The peach is soft. It is soft and buzz-fuzzed and perfect, and it is still warm in my hands. It reminds me of my daughter—the way her hair grew in after it all fell out, pale blond and furry.
Like Sally, this peach is not just any peach. It is a Peach—our peach, our first peach, a peach that we made from water and sweat, from scratch. It is the one peach that came from the hundreds of pink blossoms that burst out this spring, the one peach from all the compost and mulch and watering. It is hairy and yellow and blushing, and we think it’s perfect, stunning. Read more…
- Posted in Food
The beach peas are in bloom. Each day when I walk Sally up over the dune to see her grandparents, there are more—scribbles of purple and pink in a wash of green. We look carefully, taking note of the changes, waiting for the flowers to harden into pods and thicken with peas. Read more…
I met my husband in a clam shack.
Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the bustle along with the man. It isn’t a glamorous job, standing behind those take-out windows in the sticky salt air, but somehow, it gets you.
It’s a slow build-up to August. May you’re bored, June you learn the shortcuts, and July your blood starts pumping fast. By the peak of August, you’re hard-wired, unflappable. The line stretches out from the take-out window, down the pier, past the boats to the gas pumps, and you spread your feet, stand your ground. Two burritos: scallops, add guac. refried. Whole bellied clam plate—that’s the market price!—oyster po-boy.
Every day there’s a lull between 3 and 4 p.m., and you re-stock, take measure, remember to breathe, metabolize. You drink a juice and maybe a soda water, another iced coffee to get you by.
Then they come again: in swarms of two, three, five. They want dinner in sweatshirts and bikinis now—sunset and picnic tables beachside. Tuna dinner, medium rare, wasabi on the side. Sub salad? No, it’s veggies and rice. Lobster clambake, two pounder, corn. It comes with butter, and the napkins are outside.
You watch the light get low on the harbor, and slowly, you adjust your eyes. The line slows down to a trickle and moves over to the ice cream side. The girls are running out of soft serve—pour in another bag. You scrub the counters and the tables outside. Another day of waxed sprinkles and lobster salad, another tide.
You collect the trays, stop sweating for a minute, sigh. The other girls push up the pick-up window, and you hand the ketchup and mustard and mayo inside. Someone flips the open sign; then it’s dishes, mopping, reggae time.
The guys in the kitchen hum along while they close down the line. Nick’s off-key; Neily starts to harmonize. They’re drinking Pabst’s Blue Ribbon, Natty Ice, and you sit down to eat your dinner on the bench outside.
It’s potato salad most of the time. There’s something about that scoop from the deli case—cool cream, feathered dill, ribbons of red onion sliding by. The heat washes away as you sit outside—and for the first time all night you smell the ocean, nothing fried.
People don’t picnic like they used to. I mean, take James Beard. There was a man who knew how to pack a hamper: “It’s an easy matter to gather up a few provisions at a roadside stand or at a shop in any little town you pass through,” he writes in his essay, The Art of Picnicking. “Several of my most fanciful picnics have come straight from a delicatessen, and I recall the folly of one occasion when I bought a half pound of caviar, lemons, black bread—lacking toast—and butter. Two friends and I ate this with a bottle of chilled vodka and finished off the meal with cheese, more bread, and wine.”
The other day, inspired by Mr. Beard, I packed a basket and did it up right. It was one of those bluebird days—clear skies, soft breeze, warm and steady blowing in from the southeast. I went to the basement and dug out our picnic basket—a gift from my mother and father for Christmas one year. It has wicker sides, and a stiff wooden top, and a red-checked cloth liner keeps the sand from blowing in.
Then I set about making lunch. There was lobster in the fridge—already cooked, in the shell, leftover from dinner with my husband’s family the night before. I got out the rolling pin, thwacked the claws and the tail, and fished the big, pink chunks of meat out. Then I rolled the claws, cracked open the tails, threw it all on the countertop, and chopped it up.
