An orchard in our midst

My mother and I found the apple identification worksheet at the Common Ground Fair last week. I was home for a visit, and Fedco was interested in identifying old apple tree varieties. Homeowners with un-named trees were asked to send in any information they had on the fruit.

At the fair, the seed company showcased an entire table of old varieties they’d turned up in American orchards.

Winter Banana: Indiana, c. 1876
, one tag read. Coles Quince: Cornish, ME, 19th century. The list went on, with names like Twenty Ounce, and Winthrop Greening. We’d talked about reviving the old apple trees scattered through my parents’ woods before, off-handedly, but the worksheet got us started.

The next afternoon, we ventured beneath the pines with flagging tape and pen to uncover what we could of the orchard. There didn’t seem to be much pattern to the trees—they arced around the property in strange, mangled pairings, making it difficult to discern what the original organization might have been. It was clear there were at least two varieties: a soft, sweet-smelling yellow cooking apple and a tart, green keeper.

As we stumbled through the underbrush tagging the trees, we picked an apple from each and labeled it by number. One, two, three…before long we had circled back to the house with a grand total of twenty-three. All these years, there’d been an orchard at work beneath those pines.

In the morning, we headed to the market. Dick Keyough was there, selling plums and apples from his truck flat when we strode up with the basket. He offered several guesses for the fruit right off: Wealthy for a rogue red striped sweet, translucence or yellow transparent for the soft golden. The tart green, he said, could carry any number of names.

“Go back and plot out the trees,” he advised. “Old orchard patterns are set in 35 foot squares.” Anything outside that grid, he explained, had sprung up from seed, cross-pollinated and wild. These new varieties might be keepers, but they could also be sour. Whether or not we held on to them would depend on our taste.

I went out into the orchard that afternoon to collect a few of the greener fruits for baking. We had a dinner party to attend, and I could think of few things better for a crisp fall evening than a dessert of stuffed baked apples.

Back in the kitchen, I cored the fruit. Out came stem, seeds, and toughened marrow, but the bottom stayed, a last layer of protection for the stuffing to come. While the oven warmed, I mixed together maple syrup, dried cranberries, and a handful of oats, and stuffed the apples full.

It seemed to take ages for the apples to soften. When they finally emerged, wrinkled and tender, I plated them for dessert, topped with a dab of whipped cream and a melting puddle of vanilla ice cream. Perhaps one of these days, with the orchard revived, we’ll bake enough to feed a Friday night supper.


Serves 4

Wash and core
4 crisp, sweet apples, making sure not to cut clear through the fruit. In a separate bowl, mix together 1/3 cup maple syrup, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cup dried, fresh, or frozen Cape Cod cranberries, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, and (optional) 1/4 cup oats. Pack into apple cavities and place in a shallow baking pan. Bake 1 hour at 375 degrees; serve warm topped with vanilla ice cream.


Animal Kingdom

Caution! hungry horses.

Draft horses may be strong, but visually, they aren't the smartest creatures on the block. This sign left us laughing as we watched the horses pull sleds, plows, and people.

Just ducky.

We picked up a flyer on poultry as we browsed the cages. "Match your need to the right breed!" it encouraged. My mother decided on a classic black and white Bard chicken; I was leaning towards a duck. For eggs, the sheet recommends Khaki Campbell or Indian runners; for meat, White Pekin, Aylesubury, or Muscovy.


Strange folk

Gourd, anonymous.

I didn't catch the name of this blue-ribbon beauty, but if I had to come up with one of my own I think I'd call it the peanut squash. Gnarled and wizened as the roots of an ancient tree, it reminds me of Down Easters themselves.


Endangered by butternut cankor, the Maine butternut is in decline. The pleasant tasting, oily, wild nut is one of the few native to the state, and is especially prized for making maple butternut candy.


Unexpected contestants

Sunflower oil.

On display at one booth was a sunflower seed press, used to extract oil. Seeds are pressed, with shells, through a small, cranked tube, yielding an 80 percent extraction efficiency. For industrious growers, this offers the potential for a Maine-made cooking oil.

Waves of grain.

Showcased at the fair were all kinds of Maine-grown grains, from spelt to wheat. In the 1800s, most small New England farmers grew grains ground by water- or wind-powered grist mills, a tradition that had lost footing until only recently. Today's state movement toward locally grown grains is headed by Jim Amaral of Borealis Breads.


