Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fire Island Bakery: My Favorite Place to Spoil My Appetite

This weekend I went to the Fire Island Bakery (twice!), which is located downtown at 14th and G Street. They're open Wednesday through Sunday, and they're also closed for a little while in the winter. It's one of my favorite places to go get a snack on the weekends (the other one is Modern Dwellers). One of the reasons I love it is because it was started by two former state employees, one of whom was the director of Alaska State Parks. So, I love it because they're totally living the dream- one day they just said to themselves, forget being a bureaucrat, I'm going to open a bakery! The bakery space is very small, and it can be pretty tight, with only a few tables and a narrow aisle between the tables and the counter, but there are more tables outside for the summertime. On the other hand, the small size concentrates all the heat and delicious smells in the bakery, so you are hit with it as soon as you come in, and can see and smell everything going on.

They really try to be a neighborhood bakery, and they're in a primarily residential neighborhood just south of the Park Strip downtown. Especially in the summer, I see people walking in from the neighborhood a fair amount. It can be just a little hard to get a parking space, though, since it is near downtown- usually you drive up and it looks like a Subaru convention, but I've never had trouble parking within a block. If I lived or worked downtown, I would come here all. the. time. One of my friends who works downtown walks over at lunch sometimes to get a cookie and some bread to take home. It might make working in a cubicle downtown worth it. Everything I've had is great, and everything is made from scratch, and they buy a lot of local and/or organic ingredients. They also make small batches to keep everything fresh, so they do run out of things- you may want to go earlier in the day if you can. That's also one of the great things about it, though, that they bake all these different things, so you can go there twice and they have a lot of different tasty things each time, along with their staples.

They also hire and train a lot of young people, and support local causes, including donating day-old bread to Bean's Cafe, a local soup kitchen. They also spend some time each winter going to pastry or baking classes outside, so they're really trying to keep things fresh, and to help train and develop the careers of their workers. Whatever, I want the job of the young lady I saw the other day, standing there with a giant tub of chocolate frosting, icing cakes.

Breads and Savory Baked Goods

First of all, the bread. They make all kinds of great bread, from the rustic white and rustic wheat, which are delicious, plus the loaves themselves are gorgeous, to the ciabatta, which is a very rustic, uneven looking loaf of delicious bread. The ciabatta is my parents' favorite, but I like the rustic white and wheat, because it has a great crust, as well as a great texture. All their breads have body and gravitas, not like those breads you get at the supermarket that are so soft and insubstantial.  They also have great things like French baguettes, and monkey bread and cinnamon rolls (iced and plain) for those who like their bread covered in cinnamon and sugar. If I was the type of person who got up early, I would go to the bakery first thing so I could smell the warm monkey bread in the oven. Other breads they have are whole wheat sandwich bread; challah; focaccia; roasted potato, cheddar with jalapeno and green chile; cinnamon raisin bread; volkonbrot (for those of you who are, the nice young man at the counter told me it was basically a dark rye); and rustic wheat with currants and pecans. they also have other Jewish breads for holidays. The most important thing about the bread is to estimate how much you are going to eat in 2-3 days, and freeze the rest. They are so good about making everything from scratch and using all natural ingredients that their bread actually molds really fast, way faster than grocery store bread, so you had better refrigerate or freeze it, because it would be a dirty dirty shame to have to throw any away.

Next, to other baked goods. They have great scones and croissants. Everything I've had is great, but I haven't remotely had the chance to try everything they make. The scones are very popular. Last weekend they had apricot and fennel, but the variety changes a lot.  I love the croissants especially- I usually get the traditional, but they have also had ham and cheese, mushroom and gruyere, and chocolate, during various visits. I've never had a muffin from Fire Island, but they have a huge variety to choose from. They also make their own granola that they sell in quarts - as my mother says, it's good, but not as good as her homemade granola. So maybe if you want granola you should just be nice to me or my mom.

Cookie Cookie Cookie Starts with C!