It was only 9 a.m., but already the kitchen was getting hot. I rolled up my sleeves, threw the meat in a bowl, and started mincing celery and red onion, and cut a lemon in half. In a few minutes I had the salad together: just mayo and a bit of salt and pepper to top things off.
What else did a Beard-worthy picnic need? Rustic bread, sliced thick. A jar of pickles—homemade, dilly spears, never heated, crisp from the fridge. A bottle of Pellegrino; a salad of basil, bread chunks, mozzarella, and heirloom tomato. And finally, leftover blueberry pie, gooey and thick.
I packed cutlery—real stainless—along with cloth napkins and tin plates. I put on my bathing suit and a faded yellow sundress, then grabbed a towel and my book. Finally, I strapped the picnic basket to the back of my bike, climbed aboard, and rode out of town, along the bluff, to the beach.
It was a picnic, I like to think, that would have done Beard proud.
For a top-notch picnic, there is really nothing more elegant and simple than lobster salad. This recipe makes a very traditional batch—nothing fancy, but excellent in its simplicity. If you don’t feel like cooking and picking your own lobster meat, keep in mind that you can buy it cooked and shucked at most local fish markets.
2 pounds fresh cooked lobster meat, shucked and chopped
1/4 cup minced red onion
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1/4 cup mayonnaise
juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
Put the lobster meat, red onions, and celery in a medium-size mixing bowl. Whisk together the mayonnaise and lemon juice in a measuring cup and spoon this mixture into the bowl. Stir well, until everything is evenly coated with the dressing, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve chilled or at room temperature—preferably with a crusty, rustic slice of bread.
Winter blankets take many shapes. There’s the warmth of our Pendleton wool, thrown over our legs and tucked under our feet, working just as hard as the woodstove to keep the heat in while we sleep. There’s the snow outside that comes and goes—covering the strawberry patch and the raspberry cane roots from December to March. There’s the extra fur the dog grows over his rump and between his paw pads, keeping him moving over ice and snow.
And over the garden, there’s a thin, sturdy layer of plastic—nothing expensive, nothing fancy—but enough to cover the crops so that in even the coldest months, they grow.
Not everyone, of course, can stand the chill. The basil and eggplants die off long before late October, when we cover the rows. The tomatoes get pulled out not long after while the green beans say their parting words, and the kitchen herbs move inside to sunny doorways and windowsills.
But the greens—the cabbage and kale and lettuce and spinach and Swiss chard and arugula—these thrive under their thin cover all winter long. We harvest the late summer plantings from Thanksgiving through March, and a new crop goes in toward the end of February. It’s hard to believe that under such a thin plastic blanket the seedlings still sprout. But they do, skyward and reaching, sure that spring is coming soon.
By early May, the beds are full again, a sea of bushy green rows.
I always over-plant—the promise of seed packets in February is too much to resist—and by mid-May, we have a full-blown greens crisis on our hands. Salads are mandatory at dinner and lunch, and on weekend mornings I sneak sautéed spinach and Swiss chard onto our plates alongside hot toast and fried eggs.
But my favorite way to eat the greens, hands down, is cooked with onions and garlic, layered with filo dough and cheese, and served as an entrée: spanakopita.
If you’ve never had spanakopita, it’s a Greek delight. It’s a savory spinach pie, or really more of a pastry, filled with eggs and ricotta and feta and greens. In the Greek countryside, rural women bulk up their spinach with leeks and Swiss chard, and in the cities fancy restaurants add kalamata olives or pine nuts.
I never do much to dress it up—with greens straight out of the garden, there’s no need for that. I just head outside in the late afternoon, down the deck stairs with colander and garden shears in hand, and start snipping my way through the spinach beds. When the colander’s full I make my way back in, and turn on the oven while I start chopping garlic and onions, chard, and spinach. By the time the sun goes down, the house fills up with the scent of pastry and herbs, rich cheese and greens, and something like spring wafts out of the oven.
It’s the sign of warmer weather I look forward to the most.
In our dining room window, there’s a Meyer lemon tree. It isn’t tall—perched on a stool, leaves and all, it sits maybe four feet high. We feed it water and compost, give it an occasional misting, and in return it gives us sweet, juicy lemons: this year, 23.
