Thursday, November 10, 2011

Recipes from Antarctica

This week's recipes come from Antarctica. No, really. Antarctica.

I won't lie. I was really concerned about this one. I started doing research for it almost as soon as I decided to start writing this blog.

Here's why: There are no traditional Antarctic recipes. There is no "national dish of Antarctica." Recipes don't get passed down from generation to generation. That's because Antarctica has no native population, unless you count the penguins. No one really raises kids in Antarctica. In fact, until 1820 no human being had even laid eyes on the southern-most continent. And the only people who live there now are research scientists and the people who provide them with supportive services.

Just to set the record straight, Antarctica isn't a country. Unlike many of the other territories and psuedo-nations on my list, its status as a non-country isn't even in question. It has no government, though there are a few countries who have tried to lay claim to various regions. Activities in Antarctica are regulated by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which was signed by 12 nations (including neighbors Argentina, Chile and Australia, as well as the super-nations of the time, the USSR, the UK and of course the USA). The treaty primarily banned military activity and designated the continent as a scientific and environmental preserve.

Antarctica, the bottom of the earth.

So I guess I could have opted out of Antarctica, since it clearly doesn't belong on a list of sovereign nations. But you know me.

So how does one go about finding recipes for a land of ice, that has no real culinary tradition and no permanent population?

Google, of course. At least that's where I started ... but I didn't get very far. Predictably, there were no easy-to-find Antarctica recipe collections or even single recipes anywhere on the internet. By week three of my search I'd almost resigned myself to cooking a meal of pemmican and sledging biscuits. My poor family.

I wasn't quite ready to quit yet, though, so I thought I'd try emailing some of the bloggers I'd found who had traveled to Antarctica or were just particularly enthusiastic about it. The first couple of people I contacted were happy to write back with suggestions, but when I asked them for a recipe that was "quintessentially Antarctic" they really just shrugged their electronic shoulders. I finally got put in touch with Jason Anthony, who is the author of a forthcoming book about food at the South Pole (Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine (At Table) , published by the University of Nebraska Press). Jason's book is "a narrative history of Antarctica with food as its focus," but even he had to admit that there really is no real "Antarctic cuisine." He did send me a link to a semi-famous cookie recipe by Antarctic dietician Sally Ayotte, but woman cannot feed family on cookies alone, though my kids would certainly not have a problem with the idea. 

Jason also offered to send me some recipes for penguin and seal. Now, I'm pretty sure, though I have never asked, that Safeway doesn't carry penguin or seal. I briefly considered substituting duck, but that felt too much like cheating. So I had to decline, and I was back to square one.

I was almost coming back around to the idea of pemmican and sledging biscuits (with cookies for dessert?) when I decided to try contacting someone who actually worked in a kitchen in Antarctica. So I emailed the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at the National Science Foundation, which is in charge of the United States Antarctic Program, and they referred me to the contract agency that hires kitchen staff some of the research stations in Antarctica. That's when I first got in touch with Elaine Hood, who I have to thank for finally setting me on the right course.

Elaine got in touch with two Antarctica chefs--one former and one current--who both sent copies of the same recipe: Beef Wellington, which is served at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station every Christmas. Because it's the busy season in Antarctica, I wasn't able to coax any additional recipes out of them, but I did find a transcript of a sous chef at McMurdo Station cooking parsnip mashed potatoes, from which I gleaned ingredients (though I had to guess at measurements). And finally I went back to that Sally Ayotte cookie recipe for dessert. Yay! My Antarctica menu was complete.

"Cookie" Jon Emanuel, former chef at the
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
James Brown, current chef at Amundsen-Scott South Pole. Both
these guys sent me a copy of the same Beef Wellington recipe.

Ready? Here are the recipes:

South Pole's Favorite Beef Wellington
Courtesy South Pole Chef James Brown and Former South Pole Chef Cookie Jon Emanuel

  • 1 whole beef tenderloin, trimmed of fat and silver skin 
  • 4 tbsp butter 
  • 1 lb mushrooms, sliced 
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced 
  • 1 C red wine 
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped 
  • 2-3 sheets 12 x 6 frozen puff pastry dough (or equivalent) thawed 
  • 1 lb. pork liver paté (optional) 
  • 2 T prepared Dijon mustard 
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 T water 
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Parsnip Mashed Potatoes
(from McMurdo Station, Antarctica)
  • 3 medium white potatoes
  • 3 parsnips
  • 1 medium onion
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • Salt to taste
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 tsp. white pepper

