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
I am writing this having just driven (ok, my husband drove most of it) from Vermont straight through the night to Brooklyn, where we will be spending half of our time in the coming year. The first half of this month has been an adjustment as we figure out what will stay in our Somerville apartment and what we should bring to our new Brooklyn life. Unsurprisingly, the kitchen items are the most contentious. Will I be dehydrating more in New England or the Big Apple? Where should I keep my counter top composter? My canning pot? As I pack and repack and unpack, I am left thinking about how important food is to my life. It is, in part, my vocation – I have been writing primarily about food for the past year and what it means to me, my culture and my ideals. It is also, I have come to realize through the past seven months of charcutepalooza, through our half-move and through my other gardening, cooking and writing projects, one of the main ways that I connect with others. So, quite literally, where I keep my Cuisinart and All-Clad is where my home is.
I was thinking of all this as I strove to plan ahead for this month’s charcuterie challenge a few weeks ago. I kept bringing my cookbook back and forth to Brooklyn, trying to decide when I could find a few days in one place to finish a terrine, let alone a group of friends with whom I could share it. In truth, it was more about the latter than the former. I could Macgyver a terrine in almost any kitchen, but to me it wouldn’t be worth it if it sat in either of my, now mostly bare, refrigerators. If there was one thing charcutepalooza taught me, it is that connecting with others through the food I make is as important as executing the challenges themselves.
Luckily, my husband was asked to play with a few bands at a music festival in Vermont. Many of our Boston-area friends would be there, camping in quarters even tighter than our tiny lots in Somerville, for three days. We would need a lot of food. We would need a terrine.
So, two days before we were to leave (from Boston, my food processor and heart-shaped molds luckily still at apartment #1), inspired by Michael Ruhlman’s scallop and crab terrine recipe, I bought 3/4 pounds of white fish (cod), 3/4 pounds scallops and a half pound crab. In a food processor I combined the fish and scallops with saffron-infused cream and egg whites and then folded that now-creamy mixture together with flaked crab and fresh chives and then poured that into plastic-wrap-lined molds.
I put foil over the molds and then cooked them in a water bath until their temperature reached 130 degrees. Next I cooled and weighted them in the fridge overnight.
The following day I packed them in our ice-filled cooler and made a quick cucumber and dill salsa to serve alongside.
By the time we made it to Vermont, our tent packed alongside boxes of books and shoes that would be heading to Brooklyn the following week, the sunlight was already starting to wane, and it felt as it summer itself was not long behind. But instead of focusing on what was behind me, or what lay ahead, I decided instead to sit still and enjoy where I was at that moment: a perfect summer evening, surrounded by friends with whom I could share food that, in some small way, expressed exactly that.
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.
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.
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.
I went to Maine last weekend to visit family visiting from Colorado. And two of them happen to be chefs. They had been staying outside of Portland all week, eating lobster almost daily. By the time we arrived late in the week, it was the inlanders last hurrah for local seafood – a shellfish feast of boiled lobster, grilled local scallops, and Bank Island mussels. All three dishes were incredibly fresh and delicious (and cheap! lobster was the most expensive at $4.99/ pound), but the mussels were the star of the table. Big, meaty, and sweet, they were steamed in white wine from Western NY (personally driven to Maine by the vintner). Well, to back up, onion and garlic were diced and saute-ed in butter and olive oil, then the wine and mussels were added and the pot covered to steam. The key to bi-valves is to cook them until they are JUST done – as few as 3 – 5 minutes depending on the amount of seafood and size of pot. Serve drowning in the cooking juices, and sop up liberally with locally made crusty bread.