The Local Food Report: Quail eggs & toast

Quail may look feisty, but according to Orleans dentist Ben Chung, they're calm enough to make good neighbors. With controversies erupting in some towns over the right to keep backyard livestock, Chung is lucky his layers are so friendly.

Beyond good humor, the birds boast another asset: good eggs. Though little larger than a cherry tomato in size, the large-yolked eggs pack a punch, flavor wise, and are considered a delicacy in many countries.

At my house, the favorite way to eat them is fried up alongside a piece of homemade toast, or hard-boiled as a delicate snack. Either way, we can easily eat a half dozen at a sitting—it takes 6 or so to cover a piece of toast.

Recently, I tried them in a twist on the more traditional chicken egg hole-in-the-wall breakfast. Creating four tiny holes in a piece of just toasted anadama bread, I threw it into a hot pan and cracked four quail eggs into the ragged gaps. In moments I had flipped it, eggs firm and toast crackling, and allowed the other side to warm. On the plate, I crumbled a bit of chevre over top, and layered on a few slices of tomato. With a dash of salt and pepper, it made an excellent start to the day, in miniature.

HOLE IN THE WALL QUAIL EGGS, with chevre and tomato

Serves one

Toast 1 slice bread. Cut 4 bottlecap-sized holes in each quarter of the bread, and place the slice in a pan over medium heat with 1/2 tablespoon melted butter. Crack 4 quail eggs into the 4 holes, and let cook until eggs are firm on bottom. Flip, adding an additional 1/2 tablespoon butter if needed, and cook until eggs are done to taste. Serve warm with a layer of crumbled chevre and several slices tomato, with salt and pepper to taste.

Click here for more recipes and stories with quail eggs...


Lunchtime: meat & veggies

Blooming Onion.

Something of a cross between an onion ring and a French fry, these fried sensations were spotted in the hands of hungry wanderers across the fairgrounds. Their dipping sauces of whole grain mustard mayo and organic ketchup made eaters all the merrier.

Lamb kebabs.

Speared and grilled by the Noon Family Sheep Farm of Springvale, ME, these meat-packed sticks inspired a line around the bend. Also featured at the stand: ground lamb sausage, equally enticing.

Breakfast, defined

Bog juice.

(n) Definition: a rich, pulpy beverage made from crushed organic Maine cranberries, water, and Maine maple syrup. Delicious chilled or hot.


(n) Definition: a honey-drizzled, breakfast sandwich on gooey whole-wheat stuffed with warm apples, toasted pine-nuts, and several raisins.


The Common Ground Fair

I'm traveling this week, for food. Yesterday was the final day of the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, the annual Down East celebration of local harvest and rural living. With upwards of 60,000 fair-goers, it's one of the largest local food gatherings in the country.

(Slow Food Nation, touted as "the largest celebration of American Food in history," drew only slightly over 60,000 with extensive advertising and a spot in local food hub San Francisco, making it all the more impressive what a crowd the Common Ground event draws with Maine food alone.)

The fair has been going strong for 32 years now, put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and boasts everything from fairground gardens to livestock demonstrations to a full blown farmers' market. Rules governing food vendors are strict: all ingredients must be organic, and from Maine if available in the state. Crafts, demonstrations, and animal participants are held to similar standards.

The net result falls somewhere in between Bangor and heaven. Over the course of the day, I tasted: a whole wheat honey-bun, stuffed with apples and pinenuts and drizzled with honey; an apple cider donut; a "blooming onion" fried onion ring type snack, accompanied by organic ketchup and a whole grain mustard mayo; a blueberry-apple cider snow cone; several jugs of apple cider; and a glass of "bog juice," made from crushed, pulpy cranberries with a bit of water and maple syrup.

I wish I could've tried more. Between the lamb-kebobs, the sausage rolls, and the pie cones, I could've used an extra belly. But while I didn't manage to fit it all in, the camera did. Every day this week, while I'm on the road, I'll offer several snapshots of the fair, in food. I hope you'll enjoy.


Birthday tartlet

We had one of those monumental birthdays in my house yesterday. I'll try not to give too much away, but it was a decade, a paragraph marker of sorts, the start of a new and shiny era—or so we like to say.

The transition is strange, between decades, even for the most excited of travelers. For ten years you linger on one side, suddenly to jump to another.

And so we made a birthday breakfast. There are few better ways to make the leap than with a fork in hand and an omelette in sight, and so we prepared our traveler with plate and feast for the day ahead.

My father made the eggs: big, fluffy clouds oozing cheese and veggies, tomatoes from the garden and spry, spicy scallions. My mother poured coffee and cider and ferried toast, while I worked away on a smaller surprise.

