Story Time


(Some photos may be unpleasant for some readers. Please just look at the words.)

 

“And there’s a chance that things’ll get weird.
Yeah, that’s a possibility. “

I sat up in bed and took a look at the clock across the room. The time read 8:45 AM, not an early hour by any measure, but after an early morning shift of 4 AM the day before and followed by an afternoon of travel to the farm, it came earlier than expected.

The whiskey drinking the night before didn’t help.

“I’ve already done a couple of chickens. I probably have about four more to do if you want to take part.”

I got out of bed, put some pants on over my longjohns, along with my balaclava, or as I had been calling it, “the executioner’s hood”. Covering my eyes with sunglasses, I had not an inch of skin exposed as I stumbled out to the barn.

My friend on the farm had gotten up a couple hours earlier sharing my same hangover, sent the kids off to school, and let the chickens out into the barnyard. Tucked away on the side of the barn away from the pasture was the stump, shielding a spray of blood across the previous night’s snowfall from the eyes of the ladies laying eggs.

IMG_3569

This is it. I’m really going to do this, am I?

We walked into the henhouse and picked a sizeable Brown Leghorn from the flock, a 20 week old male destined from the beginning as a meatbird without rooster potential. There was a certain far-off look in the farmer’s eyes as he brought it to the stump, put its head between two nails, and took a single swing with his machete. It was done.

Except that it wasn’t. Head off and onto the ground, he maintained firm grip on the bird and held it along the far side of the stump as it flapped and bled out. It must have taken a good 30 seconds to a minute. It wasn’t pleasant.

We had discussed this over the previous weeks leading up to this event, even joked about it. The eventual consensus on ‘the act’ was that one person involved in discussion had no desire to kill a chicken, another had allegedly no problem with it, and I was somewhere in the middle. I stated my case for filling in wherever needed, as I know my way around knives and dead animals. I’ve visited a few slaughterhouses, and when the idea of being an assist on a Chickening was posed, it was something I felt strongly enough about to offer my assistance.

“You want to try your hand at one?”

***

I work in a model that is at its core “promoting a more sustainable and humane way to raise animals for human consumption.” What I so often see are women in fur coats looking to start an argument because we’re out of grass- fed beef tenderloin, or men who only like ‘the flat part’ of the chicken wing but estimate that they could eat about 30 of them. God help us for the Super Bowl. Despite the fact that we are acting as somewhat responsible stewards for our food, where it comes from and how we present it to our customers, there remains a fundamental disconnect between people who have the privilege of shopping at a premium and where their food actually comes from.

Why is it so expensive? Do they really feel good about buying a chicken for 6 dollars? What good does it do for them if we trim the miniscule fat line off of their boneless skinless chicken breast? The services that we offer as butchers do not always bring them closer to enjoying a quality, well-raised product but instead give customers license to, for lack of a more apt term, shake and bake. They ask you to package their meat so they don’t have to touch it, and all they have to do is take hold of one clean corner of your butcher paper package and unfurl with a flourish as their meat goes directly into a pan. You can tell who they are. They ask for the plastic bag around their butcher paper. They handle their packages by the corner like they’re reluctantly picking up their pet’s refuse. That’s not me. The more interesting the cut, I’ll be there. If you have a heritage pig, I want to eat it. If there’s a steak that looks fantastic and you can tell me about its breed and lineage? I want to eat that steak.

***

Back at the barn, I made the decision not to slaughter my own. The easy out is to say that I didn’t want to miss and have to retry, but it’s easier to say that I don’t think I had it in me. At the slaughterhouse, despite their outward casual approach, nobody takes their job lightly. With a healthy dose of understanding and in some instances reserved compassion, those involved realize that there’s a job to be done.

“This isn’t really my favorite part, either,” said my friend.

***

The Birds

The Birds

It wasn’t that I was never going to eat meat again, but my thoughts and feelings on the matter of slaughter fell on my meat case when I walked back into work the following Tuesday. As we slaughtered, scalded, plucked, eviscerated and hung our chickens to age, I came to the realization that even with a combination of a seasoned farmer and a skilled knifeman at a table, it’s hard work to process a chicken. Granted, on that morning it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit, but it wasn’t a small task. For six chickens, we spent close to an hour between the water pot and the table, plucking, dipping, replucking, spot checking, gutting. I came into this thinking that there would be a little fun, as it’s something new to add to my repertoire as a butcher. Fun ended up being the last word I would use to describe it.

