Seasonal Eating


This week has been a whirlwind of activity. I’ve had some great meals, and certainly done some things that have I’ve been personally impressed with in the kitchen. Things in the kitchen come about because of a desire and a need to come up with something that will taste good and also feed a crowd.

As I mentioned in my last post, two mothers came to town this last Wednesday. My mom came down for the day from Madison to Chicago, and in preparation, she called up and asked what she could bring.

“I have some wonderful vegetables from my garden, including three beautiful Cherokee Purple tomatoes that you gave me. I could bring those, and some fresh mozzarella, and some sweet corn, and some…”

The list went on. She ended up bringing down all the above, as well as fresh chard from her garden, which I used in a frittata this morning, some herbs that I made into oils, some beautiful edible nasturtiums, and a lovely little basil plant. The hit, of course, were her tomatoes.

A couple of months ago, through the G.E.E.E. project at Hyde Park Art Center, we picked up a few red solo cup tomato plants, and sent one home with my sister for my mom to transplant in her garden. Planting it in her garden, she recently harvested the first bounty of three gigantic tomatoes from the plant. Where ours have languished in the off and on heat from the summer, her transplants have flourished and provided us with a fresh and delicious caprese salad that we enjoyed on her visit.

As she sliced into the tomatoes, I heard a gasp. I ran over to see if she had cut herself, as she’s used to knives much less sharp than those in my kitchen (her words, not mine). No, it wasn’t that. Looking at the first slice of tomato was a glorious sight. I marveled as slice after slice peeled off from the fruit, and I snacked on the top, sweet and juicy like a tomato should be.

We cooked in the kitchen for a couple hours. She paused to read a little bit, and joined me in shucking a dozen ears of corn that she had brought down from a friend’s local farmstand. The day was hot, in the 90s as it had been all week, and as we had a few hours to kill before the rest of our party came over, I figured I’d have some time to make a chilled sweet corn soup.

Good sweet corn is one of the best things you can have during the summertime. From the first time this season that I had a sweet corn broth this summer on Martha’s Vineyard, I wanted to continue celebrating the simple flavor of the season with little complication.

Rather than boil the corn and serve it on the cob, I sliced the kernels off the cobs, and then simmered the cobs themselves for 45 minutes in water. In a separate pan, I put some onions in to sweat with a bit of salt and pepper, and added a splash or two of white wine to bring out the aromas.

When the cob broth was producing a fragrance of its own, I removed the cobs and threw twelve ears worth of kernels into the pot. After a minute or two, really all the cooking that corn needed, I pureed it, and then strained out the matter directly over the onions.

I checked the clock. About two hours until everyone arrived. Reserving the corn matter for a later dish of fritters, I turned the heat of the large stockpot to high, and did the quick reduction method between two pots. After the giant ball of steam died down from the first transfer, I pureed then strained the now floral broth back into the sizzling saucepan and let it reduce for about twenty minutes until it was ready for a mounting of butter and addition of salt and pepper.

Tasting it when it was warm, I got a sweet, candylike flavor, but I also got the simple flavor of buttered popcorn. I poured it into a vessel to chill and let it sit in the fridge until the remainder of our dining party arrived.

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With bellies full, we went back home that evening. Nothing much made our nights more fulfilling than a meal shared by friends and family followed by relaxing on a calm back porch overlooking the water. As the sun set along with the food in our stomachs, we made our way to bed.

The next morning, we went off to Menemsha to make good on our promise of oysters for dinner and/or daily snacks. As the Island has only a few ways to navigate around, we took the wrong road to get there. After driving for fifteen minutes, we made it across the marina from the town, just a short swim, with no way to get the car across. It was literally a stone’s throw away, and we found out upon our return home that there was a sporadic bike ferry across the water, but it was not to be that day.

Instead, we made our way over to the beach, where we kayaked to our hearts’ content, picking up sand dollars and shells on the gigantic sandbar north of the house. Our vessels gently rocked back and forth over the tiny breakers on the bay, and we made our way back to shore in time to leave for lunch at the wharf.

Lobster Traps

We made our way to Menemsha via the correct route, around the pond, up the road, and down the way to the port. Dozens of fishing vessels dotted the piers, lashed to the bulkheads with barrels of Lobster and Jonahs aboard. As we walked the line from one market (Larsen’s) to the other (Menemsha Fish Market), our stomachs began to rumble as we recalled all of our tasty options for lunch. Walking in to MFM, we saw our grail, what we had been hoping for.