I had been hoping to make breakfast tartlets. There was a ball of dough tucked away in the fridge, waiting for morning and the jubilation of dawn. But by the time I got started, I was a bit behind. The table was set, eggs nearly done, and the oven just barely hot. Nonetheless I was determined to make one, at the least, to surprise the honoree and pass around in bites.

I sliced a peach and pressed the dough, forming it to the curvature of the tiny scalloped pan. The orange slices nestled close along the edge, and I spooned a bit of crumbled butter and blackberry jam over top. Just like that, it went in to bake. By the time we'd finished the eggs, it made an excellent coffee-side treat.


Makes 6, 4-inch tarlets or 1 large tartlet

Beat 1 stick butter with 1/3 cup sugar until creamy. Add 1/4 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 egg yolk, and mix until uniformly combined. Stir in 3/4 cup white flour and 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, mixing until there are no dry spots in the dough. Form into a ball and chill at least several hours, or overnight.

Press dough into large or small tart pan(s). Prebake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes, or until just firm. Slice 4 to 6 ripe peaches and layer over bottom. Top with 1 tablespoon blackberry jam per 4-inch tart or 8 tablespoons for a large tart. Bake 5-10 minutes at 350 degrees, or until fruit warms and softens slightly.

*Dough recipe adapted from Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food.


September picnic

The sun filtered through the trees like moonlight as we took off our packs and swung our legs over the old railroad bridge. It was a perfect day for a picnic—cool, crisp with the promise of fall, with a stunning blue sky and white light overhead. Poplars and oaks rustled as the river meandered by beneath us, and we spread our napkins for the noontime meal.

My mother had helped me with the sandwiches: big, thick slices of squash bread from Cottage Street Bakery in Orleans, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes from my garden, a thick wedge of goat cheese invited down from Maine, and a few leaves of basil from the pot on the deck.

But the star was the spread. I made it finally—Nelia Dunbar's rosehip jelly—the recipe I received from my call to arms last week. It was a thick, luxurious red, with the aroma of tomato soup and the gooey sweetness of pie. Back in the kitchen, we'd spread it thick on toast and set out through the woods to enjoy that first taste.

The bridge made it come alive, our legs running free through empty air, spurred on by their own reflection and a swig of cider here and there. It seemed appropriate to enjoy the jelly there in the manmade wild, on the banks of a century-diked river still fighting for freedom and an empty railroad bed that wished it'd never found it. The rosehips were like that too, introduced but adopted, long ago washashores now passing as natives.

When we finally shook out our napkins and packed up to go, I wondered how many picnics the bridge had seen. This—our first—would be far from the last.


Toast 2 slices good bread. Spread one side with rosehip or other savory jelly, and the other with a generous layer of soft chevre. Stack one side with sliced tomatoes, basil leaves, and sliced cucumbers, and top with the other. Cut in half, place in a plastic sandwich bag, and rubberband so as to keep from shifting. Bring along a salt shaker, a bit of cider, and one good apple. Enjoy outdoors.


Spaghetti & meatballs

Pawing through the kitchen cupboards last night, I wondered how I'd expected to feed my visiting parents. I'd missed the farmers' market, boycotted the grocery store, and sat staring at a fridge filled with bygone leftovers and half-eaten containers of sauces and meats. The clock ticked past seven; things were looking grim.

I went out to the garden to see what help it might have to offer: three large, red tomatoes, and a basket of cherry sungolds. The cupboard wasn't much better with only a jar of dried pasta. But between the tomatoes and the pasta, an idea was born. I dug a package of thawed ground lamb from the fridge, along with a few scallions, a half jar of homemade tomato sauce, a carton of eggs, and a wedge of soft cheese made from raw cows' milk.

Suddenly, we had the makings for spaghetti and meatballs. My father set to work chopping scallions and tomatoes. I cracked eggs and sprinkled cumin, rolling lamb between my palms into soft tan balls. The pan sizzled hot, and the kitchen windows began to steam up with the aroma of Barnstable meatballs.

New tomatoes were mixed with old sauce, pasta boiled aldente, and cheese grated. By the time the lamb was cooked through, a dish sat heaping with noodles and red fruit. We arranged them carefully on top, while grated cheese melted hot, slipping through the cracks.

One bite proved the evening well-saved from disaster.


