Hope Schwartz-Leeper and Zak Fagiano make sea salt for a living. They're also seniors at Skidmore College, where they won a business plan competition last year. That's how they started Wellfleet Sea Salt Company.

The idea was simple: make salt without gas, motors, or electricity. Just sunshine, water, manpower, and a little bit of wood and plastic. They knew they couldn't afford to buy land, so they built two floating greenhouses using repurposed oyster barges. They bought a row boat and picked up a few food grade five gallon buckets. They stocked up on parchment paper and grabbed an empty wine bottle, and they were ready to get started.

Here's how it works. Hope and Zak row out to the barges, which are anchored in Cape Cod Bay. The go in their rowboat, five gallon buckets in tow. The barge greenhouses are lined with food grade plastic that goes about two inches up on all four sides, where the water is held. They use the buckets to fill up the barge, which is 160 square feet. They row home.

In the summer they have to wait about a week, in the winter a month. The water evaporates, leaving quarter-inch square crystals. They row back out. They scrape the salt off the plastic and bring it back to land, where they spread it out on food grade plastic trays. If it doesn't seem quite dry enough, they put it in a small greenhouse to dry a bit longer. As Hope explains, they like their salt to retain about three percent moisture. Any more than that and the bottom could turn to mush after a customer buys it, which nobody wants.

When the salt is dried to their standards, they lay parchment paper over the trays and roll a wine bottle over it. This is their grinding method. Zak says they tried all sorts of other grinding methods, but the simplest one worked best. The process yields a fine crystal—not a flake, but a crystal with crunch—that works both as a finishing salt and as a salt to use in cooking. 

Before they started selling the salt, they got it tested. They found out it was full of magnesium and calcium, not surprising, since seawater has plenty of both. Interestingly, though, magnesium and calcium are two things most Americans (an estimated 75 percent) don't get enough of in our diets. Some studies have linked deficiencies to diseases like obesity and heart disease

Which leads us to dark chocolate custard with sea salt. Clearly, we need more of this stuff. I tried this recipe after talking with Zak and Hope, not only because it is a delicious way to use their salt, but also because chocolate, too, is full of magnesium, and half and half has plenty of calcium. I don't want to take any chances.

You can learn more about what Zak and Hope are up to on their website and blog, which is also a good place to find their salt. 


This recipe is very simple. Alex says it was a little too "dark chocolate" for him, so if you prefer milk chocolate, you might want to try making it with a lighter bar. Personally, I love dark chocolate, and it pairs perfectly with Wellfleet sea salt.

3/4 cup half and half
2.5 ounces dark chocolate (I used 72%)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 egg yolks
a pinch of sea salt, plus more for finishing
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
optional: whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Bring the half and half to a bare simmer in a small heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Turn the heat off and stir in the chocolate and sugar until both are completely dissolved. Set aside for two minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks, salt, and vanilla in a small bowl. Add the half and half mixture slowly, stirring constantly. Pour the mixture into two custard bowls (oven proof!) and bake in a water bath for about 30 minutes, or until the custards set. Chill for at least 2 hours, then serve with whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.


A calm

Someone told me the other day that in writing, my life sounds very calm. I don't want to mislead you, so for the record: it is not. I don't think there is such a thing as a calm life with a one-year-old and a job. Ha! 

But I know what she meant, and I think it has to do with the process. There is something calming about writing itself. To really write you have to be in it, which means you have to let go of the phone and the wood stove and the internet. You have to sit and be still, and when I do this, I end up thinking about the highlights of the day. The little things—the time I spent outside in the garden, or on a walk, or watching Sally read Fisher a book. Things like checking email, scrambling to get out the door, and waving a dishtowel beneath the fire alarm simply don't come to mind. Those are not the things I like to think about. 

So the truth about that pot roast up there is this: it was made by my husband after I ran out the door to an evening meeting in a rush. Sally has a running nose and was feeling clingy, so he had to hold her on his hip while he cooked. He got started late and didn't read the directions exactly right, so when I got home at seven the meat was just getting soft. Sally was naked, because he hadn't been paying attention to the wood stove and the house had gotten very hot. It was past her bedtime and we were all starving, so even though the meat could have used a little more time, we sat down and dug in.

But what I remember about the pot roast is this: we ate it on a snowy night, and the world was very quiet. The meat was from Vermont, from a farm a friend recommended, and it was excellent. The tomatoes were from our garden. Sally was happy to be up late, happy to be eating with us, and happy to smear beef and carrots all over her chest and face. She took a tub afterward and fell into bed, and Alex and I stayed up reading and watching the snow. The next day, I brought the leftovers to Alex at work in a mug. 

