Agriculture has never been a strong suit for rainy Southeast Alaska, so a farm-to-table event might not sound too exciting, but throw in some locally-caught king salmon, and suddenly you’ve got gourmet potential.
Sitka’s Pacific High School celebrated the end of October, which is National Farm to School month, with a salmon-studded feast.
When I was in home ec class growing up we blended smoothies from frozen berries and baked cakes with store-bought ingredients.
That’s not the case at Pacific High. Students from Sitka’s alternative school cook with locally-grown vegetables, hand-picked berries, and, of course, fresh-caught salmon.
“I get the phone call, ‘Are you ready for fish?’ And I say, ‘Yes, we’re ready for fish. We’re always ready for fish,” explains Mandy Summer.
Summer helps distribute seafood donated through Sitka’s Fish to School program. When she’s not answering phone calls about fish shipments, Summer serves as Pacific High’s principal. The school gets about 10 pounds of fish each week.
“We have salmon once and then we’ll have some kind of whitefish, either halibut or rockfish that we also serve,” Summer says.
Peter Vu is the Americorps volunteer at Pacific High, where he teaches a cooking class once a week. Vu is from Texas and worked in restaurants throughout college, but, he says, the ingredients here make his work at Pacific High unique.
“Everything is so fresh and there’s such a big emphasis on making creative meals, so it’s been fun working with the kids,” explains Vu.
Vu worked with students to create today’s meal. There’s a crispy zucchini-carrot fritter, king salmon with cajun seasoning
“And it’s garnished with a homemade dill sauce,” explains Vu. “We’re also serving a salad that has zucchini, lettuce, carrots, and what are the flowers?” Vu asks.
“Nasturtiums,” answers Amy Kane.
Kane stopped by to help serve up today’s meal. She also has restaurant experience, being the former owner of Sitka’s Larkspur Cafe, where she was able to incorporate some local seafood, though she says it’s harder to do for hundreds of diners.
Pacific High School only has 36 students, so it’s easier to harvest enough huckleberries to make the salad dressing that’s drizzled on today’s greens.
“This huckleberry looks amazing,” remarks Vu.
“Isn’t it pretty?” Kane says. “It’s an easy way to get color.”
The dressing is a deep maroon color. Everything on the plate looks ten times brighter than any beige school meal from your childhood. It even looks better than most meals served up in high-end restaurants, especially the salmon.
One student jokes about how, since it is farm to school month, the salmon should be much paler on the palate.
“It’s farm to school. Why is it not farmed fish?” a student asks.
The salmon, of course, is wild, while everything in the salad is from St. Peter’s Farm, a community garden in Sitka. That’s also where the zucchini and carrots came from for the fritter, which are mixed in together with local eggs and Alaskan barley.
It’s a beautiful meal, and guilt-free, too. But the real test of a tasty meal? It’s the students.
“It was delicious,” confirms Philip Barker, whose plate is clean.
But unlike most diners in high-end restaurants, he doesn’t linger over the meal. After all, he’s got class to get back to.