Sally Ayotte's South Pole Chocolate Chip Cookies
(recipe posted at Quark Expeditions)
  • 1/2 cup margarine
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup chocolate chips
  • 2/3 cup white chocolate chips
  • 2/3 cup butterscotch chips
  • 1 cup nuts, chopped  (I used peanuts and cashews)

First a word on the beef tenderloin. If you regularly shop for beef, you probably already know that this is the most expensive cut on the cow. If you get a whole tenderloin (as dictated by the recipe), you will probably spend more than 100 bucks (Sam's Club had whole tenderloins for $75). Unless you're feeding an army or a bunch of scientists at the South Pole, you won't need this much meat. But supermarkets usually cut tenderloins into fillets and sell them as "fillet mignon." If you want a piece of meat that will work in a Wellington, you'll need to ask your butcher to cut off a piece of a whole tenderloin. I asked for a pound and a half and was given more like a pound and three quarters. Here's what I spent:

Yes, that's right. Thirty bucks for a pound and 3/4 of beef.

I ended up cutting off two steaks and putting them away for later. The amount left over was just enough for Martin and I to enjoy and for my kids to reject (I didn't give them more than about a quarter slice each). So I'm guessing you could probably feed four adults on about 1 1/2 pounds of tenderloin.

A quick note on adjusting this recipe to feed fewer people: I used a lot less beef but I really only halved most of the other ingredients. So I probably ended up with a higher mushroom mixture to beef ratio than they'd see at the South Pole on Christmas day, but this worked just fine for me and made it easy to figure out what quantities to use.

So first trim all the fat and silver skin off the tenderloin, then rub it all over with salt and pepper.

Ready for the pan.

Now add about half of the butter and melt it over medium heat. Let it foam, then add the tenderloin and sear it on all sides until it is a nice brown color.

Sear the beef until all sides are brown (a little longer than pictured).

Remove the meat from the pan and let it cool. Now in the same skillet, add the rest of the butter and melt over high heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté until they reduce in size, but don't let them brown.

Saute the mushrooms in butter.

Just before the mushrooms are done, add the garlic. Pour in the wine and cook over a medium high heat until the liquid is reduced and the mixture is almost dry. Add the thyme, salt and pepper.

After the wine has reduced, add the thyme, salt and pepper.

Remove the mushrooms from the heat and let them cool in a shallow pan. Then put them in a food processor and chop them until they form a rough paste. Set aside.

Your chopped mushrooms should look a bit like this.

Lay the puff pastry out on the work surface. You may have to use some flour to prevent sticking (you may also have to roll the dough a bit until it is the right size). Now spread the mushroom mixture in a wide strip down the center of the pastry, leaving about an inch and a half of bare pastry at each end.

Spread the mushroom mixture in a wide strip down the center of the pastry.

Now if you were brave, you bought some paté. Personally, I think organs are yucky. But I like to be true to the recipe, so I got the paté. If you're not really used to buying such things, you can find pork liver paté in the canned meat section of most supermarkets. Here's what it looks like:


Now the recipe says to "arrange thin slices of the paté down the center of the mushroom strip." My paté was a paste, and it didn't slice. So using my fingers (double ew), I just spread it down the center of the mushroom mixture. It was fiddly, but it worked.

The mushrooms with the paté. Ew and blech.

Brush the tenderloin all over with dijon mustard.

The tenderloin is ready to be wrapped in pastry.

As gently as you can, place the tenderloin in the middle of the mushroom and paté strip and wrap the pastry over it. Seal the edges with your fingers, then brush with the egg and water mixture to ensure a good seal. Repeat with the ends (trim any excess pastry, or it won't cook all the way through).

Seal the ends and brush with egg wash.

Now turn the wrapped meat over (carefully!) and place it in a greased pan so the seam is at the bottom. Brush the egg mixture over all the pastry, and then make three slits in the top to stop the pastry from bursting open while cooking.

An oven-ready beef Wellington. I still can't believe I got this right.

Bake at 400 degrees until the internal temperature reaches 120 degrees. Note: this temperature seems low, but once you take it out of the oven the meat will continue to cook and the temperature may climb by as much as 15 or 20 degrees. So if you want a rare or medium rare beef make sure to take it out early. Use a meat thermometer that can stay in the oven while cooking to ensure perfect results.

The pastry should be a golden color when you take it out of the oven. Let it rest for at least 15 minutes before slicing. When you do cut into it, the juices should flow out and you can use this to make an au jus sauce to serve with it.