Cold. Difficult. Morbid. Contemplative.

The Scalder

The Scalder

That was just the smallest part of it, too. My involvement in the fabrication of these chickens represented a drop in the bucket of what it took to raise them- the three times daily feedings, mending of electric fences, constant corraling and egg collecting. For what? In monetary terms, were these grocery store chickens, the most we could hope to get for them would be 12 dollars.

There’s the rub. 20 week chickens dressed out at 2-2.5 pounds. They were beautiful. They had full coats of majestic brown plumage, young combs, lean legs and breasts, but at best, they were being raised for a pittance. For chicken feed.

Over the next couple of days, conversation came back around to the chickens, to the industrial meat complex, and how things have gone so wrong. How people seek out a chicken without caring about the breed, how chicken is chicken and it’s all created equal.

Chicken is like bananas. You go to the store, and you find something that you like. You point at it, you pick it up, you buy it. You purchase and prepare knowing that every chicken is going to taste like chicken, or at least your idea of what a chicken tastes like. Why do all bananas taste the same? They are one variety- Cavendish. Why do all grocery store chickens taste nearly identical? They’re bred that way, to be the fastest growing, most efficient broadbreasted varieties that the smallest amount of money can buy- the Cornish Rock Cross. 16

As opposed to heritage breeds of chicken, (i.e. Leghorn, Orpington, Rhode Island Red/White), Cornish Rock meat chickens put on weight at a much faster rate than any other commercially available breed, making it an efficient yet generic choice for large scale industrial chicken producers. For the Perdue and Tyson giants, they have further hybridized this breed with their own genetic experiments- in the case of Tyson, with a chicken known as the “Cobb 500”, developed by one of their scientists around 30 years ago. Whereas in 1950, a fully matured broiler chicken would be ready for processing at 16 weeks, a commercial Tyson or Perdue chicken takes 6-8 weeks, with a case-dressed weight of 5-6 pounds.

Furthermore, as these chickens are raised in the industrial system, they are genetically bred with an inherent lack of attention to their physical being. They have plump livers and hearts that begin failing at 10 weeks due to rises in stress and adrenaline, but since they slaughter them at eight, that doesn’t matter, right?

Lastly, it’s monoculture. I’m not a scientist, nor am I an expert on anything, but along with lack of attention to biodiversity comes the revelation that we’re depleting our planet of the amazing natural plant and animal resources it produces, and doing so in a manner that shows utter disregard for the history and integrity of breeds of life that have existed for thousands, many times even millions of years. Seeing firsthand what a banana plantation looks like, with deep culverts and well worn gullies, and cornfields awash with half the topsoil of 50 years ago, it’s apparent that the well worn traditions of crop rotation and fertilization have fallen prey to Roundup ready hybridized varietals and salted earth cesspools of excreta where nothing will ever grow again.

***

We took the headless chickens on their last walk, so to speak, over to the scalding pot steaming by the side of the garage. A few quick dips and the feathers were loosened just enough to be wiped off or easily plucked, but it was the pinfeathers, those little quills the size of a sliver under your fingernails, that proved to be the bane of our collective existence. With the garage door open for easy access to the scalder, we stuck it out for a good ten minutes per bird, plucking, assessing, replucking, and taking our time getting the last of the nagging little bits out from under the skin. The plucked feathers stuck to the table, now covered in a sheen of blood and ice, and the minor moisture accumulated on my fingers, coupled with the temperature and windchill, left me numb, but we had a job to do.

Plucking Chickens

Plucking Chickens

An hour after the kill, we had plucked and dressed our birds, the residual tableslime to be dealt with at a later date. A neat little bowl of gizzards, livers and hearts and a plastic bag of heads and feet headed up the corners of the table, and we brought the birds in for a final bleed out in the sink.

Still not pleasant.

