Pick the pieces up

This has been 
a whirlwind of a week. 

One plane
one rental car
and four trains.

if you count the Subway.)

I promise I'll be back
on Thursday
with something good
once I've had time
to pick the pieces up.

Until then, 
enjoy your week
and the never-never-ever-ending


The Local Food Report: personal lettuce

I visited a farm the other day devoted entirely to lettuce. It was Veronica Worthington's garden, the Herb Farm in West Dennis, the sister to her Pleasant Lake Farm in Harwich.

Veronica tried her hand at a lettuce checkerboard a few years back—you know, the sort with carefully measured one foot squares and perfectly spaced heads of Lola Rosa and Lola Bionda in zig-zags of green and red—and by the end of June, she'd fallen in love.

She'd haul her stepladder out from the garage every few days or so, set it up in the backyard and get up high to admire her work. When the heads were ready to harvest, she threw a party in the garden, a benefit for the library downtown, and everyone milled around ooh-ing and ahh-ing and snapping pictures of her work. Finally, they pulled the lettuce from the ground, shook off the dirt, and sat down in the yard to eat. 

The checkerboard has been getting bigger every year since. These days, it's an acre on the outskirts of town, 3,000 heads of lettuce in perfect squares. She says the pattern has sort of gone out the window, because every time she picks a head to sell at the farmers' market, she stuffs another one back in. There might be a tiny icebery next to a huge, leafy romaine, or a whole row of full size black-seeded Simpsons.

All in all, she grows 35 varieties of lettuce, but she's heard there are over 800. That's her next goal—to try growing every single one.

But for now, she's focused on miniatures. Personal lettuces, she calls them, miniature icebergs and miniature romaines and miniature Boston heads. The icebergs are her favorite—plain green, and tight-knit heads that change from burgundy to jade. Partially, this is a matter of appearances; the minis are a charming size, perfect in their pressed little heads and closely held drapes. But it's also about taste.

The miniature icebergs are crisp, cool, watery—the antitode to humid June afternoons and sun burnt ears, the prelude to Hendrick's and tonics in chilled pewter cups. Veronica imagines a world where we all return to the Russian and iceberg pairing of the 1960s, housewives across the country filling up their shopping carts with mayonnaise and ketchup, minced pickles and dill. She remembers that era well—the time when iceberg was all we knew, after the Boston lettuce of the 1800s and during the reign of California as the salad bowl king, before we discovered mixed greens and nutrients. The wedge is in vogue these days, but somehow, by some trick, the Russian dressing didn't reappear with it.

Except on my table. Veronica made Russian dressing sound so good, so just the thing for miniature iceberg, that when she sent me home with a head, I had to whip a batch up. I dug through the refrigerator for ingredients: homemade mayo, one of my mother's pickles, a bundle of dill. I have no idea if the results are anything like the Russian dressing of the 1960s, but if they were, well, I'm a convert. I'm still not sure about platform shoes or Pocahontas headbands, but I think—I'm quite certain, in fact—that Russian dressing deserves another spin. 


I didn't turn up any ketchup when I went to make this dressing, so I used rosehip jelly instead. I remembered thinking when I made the jelly last summer that it smelled a lot like tomato sauce, and it made a fine substitute. Any of the following three—ketchup, tomato jelly, or rosehip jelly—would work well in this recipe, I think.

2 heads miniature iceberg lettuce
1/2 cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade
equal parts white vinegar and water, to taste
1 tablespoon ketchup, tomato jelly, or rosehip jelly 
1 dill pickle, minced
1 head dill, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Pull any bruised outer leaves from the lettuce heads, and remove the stems from the bottoms. Place whole on two plates. 

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together mayo and ketchup or jelly. Add 1 teaspoon white vinegar and 1 teaspoon water to the mayo mix, and continue adding the two liquids in equal parts until the mixture reaches a consistency you like. Stir in the pickle and the dill, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the dressing over the iceberg heads, and serve at once.


A top-notch marriage

June can be an awfully trying month. Between the rain and the gray and the false-summer feel of it all, some days, it can be tricky just to get out of bed. Especially in a week like this, when it's raining for the—I dunno, 15th? 21st?—day straight. In fact, the only reason I'm up right now is the lettuce. The lettuce just about drags me out of bed. 

It's been doing this for a few weeks now, since we made it through most of the spinach and then the tat soi and the broccoli rabe, and even the kale. It makes a racket when you go out in the morning to weed, carrying on about how wet it is, and how cold and how windy, and golly, wouldn't it be nice to be inside, wrapped in paper towels and dishcloths in the safety of the crisper. Eventually, of course, once it has made its way into the cripser, it starts wining about that, too, hinting at what a drizzle of olive oil could do for its skin, how a pinch of salt might perk it up, or how maybe, just maybe, it might like to hit the grill for a bit of color here and there. 