We ordered at the window, grabbed the last two ice cold cokes from the fridge, and a few minutes later, five lobster rolls were up in the window. It was a hot day if you weren’t in the water, and we all got the lobster salad rolls, cold, a little bit of mayonnaise, and chopped celery. Taking our catch around to the back of the store, we sat on crates and newly furnished benches over the piers as we watched a fisherman sort the day’s catch.

In one bin, Chicks. In the other, Rocks. (Lobster and Crab)

When we were through, and our appetites were sated, we moseyed over to Larsen’s to view their fish selection. The case was empty, but the woman in charge was busy bringing out pans of seafood for our perusal. The first pan in was two glistening Monkfish tails. I didn’t need to see any more.

“Can I get those two tails?”

“Both of them?”

“Yep.”

In my previous fishmongering incarnation, the monkfish tails I saw were typically around 1/2 to 3/4 pound each. While this is good for portion size, seeing these larger fillets made me realize that flying through the smaller catch was far from sustainable. Currently, at work, they’ve made a push not to sell unsustainable fish, including Monk.

Although on principle I tend to agree with the promotion of sustainable fisheries, purchasing thousands of pounds of undersized fish for retail sale is much different than purchasing something directly off a boat that is fully mature and with minimal amount of bycatch.  Monkfish for dinner it would be.

On top of that, I made good on my promise of oysters, purchasing a dozen and a half of local Katamas for anytime eating. I had brought my oyster knife cross country along with my pin boning tweezers, just in case we came a cross any seafood that needed a quick fabricating. Lastly, we got three pounds of scallops to round out the haul, just because we could.

We got back to the house close to dinner time to find two more guests had arrived for the weekend, but it had been a long day of exertion and high temperature for those of us who had already been hanging around. My lady’s mom, ever the intrepid explorer and activity planner, was felled with a bout of exhaustion from all the activity, and as we were prepping the menu for dinner, she retired to the bed for some much needed rest, leaving me and a crew of  hungry vacationers with a kitchen full of food, a range full of burners, and a collective of rapidly growing appetites.

The kitchen instantly transformed into a brigade: Two on the salad, One firing up the grill, and me on the range. We still had two bags of salad greens from the Connecticut homestead, which were thoroughly washed and dried, and incorporated with fresh tomatoes and some pickled red onions from a meal a few days prior. The grill was set up, and after tossing some scapes and rapini in olive oil, salt and pepper, we threw those on to get a quick cook.

Moving them over to the hot zone, the Monkfish was next. I haven’t been known to cook Monkfish often, as it hasn’t appeared in stores when I’ve been looking, but I had marinated it with cumin, chili powder, coriander, salt, pepper, and oil when we got back, and after about an hour, it was ready to throw on the grill.

Inside, we put a bit of pasta on the stove for the vegetarians in the group. I say a bit, but it was about two pounds of penne. In a separate pan, I put chopped tomatoes, onion, garlic, and let it cook down for a fresh, quick tomato sauce. When the monkfish was getting close to done outside, I hit the sauce with a quick whizz with the burr mixer, and returned it to the pan. We had a container of fresh pesto in the fridge as well, so into the pot it went.

I recalled something about a simple recipe for scallops that we had wanted to try from earlier. With dozens of pans at our disposal, I picked a huge sturdy one and began searing the scallops off in batches. Ten to a pan, three minutes a side, pulled them out, next batch in. After the last batch, I deglazed the pan with an open bottle of white wine from the night before, chopped some parsley, threw it in with some capers, and added a few pats of butter, swirling it until it melted. I let it simmer for a minute, then returned all the scallops to the pan for a quick toss. Back out of the pan, onto one of our rapidly dwindling supply of platters.

The monkfish was ready. I let it rest for a few minutes, and then sliced into it. I tried it. So spicy. No worries. Along with the pickled onions, we had a chipotle salsa that I had made a few days before, and with a bit of sour cream, it turned into an accompanying sauce that was still a bit spicy, but just cooling enough to control the heat.

The table was set, and as I shucked oysters, everyone else was busy loading up the serving dishes.  As I was running around overseeing a lot of the action while trying to control the fate of two or three pans at once, I quickly tired of shucking. After a dozen, I threw the rest on the grill where they quickly opened.