***

What about the killing of a chicken do I take issue with? It’s obviously a life, that of which we should consider every time we sit down to eat. I asked a friend, lifelong farm kid and backyard chicken farmer, how he reconciles the decision to kill a chicken. It seems that unless one is professionally involved, no thought is given to how that product came to be on their table. Although firm in his conviction that if a person is not ready to kill and prepare their own chicken, they probably should reconsider how often they eat meat if at all, he also brought up the more accessible viewpoint, one that I’m accepting of while at the same time coming to terms with my own ability to handle and process a live animal:

This chicken was born to sustain life. If we didn’t eat chickens, they wouldn’t be here in the first place…they’d have long gone extinct. In fact, the very existence of the domesticated chicken would have never happened had we not selectively bred them for centuries. Chickens exist to be eaten. If we suddenly stopped eating them, they would be relegated to zoos, fighting arenas, and a few people who find them to be excellent pets. Millions and millions of birds would die, and there would be none to take their place. A chicken’s sole function on planet earth is to lay eggs and then be eaten, both of which sustain life on this planet to a great extent.

Good point, there. At home, I don’t eat a lot of meat, but more and more I find myself with compelling reasons to become critically aware about what I eat. The meat that I do eat, I eat the majority of at work, where some of it is actually better for the environment (wild caught and sustainably harvested seafood) and to a lesser extent the barnyard meats. When I do eat meat from a commercial setting, I vote with with my wallet for what I want to see on my dinner plate. My favorite restaurants are those that have relationships with their farmers (Chicago’s Nightwood, to name one). Still, I find that for the future of food and what I can eat to promote a model for eating that sustains and nourishes me, with the ready access to farmer’s markets and fresh food, cutting out the middleman seems to be the best option.

***

The topic of conversation came around to the education of consumers in terms of what it takes to bring something like this to the table. You can walk into any grocery store and pick up a 6 dollar chicken, but through the process of procuring my own, I decided that I can’t in good conscience buy one. Granted, with volume comes ways to save money, but coupled with genetic engineering/large scale crossbreeding, it’s not a decision that was made with the customer in mind. Solely a business move, the idea behind the Cobb 500 was to maximize profits while moving commodities through the machine at a clip as fast as can be processed by human or machine.

So I come back to work, as I mentioned before, conflicted. Although we offer some higher end varieties of meat products, it’s the price point for most that steers them away from buying a pasture raised chicken. As we as employees are given the autonomy to promote sustainable practices and the highest quality food that the market will dictate, we’re allowed to tell the story and sample anything. Lately, I’ve been into telling the story of our pasture raised chickens, and encouraging people to try them as a whole bird rather than simply as a boneless, skinless option. They’re leaner than a conventional broiler, sometimes weighing in at 2.5-3# as opposed to 3.5-4. They’re still broadbreasted, so they look a little different than the chickens we ate down on the farm, but the taste is on the way back to what a good bird should taste like.

A beauty, ready to go

A beauty, ready to go

***

Two and a half days after butchering our chickens, we all gathered around the table for dinner. There was a giant bowl of mashed potatoes from the co-op, a green salad, and two platters full of half chickens that had been smoked on the grill. As opposed to your regulation size birds with the big boobs and bulbous thighs and drumsticks, these halves filled a plate with a little bit of spillover onto the placemat. Lean, long legs and a clean thin bit of breast meat, and a skin that was crispy with a flavor that was more than fat. The meat was moist and deceptively tender for how little fat was on these birds. The conversation died down, surprisingly after the weekend we’d had, and had I been listening, I would have only heard the odd lipsmacks and chompachompchomps of people enjoying a dinner. Together. The potatoes didn’t come out of a box. We had some leftover gravy from the last night’s turkey dinner. The dressing was, in fact, made in house, and was delicious. The chicken was amazing, not just for its flavor, but because I finally got to see and begin to understand what it means to work hard to put dinner on the table. Everything was how it should be.

***

I’ve wrestled with a lot of the words and thoughts over the week and a half since I went for a visit to the chicken farm. I didn’t want to make it seem like I took anything lightly, so I ran a lot of my thoughts by my friend, who had this to say. I think it sums it up nicely.

 

All I wanted to offer was the opportunity… It’s a hard thing to witness and a hard thing to do. But it does add to one’s understanding, doesn’t it? You already “knew” what is involved, but now you KNOW, and there is a difference.