We cave at least once a day, usually twice, and we can still hardly keep up with all its demands. Half a row sits outside as I type, wilting away in the garden like so many red-speckled cheeks. 

But the other day, I discovered a new way to get ahead. It's called petit pois, and it polishes off a full head of four-season lettuce, Merveille des Quatre Saison, in the blink of an eye. In fact, the heads hardly have a moment to complain—one minute, they're in the garden, full and fresh, and the next they've simmered down into the sweet drapes for a bowl of steaming English peas. 

I don't know how I first heard about the dish—maybe online or paging through some old issue of Gourmet—but as soon as I did, I knew it would be marvelous. For starters, there's the poetry of the name, petit pois, which conjures up old, faded photos of French country farmhouses and tumbling stone walls and outdoor markets just brimming with spring. Then there's the concept of the thing—a one pot supper, light and rich all at once, hot yet delicate—just the thing for a June drowning in rain. It's too hot for steak and potatoes, but a bowl of fresh peas with steaming lettuce and chicken broth, a pinch of salt and sugar and peppered a bit—now that I can do.

If you're feeling a little cooped up tonight, what with the rain and the wind and the fact that you can hardly see through the clouds, well, petit pois might be the trick. It's a top-notch marriage of spring and summer, and on a wet Monday in June, it just might be the best we can do. 


When we made this the other day, (when it was, ahem, raining, if you can imagine that) we ate it with a few crackers as a warm, light lunch. If you're serving it as a side, say alongside rice or with a tuna salad sandwich, you could probably stretch it between at least three people, maybe four. It works best with very fresh English shelling peas and a rich, buttery lettuce like Boston or Merveille des Quatre Saison. You could try another leaf lettuce, but I wouldn't recommend anything too stiff like Iceberg or Romaine. You want something that will wilt down and sort of drape itself around the peas, which should be tender and sweet in their pool of chicken broth.

1 head lettuce, bottom cut off and leaves cleaned
1 cup peas, shelled 
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
a pinch of pepper
1/2 cup chicken broth, preferably homemade

In a medium heavy-bottomed pot, arrange the head of lettuce so that it forms a sort of nest. Pour the peas into the middle and dot them with the butter. Sprinkle the salt, sugar, and pepper over top, and douse the whole thing with the chicken broth. Cover the pot and cook everything over low heat for about eight or ten minutes, until the peas are bright green and tender and the lettuce has wilted into just about nothing. Cut up the greens and serve them hot with the peas and a bit of broth in small, shallow bowls. 


The Local Food Report: life before cod

There are some foods we can do without around here. I can't be sure, but I think there was life on the Cape before bananas and avocados and mango mojitos, though that last one might be up for debate. There was not, however, life before cod.

At least, no human life. Every population that's lived on this strip of sand has owed their survival, in some manner at least, to codfish. There was codfish before agriculture, before Stop n' Shop, and certainly before the Europeans arrived. In fact, if you've read Cod or Salt or any of those other fascinating edible histories of New England, you know that cod is why the Old Worlders came over here in the first place. They were looking for fish to dry and turn into salt cod and ship home, and they found it in the New World in droves. It was only later that they decided to stay.

These days, the big codfish that used to be so common are getting harder and harder to find. So are the cod fishermen, as their livelihood slowly gets eaten away.

Thankfully, a group of ground-fishermen in Chatham decided they were ready to do something about it. After all, avocados are good and all, but they can't really compare to a panko-crusted fillet. So about four years ago, they came up with a plan. They asked fisheries regulators if they could manage their catch as a community, the way harvesting cooperatives in the Pacific Northwest did, putting together their catch history and agreeing to take a fixed amount of fish from the sea every year. 

This way, they could avoid fishing under the days-at-sea regulations, which allow fishermen to go out only a fixed number of days, and take so many pounds per day. As one fisherman said, if you put your net in for twenty minutes too long and catch 1,000 pounds of extra fish, you have to throw them back. Since they're already dead, this doesn't do much for the whole plenty-of-fish-in-the-sea objective.

The regulators went for it, and in May of 2004, the Georges Bank Cod Hook Sector was formed.

Participation was voluntary, and the sector took applications and put together a board of directors and a manager and based on how many fishermen applied and their catch history, a quota was assigned. The quota was a percentage of the Total Allowable Catch—how many pounds of groundfish (cod, haddock, and flounder) can come out of the sea every year—and was monitored carefully. Today, this sector has twenty-five fishermen on board.