They were still steaming when he opened it up.


Alex found this in the Silver Palate cookbook, an old favorite of my mom's. It takes a good 3-4 hours, so leave yourself plenty of time. It's excellent with biscuits and a simple salad, and you can eat the leftovers for days.

3 and 1/2 pounds beef pot roast
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/2 to 2 cups beef stock
2 cups dry red wine
1 teaspoon sea salt, or less if your broth is particularly salty
7 whole cloves
2 and 1/2 cups coarsely chopped yellow onions
2 cups peeled carrot chunks, about 1-inch
8 small potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 cups crushed tomatoes
1 cup thinly sliced celery

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Rub the meat with black pepper. Warm up the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and sear the meat for several minutes on each side until it's golden brown.

Pour in the stock and wine and add the salt, more black pepper, cloves, onions, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, and celery. The liquid should just cover the vegetables; if not, add a bit more stock and wine. Bring everything to a simmer on top of the stove, then cover the pot and put it in the oven to bake for 2 hours. Uncover and cook another 1-2 hours, until the meat is tender. Serve hot.


The Local Food Report: milking Ivy

Ivy is one of four milk cows that live with Tanya Daigneault and Don Chapin at Circle Back Farm in Yarmouth Port. As you can see, Ivy's a Jersey

Her co-cows are Dexters. Before I attended Don and Tanya's talk at the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary on Saturday, I didn't know the first thing about either of these breeds. But Don and Tanya taught us a lot, and I can now tell you that Jerseys are bred to be milkers. You can see it in their stance: big bony frames, huge, low hanging udder. It's all about milking and calving, milking and calving. Over and over.

The Dexters, on the other hand, are a dual purpose breed. They're heritage cows—six or seven hundred pounds to Ivy's twelve hundred—and they're good for meat, milk, and even draft work. Originally, they're from Ireland, where they lived in fairly shelter-less mountains. Conditions were rough, which means they learned to be good grazers—they'll eat the weeds along with the grass. They also eat less than a big girl like Ivy—thirty to thirty-five pounds of hay each day as opposed to forty or fifty.

Every consideration is important in a small-scale operation like Don and Tanya's. For the past few years they've been working to open the Cape's one and only micro-dairy—the last dairy on the Cape closed in 1971. They need to finish building their milking parlor before they can get certified, but they think that will happen by June. Once they're licensed to sell, they're hoping to be able to supply forty local families with fresh milk, and eventually maybe even yogurt and cheese.

Right now they have four girls milking—they plan to get a few more, but to keep that number under ten. They're also trying out different management techniques. For instance, until now, they've let calves have all of the mothers' milk until they get to be about three or four months, at which point they start taking some for themselves. Next time, though, they're thinking of taking some milk from the mothers right after they give birth to keep up supply—like a human baby, a newborn calf does not drink all the milk the mother is capable of making, and supply will decrease to meet demand. Sharing milk from the start might keep supply higher.

Above all, Tanya and Don want to be sure they're honoring the animals and the land. They've started producing compost from all of the manure the cows produce and selling it to help cover feed. And with any luck, soon they'll also be feeding their neighbors.


Braised turnips

Things are starting to run out. The last of the fingerlings from Cape Cod Organics. The green cabbage, then the red. The sweet potatoes, which rotted, and the cranberries from the last farmer's market. All that's left is the garlic from the garden, Tim's butternuts, and the turnips. 

I pulled them this morning from beneath their blanket of salt hay and greens. A few leaves had wilted with the snow, but the rest stood steady, tall. I planted late, only one short row, and not every plant threw a bulb. But some did, enough to make a meal. I rinsed the dirt from the roots, trimmed the greens for a sauté. We took a turkey out of the freezer last night, and this morning I made cranberry sauce with the last of the berries and a friend's honey. I baked fresh bread, New England spelt and oats. I chopped up the last green cabbage, an onion, and arranged them in a casserole dish on the stove. I scrubbed the turnips, chopped the bulbs. I took out a quart of chicken stock from the freezer to thaw.

The house it quiet now, and it's all sitting ready on the stove. Sally's asleep. I'm in the office: logging receipts, planning a talk, editing the audio for this week's show. Later I'll fire on the oven, when the sun starts to get low. I'll crank on the gas beneath the burners of the stove. We'll have creamed cabbage, turkey with cranberry sauce, and braised turnips, just plucked from their row.  


I always turn to the Joy of Cooking when I want to cook a vegetable simply and know that it will turn out well. This recipe comes from page 434 of the 1997 edition. It's particularly good this time of year when the weather is chilly, and it goes handsomely with a good roast.

