Straying…

Last night I spent $60 at Whole Foods – representing the largest bill that I have racked up at any grocery store in more than a year. This is not something I am proud of. I know $60 is a nominal bill at this store – and that amount would get you a bit more food at Shaw’s Supermarket and even more so at Market Basket, another local chain so cheap that I have been known to willingly fight their multi-lingual throngs and narrow aisles strewn with saw dust to buy a few cans of chick peas. But the more I delved into my locavore lifestyle, the more I realized that I could get almost everything I wanted – generally without sacrifice – from the farmer’s themselves, or at least from specialty shops that have hand-chosen each purveyor. My shopping trips became the modern version of how my Nana – my Nani’s mother – would assemble the ingredients for a meal back in Calsinasetta, Sicily: farmer’s market (or in my case, CSA) for the produce, meat from the farmer who raised the animals, milk to drink or make mozzarella and ricotta also from a local farmer, or cheese made by another local artisan. The garden in the back for herbs and other items in season. Perhaps the local store for staples that could not be grown or obtained through the purveyors in the neighborhood. I’m not sure of my great grandmother’s freezing or canning abilities, but I have also been tapping into my preserves from the previous year: pickles, tomatoes, jam, salsa, peaches and root-cellared beets, cabbage potatoes, onions and turnips among others.

But yesterday: for lunch I finished the cole slaw from our second-to-last cabbage and couldn’t imagine eating another batch. I had defrosted pork chops in the fridge, but I just wanted a quick, fresh meal. Seafood maybe. It was five o-clock and we were in a time crunch. And needed toilet paper. And I could go for some fresh fruit. So my husband and I wandered around Whole Foods, choosing pre-made salmon burgers for dinner, grabbing some fair trade bananas and raiding the bulk food for cashews and split peas. Steve chose some yogurt (we had been eating an awful lot of egg and kale frittatas recently) and a veggie side dish from their fancy salad bar. I picked out a few interesting links of store-made sausage. Oh and the made-from-recycled-material toilet paper.

Sixty dollars later we were sitting down to a salmon burger that was dense as a hockey puck, eating a variety of veggies that would not have been distinguishable had we been tasting them blindfolded. For these alone we had paid more than $15. We each choked down the last bites of the burger – more panko than fish – and Steve said, “I guess that’s why we don’t eat out much.”

Now, we are not locavore militants: just this past week we ate Thai takeout (cost: $20) and one morning I woke up to find that Steve had made his favorite midnight snack of boxed pasta and warmed-tomato-paste-and-water (cost: <$1). And it’s not about the money, although we’d likely eat at one of the local farm-to-table restaurants a lot more frequently if we had the funds. To me, it is about value. And not just value for my money, but value for the earth and the people who provided the food and the food itself. If I am going to eat salmon, I want that fish to be honored: harvested sustainably, prepared deliciously. I will pay a fair price for that. I considered the value of the Thai take-out – something we eat rarely, but I worked late and my husband had a gig and we had one hour to spend together in between. It was almost certainly not local or organic, but that was the price I was willing to pay to be filled with tasty food and catch up with my husband. This is a convenience I have that my Nana did not, and I do not feel guilty taking advantage of it on occasion.

Eating local is hard to do – especially in this shoulder season when the stored produce is nearly gone and the spring breezes make me yearn for the not-yet-ripe foods of summer. But it took me straying with a completely average and typical meal like the one I had last night – a meal not unlike thousands, probably millions of people eat every day – to appreciate and redouble the efforts I make every day to eat locally, sustainably and deliciously.

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: 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.