The Georges Bank Fixed Gear Sector came next, in May of 2006, and today it has nine fishermen involved. 

As other groups of fishermen have watched these Chatham sectors manage their own catch—cutting down on how many days they have to fish, working as a community to run the business of the sea, not wasting a single fish—they've decided they want to make the switch, too. Seventeen groups from Connecticut to Maine put in proposals this year, and depending on what the New England Fishery Management Council decides next week, there could be new sectors in Martha's Vineyard, Boston, New Bedford, and the South Shore by 2010. And that's just around here. Imagine if the whole system switched over—no more dumped fish, business and finances aligned with conservation. Maybe, just maybe, cod would have a chance.

This is thick stuff, I know. If you want to keep reading, I recommend heading over here, or over here, or grabbing this pdf. It's hard to say what the right way is to keep the fish in the sea, but this seems like an awfully good start.

Oh! and the New England Fishery Manangement Council votes on the new proposals next week. If you have anything to say before it happens, you can get in touch with them over here, or you can let your governor know over here.


No turning back

A week ago, our garden looked like this:

That's the broccoli rabe, in full bloom. It sort of got away from us, the way I imagine your child's years in elementary school might, in that eerie way that makes you sit down and realize suddenly one day that poof! a whole experience is just gone. There's no turning back with the broccoli rabe: in March, it was a seed, and now suddenly, without warning, we've gone full circle, straight to the bolting stage. 

The worst part is, we missed most of the edibility part. 

Supposedly, the bulk of that happens before the flowering, during a green, tight-headed budding stage. I can't be positive, but I'm fairly sure that this came and went while I was 3,000 miles away in Seattle, because when I returned, we were already headed toward full-on blooming yellow. I kept hoping for a mix up, but when the seed pods emerged, there was really no use in pretending. I cut the last handful of tender florets from the base of the plants, and sent the rest to the compost heap.

Then I pulled out some sausage out of the freezer from the pig we bought at Paskamansett Farms last fall, a box of shells left in the cupboard from who knows when, and a head of garlic, and sent the rapini off in good old-fashioned Italian style. (The Italians think sausage and broccoli rabe are a match made in heaven, and they are absolutely right.)

This particular match came from a compendium of recipes put together by the editors of Cook's Illustrated called The Quick Recipe. Everything in it is fast and easy and carefully tested according to criteria like doesn't use too many pans and doesn't require too many fancy ingredients. And of course, since it's Cook's Illustrated, they accomplish all this in a long-winded, adventurous sort of way that ends in triumph without any sacrificing of flavor or good taste. 

I changed a few things—butter instead of oil, grated cheddar instead of Parmesan, a bit more chicken broth, and of course, the sausage from our pig—but for the most part, this is a test kitchen invention from Those Who Try Not To Dirty Pans. 

Of course, ahem, they borrowed a bit, too. I have a feeling if the Italians came over right now and saw us out on the porch, rabe and shells and ground sausage in hand, they just might understand.


This is a very good dish for the cool, gray nights we've been having. Like the weather, it strikes a sort of compromise between spring and summer—it's heavy and light all at once.

1/4 pound medium pasta shells, cooked, drained, and set aside
2 ounces ground pork sausage
2 small cloves garlic, minced
a pinch of red pepper flakes
a pinch of salt
1/4 pound broccoli rabe
1/2 cup chicken broth, preferably homemade
1/2 tablespoon butter
1 ounce cheddar cheese, grated

In a large sautĂ© pan, cook the sausage over medium heat until it browns. Turn the heat down to low and add the garlic, the red pepper flakes, and just a pinch of salt. Stir constantly until you start to smell the garlic, about a minute. Turn the heat up to medium-high and quickly add the chicken broth and the broccoli rabe. Turn down the heat, cover the pan, and let the rabe steam for about two minutes, then take the cover off and continue cooking until the liquid evaporates. 

Remove the pan from the heat, and toss the broccoli rabe and sausage in a large bowl with the shells, the butter, and the cheese. Eat hot.


