Island Feast

As many of you know, we have the luxury of having a family home on Martha’s Vineyard.  We are able to go out to the Island a few times each year and enjoy the company of family and spend some time at the beach.  One of our favorite pastimes (read obsessions) is ocean fishing, and Martha’s Vineyard is truly a fisherman’s paradise.  No matter what time of year, there is always something good to be had from the ocean.  My husband’s parents, who are able to spend quite a bit of time here, also keep a large kitchen garden, so summertime on the island is a time of plenty.

The first day I woke to a beautiful balmy island morning and took my coffee into the back yard to check out the garden.  My mother in Law had emailed me about what was growing, so I had an idea of what I’d find.  What took me by surprise were the giant radishes the size of lemons.  I had never seen a radish grow so big.  I had planted these very seeds when we last were here in May, in a mix with carrot seeds, but they were average, “garden variety” radish, not some monster varietal.  You might remember in my last post a photo of a cheese and radish sandwich on a bagel.  Those tiny radish were from my garden, of which I was formerly proud. What am I doing wrong?  I’ii have to do some research to find out why in my garden they are quarter sized and often woody, but here they are luscious red orbs of crunchy delight.  I picked a dozen, sliced them thinly, and set them in a marinade of rice wine vinegar, sugar and water.

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Despite the neat rows of sorrel, arugula, chicory, and red and green lettuce in the garden, I still felt the need to traipse next door with my basket to the twice weekly farmers market.  I wanted some cilantro, and that was as good an excuse as any to stroll the aisles of farm raised produce, meats, breads and cheeses, as well as handmade soaps, hats and fresh squeezed lemonade.  I was surprised to see the amount and variety this time of year; while my zucchini are just flowering, I found some beautiful 6 inch long ones perfect for the saute pan.  When I asked, I was told they grow them under plastic to keep them warm and to fruit earlier.  I fought down my rising jealousy with the fact that I live in a different growing zone entirely than Martha’s Vineyard, and furthermore islands are naturally more temperate because of the surrounding seas.  In a month I’d be sick of fresh zucchini anyway.   But for now I was happy to have it and bought 8 nice ones to bring home, along with a fresh baguette.

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Later that afternoon we drove to one of our favorite fishing spots, a jetty that juts out into the sea at the edge of a wide basin, With it’s sister across the way, it forms a channel that feeds a big salt water pond.  The structure, as well as the sand beach on one side, provides a great place to fish for black bass, tau-tog, porgy, rock bass, flounder and fluke.  It can occasionally be a good spot for stripers and bluefish, but it’s not reliable enough to count on.  When the water warms it’s a pretty reliable place for scup, and that’s what we went for today.  I’m not a big fan of the littler fish, so I usually make my way around the jetty to the channel and try for the odd striper, but midday at a slack tide is not really the ideal time.  I didn’t have much hope.  After a couple dozen casts, and a nice lunch, I decided walk out to the end of the jetty to see what was going on there.  The boys had long since given up fishing and were napping in the sand when I decided the way to catch my striper was to hook on a huge piece of squid, heave it to the middle of the channel and wait till the big one came along and gulped it in.  Yeah right.  But as I waited, enjoying the warm sun and the breeze off the ocean, I began to notice my line migrate ever so slightly.  My big squid was being nibbled!  I quickly reeled in, changed my big hook for a smaller one, slapped on a tiny mouthful of squid, cast back out and nailed a giant porgy.  I had three more in the bucket before the boys caught on and we had a blitz.  We filleted them on the beach and brought them home to bake over sliced onions, one of the easiest and most delicious ways to cook fish.

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A few minutes in the garden provided me with the greens for a lovely salad.  I chopped the fresh cilantro into it and used the radish marinade mixed with some good olive oil for the dressing.  The baguette sliced up, the zucchini sliced and sauteed with a pinch of salt and the fish baked to perfection completed our Island feast.  A beautiful day and a most memorable meal!

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First Out of the Garden

Early June in Connecticut is an exciting time for gardeners.  By now most things are in the ground that are going in, and all the planning and planting are complete.  I usually estimate mid to late may as the time to plant, but after the 15th I keep an eye on the weather and wait for a few days when the night time temperatures stay above 55.  Most plants don’t like to root out in the cold.  Now in early June the new garden, with its tiny shoots of new growth, is just getting itself established, and it’s too soon to count any success or failures.  Those of you who have a greenhouse might be laughing at me, for by now your gardens are lush wonderlands of heavily foliated plants happily bursting with buds and fruit.  Sadly, I only have my little bathtub and a grow lamp for starting seeds, and have relegated it to peppers only, so I start most of my vegetables from seeds right in the ground.