The day before, I’d started a no knead bread recipe, as it’s the easiest bread that I can make that doesn’t test my patience. I’d gotten some sunflower seeds from work, and added a little bit of pumpkinseed oil to the mix. The bit of sugar from the oil and seeds, in addition to the perfect bread rising temperature inside the apartment, leavened the bread to more than double size faster than anticipated. Into the oven on the hot day it went, as did a flatbread with caramelized onions and chickpea flour. A little tomato sauce topped the flatbread, and it was set aside for cutting into wedges after cooling.

***

Another thing I’d started the night before was the dessert. A big hit with everyone, and one again something that requires surprisingly little technical effort, is a profiterole. I made a choux pastry with eggs, flour, water, and butter. Half of it was given the sweet treatment, to be served with cherries reduced in a bottle of Coca Cola. To the other half, I added grated cheddar for savory gougeres. As the time ticked closer to service, I realized that cherries and cream puffs wouldn’t be enough, so I set out with a recipe for a simple semifreddo, semifrozen ice cream. No churning needed.

I didn’t want anything too complex. All I wanted was something that would be light and complimentary. The recipe was simple enough. Whipped Cream, Whipped egg yolks with sugar and vanilla, and whipped egg whites. Fold them together, and freeze in a mold. Slice and serve when set, after about three hours.

Let me pause for a moment to let you in on a couple of key points. I have a hand blender, which works well for 95 percent of the things for which I use it. It purees my sauces, makes smoothies, and whips cream exquisitely. What it positively does not do well is whip egg whites. This is due to a couple factors: 1) Human Error. PROTIP- When you are whipping egg whites, you cannot stop. You cannot add sugar at the wrong moment, or they won’t set. You shouldn’t use a glass bowl, for they don’t have sides that promote the egg whites creeping up the sides as you whip, falling into soft or stiff peaks. You can’t have even a tiny hint of egg yolk in there, or they won’t whip. Did I know any of this before I began?

No. This is why my first attempt failed. This is why I don’t enjoy patisserie. Try again? Okay. This time, (Ugh) by hand.

After looking up the best way to whip egg whites, (use a wire bulb whisk), I cleaned and dried my bowl, and separated five more egg whites into my bowl. I added a splash of white vinegar as recommended, as I didn’t have any cream of tartar lying around. I whipped. Slowly at first, and then gradually with more speed until my arm was about to fall off.

In the kitchen, this is when having a mom around comes in handy.

“Mom, my arm is about to fall off!” I yelped from the kitchen.

“Okay, just let me know when you want to switch,” she replied calmly from the couch, not missing a word in the book.

At this point, about five minutes in, my forearms felt like, to use a comparison of Olympic size, the arms of a tired kayaker. It was starting to be downright unpleasant.

In comes mom to bat cleanup. Why is it that moms can accomplish things with far more accuracy and precision than we can? The difficult things. Like whipping egg whites. Two minutes, and she had it to stiff peaks. We folded in the remainder of the sugar, and then incorporated all our parts together for the resulting semifreddo, which was then put into the freezer.

When the last of our party finally arrived after delays at the airport, my lady, her mom, her aunt, and our traveling companion from Martha’s Vineyard, we were ready with dinner. The bread was still fresh from the oven, the chickpea flatbread had cooled and was dressed with the tomato sauce, the caprese salad was attractively arranged on the service platter, and the soup, finally chilled, was ladled into tiny espresso cups and garnished with sungold tomatoes and a parsley oil float ringing a single leaf of Italian parsley procured from the neighbor’s plant.

Bottles of wine were opened, hugs exchanged, and we were able to finally relax in each other’s company, ready for a fulfilling week of excursions, museums, food, family, and friendships both old and new.

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.

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.

Another summer, another vacation in the books. This year, we headed back to the East coast for a tour of Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard. When we head out there, it’s relaxing, and we get to sit on the patio, pick from the garden, and when we’re on the Vineyard, head to the beach for some sunbasking and baypaddling.

This year on the Vineyard, we were in the same place, up island, away from the tourist crowds. We were travelling with the lady’s parents, were meeting more family at the house, and this year, in addition to the pup they had in tow, we met a family friend at the ferry terminal for the boat ride over. One of the things the boat had going for it, in addition to a great viewing deck up top, was the addition of clam chowder on board. Back in the Midwest, far away from the ocean and any kind of seafood that rivals the freshness of either coast, a good seafood chowder is hard to come by. This one hit the spot, and with the meerschaum spitting over the observation deck and a tallship on the horizon, I got the feeling that it would be a good week.