The Local Food Report: the middle man

I don't usually talk about this here, but I have a night job. A restaurant night job, in the summer at least. I hostess at Blackfish in Truro, an upscale gastropub type place where the old Blacksmith Shop used to be. It's the kind of place where the ivy grows through the bricks into the dining room and pork belly is an everyday thing, and my job is to fit three seatings of four tops and two tops and ten tops, even, into and out from a maze of copper tables in happy, contented waves. Most of the time—when no one is in an uproar about the lack of vegan dishes or the fact that it is noisy at 7:30 on a Saturday night, when everyone is feeling reasonable and at ease—it is one of my favorite places to be. I was certainly glad to be there last night, when the first flat of local strawberries came in. Here's our busser, Lee, about to dig in:

The strawberries came from a business called LunaSoul Foods, run by Liam Luttrell-Rowland out of Wellfleet. Blackfish has always focused on local food, but this is something new. Each week, Liam gets together with our chef, and they put together a list of local specials. Then Liam drives up to the farms—Cape Cod Organic Farm in Barnstable, Matt's Organic Gardens in Dennis, and Checkerberry Farm in Orleans, let's say—and picks up produce for the next week. He works not just with our chef, but with five other chefs, acting as the local food middle man. It's his version of a farmer chef collaborative—the first one on the Cape. 

The cool thing about LunaSoul Foods is that Liam is knocking down a barrier—the distribution issues that built up the wall between farmers and chefs in the first place. Most chefs think it's unrealistic to use local food, because they're too busy to call twenty different farmers just to get twenty different kinds of produce, and the farmers are too busy to drive around delivering their product to chefs. What was missing was a delivery company, at least until Liam stepped in. 

But while Liam delivers, he's also doing more than that. He's a chef by training—he used to cook at the Juice in Wellfleet and Enzo in Provincetown—and when he brings the food, he sticks around to help create a dish. Just the other day we had a stinging nettle cream sauce on top of one of the specials that he came up with. It's was true collaboration—both between the farmer that grew the nettles and our chef, and Liam as the middle man. 

Here's a list of the restaurants and farms LunaSoul Foods is working with:

Blackfish, Truro
The Juice, Wellfleet
Sol, Wellfleet
Terra Luna, Truro
The Wicked Oyster, Wellfleet

E & T Farms, Barnstable
NestWood Farm, Truro
Redberry Farm, Eastham

Things are still just starting up—it isn't like LunaSoul Foods has an official looking website or a business card just yet—but keep your ear out this season for what the collaboration brings. I have a feeling it will be fairly delicious, and with any luck, the idea will catch on. After all, Liam is only one person. We need other middle men and women, too.


Ring the season in

I think yesterday might have been a dream. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there were blue skies, a big sandy blanket at LeCount Hollow, icy Concord grape juice, and deviled eggs, right?

I hope at least the deviled eggs are true. Because honestly, I don't think I could bear to hear it if they were not. Deviled eggs are one of my absolute favorite things, and they are better still on a bright sunny day in June. They are one of those snacks that require a freshly mowed lawn, a well swept deck, and a hammock to laze around in out back. They ask that the rhodedendron be in bloom, that the tomato plants sit snug in their cages, and that the spinach be heaving its last, bolting breath. Lastly, they really enjoy a good, lolling Sunday.

Yesterday, I think—unless the gray has clouded over everything—yesterday they had all their qualifications met. I mowed the lawn, swept the deck, and circled the stems of the tomato plants with matches to gaurd against cut worms. I snipped off the leaves from the last of two rows of spinach, weeded the peas and the broccoli, and planted a new row of Swiss chard. I went to the beach and laid out in a bikini for the very first time this year — ! — and burnt the tops of my arms. I took a shower outside, and laid in the hammock admiring the rhodedenron, with its bright, neon purple blooms for a while. 

Finally, I made a fresh batch of mayonnaise for the fridge. Then I hauled out the paprika, my turquoise flamenco apron, and a basket of hardboiled eggs, and decided to ring the summer picnic season in.

It was every bit as good a start as a June afternoon could hope for. I kept things simple: just yolks, mayo, grainy Old World type mustard, and a pinch of paprika on top. Also, I didn't bother with the cake-piping bag like I sometimes do for parties—I just scooped the yolk mixture into the whites with a kitchen spoon.

The thing about deviled eggs is, especially on a lazy Sunday, they don't stick around for long. There isn't much point in getting gussied up.


The trick with deviled eggs is to get the hard boiling part right. I learned to hard boil eggs from my mother, who brings a pot of water to a boil, drops them in, and sets the timer for exactly 10 minutes. When she pulls them out she drops them into an ice bath, and in about 5 minutes, they're ready to peel. 

