Locavore on the Road: Fishing in the Florida Keys

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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

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Locavore on the Road: Oysters in Willapa Bay, WA

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.

Locavore on the Road: Smoked Shellfish on the Cape

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.

Asparagus – Part 2… or Locavore on the Road: Portland, NY

Last year when I visited my hometown in Western New York  for my Papa’s 91st birthday my cousin and aunt handed out bags of fresh asparagus at the party.

“We picked them this morning!” They exclaimed. Really? Pick-your-own-asparagus? Maybe I had lived in the city too long, but I had no idea these kind of farms existed. In fact I hadn’t thought much about how asparagus grew at all, other than knowing that I saw it most frequently in the supermarket in late April through May. I vowed I would not miss asparagus season the following year.

Back in Boston in late April of this year I started my research…. and found only one small asparagus farm within an hour’s drive. A trip there yeilded barely a bunch of tender purple and green spears (although we did leave with a six-pack of rhubarb seedlings and a dozen stalks of mature rhubarb for our trouble). But with just one local seasonal side dish, my asparagus cravings were not quenched. Luckily Papa made it to 92.

Home again for our yearly family gathering, my cousin told me of the asparagus field that opens to the public for just one hour per week a few miles up the road in Portland, NY (really just a township between two slightly larger villages).

“We have to get there at least fifteen minutes early,” Jen said. “Otherwise the old folks start swarming as soon as they let them in.” Sure enough, we arrived about ten minutes after 9 (thanks in part to a train stopped on the tracks of a crossing, which required a five-plus mile detour – we don’t much get those kind of problems back in Boston) and there were folks spread out across the acre or so of asparagus rows. We jumped right in, mostly left to glean the shorter stalks that the quickest pickers left in the wake of their quick “snap, snap, snap” of the fresh tips as they walked briskly down the row. In the end I ended up with about three and a half pounds (I did have to get them home on the airplane the next day, after all) paying only $5.60 for the pleasure.

Jen and I rewarded ourselves afterwards with a cheesy-bottomed asparagus omelet.

Cheesy Bottom Asparagus Omelet

In small nonstick omelet pan sprinkle 1 – 2 tablespoon of shredded cheese on medium heat. Meanwhile clean and chop a dozen of the most tender asparagus stalks and saute them in a separate pan. Crack two eggs into a bowl and whisk them for a minute or so. Add salt and pepper. Once the cheesy bottom is set, pour the eggs on top. Let set for another minute, using a soft spatula to make sure the bottom of the omelet is not sticking or burning. Add a slice of local swiss cheese (or goat, or cheese of choice) and spread half of the saute-ed asparagus on top. Allow the eggs to finish cooked another minute or so more, fold in half and serve. Repeat, using the rest of the asparagus.

Local Ipswich Clams

Perfect Sunday: an afternoon drinking local wine in the backyard of an old friend (paired with bread and local cheddar and goat cheese). My best friends are in town, their husbands (and in one case, toddler) in tow. We drive to the beach and get our face whipped by the wind, watching the waves dance and glint in the sun. When we’re hungry we head to Woodman’s, in Essex, for local fried Ipswich clams, washing them down with a pint of Sam Adams. The clams are fat and juicy – the breading light, but hefty enough to give each fat belly a crunch. My friends, in town from Buffalo and Seattle, rave about the freshness of the seafood and the beauty of the north shore. I know how lucky I am to call ipswich clams local, and to share them with some of my favorite people.

Locavore on the Road: Thousand Islands

We often take a few-day-long vacation in the summer to visit family in the Thousand Islands in Northern New York State. This summer, despite the rain that was so persistent across the northeast, while we were there we had a few lovely days that actually felt like summer. This was perfect since we were doing most cooking and entertaining outside. I brought a cucumber, green onion and bean salad made with ingredients from my farm share, we bought local corn from the farm stand across from the little cabin village where we stayed, and we fried up some locally caught fish straight from the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The locally plentiful perch is a small fish, thus the filets are more fish stick-sized. All the more surface area for a bit of crunch and heat, I say. (I actually made the fish twice during our stay – the first time my step-father spent five hours to catch about a pound of edible fish, the second time I picked up a bag of filets from the bait store – no it wasn’t supposed to be used as bait! – for $8.99 for about 2 pounds of fish.)  I cut the heat with a homemade tartar sauce. There were local blueberries for dessert, and all was washed down with wine made by my step-father from concord grapes grown on his property in Western New York. Truly a meal made from a variety of local specialties brought together over our humble riverside picnic table.

