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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The Blues are Running!

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One of the highlights of the summer is fishing for bluefish from the shores of Martha’s Vineyard.  Blue fishing is an all day affair, requiring some planning and a bit of commitment.  Each June we load up the car with lunch, snacks, beer, coolers of ice, chairs, rod holders, rods and tackle, towels, beach games and maybe a kite or two, oh, and the kids on top of it all, and we head out for East beach on Chappaquiddick.  To get there we must drive the 20 minutes to Edgartown and queue up in the ferry line to make the short hop to the island off the island.  Once there, we drive until the road turns to sand and stop at the Trustees of the Reservation hut to have them check our sticker.  The Trustees are a statewide conservation organization that manages much of the public lands on Martha’s Vineyard.  Check out their website here for information about this great organization www.thetrustees.org/  They make sure we have paid the price to access the land trust areas, warn us to stay off the roped areas reserved for plover mating, and send us on our way.  From there we let most of the air out of our tires to allow the truck some traction in the deep sand, and off we go, bouncing over the dunes in the back of the pickup.  

Fishing on East beach is a funny thing.  One can cast for hours and never get a bite, or throw in one deadly dick and haul in a fighting blue.  It just depends on if the fish are running.  When they are around, they will hit on almost anything.  Sluggos, plugs, any type of shiny lure. Once one is caught, fisherman up and down the beach run to their rods and the catch is on.  Bluefish are a blast to catch because they are fighters and will regularly take line before you get them to shore.  They like to jump and shake, trying to lose the hook.  Most fishermen use some sort of treble hook to increase their chances of landing a fish. Once on shore, one must use caution unhooking them, as they have very sharp teeth.  Years ago we were taking a picture of my sons after catching some blue fish and, with one of them holding a fish, they both turned toward each other at the same time.  The fish’s teeth raked the eyelid of one boy and cut him open.  He bears the scars to this day.  

I like to catch bluefish as long as we keep are keeping them.  When we decide we have enough for a good feed or two, I’m ready to be done. For a few years I would continue to catch and release them, but they fight so hard and sometimes wear themselves out, and I found I lost the taste for it.  I tried using a single hook, to give them more of a chance, but after awhile I simply decided that If I wasn’t going to eat them, I might as well leave them alone.

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Bluefish get a bad rap as an eating fish, but I’m hear to tell you that, if treated properly, they are one of the best types of fish for eating.  If you have ever bought bluefish in a store, you haven’t really tried bluefish.  They must be eaten fresh, within a day of catching them.  After that they turn from a dusky pink to a sickly blue color and taste oily and, well, fishy.  Furthermore, once caught, they must be bled out and kept on ice.  To bleed them, use a sharp knife right in the middle of the chest up to the throat.  It is a fast way to ease them on their way and it makes the flesh taste better.  Ice them immediately.  If they can be filleted right on the beach, all the better.  The best way to cook the freshest bluefish is right on the grill.  Salt, pepper, skin side down until the flesh is white and flaky.  After that, anyway is a good way.  I have baked it, braised it, fried it and sauteed it with any assortment of herbs and spices.  For a sublime bluefish recipe, check out this link to braised bluefish with saffron risotto.  http://braveapron.com/tag/saffron/.   Leftover bluefish with scrambled eggs is a real morning treat.  Anyway you prepare it, bluefish is a delicacy and one not to be missed in these summer months.  We ate grilled bluefish with summer salad from the garden and roasted sweet potatoes, and finished with a delicate strawberry mousse.  Yummy!

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Ah Ah Ahhh Asparagus! Bless you.

Springtime for some is a horrible season of allergies.  Stuffy, runny noses, red eyes and sneezing abound as the deciduous and fruit trees blossom and spread their pollen throughout the warming springtime air.  For some, it is a time for Claritin, Allerest, Zyrtec.  What does this have to do with asparagus, you ask?  Not much, except that they coincide, and they were both on my mind after our short trip out to Martha’s Vineyard last weekend.