Makes about 12 meatballs

Place 1 pound fresh or thawed ground lamb in a mixing bowl. Chop 3 scallions, and add to the mix. Crack 2 eggs over the bowl and sprinkle in 1 tablespoon cumin and salt and pepper to taste. If needed, add bread crumbs to soak up excess moisture. Stir well and pack by hand into 12 round balls. Cook over medium high heat until outside is browned but inside remains tender and juicy, taking care to turn frequently. Serve hot over pasta, with or without red sauce.


The Local Food Report: estate bottled Chardonnay

When I looked down the row, I felt as though I'd stepped into a postcard from southern France. Mon cher ami! it read. Le vin içi est fantastique!

The grapes were Chardonnay, planted by the original owners of the vineyard in the 1990s, and still growing heavy and pale in the seaside air.

Truly, I was only a few miles from home, at Truro Vineyards on the north side of the town. The winery was releasing its first-ever estate-bottled Chardonnay, and I was visiting for a taste of the grapes. I walked from vines to barn, where winemakers were working to filter and bottle last year's harvest for bottling.

The Chardonnay would be a spectacular bottle, I was told, fancy and full. The grapes were still tart, puckering on my tongue and yielding several tiny seeds. At harvest time, they would lighten further and sweeten, ready to hit the barrel. And from only these grapes, grown right on the property, the vineyard would make an all-local Chardonnay.

Last year's is now ready—the first local vintage to hit the shelves. Pick some up at the Grape Stomp, held this Sunday from 2pm to 6pm on the vineyard lawn at 11 Shore Road, North Truro. At 3pm, kids will climb into a huge, wooden barrel, and stomp this year's harvest to their hearts' content, tiny feet squelching with glee. Moby Dick and the Wailers will be there too, filtering jazz across the lawn. With good food, good company, and good vino, it's bound to be fun.


Corn, the bully

At some point in the past 24 hours, industrial food found me. I am now receiving hourly emails promoting such foods as "mini stuffed paninis for families on the go," "SeaPak shrimp," and "Farm Rich appetizers." My, how tempting.

I'm not sure quite how this happened. I like to look at edibility through the Michael Pollan lens: if your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize it as a comestible, don't put it in your mouth.

But frighteningly, deciphering even this message is getting harder and harder. This high fructose corn syrup commercial, put together by an industry terrified of those most malicious ogers of all: loving mothers, is a perfect example.

Jeremy's harvest

The tide at Jeremy's Point yesterday was just right for picking oysters. Walking the beach, we stuffed our pockets with the deep cupped mollusks after setting anchor and swimming in to shore. They were big, well over legal, and covered with seaweed and piggy-backing spat.

Inside the point, where tidal pools and rivers wend towards shore and the pine scrub blocks the wind, we found a cherry stone, and then a quahog. Clamped shut and heavy, they clattered loud against their cell mates. Amongst eel grass and sand, there nestled a bushy patch of sea beans—the salty pickles of the intertidal zone.

Someone had a screwdriver, and we began cracking the bivalves open. There were two dozen in all, with a garnish of green sea bean. The ebb tide feast left out bellies full for the swim back.

I returned to Great Island today, by land, to collect more of the sea bean for a salad. I had a crop of ripe tomatoes I was looking to slice, and a red onion besides. Tossed with Great Hill Blue, a bit of olive oil, and a touch of sugar, they made an excellent seaside dish.


Serves 4

Chop 4 large, ripe tomatoes into half-wedges. Pick a handful of of sea beans. Pull the outer meat of the beans from the stem (a hard, woody stem lives in the middle of the bean, and will be left behind if you tug the juicy part off, section by section). Measure about 1 cup of sea bean meat. Thinly slice 1 red onion and cut into half circles. Combine vegetables in a serving bowl and toss with 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 teaspoon (or more to taste) lemon juice or cider vinegar, several ounces crumbled blue cheese, and fresh cracked pepper to taste. DO NOT SALT this salad unless you have tasted it and desire more. The sea beans are very salty, and even for a salt lover, usually do the trick.


Milk money

Every Saturday, I dig through the jar of change that sits on my bedroom windowsill, looking for quarters.

I count out 14, $3.50 in all, and hop on my bike. I pedal over to Pheasant Run or down the bumpy dirt trail of Old Long Pond, to find a cooler stashed beneath the shade of a rhododendron or bushy wild blueberry. Into jar or box I drop the quarters, and pedal away with a half gallon of fresh, ivory milk.