Finally, we could sit down. Along with some crusty bread that we picked up earlier in the day, the table was packed with all sorts of delicious things to eat. We were tired, hot, sweaty, and didn’t even know where to begin.

Over the winter, I’ve been stuck on things that sustained me. A lot of them were excellent, and I’ve gained inspiration from various media on what I should make to enjoy the food coming out of my kitchen (Il Corvo Pasta, I’m looking at you). Even though I work at a grocery store, I get tired of the heavy things throughout the colden times that I’m forced to make. I love potatoes. I really enjoy pizza, pasta, casseroles, etc. I am from Wisconsin, after all. Still, if I want something that’s fresh and seasonal, that leaves me without the sluggish feeling of a cream sauce or offseason comfort, I’m going to go for fish. Even though I talk about Seasonality, just waiting for the first fruits of spring and summer can be agonizing.

During the colder months, it was pasta with the green leafies like kale and chard, some beans, a bit of parmigiano to make it stick to the ribs. Maybe a lasagna with some squash and a bit of California basil to make it at least feel a little fresh.

 

Now, with the weather getting warmer, I want to eat something that gives me some energy, and doesn’t leave me wanting to curl up in a ball on my couch underneath a blanket. I’m making the transition to the summer menu, and a large part of that is based on seafood.

In the fridge, I have my pickled vegetables- carrots, ramps, scapes. They are a combination of the last remnants of winter and the first shoots of spring. Last week, I got some baby turnips and beets and incorporated them into a dinner with the first fresh Pacific salmon of the year.

I boiled a few beets until tender, chilled them, and sliced them on a mandolin. With the turnips, I did the same thing, and then let them soak in a combination of soy sauce, a shot of maple syrup, and a small spoonful of chestnut honey. Roots and nuts go well together, but the chestnut honey is so strong that a little goes a long way. Fortunately, it doesn’t really go bad, so I can have it around for a while.

The salmon got a rubdown of some Alder smoked sea salt that has become a staple of our indoor kitchen. I let it sit for a few hours, and as I was ready to sear it, I set up a second pan to saute the turnip greens. Since they were still baby turnips, the greens themselves were not terribly bitter; They were almost light enough to dress in their own salad, but still benefitted from a quick go-round in the pan.

Two minutes in the pan with a turn of the pepper mill, and they were out. Next, into the pan went the turnip slices. Since they were almost fully cooked, I just swished them around a few times in the hot pan, enough to caramelize the syrupy glaze a little bit. As the pan with the salmon was going simultaneously, I finally accomplished in this apartment what I’d done so many times in so many kitchens before.

The smoke alarm went off.

Oh, well. Can’t do too much about that. Those not cooking went over to the alarm and began fanning it with pillows and blankets, hoping in some small way to create the smoke signal that dinner was ready, and with a secondary purpose of ceasing that infernal beep. It’s good to know that were a real fire ever to break out, that thing would definitely wake me up. Sometimes I just like to remind myself.

Anyway, back on the stove, everything was in place. I pulled a couple of pickled scapes out of the brine, and stacked alternating slices of golden beet and tomato in the center. A pinch of smoked paprika and a squirt of rosemary infused oil, and we had our salad.

Next on the plate was the salmon. I took my eyes off it for a second while the great smoke alarm debacle took place, but it seemed to me to work itself out. The final product was something that I have been missing for months. Just a nice piece of fish. That’s all. Good salad. Fresh flavors. Simple prep. Minimal components. Little bit of green. Little flashy color. Manageable portions.

A Passable Success

***

Last night, I got home from work with a day off ahead of me, once again, I didn’t feel like cooking. I purchased some items to fill the fridge. We had fresh vegetables, some frozen dessert treats, and some refreshing beverages now at our disposal. I also picked up a small, wild caught whole black bass.

I got home and salted it, took a few sprigs of dill, half an orange cut in small pieces, a bit of garlic and onion, and stuffed those right in the cavity. Even though it’s not corn season yet in the Midwest, I shelled a couple ears and roasted the fish whole on the bed of kernels and onions. A simpler and fresher dinner there never was.

The best thing about whole fish is that when you cook on the bone, it retains so much more moisture than a fillet. Many people I’ve talked to over the years show some trepidation about cooking fish, not wanting it to be raw, but not wanting to overcook it. On the bone, the fish stays  flavorful and tender, flaking right off when you need it to. If you put foil down on your baking sheet, or if you have a nonstick pan, the cleanup is a cinch.