmon burgers are very Alaska. You can find variations of them in restaurants and homes statewide. They are at the top of the list of my favorite ways to enjoy and serve local sockeye salmon, a real crowd pleaser to make for guests. Even fish-averse kiddos tend to enjoy salmon when it comes in burger form. I admit I may even enjoy a good salmon burger more than a traditional hamburger. Gasp.
While a great many salmon burger recipes call for leftover salmon that’s already been cooked and flaked, mixed with bread crumbs as a binder, I prefer to make my burgers with raw cubed salmon and panko. This method produces a beautiful, moist patty that really lets the salmon stand out. Once you’ve got this method down, you can play with different toppings. They are fantastic with classic burger fixin’s like red onion, tomato, and lettuce with a garlicky lemon mayonnaise or homemade tartar sauce. Or, in this version, I evoked the flavors of sushi—ginger, sesame, Sriracha, avocado, and wasabi. As with a salmon fillet, salmon burgers are enjoyed best medium-rare to medium in the center. FOR THE SESAME SLAW:
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons Sriracha
2 teaspoons sugar
Juice of half a lime
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups finely shredded red cabbage
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped FOR THE WASABI MAYO:
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon wasabi paste (or to taste)
1 teaspoon soy sauce FOR THE SALMON BURGERS:
2 pounds wild sockeye salmon, pin bones and skin removed, cubed
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
2 egg whites
3 tablespoons soy sauce
Juice of half a lime
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons avocado oil
4 hamburger buns, toasted
1 ripe avocado, sliced 1. To make the sesame slaw:
In a mixing bowl, combine the vinegar, sesame oil, Sriracha, sugar, lime juice, sesame seeds, and salt. Whisk vigorously to thoroughly combine and dissolve sugar. Add the cabbage and cilantro and toss to coat. Refrigerate until ready to assemble the burgers. I do not recommend making this more than an hour ahead, as the cabbage will begin to wilt and lose its crunch. 2. To make the wasabi mayo:
In a small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, wasabi, and soy sauce until smooth. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. 3. To make the salmon burgers:
In a mixing bowl, combine the salmon, panko, green onions, ginger, garlic, egg whites, soy sauce, lime juice, and salt. Fold together until well combined. On a large cutting board, shape the mixture into 4 evenly sized round patties. 4.
Place a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl the pan with the avocado oil. When the oil is hot, carefully transfer 2 salmon burgers to the pan. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until seared and browned on the bottom. Turn and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until seared on the other side. Remove the burgers from the heat and repeat with the remaining patties. 5.
Place the toasted burger buns on serving plates. Place a salmon burger on each bottom bun. Using a slotted spoon, top each burger with a generous heap of sesame slaw. Top the slaw with avocado slices. Smear each top bun liberally with wasabi mayo and place them on top of the burgers. Serve promptly. SHEET PAN BALSAMIC CHICKEN WITH BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND SWEET POTATOES Makes 4 servings
Sheet pan meals are amazing. They have been growing in popularity because you can toss all of your dinner components—protein, vegetables, and starch—onto 1 pan and roast them all together. The vegetables get caramelized, the potatoes get tender, and the meat or poultry gets juicy and delicious all at once. Sheet pan recipes can be lifesavers for busy families who are looking for an easy, well-rounded meal with lots of color and flavor with a lot less cleanup afterward.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 pound Brussels sprouts,
trimmed and quartered
1 cup peeled and cubed sweet potatoes, (cubed about the same size as the quartered Brussels sprouts)
1/2 cup roughly chopped red onion 1.
In a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the vinegar, mustard, honey, garlic, rosemary, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Mix well. Place the chicken thighs in a resealable plastic bag. 2.
Pour two-thirds of the balsamic mixture over the chicken to coat. Seal the bag and place it in the refrigerator to marinate for at least 1 hour. 3.
Preheat the oven to 425°F. On a large rimmed sheet pan, scatter the Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and onion. Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat. Drizzle the remaining one-third of the balsamic mixture over the vegetables and toss again. Remove the chicken thighs from the marinade and place them on the sheet pan, nestling them in between the vegetables. 4.
Roast for 25 minutes, or until the vegetables are caramelized and tender, a thermometer inserted in the thickest portion of a thigh registers 165°F, and the juices run clear. CHOCOLATE MINT EARTHQUAKE CAKE Makes 8 to 10 servings
One of the things Alaska is known for are its earthquakes. There is an average of 1,000 earthquakes in the state each month, and we feel them frequently here on the Kenai Peninsula. The largest earthquake I’ve experienced in my lifetime was here in 2016, a magnitude 7.1 that was prolonged and jolting. And of course, there is the famous Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, a whopping 9.2 magnitude, the largest ever recorded in North America. That quake caused tsunamis and massive landslides and shifted the elevation and geography of several parts of the state.
When I read about this flourless Earthquake Cake in Anne Byrn’s stunning historical cookbook, American Cake
, I couldn’t think of a better dessert to adapt for this book. The tall outer edges of the cake jut up like snow-dusted mountain peaks, giving way to the shattered ground in the center, dense and rich in chocolate, like moist, moveable earth. The cake, like Alaska, is formidable and stunning to behold, yet imperfect and fragile at the same time. This recipe is a little high maintenance (using your oven timer for precise times will be crucial), but it’s also the best flourless chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted, so it’s absolutely worth it.
1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup butter
6 eggs, separated
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
3 tablespoons crème de menthe liqueur FOR SERVING:
Confectioners’ sugar 1.
Position an oven rack in the center position. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease the bottom and sides of an 8" springform pan. Dust the pan with the cocoa. 2.
Break the chocolate into pieces and cut the butter into cubes. In a saucepan, combine the chocolate and butter over low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes, or until the chocolate melts and the mixture becomes smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside. 3.
Place the egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed, gradually adding 3/4 cup of the granulated sugar. Continue beating for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the yolks are pale yellow and thick. Reduce the mixer speed to the lowest setting and gradually add the chocolate mixture until just combined, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. Add the crème de menthe and beat until just combined. Set aside. 4.
Add the egg whites to another mixing bowl. Fit the stand mixer with the whisk attachment. Beat on high speed for 2 minutes, or until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar and beat for 1 minute, or until stiff peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the whites into the chocolate mixture. Pour the batter into the springform pan. 5.
Bake the cake for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature again to 250°F. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a firm crust forms on top and the cake wiggles slightly to the touch. Turn off the oven, leaving the cake inside. Using a folded kitchen towel, prop open the oven door. Let the cake rest inside the oven with the door propped open for 25 minutes. 6.
Move the cake to a wire rack and let cool on the counter for 30 minutes. The cake will collapse as it cools. This is what you want. Gingerly run a butter knife around the edge of the pan before releasing it from the spring-form sides. Dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar. Slice with a sharp knife. Best served warm or at room temperature.
Copyright © 2018 by Maya Wilson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.