There are a few exceptions of course.  I always buy tomato plants already started, and with those it’s just a matter of money. The more money you pay, the more plant you get.  In early June, for the right price, you can get a plant with fruit already on it, or, if your pocket is not quite so full, at least a 4 to 5 inch healthy looking specimen.  This year my budget for plants was a little short, so I went with the smaller choices.  I try to buy heirloom varieties in most cases, but there is a good argument to be made for the old standbys like Big Boy and Early Girl.  They are reliable producers, are pest and drought resistant and produce nice firm fruits (just like you find in the grocery store!) but the heirlooms for me are much more exciting to grow.  I like the idea of plants that are not genetically modified almost as much as I like the unique fruits themselves, whether they are German green stripe or Purple Cherokee.  Check out Seed Savers, a wonderful source for heirloom seeds and a really great company, to learn more about heirloom and heritage seeds and genetic diversity (or lack of it) in the American food industry.  http://www.seedsavers.org/About-Us/

 

Another plant I buy already started is eggplant.  I have never tried to grow these from seed because I rarely succeed with the plant itself.  I have yet to produce a bumper crop of eggplant of any kind, which might be just as well, as I’m the only one in the family who enjoys it.  I usually plant just two plants, as I have very limited real estate in my garden, but even with constant attention and words of encouragement, they never seem to thrive.  Whether its those damn tiny aphids, blight, rot, or just plain weakness, they always look jaundiced and produce thin tiny fruit.  This year, when I saw my two healthy plants begin to yellow, I went to ask advice from a local gardening expert.  She starts many plants from seed in a greenhouse and sells them to local gardeners like me.  I have never bought from her before, but have heard about her renown with plants of all kinds.  She is the type who looks at gardening through the eyes of a chemist, while I’m more of a hope and a prayer type.  She explained that most people (me) plant eggplant too early, before the soil has warmed sufficiently, and they fail to thrive.  She said that most people (me) fail to protect their plants with a copper fungicide dip prior to planting, and that most people (Not me!) over water and leach the nutrients out.  She recommended the copper fungicide spray, a natural pesticide with soap in it, and a fish emulsion top dress to enrich the roots.  Maybe with these tools, and of course a few good thoughts, I’ll be serving eggplant Parmesan in August!  Oh, and she also gave me three varietals of eggplant that she had left over.  With five plants in the ground, I almost hope they don’t all thrive, or I’ll be eating eggplant by myself every single night!

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With everything going in, there is not much coming out this time of year, but that’s not to say there’s nothing to eat in the garden.  All my greens are up and we have been feasting on fresh spinach, sorrel, arugula and lettuce for a few weeks.  The radishes are full to bursting and the second planting is already coming up.  I love radish, and usually plant a spicy blend, with all different shapes and colors.  I use radish in a variety of dishes as well as eat them fresh washed out of the dirt.   I like the diversity of flavor and color, whether on a salad or sandwich, or stirred into an Asian inspired soup.  I made just such a soup the other day.  Recipe to follow.

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The green onions are ready to be picked, if you can bring yourself to give up a full sized onion later on in the year.  I always have a hard time with this.  While I’m not a patient person by nature, the thought of yanking out those half formed babies for a quick turn on the grill makes me pause.  It’s not that they wouldn’t taste delicious, it’s only that I think of myself trudging to the store in the middle of February to buy some old generic onion instead of plucking one out of the lovely onion basket in the basement, filled with my very own. Instead, I satisfy my taste for fresh onion by snapping off the stems of the onion flowers and chopping or grilling those. They taste just as fine as the whole thing, but I can leave the roots of the onion itself in the ground to fulfill it’s destiny.

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Aside from the radish, greens and onions, we have been eating lots of cilantro, parsley and basil as those plants establish themselves.  The beets are ready to thin and the greens are delicious sauteed or in salads.  The strawberries which I transplanted this spring are a bit behind the curve but are beginning to ripen.  The peas are blooming and the squash are flowering and the tomatoes continue to make suckers and flower.  It’s an exciting time in the garden and lots more to come.