The milk pick-up is part of a coop. The members join for all sorts of reasons. Some are concerned about the health affects of industrial milk, others interested in buying locally. Still others grew up on a farm and simply prefer the taste of real, un-homogenized, un-pasteurized cow's milk.

The government calls it "Raw Milk;" proponents call it "Real Milk." And I have to say, the proponents have it right on this one. There is nothing more real than milk that actually separates into skim and cream, that sours naturally into a rich, thick liquid perfect for baking, and that is absolutely untouched, straight from the cow.

Even my lactose intolerant boyfriend likes it.

I didn't join for the real aspect. I was interested in buying dairy locally, and joining the Outer Cape coop was the only option. Raw milk came with the deal. But now that I know the difference between industrialized and real, I don't think I'll ever look back.

Dairies selling raw milk in the Cape, Islands, & South Coast area include:

Lyons Brook Farm 76 Drift Road, Westport, MA (508) 636.2552
Mermaid Farm and Dairy 9 Middle Road, Chilmark, MA (508) 645.3492
Oake Knoll Ayrshires 70 North St., Foxboro, MA terri_lawton@yahoo.co
Paskamansett Farms 742 Tucker Rd, Dartmouth, MA (508) 990.7859


Rosehip jelly

My mother made rosehip jelly once, beneath the dim lighting of her college dorm hall at Smith. It was the 70s, and the rooms had no kitchens. So she boiled the fruit she'd collected from the campus gardens over a one-burner electric element, tucked away in the phone booth shared by all the girls on the hall.

The jam was terrible, she says, with the consistency of glue paste and a flavor not much better. Still, every time I see the rose plants fruiting, I wonder if perhaps I shouldn't give it a try. When I visited Nantucket last week, I saw jar upon jar of it for sale at local shops. It was an island specialty they told me, as revered as the Cape Cod beach plum is here.

There are plenty of recipes online. But as this seems to be a rather finicky preserve, I thought I'd put a call out to readers. Does anyone have an old rosehip jelly recipe, tried and approved? Can't wait to see what the comment box brings.


Northway butterscotch

Summers as kids, my sister and I would head to Algonquin Park, Ontario. Without electricity or running water, we spent a month in the woods and on the docks, canoeing from lake to lake in the same muddy t-shirt and shorts day after day.

There were only 50 girls, total, and no sissies allowed. Girls had been coming to Camp Northway Lodge and leaving young women for as long as the peninsula could remember, and it wasn't about to change the rules.

But the one thing the land had allowed to change over the years was the food. Early accounts of the camp describe after dinner pies, brimming with wild picked blueberries from the shores of Louisa, a few lakes over, or plates of fresh caught trout crisped on the wood stove for Sunday dinner.

These days, Sunday afternoon brought plenty of rest and a good deal of song, but it was hard to say where the roast beef and carrots had been shipped in from. Dessert meant over- or under-baked brownies from a box—depending on how many logs the kitchen boy had cranked into the wood stove—or a pan of marshmallow-sticky Rice Krispy treats cut into squares.

But one treat lingered on from fresher days: caramel apples. One evening a week, the cook would slice up a box of firm, tart, fruit, and arrange it on plates around a dipping well of sticky caramel. We'd scoop up sweet and crunch down, hard, on the just ripe fruit. By the end of the meal, hands, plates, and table were a mess, looking for a good, hard scrub from the dish crew that evening.

Last night, I recreated the treat at home. With friends for supper and nothing to offer for dessert, I heated up a pot of sugar and butter, and let it simmer until the edges began to burn. The warm, rainy evening smell of butterscotch began to rise from the kitchen, and I added a dash of vanilla and a pinch of salt. With a plate of fresh, sliced apples from the Provincetown farmers' market, we dug in to enjoy the most old-fashioned of treats.


Serves 8

Melt 1 stick butter over medium heat. When butter is melted, add 1 cup sugar; stir well. Swirl using the handle of the pan for 3-5 minutes while the mixture goes from grainy to molten. When the color begins to darken around the edges, stand back and add 1/4 to 1/2 cup whole milk. Lower heat and whisk in well. Continue cooking over low heat and whisking every few minutes for several more minutes, or until it begins to smell and look like butterscotch. Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla and a pinch of salt. Stir well.

Cut up 4 to 6 apples for dipping, and pour butterscotch into individual bowls.


The Local Food Report: Hannah Sage's apple pie

Downstairs, the commercial kitchen in the belly of the Common Ground Café in Hyannis is like any other I've visited. Racked with stainless steel and industrial spices, it is clean, orderly, and not the least bit homey. There is no wood, no stoneware. This is a place of plastic and metal, hygiene and production.