1 and 1/2 pounds white turnips, scrubbed and diced
1 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons butter
sea salt to taste
pepper to taste

Put the turnips in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes. Drain the turnips and set aside. Meanwhile, return the pot to the stove and turn the heat on to high. Add the chicken stock, butter, salt, and pepper. Stir until the butter is melted, then add the turnips. Turn the heat down to low, cover, and simmer until the turnips are tender—about 15 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the turnips to a serving dish. Then turn the heat back up to high and boil the cooking liquid until it reduces to a thin, syrupy glaze. Pour it over the turnips and serve piping hot.


The Local Food Report: blood clams

It is not often my husband has a hard time eating anything. He once swallowed a live, beating snake heart from a shot glass. (Eldest male, Vietnam.) But the blood clams gave him pause.

Truly, they look like a bloody internal organ. If you are eating breakfast, you may want to come back later. These clams are hairy on the outside and inside their blood has hemoglobin—the same protein that makes our blood red. The blood spills out when you open them, and it's all over the meat. That picture up there doesn't quite do the color justice—something about the yellowish tinge of the old Spectra film—but what it looked like in person when I took it is that Alex was holding something akin to a miniature resected bowel. I'm sorry.

The first time we attempted them our friends Teresa and Ed were over, who are normally very adventurous. They were appalled. "Not edible," said Ed. "Blech," said Teresa. We threw them into a seafood stew along with mussels and littlenecks and pollock. I backed out too. Alex tried one. He said the texture was terrible, which didn't help any of us get over the appearance.

But then. I was working on this week's show—going over and over the audio I recorded with Max Nolan and Crystal Young, the two young Wellfleetians who go after blood clams—and I was trying to write the script. I kept erasing and rewriting the sentence about how I couldn't bring myself to try them, and I could hear my editor, Jay, telling me how pathetic that sounded in my head. 

So, I did it. I figured from our first experiment that cooking was not the way to go, and I learned online that most populations that do eat blood clams eat them raw. You don't want to do this in some countries, since blood clams can carry hepatitis A, but they're safe around here. I found a recipe for Guatemalan blood clam ceviche that actually looked pretty good. I emailed Alex and asked him to bring home eight blood clams. And then I emailed Teresa and Ed and attempted to re-enlist them. Teresa remained skeptical, but she showed up. We minced tomatoes and cilantro and onion and cut up some avocado and juiced four limes. Alex opened the clams, saved the blood, and we minced the meats. The instructions said to add both the blood and the clams, which we did. We salted. We got out a bag of blue corn tortilla chips. We closed our eyes. We dug in.

And I can say without a hint of panic or doubt that they were delicious. They will never be beautiful or attractive. But mixed in with tomatoes and lime juice and cilantro they were meaty, succulent. They had a hearty quality, a substance, where our delicate local littlenecks would have disappeared. 

I'm not sure they have a big future. But people like Max and Crystal and Crystal's dad Chopper are catching them locally, and almost all of them go to Asian markets along the east coast. Maybe, just maybe, we could get a few local restaurants to go out on a limb and keep a few here.

Have you ever tried a blood clam?


I found this recipe over here and adapted it a bit. Try to keep an open mind about the appearance, and I truly think you'll enjoy the taste. There's a tutorial on how to open blood clams over here. And if you're looking for blood clams locally, they're available this time of year on request at my husband's fish market, Mac's Seafood, in Eastham.

8 blood clams, opened, blood reserved, and meats finely chopped
juice of 4 limes
a handful of cilantro leaves, minced
1 tomato, finely chopped
2 tablespoons minced onion (red or white)
1 mild hot pepper, seeded and minced
a dash of Worcestershire sauce
sea salt to taste
a bag of tortilla chips, for serving

Mix together the blood clams, blood, lime juice, cilantro, tomato, onion, hot pepper,  and Worcestershire sauce in a bowl. Season with salt to taste. Serve chilled or at room temperature atop tortilla chips.


Cod cakes

It feels so good to have Alex back in the kitchen. He's a better cook than I'll ever be—more intuitive, less recipe-driven. More sensory. Our best meals happen when we're in there together.

It's hard to get those moments now that we have Sally. But we got one yesterday. We had leftover cod in the fridge from a Friday fish feast. We had a container full of diced potatoes in water, a mistake from the other day. Sally was playing with her babydoll, and we had four dozen eggs from Victoria's girls. Alex said codcakes. We were rolling.