If it sounds far-fetched, believe me, originally, I agreed. I saw it in the garden center on sale, and wondered what right-minded Cape Codder would imagine their home was a good place for a heat-loving citrus tree.
But a tag tied to the leaves made me hesitate. “A cross between a true lemon and a Mandarin,” it read. “Grow indoors in pots across the northeast.” My husband’s birthday was coming up, and we have a tradition of giving trees—out in the yard there’s a 21st lilac and a 23rd cherry and a big 26th orchard of pears and mulberries. Lemons were a stretch, but in a big sunny window I thought we could swing it, maybe.
Besides, I had the perfect cake to celebrate. It was a lemon Bundt cake, passed on from Doug and Dianne Langeland of Edible Cape Cod magazine. They hadclipped the recipe from Saveur, taken in by the mention of Maida Heatter—America’s great Queen of Cake—and made it several times before we got a taste. By the time we came over they had perfected the baking time—just long enough that the cake was cooked through but the top still moist—and settled on the best bread crumb for the crust—Panko, the dry, flakey Japanese kind. The second I bit in, I was sold: tart, sweet, moist—what else was there to know?
Dianne e-mailed the recipe the next morning and I copied out the head note. “Toni Evins,” I printed, “Maida Heatter’s late daughter, who lived on East 62nd Street in Manhattan, created this tart, sweet cake. It became a favorite of the chic set after Craig Claiborne printed the recipe in the New York Times.” Apparently, Bill Blass and Nancy Reagan were fans. Me too.
With that in mind, I went ahead and bought the tree. I made the birthday cake, and then a replacement after the dog stole the leftovers, and before long Toni Evin’s creation became a staple in our culinary repertoire.
You don’t need a Meyer lemon tree to bake yours, but if you have a sunny window, I’d adopt one. They’re bright, and cheerful, and fruitful, and most importantly, they’re an excellent excuse for cake.
- Posted in Seasonal
Up to the age of 22, I spent my life solidly in leaf-peeping country. I grew up in Maine, on the coast, on a road tangled with white pines and red maples and tall, strong oaks. The population ebbed and flowed with the colors: full on red, empty by brown, and come green, filling up again.
For college, I moved to Vermont, and the rule held fast there, too. The start of classes marked the arrival of the lackadaisical, meandering drivers: Subarus pulled over shoulder-side, necks craned, mittens clutching cups of cider and big eyes gazing up toward the sky. Their windows danced with scarlets and mustards and vermilion as they cruised up and down Route 7, back and forth until the first snowfall came.
When I moved to the Cape, I realized that here, it’s a whole new game. Driving out I watched the trees shrink down, broad deciduous shoulders giving way to scrawny, tufted pitch pines along the edges and a swath of rusted oaks in between. I felt the town swell up with visitors in May, and let out with a whoosh come Labor Day. I waited for those crisp, bright fall days. The feeling came, but the colors were all a different paint. The last of the beachgoers left, and in their place settled muted oranges, browns, a quiet grey.
The second fall, the year I was 23, my friend Caitlin sent a letter from Vermont. “October 17th,” she began, “The foliage is back again.” There was a maple leaf tucked in—dried and pressed, a bright, carmine red, and on the back of the card, a recipe for a warm fall salad of roasted pumpkin and harvest veggies with chickpeas. I clipped it up on my recipe board and promised to write Caitlin back when I tried it that week. November passed and then December, and slowly, two years trickled by. I got used to the quiet and the grey, and new recipes covered the notecard up.
Last fall, in early October, when the squashes arrived at the farmers markets—Hubbard, butternut, acorn—I brought a sugar pumpkin home. I had a few lingering tomatoes and cucumbers, too, and a stockpile of red onions I was drying out for the fall. I rustled through my recipe pile, searching for inspiration, and a red maple leaf fluttered out.