The sudden cry of a baby changes all this. Suddenly, I realize there is a mother and a crib, a woman baking pie alongside a nursing infant. There is a grandmother, too, and a father and a cousin, and they are chatting and laughing as though it's Saturday supper.

A teenage girl scrapes deftly with a spatula. "Mix it well," her mother advises, pointing to the scrawled text of her carrot cake recipe. "It bakes at 350." Who knows how many generations are at work here—two, three, maybe four in a day?

The café workers are all members of the Twelve Tribes. The religious group lives, works, and eats together, bound by common possessions and a shared faith. Scattered over tables and pinned up on the bulletin board upstairs are religious pamphlets espousing their way, but the waitress is just as happy to serve you a reuben.

Eating fresh, local, organic foods fits into their philosophy well. "We try to eat what's healthy, to live for our God," grandmother Hannah Sage tells me. If He lives in a fresh baked apple pie, well then, I say, I'm ready to dig in.

She smiles and I wait as she digs through the pages of a tattered book in search of her recipe for apple pie. Finally, it appears, edges crinkled and batter-stained, and she hands it to me to copy down.


Makes one lattice topped pie

Mix 4 and 1/2 cups pastry flour, 1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 3/4 teaspoons baking powder. Cut in 1/2 pound butter and 1/8 cup oil gently. Add water as needed. Divide in two and roll out bottom crust.

Thinly slice 8 cups apples, leaving peels on. Mix with: 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/4 cup pastry flour, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. In a separate bowl, mix together 1/2 cup honey and 2 tablespoons lemon juice and add to the first mixture. Pour into crust. Dot top with 2 tablespoons butter. Roll remaining crust and cut into strips; weave lattice over top and press edges down securely with a fork, removing excess dough.

Bake on convection at 400 degrees for 5 minutes. Cover with foil and then turn the oven down to 325. Bake 30 to 45 minutes, taking foil off at very end for about 4 minutes.


Basil, beets & cicadas

It isn't often I have an evening of uninterrupted solitude. Even tonight, I suppose, you could count the contented furry beast at my side as a companion or distraction. But let free from the restaurant, with a Sox fanatic at the game and a roommate fled to the city, I sped home in the twilight, seeped in freedom.

Equally unexpected was dinner. I'd expected a bowl of stolen staff food after closing, guzzled down with a glass of Peak's nut brown and still settling as I made my way to bed. It was a treat, this meal for one, but I was unprepared.

I tallied the troops:

1 pound dried, homemade pasta,
the entire beet harvest from my garden,
4 dirty, rumpled garden white onions,
several tablespoons bacon fat,
and 4 live, healthy basil plants.

Hardly Thanksgiving, but certainly enough to march on. I began with the fat and onions. As the cicadas whispered through the screens, their steady violins readying the night to fall, the smell of bacon wafted out into the air. I sliced basil and beets, and watched as a plan appeared beneath my hands.

Pasta water went on to boil, a pinch of salt sinking slowly as temperature rose. Then went the flat, crisp noodles themselves—the garlic pepper pasta of a post just passed. Bacon and onion formed a slow, translucent stew, while the sudden drop of beets added cubes and color. Next followed noodles and finally basil, and dinner was set. Alone on the deck, I settled in to enjoy.


Serves 2-3

Boil 3 medium red beets until tender, about 45 minutes. Slice into small cubes. Sauté 4 chopped medium sized white onions in 4 tablespoons bacon fat or olive oil until translucent. Meanwhile, boil 1/2 pound whole wheat pasta. When pasta is done, drain and add to onion pan. Add beet cubes, 1 cup fresh basil leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss well and serve warm with hard, grated cheese.


Saba nigiri

Not every New Englander likes the taste of mackerel. Too fishy, they'll say, shaking their heads.

And it is fishy, but sweet too. The Boston mackerel, as the Atlantic school is called, has more sweet, red meat than its Spanish and Pacific counterparts, and is popular in sashimi.

Across the pond, in Scandanavia, Swedes and Danes eat the fish canned with tomato sauce in sandwiches.

I prefer it fresh. With an oily fish, you don't want to wait long between boat and plate, or that delicate fishy flavor will strengthen unpleasantly. But when it's good, it's good—over a well packed heap of sushi rice, tinged a pale green with a good dose of wasabi, and chased down with a thin white strip of pickled ginger.

The best part is, you can make it at home.