They also have great cookies, of which I have sampled many. The cookies are probably my primary weakness at Fire Island. I very rarely go in and only get one. Also, I may tell myself that I'm only going to eat one and save the rest for later, but really, who am I kidding? They are all gone in minutes. they ask me, do you want these in a box so they don't get crushed? No, silly cashier, that will not be a problem. They have regular chocolate chip and cherry chocolate chip. These are great, especially when they're fresh from the oven (usually). They are totally packed with chocolate chips, and they have that great texture where they're a little crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. They also have peanut butter cookies and ginger molasses cookies, which they sell as cookie sandwiches, with peanut butter ganache and lemon frosting, respectively, in between two cookies. They are super good, and the ginger molasses ones are my husband's favorite thing to get there. They also sell Parisian macarons, which, if you've never had them (for shame!), are like little wafer-cookie sandwiches- they have chocolate, lemon, chocolate-coconut, strawberry, and raspberry filling options. I loooove the chocolate and lemon ones, but haven't had the others. Since chocolate and lemon are two of my favorite dessert flavors, why would I? They also have Russian tea cakes, which are on my list of things to try (when they're out of Parisian macarons), and they have coconut macaroons, which look good, but I'm not the biggest fan of coconut in sweet things, so I haven't tried them, either.

Other Fabulous Pastries and Desserts

Other tasty sweet things they carry include cakes, cupcakes, and tarts, which are delicious. Unlike with the cookies, I have actually managed to take home a chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting and not eat it until the next day. They also have small chocolate cakes with chocolate icing, carrot cake, blueberry tart, salted caramel pecan tart, chocolate eclairs, and last weekend they had an almond meringue tart with a berry filling.

For Lunch or a Nosh

If you stop in and want, like, a meal, rather than a few cookies and a tart, then you can actually get a sandwich and a coffee here. They have some good loose leaf teas, and they have some natural sodas, organic milk, and other drinks to go with. I'm not sure how much their sandwich selection varies, but last weekend they had Tuna nicoise, turkey apple chutney, and roasted veggie sandwiches, as well as their focaccias. They make their own focaccia bread, which is seriously good bread, and then they top it with a couple different things, so it's like a pizza or open faced sandwich. Last weekend they had one with fig, prosciutto, and chevre, and one with pesto, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and cheese (I think gruyere). They give you huge slices, so it's pretty much the same as ordering a sandwich. I've had the pesto one, but the other one looked so good, that I'd probably order it next time just to try.

So if you are in downtown Anchorage, please do yourself a favor and go to this bakery. You will eat too many sweets, and then later that night you will eat too much bread, but it is totally worth it. Everyone should have a bakery like this in their town.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Community Supported Agriculture in Southcentral Alaska