On the other side of the water, we drove off the ferry through the town of Oak Bluffs, down through the middle of the island, past farms, shops, ponds and town halls, until we hit the far edge of the island. Without the tourist traffic, and with a breeze swirling around the lighthouse tipped point, it was about ten degrees cooler than where we got off the ferry. The car crawled up the dirt driveway to our house, and as we offloaded our gear, we were greeted by a second car with an uncle and aunt.

We spent our time that evening sitting on the deck, watching the sailboats cruise by the beach. We ate some Long Island pizza, trucked up by the doting uncle, and relaxed with a nice walk along the beach as the low slung sun beamed onto the red clay cliffs abutting the shoreline.

Even though it was technically vacation, I’d wake up early with the coffee, and make something for breakfast. The first morning, I decided to use some fresh eggs we had purchased at the general store back in Connecticut the previous day. They had just come in from Ashley’s happy hens down the road, and along with some cheese, fresh tomatoes, and scapes, they turned into a beautiful frittata. Paired with some quick biscuits, fresh fruit and blueberry corn muffins, it was most definitely a good way to start the day.

We spent our first full day on the North Shore of the island, just a few minutes away by car. Tucked away just up the road from where they filmed Jaws, is a secluded beach with a tiny house big enough for two, and under the floorboards of the deck lay three kayaks in waiting. While a few of our party sunned themselves on the beach and patio, an intrepid three, including me, took the kayaks out to the massive sandbar just offshore, where we parked and scavenged for sand dollars.

That night, we motored over to Oak Bluffs, where we enjoyed a dinner at the Red Cat Kitchen, where several of the evening’s menu items are described as “chef’s imaginations of…” It was a new concept in Island dining, but one I’ve seen before, where a talented chef gives you the base of what they’re offering, and utilizes what they have in the kitchen to create a unique plate for a one-off run. This has both its positives and negatives, but especially when tables are filled to capacity every night, it makes perfect sense.

We had a table of seven with two vegetarians. For our non meat eating diners, there was an option on the menu that was described as “Ben’s Vegetarian Showdown”. When I looked up their menu on Facebook, which changes weekly, sometimes close to daily, I mentioned that we’d be bringing in a couple of vegetarian diners. “What can you throw down for a showdown for two hungry vegetarians?” I asked.

The response? “Plenty!”

Fair enough. We sat in a living room with a bar on the ground floor of a two story house in the middle of town, looking out at the bustle through a window filled with glass apothecary bottles. Around the table, we ordered starters of fried local oysters with  banana peppers, a roasted beet salad with goat cheese and celery hearts,  Yukon potato gnocchi with Sun-dried tomatoes and pecorino romano, a tuna tartare, and the signature dish, an Island Fresca-Fresh tomatoes, sweet kernel corn and basil in a corncob broth with shaved parmigiano reggiano and dotted with basil oil.

As the plates made their way around the table, everyone taking a bite, it became clear that there was a comfortable medium between a high class restaurant in, say, Chicago or New York, and a place such as this where the chef has unlimited creative license as well as a built in time cushion where diners, most of them on vacation, are just there to relax. I looked around the table. Everyone was smiling. Over at the bar, the bartender was tapping an unruly glass and shaker against the bar to get it unstuck, but maintained friendly eye contact and a jovial banter with the patrons while not missing a beat. The waiter was hasty, a bit surly, but also good natured on this busy night, and everyone was having a good time. The food, while not earth-shatteringly inventive, was the creation of one kitchen, and it was simple and satisfying.

The entrees came out next. There was a buttermilk fried chicken with Braised Carrots and a Vanilla Jus (weird, but it worked)with wilted spinach, Sea Scallops with sweet corn risotto, a bluefish poached in more of the sweet corn broth, and a giant plate of breaded pork chops for me.

The kicker, though, was the Vegetarian showdown. Normally, I don’t care for vegetarian options at restaurants, but this seemed like a logical solution to everything. Each person who ordered it received a small side salad, a dish of sweet corn risotto, some tempura green beans, and a few other roasted vegetables. Four or five tiny plates came out, all offering a variety of differently prepared vegetarian offerings, leaving everyone full, happy, and satisfied that what they received wasn’t a tired old piece of quiche that was kept in the freezer for the lone person who didn’t eat meat.