Pick up one fresh mackerel, filleted, at your local fish market. Run your hands lengthwise over the fillets, feeling for any tiny bones that remain. Remove with tweezers and discard. When the fish is clean, salt the fleshy side of the cuts and leave them to sit for several hours. Mix together 1 cup Japanese rice vinegar and 2 tablespoons sugar. Put the vinegar mixture and fillets in a flat dish, making sure not to bend the fish too much as it will ruin the delicate sheen of the skin, and let marinate in the fridge for 4 to 5 hours. Remove and allow to dry; cut carefully and serve plain or over sushi rice, with fresh wasabi and soy sauce.



At the market the other day, a streak of orange peeked out from beneath a table. I inquired after it, this first pumpkin of the season, startled to see it arrive so soon.

It was a Brazilian variety, the seller told me, an earlier squash than the Americans grow. It was perfectly round, on the small side, with a strong stem and deep grooves. He said it was good for cooking, a nice addition to a tray of muffins or the sizzling griddle of a waffle iron.

I took it home that morning and sliced it open. The seeds were astonishing: thick, plump, pale little tears, packed in like so many rows of dangling teeth. I scooped them out, washed them, and set the pepitas to dry. By morning, with the pumpkin roasted and tucked away for muffin batter, I shook the seeds from their cloth and fired up the flame beneath a wide, black skillet.

With cast iron hot, the flurry of seeds hit the dry heat and began slowly to crack and pop into hard, golden snacks. Flicking my arm back and forth across the flame, I shook them until the last seed was a deep yellow brown. Finally, I sprinkled them with a bit of salt, and left the bunch to cool. Tomorrow, they'll grace my salad.


Remove, clean, and spread on a dishcloth pumpkin, butternut squash, or other seeds from the Cucurbitaceae family. Let dry overnight. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium flame, and begin toasting seeds, shaking or stirring constantly to prevent burning. When seeds begin to pop and turn golden, they are done. Season with salt to taste. Store in airtight container in cupboard for up to three months and in the refrigerator for up to a year.


Nantucket grapes

They said there was a hurricane coming. We took the boat anyways; pulled on our wellies and oilskins in Hyannis and climbed aboard. The rain poured down and wind wailed across the waves, cresting heavy and crashing against engine and bow.

But by the time we reached the island, all signs of her were gone. Hannah was a distant memory, a laughable demon amidst cobbled streets and orderly gray clapboard.

The sun beamed down, and we passed mile after mile of uninterrupted blue as we motored away from Nantucket town and out towards 'Sconset.

Eventually, we reached an old dirt road that led into the only wilds left on this island enclave for the moneyed and malcontent. It led across the moor, past Altar Rock and Gibbs pond and the heather that shimmered purple in the light. Finally, we pulled up next to a cranberry bog and waded in to see the fruit. There wasn't much to see just yet: with harvest still a month away, the bogs sat dry, a waving sea of red and green.

But getting back towards the road, tucked under a canopy of broad, withered leaves, I saw the twisted vines of a Concord grape. I walked closer, peering under the green and into the woody thicket. Bunch upon bunch of purple fruit hung tart on the vine.

The grapes are wild, someone in town told us later. They call them "fox grapes," the vines creeping across sandy fields and roads and up the ready trellises of island homes. Fox grape jams and jelly's used to be the pride of every woman on the island, storerooms packed with jar upon jar tucked away for the long winter.

They're not quite ripe yet, and heavily seeded. I spit the seeds into the bushes as we drive out the sandy track, the sour fruit puckering my tongue. I hope someone still remembers to pick them come October.


Plum season

Plums have always held a special power over me. As a child, our family friend had low, branching plum tree, stretching with strong limbs towards the root cellar door with one arm and a set of creaky wooden swings with another.

Each fall, laden with fruit, it would hold out its hands to us with an offering. The plump, tender purple fruits would fall into our baskets, splattering sticky juice across our fingers as we fought for that first ripe orb.

I haven't visited the tree in season in years. I've seen it at Christmas, stark and bare, and perhaps in early spring, just breaking buds in the crisp air. But this week at the Cohasset farmers' market, it appeared again in my memory at the sight of the first homegrown plum of the season. They were prune plums, the busy seller told me, tart and firm—not the thick, succulent fruit of my childhood—but I bought a bag anyway, and headed home.

