I’ve spent what would likely add to up to countless hours contemplating the purchase of various cheeses at locations ranging from Whole Foods to Stinky Bklyn to a “serve yourself” fridge on a country roadside in Western Massachusetts. I clearly remember … Continue reading
When I was planning my west coast research trip in support of my upcoming book Small Batch: The Fall and Rise of Artisanal Pickle, Cheese, Chocolate, and Alcoholic Spirits in America (Alta Mira Press) – I almost didn’t plan to … Continue reading
Maybe a dozen miles as the crow flies, it took us nearly forty minutes to get there. We went up a dirt road and crested a mountain, down the other side until deep ruts turned to asphalt. And then we … Continue reading
On day eight of a twelve-day stay, I realized why they called the house “Treetops”. We had switched rooms – swapping the extra-large master bedroom with the other couple with whom we were sharing the house for a smaller one … Continue reading
With Kay McGowan of A Curated World, I had the opportunity to visit Marrakech, Morocco a few months ago. Now that the online magazine (and store) is live, I am excited to share some of my adventures learning about Moroccan … Continue reading
I recently had the opportunity to visit Marrakech for an exciting new venture – I am a content writer and editor for a new business that focuses upon telling the stories of a particular city’s culture and offering a collection … Continue reading
Bastilla – also spelled pastilla, bastila, bisteeya or bastela – is known as a very typical Moroccan dish – and a very impressive one. Made from warqa dough, which is similar to Greek phyllo dough and Hungarian strudel leaves, the … Continue reading
Cleaning our catch back at the dock
When I was young – between the ages of six and twelve, perhaps – I caught maybe a dozen fish a year. This more than made up for my consumption during that time, as I all but refused to eat fish – especially the fish sticks and tuna salad that so many of my contemporaries considered a food group. My parents took a yearly spring break trip to the Florida Keys for many years, meeting friends and family who also had kids my age. How to entertain a gaggle of children in a part of the country not known for much except sport fishing, scuba diving and palm trees? Why make a reservation for four adults and ten kids on a party boat for deep sea fishing, that’s what.
With sandwiches for us kids, beers for the dads and tote bags stocked with sunscreen and hats by our mothers who were thrilled at a few uninterrupted hours of sun-tanning and daiquiris on the pool deck, our group would fill up a full third of the sturdy and spare boat. All but impervious to rollicking seas and harsh sun, I sat for the full three hours on the hard fiberglass bench with my line in the water, waiting for the tell-tale tug from a fish below. I remember being told to give the line a sharp yank and then reel in the hundred feet of line to check as to whether I had a snapper (which we got to keep if it was large enough), a grunt (a bottom-dweller that we threw back no matter the size) or an empty hook. Rarely would we pull up anything else; always, if it was a keeper, the mates would help us take it off the hook and give it a mark with the knife they kept sheathed around their waist – ours was always two notches on the head. All the fish went into one cooler, to be disseminated by mark once we returned to the dock, and, for a few extra dollars, filleted for us by the crew. Our large group back then always had the biggest haul – a few dozen fish among us, to be sauté-ed up in brown butter and local plantains back at the resort. That was the only fish I would eat all year – fresh, sweet from the plantains and butter, and faintly salty from its morning spent in mother ocean. I knew then what quality seafood tasted like, and couldn’t stomach the smell or fishy taste of its counterpart back home in western New York.
Times have changed now that I am an adult – helped in part by my proximity to quality seafood and a proclivity for culinary adventure. And while I have been eating fish (never ever tuna from a can, but pretty much any sustainably caught, fresh seafood I can get my hands on) for more than a decade, I had not caught my own since those sunny days in Islamorada. Until this Thanksgiving.
Our spring break trips have long since ended, but a decade ago my father started a new tradition of a week in Key West over Thanksgiving. I occasionally join him and my stepmother with a rotating cast of family. This year my husband came for the first time and we all decided to spend an afternoon fishing. Much was the same: the buckets of squid and ballyhoo hunks at our feet for bait; the spray of salt water and bait brine that coated and stung our skin as we dropped and reeled our line, checking for fish or stripped hooks; my competitive streak kicking in when I went too long without catching a keeper.