For dessert, even after our gigantic portions, we figured we could split a few between our table. The offerings, while standard, were done well. We had a molten chocolate mug cake and a bananas foster dish, but the hit was a panna cotta with basil oil and a fresh huckleberry compote on top. It’s the little surprises that make these dinners such pleasant experiences. I’d love to go back.

Read a new blog this morning (DocSconz: Musings on Food and Life) about a father and son traipsing through Italy on a quest for food and family. My last trip to Italy was about ten years ago, but it’s still vivid in my mind as something that greatly affected how I view the way food should be.

During the stay, we travelled around the northern part of Italy, using Turin, home of Martini + Rossi and Chocolate, as our homebase. We took side trips to the Slow Food Conference (Salone del Gusto), where we found ourselves among tables of old vine wines, heirloom vegetables, crates of salted bottarga, mustards, cheeses, vinegars, and every kind of chef representative you could imagine, hired to showcase that product. Travelling halfway around the world to visit and soak everything in, we were outsiders, but we made small talk the best a handful of Midwestern boys could do.

“You guys are from Scotland, are you?”

“Aye. That we are.”

“That’s some fine beer you have.”

“Thank you very much. Where are you from?”

“Wisconsin.”

“Oh, we were just there last week, at your Capital Brewer’s.”

“No way. Do you know the brewmaster, Kirby?”

“Ah, that’s a good guy for you right there.”

And the connection was made. From that point out, we just shot the breeze as a few guys getting together who really enjoyed beer and talking shop.

We met some guys who made Danzy Jones Wysgi Mustard. We asked if they knew of our world famous Mustard Museum,  just down the street from Madison in nearby Mount Horeb, Wisconsin at the time.

They did. The bottle of mustard I dipped from in Italy was one of 3,000 different mustards on display not 10 miles from my point of departure. Some of the artisanal products we saw were available right down the street, albeit in small quantities.

Still, there was yet another layer of products that we sampled that simply wouldn’t taste the same any place outside where they were made. There were cheeses, salumi, and vinegars that we tried that were simply out of this world, but would never survive the journey to American shelves. I only have the memory of them to keep me comforted. I’ve tried the Taleggio here, and the Tomini, and the Stracchino, and although they’re good, nothing compares to what you can get from the source.

The most mysterious cheese, the one that I will never taste in its true form outside of Italy, is Castelmagno. Often a combination of sheep and cow’s milk, its texture is a result of milling the curds during the process, and the result is a barely sliceable, often crumbly nutty cheese with added depth from a molded rind. When I was cooking in the Piemonte region, it was most often used with the Northern Italian staple of gnocchi alla fonduta, as it melted so fine in a saucepan. Sometimes, I miss being able to try it again, but I realize that if I ever saw it in a shop here, it simply wouldn’t be the same. It’s like a good loaf of sourdough-it just doesn’t travel.

Castelmagno

***

Aside from our excursion to the Salone del Gusto, we took day trips to Modena, where we visited the Malpighi House of Balsamic production. I’d call it a plantation, as it had the most beautiful painted frescos in the main house set back from the road behind row upon row of grape vines. We went through the entire process, from how they harvest the grapes, to the crush, past the boiling of the maceration to the slow aging and evaporation of the moisture from the liquid. In the attic of the main house sat row upon row of charred black barrels with a single white napkin covering a small hole at the top. Every year, as the traditionally aged balsamic vinegar reduces by 10%, they rotate it into progressively smaller barrels until they are ready to bottle. At twelve years, the finest balsamic is bottled into tiny receptacles, having reduced to a sugary syrup. For those who have the bottle of balsamic at home, the taste of a traditionally aged, rigorously controlled Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is sweeter and more floral than even a reduced bottle of store-bought. Most commonly, it is used as an accent, or with fresh fruit or cheese.

The Attic at Malpighi

 

Since my visit was so long ago, most of the balsamic vinegar bottled that year is long gone. I know for a fact that half a bottle lives on in my mother’s cupboard at home, still sweet and used ever so sparingly, a drop at a time. However, what was left to further reduce to a 25 year vinegar should be ready about now, and I can only imagine how sweet it would taste.

 

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.

Next Page »