I left them to sit in the kitchen bowl for a few days, to let them ripen and soften. But eventually, I could no longer resist. I pulled out a baguette and tip-toed out to the porch to pick a handful of basil. The sandwich I had in mind would cut the tartness with a thick hunk of melted brie, the soft insides of the bread replaced by chopped plums and basil and a sprinkling of sea salt.

When the oven began to steam hot, I placed the stuffed loaf inside, plum and cheese teetering dangerously over the crust, and slipped shut the door. As I waited, dishpan hands scrubbing knife and board, the smell of roasting fruit and fresh bread overwhelmed the kitchen. I pulled it out, cheese bubbling, to find the tart plums finally tender.


Serves 4-6

Cut one baguette down the middle, scooping out some of inside bread if necessary. Stuff with 1 cup basil leaves, 2 cups chopped plums, and brie or other soft cheese to taste (Shy Brothers Hannahbells would work quite nicely). Preheat the oven to 350, place sandwich in baking pan, and bake until bread is crisp, plums tender, and cheese melted. Enjoy hot.


The Local Food Report: harvest melon salad

It's not often you come across a melon recipe worth the trouble. Beneath the gnarled, canvased skin of a cantaloupe or the striped hyde of a watermelon, breakfast hides already in its simplicity. A knife machetes down the mid-line, orange, pink, and yellow fruit breaks open, and the table is set.

There are evenings, however, when a picnic calls for something more. With fork and blanket, a bit of preparation must be done. A cantaloupe, halved, is scooped into balls or cubes, a cucumber plucked, still bristling, from the vine, and sliced into rounds and quartered. Seeds are roasted, a bit of dressing is shaken in green glass, and the mixture is drizzled over the glass bowl full with fruit and vegetable.

Part relish, part salad, the Indian summer produce is the perfect picnic sides to a loaf of baguette, a hunk of cheese, and a tub of bluefish paté. On the town green, spread a blanket across the yellowing grass, quiet yourself against the noisy chorus of cicadas, and settle in for an early September supper.


Serves 4

Thinly slice and quarter 1 large cucumber. Dice 1 small cantaloupe, or other similar melon, and mix together in a large glass container or picnic bowl. Heat up a cast iron skillet, clean the cantaloupe seeds, and toss them in for several minutes, stirring constantly, to roast. When browned, shake seeds in a salad dressing bottle together with 2 tablespoons oil, 1 small minced hot pepper, 2 teaspoons white or cider vinegar, and salt and maple syrup to taste. Enjoy chilled or at room temperature.


Stolen fruit

This summer was the first since I can remember that I've had Labor Day off. In a town where Monday brings the last line at a clam shack's window, Tuesday does just as well for the worker's day.

But this year, we called it quits. Labor Day means a rest for us, too, we decided. Orange-topped coffee pots sat empty, stove top pilots flickered idle beneath the fan, and the clatter of dishes ceased for an evening.

We dragged totes of lobster and oysters and tuna and fruit out across the sand at noon and began to feast. The sun played forgotten across my skin, dogs quarreled, and the tide crashed out. By evening, we were surfing, riding and tumbling against the mess of choppy swell, laughing and crashing and paddling out again.

By sun fall, I was ready to return home, exhausted from food and play. I walked up the dune, out the parking lot, and headed on foot towards town. As I made my way through the flickering light, I stopped to read the mailbox names. Rabbits scampered into the bushes as I passed, and a family of turkeys crossed safely from field to forest.

At every driveway, it seemed, I found an apple tree. This was old Truro, untouched by mansions and time, stuck in the poetic throws of agrarian life. At every tree I stopped, picked a piece of fruit, and continued walking. The residents were gone for the summer—they'd packed their bags this morning, swept out of town, and left the harvest to fall, overripe, to the ground.

By the time I reached town center, I carried a Sunday paper, packed into its careful plastic sack with 14 apples: one from each of some family's chapters. They were large and small, unblemished and wormy, tart and sweet. Many were the same; I wondered if perhaps there had been a larger orchard once, and I'd just stumbled upon the pieces.

Whatever their history, they were excellent for eating. I took bite after bite as we drove home, tossing core after core out the truck window until finally only seven remained. With more, perhaps, I could make a batch of applesauce, but for now, I'm content to breakfast.


Take as many sweet apples as you'd like, and wash them in cold water. Put on a large pot with 1-2 inches water to boil, and drop in apples, whole or sliced. When tender, crank the apples through a food mill or press them through a fine mesh seive, catching pulp in a large mixing bowl. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon juice, and sugar to taste (all are optional), and serve chilled or hot.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.