I paged through my clippings, and at the bottom of the stack, there it was: a navy blue and yellow note card with Caitlin’s handwritten instructions scrawled out. I followed them to a tee: roasted the pie pumpkin, tossed it with garlic, boiled the chickpeas with onions and a bay leaf. I chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and made a dressing of olive oil and lime juice. I peppered and salted and mixed, and in less than an hour, I had on the table Caitlin’s dish.
It was perfect the way it straddled the seasons—the last of the fresh harvest, the first of the storage goods. It wasn’t cold tabouli, but neither was it hot soup. It walked the same middle ground as October, one day warm and bright, another that quiet, chilly grey. The next morning, I got out a note card and a pen, wrote Caitlin a letter and stuffed the envelope with the small tan leaf of a Cape Cod oak.
Elspeth’s recipe for pumpkin, chickpea, and harvest vegetable salad.
My mother is not a shopper. She feels about the activity the way most people feel about scrubbing the rings off the sides of the bathtub, maybe, or running in hundred-degree heat with heavy sweatpants on.
Unfortunately, she gave birth to two girls—a healthy, all-American, red-blooded pair. We lusted after mother-daughter shopping trips to the outlets, to the mall, downtown to get stationery or art supplies. I can count on one hand, I think, the number of times my mother actually got excited about taking us out to look for a new pair of shoes or a party dress. Mostly, she was content to ship us off with the other moms, and we were content to go.
The exception to all this was food. My mother started bringing my sister and I to the farmers market as very little girls. It took place on the long, wide town green twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, from 8 a.m. to noon. It was the one place we had ever seen her excited to shop, and we happily took the cue. We traveled together down the vendor rows, three pairs of eyes widening together at the size of a farmer’s beets, the sheen of another’s apples, the way the woman with preserves gave her pickles such crunch. We knew it was the closest to a mother-daughter shopping trip we were ever going to get and reveled in every minute of every visit.
There was one visit every year, though, that we particularly looked forward to. That was the annual blueberry pick-up, the day in August when our 20-pound fruit order from Rudd Douglas came in. Rudd was at the market every week, selling organic potatoes and other produce and all sorts of perennials. But come August he’d start bringing the blueberries in—tiny, sweet, wild Maine blueberries by the pint and by the quart, and if you put in a special order, by the pound.
We always ordered a 20-pound box. My mother would freeze most of the berries for winter pies and muffins and pancakes and simply sprinkling, thawed, on cereal, but pick-up day was an all-you-can-eat sort of affair. Cardboard has never felt so promising as it did on those August afternoons when my sister and I unfurled the box, then dug in, stuffing ourselves with handful after handful of ripe Maine fruit. We’d keep reaching in until our bellies hurt, but that one day, my mother didn’t care.
Of course, partly that’s because she knew we’d still save room for the pie. You can’t buy 20 pounds of blueberries and not make at least one, and she usually made three or four—one to keep, and a few to give away. That evening, once the freezer was full, she’d roll out a crust and toss a quart and a half of the berries with sugar and lemon juice, and then stick the pie plate in the oven with a cookie sheet below, hoping it would catch at least some of the mess. For blueberry pie, my mother has always simply used the recipe in the Joy of Cooking with a homemade sweet crust. (I tried playing around with other variations, but from what I can tell, it isn’t worth it. Irma’s recipe is simple, easy, and best of all, good.)
The pies were invariably soupy. The tapioca called for in the Joy of Cooking apparently had nothing on the torrent of fresh, juicy fruit, and more than a few pies set the smoke detector off. But it didn’t matter—we ate it hot on the deck with bowls and spoons and a pile of creamy, melting, vanilla ice cream soup.
When I moved to the Cape, I discovered that the tiny berries aren’t for sale at farmers markets anywhere. You can buy the big, high-bush berries to be sure, but to me, those never taste like home. So when I stumbled across the berries in the woods—when I found out that on certain sunny, oak-shaded hills you can find wild bushes, blue to the hilt—I filled up two quart buckets before the day was up. I can’t tell you where I pick, but I can say this: At the end of every August, I know exactly what pie we’ll be having for dessert.
- Posted in Food