 

Cucumber, Bean & Onion Salad

 Thinly slice 2 cukes, and about a half cup of green onion (I used my new mandoline for this task!)

 Snip and halve about 2 cups of fresh beans – I used half green and half yellow wax varieties

 Blanch the beans in boiling water for 3 minutes – drain and move immediately to a bowl of ice water

 Mix: 1 cup of vinegar – wine or cider is best – with 1 T local honey (or sugar), salt and pepper to taste. You can also add a T or two of chopped fresh dill, parsley, garlic or any other herb or fresh garden offering to make this dish your own. Combine with the veg and let set at least one hour (a day is even better) and serve cold.

 

Spicy Cornmeal Battered Perch

Assemble as such:

In one shallow bowl: cup of milk

In another: cup of cornmeal, T cayenne pepper

On a plate: 1 ½ lbs perch filets, salted and peppered

 Dunk into the milk, coat with the cornmeal mixture, and then cook in a ½ butter, ½ olive oil mixture (or one or the other) until just firm. We cooked them in foil on the grill, but over medium heat on the stove top would work as well. Note that these are a bit spicy, so cut down the cayenne if you want a milder coating.

 

Homemade Tartar Sauce

 1 cup mayo (I almost made my own with some local eggs and olive oil, but I didn’t have a blender)

1 T chopped fresh dill (from our garden)

1 T capers

2 T chopped pickles (homemade bread and butter pickles made from cukes from the CSA)

1 T pickle juice

celery salt and pepper to taste

 Mix together and serve as a nice counter point to the fish

Locavore On The Road: Buffalo, NY

I’ve been on the road for a bit more than a week and, lacking a PDA, had to wait until I returned to send my findings. We had a family wedding in Buffalo, and my husband, a musician, decided to use our westward proximity to do some business in Nashville and Asheville. Thus I have a few “Locavore on the Road” segments as I did my own tour of farmer’s markets (and one ice cream shop). 

First (and fifth) stop on our trip: Buffalo, NY. Close to my hometown, my cousin lives in the heart of the Elmwood area. People give Buffalo a bad rap – and some neighborhoods deserve it. But there is so much local pride in art, architecture, and yes food, that I find Buffalo vibrant and beautiful. This was definitely reinforces during our stay with my cousin. After serving us her own version of huevos rancheros with ingredients straight from her food Co-Op we walked the two blocks to the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmer’s Market.

Set in a small park adjacent to the main drag of shops, restaurants, bakeries, and galleries, this large open-air market was filled with everythink you needed to make your own locavore meal. Unfortunately we were driving and still a few days from a kitchen so local meat and most of the fruit and veggies were in the look-but-don’t-buy category. But I was certainly envious of the rainbow of chard, alongside other fresh green, onions, turnips, lettuce, and even some early season squash. Cherries and strawberries are in season there now – Western NY’s “zone” is colder than mine on the coast, and it was great to sample a few last freshies since our strawberries are long gone.

I did make a few purchases however: a stick of spicy sausage from Avenue Boys (so good with my Ohio-made Amish cheddar a few days later) and yogurt from White Cow Dairy. The latter’s offerings include seasonal yogurt (I’ve had citrus during previous visits, and that day’s choice was rhubarb – perfectly thick, stringy, tart and sweet), custards, and yogurt-based savory sauces. They are all packaged in perfect-sized jars and are absolutely crave-able. I asked about where I might find them oustide of Buffalo – or even within city limits aside from the market. I was informed (on the sly) that they sell their wares in a few spots in NYC, but otherwise it’s Buffalo or the farm.

Love the Bidwell-Elmwood Market! Can’t wait for the next visit with the cousin to put these ingredients together for a seasonal feast.