Yet it was the differences that struck me: did it just seem as if everyone was catching fewer fish than in my memory? Why were we now keeping any sized grunts – so named because of the noise they made when taken out of the water – when before they weren’t deemed tasty enough to eat? I would answer those questions in time, but for an afternoon I was content to drop my line in the water and wait for that nibble, picturing the sweet and savory dinner that awaited me at days end. I only contributed two fish to our final haul of about five pounds of fillets, but dinner still tasted as sweet, salty and satisfying as it had more than twenty years ago. Or maybe more so, because I know how rare and special an afternoon spent with family seeking the ocean’s offering was.
Dinner: Snapper, Grunt and Grouper Fillets in Brown Butter with Bananas
Late last week I was lucky enough to be driving down some of the most dramatic and scenic coastline in all of the US (that I have seen – and I’ve seen most of it) on a west coast road trip from the San Juan Islands in Washington to San Francisco, California. This trip produced plenty of delicious stops and gorgeous vistas, but the one bite (that I had over and over again) was the Willapa Bay Oyster. My husband and I were not far from the Oregon state line when we saw a few signs indicating that we were in the ”Oyster Capital of the World”. Needless to say, I was on the lookout for a spot to sample the local delicacy. We passed through downtown Willapa so quickly - for it’s a sleepy concentration of houses, important town buildings, a convenience store and just one seafood shop along a stretch of highway bordered by a narrow bay - that we had to turn around in an empty church parking lot when we realized we missed our best chance at oysters.
Inside the small East Point Seafood Market in South Bend, Washington I approached the woman behind the counter in shop with a few shelves lined with canned oysters, spice blends and cookbooks.
“So, can I get some oysters? To eat now?” I ventured. This was certainly a store, but there were a few empty picnic tables in the parking lot and I thought I smelled chowder cooking in the back room. She said she would make us two “shooters” (or about 5 large oysters in a plastic cup served with a side of cocktail sauce) and volunteered the bit of trivia that one out of every five oysters eaten in the world came from Willapa Bay. These treats cost us $2.50 a cup.
Out back, overlooking the not-too scenic Willapa Bay, I dipped into my shooter and drew out a large, briny oyster, smelling faintly of the sea. I could see why these are so popular - they are huge – and as I took my first bite I was expecting the same mass produced taste that I’ve had in various stews or soups in a number of non-oyster producing towns across the country.
Not so – these were creamy and only slightly briny and very tender. Their large bodies melt in your mouth, offering mild oyster taste with just a hint of the sea. These are everyman’s oyster (my husband, not a huge oyster fan, was the one who suggested we go back for more), and might not have the complexity of some of the smaller and saltier varieties. But eaten incredibly fresh, with a view of the bay from which they came, I had never had a truer oyster.
I came across my first smoked scallop purely by accident. A fried seafood joint was recommended for lunch and my husband and I headed straight there once we crossed the Sagamore bridge on our way to Wellfleet on Cape Cod. Once we arrived at Sir Cricket’s in Orleans, well, I had to go to the bathroom. I was directed next door to the fish market.
Nauset Fish and Lobster Pool and Sir Cricket’s share a small, almost suburban plaza-ish storefront, with only a few neutrally appointed tables in the latter for eating indoors (and one wooden table outdoors overlooking a major roadway). If it wasn’t for the weathered wooden signs, one might disregard both places as inauthentic. But while the fried scallops and crabster roll and sweet potato fries that we had for lunch were quite good, it was the smoked scallops that I spied when I squeezed by the display case in the market on my way to the facilities that stole my heart. Despite the fact that Steve was waiting on our order next door, I bought a quarter pound of smoked scallops (at $20.99/ lb).
Their texture was firm and a bit chewy – and I rather like that not every scallop was equally smoked through, as though I could picture them in their smoker, crowding each other, being occassionally tossed with a large wooden spoon as the smoke master shielded his eyes. Each medium-to-large scallop were firm and just a bit chewy - a nice difference from the smoked fish I had in the past that flaked apart almost immediately. And the deep smoke intensified the sweetness of the scallops, not turning the taste fishy at all. They lasted well in our cool (not cold) cooler and were a great snack the next day at the beach – smoking being an original form of preserving, and a good one at that.
We were so in awe of the smoked scallops that three days later we returned for more, only to find that they had smoked mussels “instead”. (Did they smoke seafood nearly every day? I wouldn’t be surprised if they did – everything tasted incredibly fresh – or as fresh as something smoked could be.) The mussels were just as good – they kept their shape amazingly, and were still plump and tender-chewy as if they had been caught that morning and steamed.
Even though Orleans in barely an hour and a half away, I doubt I’ll have reason to head down there anytime soon. Which means I might be trying my hand at smoking my own sometime soon.