In the kitchen with...
Chef Laurie Constantino
Story by Jamey Bradbury • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna
When Laurie Constantino opens her front door, she doesn’t see a lawn; she sees ingredients. “It’s nothing I planned, but this property has a really wide range of edible weeds,” says the author of Tastes Like Home: Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska, who developed an affinity for working wild greens into her recipes when she spent a year living and cooking in Greece.
As a child, Laurie recalls, cooking seemed like magic; later, as a district attorney in Bethel, concocting new dishes became a way of decompressing after a stressful day. But in Limnos, the small Greek village she and her husband now return to annually, cooking became a venue for learning the language of her new home.
“It was my way of fitting in,” Laurie says of the time she spent in the kitchen with her Greek neighbors. “And it was an easy way to learn Greek; if someone says the word for ‘stir,’ you learn that word through the action. So I had a thorough education in both language and cooking.”
Part of that education involved learning to look to the land for the freshest ingredients. “Greeks are the original locavores,” says Laurie. “I got used to going into the fields and picking what were essentially weeds.” When she returned to Alaska, she focused on incorporating wild Alaskan ingredients into Greek recipes.
“Hands down, my favorite ingredient is Devil’s Club,” Laurie says, adding that she’s already anticipating the brief, week-long period during which the plant is edible. “It has a unique flavor that’s a little resin-y, kind of like rosemary. It’s very energizing to eat.”
Ever since a recent trip to Seattle, where she tried a restaurant’s fennel panna cotta, she’s been mulling over a new way of serving Devil’s Club – as panna cotta with Alaska salmon caviar. This, she says, is how she gets inspiration: by pairing flavors and adapting dishes she’s tried elsewhere. “I seem to have the ability to retain a taste memory that I can reproduce, then develop,” she says. “Cooking is like painting with flavor. And as in painting, I like food that has layers, so that you’ll taste one thing, then as it develops in your mouth, you begin to taste something else.”
Laurie’s appreciation for flavor leads her to let no leftover go unused. “Here’s how I think about leftovers,” she says. “You spent all the effort putting flavor into a dish. So how can you best use the flavors of something that you have on-hand to create something new?” She encourages the students in the private cooking classes she gives to think about how food can be repurposed and transformed.
In addition to her cooking classes, Laurie gives lessons on identifying edible wild greens – warning her students to avoid plants they’re not absolutely sure of and to try only a small amount of something the first time they eat it. “Beyond that, it’s pretty easy to learn” about the abundant edible weeds that grow in Alaska, she says.
“When you mix a bunch of different wild greens together, you get this amazing galaxy of flavors in your mouth,” she says when she describes hortopita, a version of spanakopita that benefits from combining several kinds of greens. She loves Greek food for its adaptability, a feature that’s inspired her second cookbook.
The as-yet untitled book will be a collection of recipes adapted from Greek church recipe collections – a kind of cookbook-plus-cultural history of Greek cooking in America. “I want to show how the food has changed as people have experimented with nontraditional foods by putting them in a Greek context.”
For Laurie, cooking has become not just a chance to learn and experiment, but an activity that connects her to other women, past and present. “I was sitting here one day sorting church cookbooks into regions, and I felt surrounded and supported by all the women behind each recipe.”
This history of experimentation and adaptation connects the past to present, and Greece to Alaska, in Laurie’s kitchen when she creates a dish like Devil’s Club gnocchi, then serves it up to friends and neighbors. “That’s the other thing about food,” she says. “It’s about joy and happiness. People can’t be in a bad mood when you’re feeding them something delicious.”