Yum yum yum yum yum yum yum

While your Wellington is in the oven, you can start on the parsnip mashed potatoes. This isn't usually what they serve with the beef Wellington on Christmas at the South Pole, but they do serve it at various other times of the year. So it's not the full Christmas-at-the-Pole experience (you would actually also need lobster tail for that) but it's still true to the region.

First assemble your ingredients:

A simple recipe: parsnips, potatoes, onions and garlic.

Now peel the potatoes and parsnips and boil them with the garlic until all the vegetables are soft. Meanwhile, saute the onions until they are translucent but not brown (you want the final dish to have a creamy white color).

Saute the onions. I should really have a stock photo of this.

When the vegetables and onions are done, mash them all together and add the cream, butter, salt and white pepper. 

Now put it all together:

This meal is from Antarctica! Wow!

But ... we can't forget the cookies! I am told that these cookies are so famous, the Air National Guard has been known to detour to the South Pole just to get some.

I made them earlier in the day with Hailey's help. For a famous recipe there's actually not much to it (at least nothing that different from making any batch of cookies).

First, cream the butter, margarine and the two kinds of sugar. Confession: when I made these I read the recipe wrong, and only used a half cup of butter (without the margarine). Mine were still really good, but the extra half cup of butter will give you a softer cookie.

My mixture was more of a crumble than a "cream," because I left out the margarine.

Now add the eggs and the vanilla:

This made the mixture a lot creamier.

In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda and salt. Then add to the sugar/butter/egg mixture and blend until a soft dough forms. Then dump in the chips.

Dang, that is a whole lotta chips.

Finally, add the chopped nuts. I made a batch with nuts and a batch without (I'm not quite ready to test Henry for peanut allergies).

Now drop the dough by teaspoons onto a baking sheet, about two inches apart. The recipe doesn't say to grease the baking sheet, but my cookies stuck pretty badly so I would definitely put a little butter on the pan next time I make these.

Ready for the oven.

Bake at 375 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes, or until the bottom edges are lightly browned. Now try telling your family they can't have any until after dinner.

We want cookies NOW!!!!

So how did this meal go over? Well predictably, my kids were more interested in the pastry than in the meat, but that's just them. As far as I'm concerned, the whole meal was delicious. The beef was juicy and perfect (and I couldn't even taste the paté!) The potatoes were good too, with just a little hint of parsnip flavor (next time I might use a few more parsnips). I did undercook the onions which was kind of unfortunate, but they were still good.

Now Martin didn't like having onions in his mashed potatoes. I guess it wasn't British enough for him. Also I think he was a little perturbed because I invaded his territory (Martin usually makes the beef Wellingtons in our house). But he admitted that the meal was good, though he would not admit that it was better than the ones he usually does. I won't say what I thought.

As for the cookies, well, they were awesome too. I guess I don't have to tell you that my kids agreed.

The finished cookies. The recipe makes between 3 and 4 dozen.

Next week: Antigua and Barbuda.


  1. Boy am I glad I found you! I do a monthly meal from another country too. We feed the missionaries at church...not just the family. What we have them do is spin the globe to pick a country. This is the first time we've had anyone pick Antarctica. Thank you for all your hard work in finding these recipes. :)

  2. I'm so glad I could help! Antarctica is still one of my favorite entries I've done for this blog (and statistically the most popular, too). It was a lot of research but I'm really glad I did it, because the food was good and the entry really fun to write. And if I can help a few people too, that's a nice bonus. :-) Thanks for commenting!

  3. I agree with Stefani! I'm SO glad I found your blog! I was SO excited! We have a group that gets together every month for a country night (and yes - we knew it wasn't a country, but we wanted to do it anyway), and this month is Antarctica. Someone was already making pemmican and biscuits, so I'm excited to share these!

    I am amazed at the measures you took to make sure you got authentic food, and I'm so glad you shared!

  4. So excited to find your site. We are just about ready to embark on our own "cook around the world" adventure. Not sure we will hit every country, but maybe you will inspire me ...

  5. "No one really raises kids in Antarctica."
    This is not technically entirely true. There are two small permanent communities on islands just off the coast of the Antarctican peninsula; Villa Las Estrellas (inhabited by Chileans) and the Argentinean Esperanza base (where some children are born and raised—and they have schools). I wonder what cuisines might have have begun to develop there—perhaps the earliest beginnings of a "native" Antarctican culture, may be forming.


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