The Alaska State dish is back after a bit of a winter hiatus, and will be here the rest of the year to tell you about great Alaska restaurants and ways that you can support the producers of great Alaskan foods.
In many hip, progressive places in the Lower 48 with longer growing seasons, many CSA programs have probably already filled up and are starting waiting lists. Here in Alaska, they are just starting to get geared up for the 2012 season. While I think CSAs are a great idea, this is the first year I have signed up for a CSA share. At some point I would like to have a substantial vegetable garden of my own, but in the meantime I want to make sure I’m getting as many local vegetables as possible and supporting local farmers. So here’s a quick user’s guide to Community Supported Agriculture in Alaska. If you want more information on any farms, visit the Alaska Food: Eating Local page, which has a listing of farms in Alaska, and links to their pages if they have one. This site is a lot more current than a site like Local Harvest- many Alaskan farms are not included and even more are listed but haven’t updated their pages in years. Of course, the best way to learn is to visit your farmer’s markets this summer and talk to the farmers yourself.
The CSA I just signed up for is run by Spring Creek Farm in Palmer. Spring Creek is actually an educational farm, run by the folks at Alaska Pacific University as part of the Department of Outdoor and Environmental Education. All of the educational institutions in Alaska have been very important in supporting local agriculture. The University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service holds classes for the public on vegetable gardening, raising chickens, and other agricultural topics, and have a lot of resources for gardening and food preservation on their website. APU also holds lots of classes at Spring Creek Farm, including lots of classes for local young people, including ones for Girl Scouts on sustainable living, and a “farm school” for home-schooled students.
A CSA share in Southcentral Alaska usually costs about $550-$600 for the season, and usually produces from early June to early October, but of course this varies with the weather. There are CSA programs in the Tanana Valley, too, but their growing season is at least a couple weeks shorter. They don't have a traditional CSA, but there is even a farm in Bethel, out on the Y-K Delta, that has a farm stand where they sell their organic produce, and they will send you a box of vegetables if you live in one of the surrounding villages.
The cost for the season for a CSA in the Anchorage area averages out to about $30-35 a week for a giant box of produce, so among other advantages, it’s cheaper than getting all your vegetables at the farmer’s markets. I can spend $40 on a summer Saturday without even trying! Of course, the most important thing is that you’re helping your local farmers by giving them a base income, and giving them an income early in the season, when they incur most of their costs. Also, it’s important to know that up here these are truly vegetable shares. Few fruits grow well up here, and they’re not profitable for most farms. There is a limited supply of berries, tomatoes, and apples available at some farmer’s markets in late summer (see below), but expect to be getting lots of green vegetables in your farm box.
Other local (Southcentral Alaska) farms that have CSA programs include Arctic Organics, which has been run by Sara and River Bean for over 20 years. They are one of the few local farms that has gone through the process of actually becoming Certified Organic – many local farms practice sustainable, pesticide-free methods but are not actually USDA certified. Sun Circle Farm is another option for those shopping for a CSA. They have both large and small shares, and they also offer whole and half pig shares. Do note, though, that they only sell in the Valley at the Wasilla Farmer’s Market and at their own farmstand, and CSA shares also have to be picked up in the Valley. Unless you know some other people who have Sun Circle shares that you can share pickups with, I wouldn’t recommend that. Cottonwood Creek Farm doesn’t have a vegetable CSA, but they have a co-op and offer goat shares for unpasteurized goat’s milk, and you can also increase your share to get fresh eggs.
Most of the farms in southcentral Alaska that have CSA programs also sell produce at the farmer’s markets, so you can talk to the staff and try their vegetables before you sign up the next year. I learned about Fireweed Farm that way, at the Spenard Farmer’s Market, but unfortunately they had to discontinue their CSA program after 2011. And don’t think that I won’t be going to the farmer’s markets at all just because I have a CSA share! First of all, I still need fresh eggs, and butter and cheese from Matanuska Creamery (I can usually get their milk at the store). Late in the season, I may still go to pick up carrots, potatoes, parsnips, and onions for winter storage, depending on how much I get with my share.  Plus, sometimes farmers just have great things – there are some very nice ladies at the South Anchorage Farmer’s Market that I swear have the best tomatoes in Alaska, and another farmer at that same market has great organic strawberries.
It’s hard to run a farm in Alaska, and Fireweed isn’t the only one that’s stopped their CSA program. Glacier Valley Farm also had a CSA up until this fall. Theirs was a little non-traditional: they tried to offer a year-round share, with their own produce and that of local farms supplemented in the off-season with organic produce from Outside. I’m not sure how I feel about the high shipping costs and environmental costs of something like that, especially for folks in Anchorage who can go to the store. If you want to help local farmers in other ways, you can support the Alaska Farmland Trust, which works on preserving available farmland for farming, and otherwise building Alaska's agricultural infrastructure to increase our food security and the farming economy. Read this post about a wine tasting fundraiser I went to for them.
Speaking of high shipping costs, there are also options for those Alaskans in the Bush who still would like fresh produce. The $30 pineapple at the Bush store can now be avoided with a subscription to Full Circle Farm. They send weekly boxes of produce anywhere in Alaska for around $30-$55 a week, depending on the size of the box, and they send boxes year-round. According to an article I read last year, subscribers in rural Alaska got more produce for less money than at the store, and the produce was all in far better shape than they could get elsewhere. This farm seems pretty successful- one day last September I flew into Haines (see previous post), and at least half the mail they unloaded off the plane consisted of Full Circle farm boxes.
I can hardly wait until early June when I start getting fresh salads and herbs! I'm already collecting recipes for soups and other ways to preserve all the vegetables I will get. I do get jealous of my friends outside that have fresh, local foods year-round. Pretty much all the local foods I can get at the moment are eggs, milk, potatoes, and carrots. But that's okay: if I want to get serious about eating seasonally in Alaska, I'm going to have to get used to eating more potatoes, carrots, and parsnips in the winter, right?