I have never had seasonal allergies, but my son does.   He gets great purple bags under his eyes and has a terrible grouchy attitude.  So terrible, in fact, that when he was 11 I brought him to the doctor, explaining that he was just a miserable person and what could I do about it?  She took one look at his purple shaded eyes and diagnosed him with seasonal allergies, prescribing a daily dose of Claritin.  It worked marvelously.  His attitude improved, the purple diminished and we went our merry way, but it caused me to wonder about allergies; why some people get them, and what I could do about it for my son.  Over the years I have found some homeopathic remedies that work with varying success.  

Quercetin is a natural substance found in the skin of onions and apples.  Sadly, apples and onions are not seasonal to springtime, but fortunately quercetin is available over the counter as a supplement.   

Stinging nettle, found in many allergy medications, is a useful herb in curbing the annoying symptoms, and can be taken in a tea form.  Stinging nettle is available now, and grows best in weedy lots and near manure piles.  Do not forget your gloves and long sleeves, as well as shoes and socks.  The effects of touching the plant itself are uncomfortable in the extreme.  Chop it, steep it, season it with honey, and enjoy!  If gathering it is too much for you, most health food stores will carry it, but it is best fresh.  

Honey is another supposed remedy for allergies.  It is recommended to take a teaspoon once a day, but the honey must be unblended and from your area in order for it to have a benefit.  Some swear by this, but so far the evidence is inconclusive.  It can’t hurt, anyway.

Acupuncture may help alleviate allergy symptoms, especially if you start treatment about a month before peak season.  Apparently opening certain meridians can help to suppress an overactive immune system.  

Last weekend, as I was indulging in the abundant asparagus that grows in the garden there, that we have patiently waited for years to mature and produce, my son was miserable.  He wanted only to lay inside and play on his Kindle.  He was tired, and grumpy, by turns sarcastic, caustic and irritable.  We couldn’t even get him to enjoy going fishing.  And only later, as I consider writing a post about the lovely asparagus, does the reason occur to me.  Duh! What is it about mothers who are always the last to figure it out?  I really should have known.

So.  To the asparagus!  

Any aficionado of that strange plant will tell you with fervent belief that fresh cannot compare to store bought asparagus, and we are right.  The ONLY time to eat it is when those tender shoots get to be just the right height to cut, and there are just enough to take without killing off the plant.  Harvesting asparagus is an exercise in patience.  A strong asparagus plant will send out shoots when the weather warms, but you must not cut those first delectable morsels!  They taunt you as they harden into stalks, but in order for the plant to thrive it must have foliage to photosynthesize. Those first stalks are necessary to the plant’s health, and only after they begin to mature and more shoots emerge may one gently cut and enjoy some of the delicate stalks.   The flavor is sublime.  Below are some of the ways we indulged our culinary fantasies and savored this most precious springtime treat.

Roasted Balsamic Asparagus with pancetta and caramelized onion

Oven temp 400.

2 lbs of fresh cut asparagus, peeled if the outer skin is tough.

4 tbs olive oil, divided

3 tbs good balsamic vinegar

2 large onions 

1/4 lb. pancetta. Ham, prosciutto, or bacon would work as well.

Chop onions in half and slice thinly   Chop pancetta into small squares.  In a skillet heat 2 tbs. oil on med heat.  Stir in onions and cook, allowing to brown.  When onions are almost done, about 15 minutes, add pancetta and cook, stirring, for 5 more minutes.  Meanwhile, place asparagus in a single layer in a roasting pan lined with tinfoil and coat with the remaining 2 tbs oil.  Sprinkle with the balsamic and roast in 400 F oven for about 20-30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus.  Remove, top with hot onion and pancetta mixture and serve.  

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Asparagus Yorkshire Pudding

Oven temp 400 F

3 eggs

1 1/2 cup organic flour

1 1/2 cup organic or raw milk

Salt to taste.

1/3 cup roast drippings, bacon fat or lard.

1 lb asparagus

Peel Asparagus if necessary.  Place a roasting pan in hot oven for 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, mix together first 4 ingredients into a batter.  When the pan is hot, add the drippings or bacon fat and coat the pan.  Place the asparagus in a single layer and cover with the batter.  Return to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, then lower temperature to 350 degrees and bake an additional 10 – 15 minutes or until pudding is puffy, lightly brown and beginning to crisp.  Refrain from opening the oven until you remove the pudding.  If you must check the progress, use the light and window.   Allow to cool for a few minutes and cut into squares.  Serve immediately.