We boiled potatoes. We mashed them, mashed fish, whisked eggs. Alex diced an onion and we mashed that in too. We salted. We shaped the first batch and fried them in a pool of olive oil leftover from frying anchovy skeletons. Holy mackerel! So good. We ran out of that and fried the second batch in duck fat, in a few tablespoons of the twelve pounds we've had in our fridge for the past two years. Don't ask—one of the hazards of restaurant-ownership. You should see our saran wrap dispenser. Anyway. The duck fat gave the cakes a real crust. They seared up perfectly, golden and crisp. That stuff is miraculous! I missed the anchovy flavor, though. Next time I think I'd blend a few fillets into the mash mix. 

We ate the cakes with baked beans and wilted arugula. Sally cleaned her plate, and then the little food-catching pocket at the bottom of her bib. Fisher cleaned the floor. Alex and I had seconds. 

I think that about says it.


We used cod here, but you could use just about any white fish. This makes a pretty big batch—about 12 cakes—but you can easily scale up or down. Just keep in mind a ratio of 1 egg for every pound of potatoes and fish.

1 and 1/2 pounds cooked, diced potatoes
1 and 1/2 pounds cooked white fish
3 eggs
1 onion, finely diced
sea salt to taste
olive oil, butter, duck fat, or lard

Combine the potatoes, fish, eggs, onion, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Mash well with a fork. Taste for salt and adjust as needed. Shape into cakes.

Warm up a glug of fat—whatever you choose—in a large cast iron skillet. You want the heat on medium, and you want the pan to get nice and hot before you put a cake in. Once you do, be patient. You want to cook the cakes for at least 5 minutes per side, until they get a very dark, crisp crust. Alex covered the pan with a lid for about half the time, so that the middle would cook through. 

Serve hot.


The Local Food Report: Vineyard slaughter

Vineyarders and their Island Grown Initiative continue to astound and impress. We've talked about a lot of what IGI does here before. It brings local food into schools. It helps local Brazilians grow their native food plants. It's brought to life a mobile poultry processing trailer and organized a gleaning program to harvest and donate food that would otherwise be left in the fields. It's a local food and community building powerhouse.

It gets better. In recent years there have been several articles on the void of local slaughterhouses, the rapid rate at which they've disappeared in the past forty years, and the rapid rate at which small farm and livestock numbers are now increasing. People have been talking, but no one has been doing. Until now.

Just over two years ago, IGI got a federal grant to look into the feasibility of building a USDA certified slaughterhouse on the island. The main question was whether a fixed or mobile location would be best—mobile had been so successful with chickens. The verdict settled on fixed, a place to slaughter and butcher four-legged creatures in a humane way with an eye to food safety. The plan is to work it as a coop—a for-profit business that puts the proceeds back into lowering the price of local meat. The construction drawings are done. The next step is to raise $750,000, decide between two potential locations, and then build. 

Richard Andre, the meat coordinator for IGI, the contact there I spoke with and a small farmer himself, says the nine-member board is currently looking into financing options. They're hoping for some donations, but mostly the plan is to look for small local investors who want to loan a big chunk of money at a good interest rate to grow the local food movement.

You can read more on the IGI website, check out a 2010 article about the federal grant in the Vineyard Gazette, check out USDA maps of slaughterhouses nationwide, and see statistics for the number of livestock slaughter plants in New England since 1968 over here.


When you're ready

Um, hello there. That was a nice break. There's nothing like baked ham, a stack of new books, and my dad's creamy lamb meatballs to reset the clock. 

I'm not much for resolutions, at least not in the yearly sense. I think they mostly happen when you're ready for them, which isn't usually January first. But I do like the idea of tangible yearly goals, and I have a few this year that have to do with our food supply. I'm going to share them, and I hope you'll share yours in reply.

The first one involves a book I got for Christmas: Harvey Ussery's The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. We've been talking about getting chickens for a while now, and reading this is the first step. My sister-in-law lost her whole flock last winter, and she's getting a new batch of chicks this spring. We need to do a lot of research and build a coop, but I'm hoping we'll be ready to order together. 

The second one requires cucumbers, which means it's a summer project. Ever since I tasted fermented pickles, I've been wanting to make my own. I don't know much about the process, though, and I wasn't sure how to get started beyond a book and a crock. Santa brought both!  What a guy. The book is The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. The few pages I've read talk mainly about growing mold. I'll keep you posted as I learn more.

Finally, my dad and I got Alex all the goods he needs to start brewing beer at home. I did three interviews with a group of Wellfleet homebrewers last winter, and this fall Alex and I brewed in Maine with my dad. We tried our first batch at Christmas—not perfect, but excellent with food and overall pretty good for a beginner's try. We are now the proud owners of a very large brew pot and a carboy, and we're ready for round two. 

That's plenty, I think. If we manage even to get just one or two of these under our belts, I'll be pleased. Ok, now your turn!


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