6 eggs, hardboiled, cooled, and peeled
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon whole grain Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

Separate the whites from the yolks by slicing the hard boiled eggs in half. Scoop out the yolks into a small mixing bowl and set the whites aside. In the mixing bowl, beat together the yolks, the mayo, the mustard, and the lemon juice with a whisk. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and continue whisking until the mixture is smooth and creamy and a little bit stiff. Arrange the whites hole-side up on a platter, and dividing the filling evenly between the halves, fill each indent with a spoonful of yolk mixture. Sprinkle with paprika and serve chilled, preferably with an icy glass of homemade Concord grape juice.


I don't usually
say hello
on Fridays

(Mondays and Thursdays
are our days)

but these radishes—
who I met
in Provincetown
last week—

they have a mind
all their own.


The Local Food Report: keeping rhubarb

I think you should know that rhubarb and I—we're kind of an item. We met ages ago, when my mother first tucked him in under the white pine outside my parents' bedroom window, in the corner of the garden where the needles cover the dirt like orange mulch. We liked each other immediately, that little pink sprout and I, and we got into all kinds of things. We made pies and crisps and hauled the leaves out past the laundry line to the compost, and boiled his stalks down to compotes. We washed and dried and chopped and baked, every year all through May and June.

But this spring—this spring we made it official. Rhubarb moved in.

My mother hauled out the shovel one afternoon in April when I was home for a visit and broke off a chunk of root. I tucked that little piece of him away in the back of the car, wrapped in plastic for safe keeping. We drove home, four hours over bumps and pavement and through the toll booths. When we got here, finally, I dug a hole for his feet in the pitch black, and that was it.

Rhubarb was here to stay.

Things are going well so far. I'm not picking, this year, to give him a rest. His leaves have grown broad and green, his stalks pink and strong. And this Saturday in Provincetown, at the farmers' market out there, I met a man who gave me advice on how to keep him happy for years to come. His name was Weston Lant, from Lucky Field Organics Farm in Rochester, and he knew all kinds of things about rhubarb.

He says for starters, I'm right to give him time. He says if you plant a rhubarb plant as a seedling, you ought to give him three years before you pick. "He'll look like heck for the first two," he laughs, "and then the third year, he'll go crazy." With my rhubarb, things are a little different, because I took a chunk of an established root stock, but it's still a good idea to wait at least a year.

He says rhubarb doesn't like wet feet, so you want to find him a sunny, well-drained spot if you want to make it last. He says rhubarb is absolutely smitten with horse-manure, especially if you put it in the hole when you're planting, or around the little pink leaf nubs in the spring, so that's a good way to keep him, too.

Lastly, he says if you manage your rhubarb correctly—if you aren't too greedy—the two of you can be getting into mischief, making pies and crisps and compotes for vanilla ice cream, all summer long. You just have to make sure to cut off the seed heads if you see them, because they will change the flavor and the texture of the stalks. Rhubarb will get a bit mushier, and stringier, and just generally not behave nearly as well if he goes to seed. You have to cut carefully when you do, taking only his larger stalks. And you have to keep rhubarb free of weeds and well-watered, and fertilize his roots every month or so.

If you do all those things, Lant says, rhubarb and you will have a very happy summer together. The two of you will be able to have your pie and eat it too, so to speak, all through June, July, and August, without anyone being the worse for wear. It's probably better if the stalks and the baked goods don't come in all at once.

It would be nice if these muffins, in particular, hadn't come in at all, but that's another story. Suffice it to say that rhubarb compote is a treat best left to ice creams and toast and kept far, far away from ridiculous versions of rhubarb upside-down muffins. Because warm on vanilla bean ice cream or spread over hot butter toast? Those ways, rhubarb compote shines. It makes the whole day light up, beaming out from your mouth. And it's much, much simpler than rhubarb pie—just water, rhubarb, and sugar over heat.

Of course there's always pie, too, but we talked about that the other day. And rhubarb and I, if we're going to make this work, we have to keep a steady pace. So cut carefully, and enjoy. I'll see you all next week.


Rhubarb compote is a particular favorite of my mother's. She eats it at all times of day—over oatmeal, with plain yogurt, on toast or in a p.b. & j., or after dinner over vanilla ice cream. It freezes well, and an extra batch will go a long way on a cold winter morning when you're dreaming of spring.

If you don't have a rhubarb patch and you're looking to buy some, there's a complete listing of farms that sell it in our area over here. Just type in your zip code, click re-sort, and voilá! Rhubarb it is.

6 cups of 1 inch pieces of rhubarb
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water

Throw the rhubarb, sugar, and water together in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves, and turn down the heat. Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the rhubarb begins to fall apart and makes a nice, slightly runny sauce. Keep this in the refrigerator—I generally use it cold unless I'm serving it over ice cream, in which case it's nice to heat it back up.


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