 

ASIAN NOODLE SOUP

6 cups broth (I used pheasant broth because I had some left over)

3 TBS Mirin

4 TBS Soy sauce

1 TBS sugar

 

2 cloves garlic chopped fine.

salt and pepper to taste

dash of something hot (chili paste, Tabasco, red pepper)

3 cups cut up cooked chicken (or pheasant)

4 cups chopped fresh spring veggies, such as radish, baby carrot, green onion, endive, peas,

1/2 lime

 

 

Prepare rice noodles as directed on the package.  Mix the first 7 ingredients and adjust to taste.  Simmer and add the chicken.  When noodles are done add the fresh veggies to the soup and simmer for 5 minutes.  Be careful not to overcook the vegetables or they will be soggy.  Place a serving of rice noodles in a wide bowl and ladle the soup over them.  Squeeze the lime over the soup.  Serve with chopsticks and extra hot sauce.  Enjoy!

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My First…Morel

For those of you mushroom fanatics in the know, and those who desperately wish you were in the know, finding your first morel is about as memorable as your first kiss.  Mushroom hunters spend months and years wandering around in dead fall and through mushy forests in search of these precious gems of the spring, and once found, guard the secret of the location like treasure.  Many’s the time I have engaged mycological foragers in conversation trying to ferret out information about when, where and how they found these fungal delicacies, and never did I get a hint of a reliable clue.  Sure, anyone will give you generalities that you might find in any book on the subject, like look at the edge of the woods near old orchards, or where there are lime deposits, or near dying ash or elm, but disclose their secret spot to an outsider?  Never.

A few weeks ago my husband came back from hunting turkey with a giant brownish fungi that he imagined I’d find interesting.  It was about 5 inches tall, hollow, and had spongy pits all over its “cap”.  Although his hunt was unsuccessful, I was much more delighted with his efforts than if he had brought home a fat tom.  Little did he expect my shrieks of delight and demands that he take me immediately back to the exact location where he had found it.   We agreed to go back and I spent the next half hour poring over my books and through mycology websites to ensure that what he had found was indeed a true morel.  I’m sure I’m not the only newby mushroom forager to worry about poisoning my loved ones!   In fact it was a real morel, albeit an old one, and off we went to see if there were more.

After a short hike through some soggy march and then woodland brambles, we found an old tree with a half dozen large morels under it.  Mushroomers say that in order to know mushrooms you must know trees, so I suppose I’m not much of a mushroomer.  It’s no wonder I haven’t found any myself.  I can’t identify an ash from an elm, so I have no idea what type of tree they were growing under or why.  They were easy to find as they stood 5 to 7 inches tall, and were about 2.5 inches wide.  Morels are best when young.  As they mature they tend to get drier and more brittle, less tender and moist.  We decided to give them a try anyway.  After picking off a few slugs and a good long soak to drown any other bugs inside, I cut them into chunks for a soup. IMAG0293

I decided on a soup for two reasons; they were old, and my sons hate soup.  It’s not that I didn’t want to share, it’s just that they might be less likely to try mushroom soup than something like mushrooms in pastry crust, and therefore I had less of a chance of poisoning them if I had somehow made a mistake in my identifications.  Did I mention I was nervous to eat them?  I sauteed them in some butter and took a nibble.  The flavor was surprisingly good for slightly out of date mushrooms.  Earthy and pungent and very…mushroomy.  I waited a half an hour and didn’t develop stomach cramps so I decided to go ahead.  The recipe that follows is a delicious and decadent way to eat a morel.

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CREAM OF MOREL SOUP

4 to 5 cups sliced mushrooms

3 tbs butter

3 tbs flour

2 cups broth

1 1/2 cups half and half

1 tbs dry sherry

1 tsp fresh chopped thyme

Cut the mushrooms into small pieces and saute over medium heat in the butter until soft and tender, about 5 minutes.  Add the flour and stir.  Add the broth and stir until smooth.  Cook until the broth starts to thicken, about 5 to 10 minutes minutes.  Using a handheld puree tool or a blender, mix until smooth.  (if you like you can leave some chunks for texture)  Add the half and half and the sherry, making sure to keep the heat to a low simmer.  Serve topped with the chopped thyme and enjoy!