July 9,  2008


Island Cooking:  Summer’s bounty

By LYNNE FOSTER


We have entered the season of abundance or, as the Italians say with greater vigor and enthusiasm, “Abbondanza!”  

This time of year the sea provides a bountiful selection of seafood, and my little pot garden on the porch (out of reach of unexpected tides) is already producing a profusion of fragrant herbs and baby veggies.  

I have already harvested skinny little French fillet beans and tiny yellow squash and zucchini.  Tomatoes, chili peppers, and eggplants are nearly ready for the first harvest.

The lettuces have held up surprisingly well in the heat, and I get some bite in the salads from both the colorful flowers and leaves of nasturtium and Italian arugula.

One of my favorite food writers, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, the foremost authority on Mediterranean food, has put my culinary philosophy into words:

“A recipe, after all, is a formula, and a properly written formula should produce the same results each time it is tested.  Cooking, on the other hand, especially as practiced in Mediterranean kitchens, is a strategy, and a strategy adapts itself to a variety of situations, depending on what’s available and who’s to be fed.  What the cook must do instead is to develop a true, immediate and instinctive sense of flavors and ingredients…..direct experience, over and over again, is the key.”

This is why I maintain a pantry full of good rice and pastas as well as dried spices and rubs, some select canned goods, and a variety of wines.  The fridge usually contains a medley of fine cheese.  

I seldom plan meals in advance, especially during this season, but wait to see what is available each afternoon and then get creative with what I have on hand.  Sometimes it works.

We eat seasonally, and I look forward to the changes    Meals take on not only the flavors and aromas but also the spirit of each special time of year.  

Kicking off the early summer fishing season was a gift of just-off-the-boat mako shark, caught by one of our former mates with The Albatross Fleet.

Because of its strength and speed, mako is a favorite of many sport fishermen.  It is not caught in great numbers here but is brought in to the docks on occasion, usually during the spring.  We had a miserable spring with very little fishing, so this year they were a little late.

We are close to the Gulf Stream that provides numerous other large and elusive gamefish, so our watermen rarely target sharks.  But sometimes sharks take the bait even if it is not intended for them.  Sometimes they take the fish caught with the bait!  That makes the best fish story back at the docks.

The flesh of the mako shark is firm and white, not unlike the more familiar swordfish, and it can be cooked the same way.  Both are good candidates for the grill.

When not quickly bled and cleaned, mako will take on a strong and unpleasant ammonia odor, but mako that is fresh and well cared for is very mild and needs some extra “oomph,” so I experimented with a tomato, olive, and herb pesto.  

Canned San Marzano tomatoes (available online or at specialty food shops) will have to do until my Romas are ripe.  They are actually  a very good choice, and I use them year-round, since I do not like out-of-season tomatoes at all, except for the small grape and cherry varieties.


TOMATO, OLIVE, AND HERB PESTO

1/2 can San Marzano tomatoes (juice drained and reserved)
1 generous handful fresh basil
1 generous handful fresh marjoram
1 cup Kalamata olives, pitted
2 large garlic cloves
A pinch of hot pepper flakes – or to taste
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 slices roasted red pepper
1/4 cup slivered almonds

Put all ingredients into the food processor and pulse until well blended and smooth.

When I tasted it, it was lacking depth so I tossed in two slices of roasted red peppers and about 1/4 cup of slivered almonds that I dry roasted in a small pan on the stove top.  That made the difference.  

Brush the fish with olive oil and place on the grill for just a few minutes.  When it begins to look opaque, take it off the heat and coat the thick fillets with the pesto.  Return to the grill for another few minutes.  Turn the fish over and coat the other side with more pesto.  Cook until the fish is flaky and the pesto is starting to bubble.

Serve it with extra uncooked pesto for another dimension.

I picked mixed baby lettuces and dressed them with Huile d’Olive Sauvage, a richly flavored organically cultivated, wild Spanish olive oil made from a blend of Arbequina and Empeltre olives and somewhat sweet Catalan chardonnay vinegar by Jose Puig to which I added chopped garlic, salt, and pepper. (Both are available online.) A classic ratio of oil to vinegar is about 3 to 1, but it depends on the intensity and flavors of both.  I am a big fan of mix, then taste and alter if necessary.

Summer isn’t summer until we grill the first wahoo steaks of the season.  Wahoo, to me, is a superior fish, and there is no better way to cook it than grilling it with nothing but butter or olive oil, salt and pepper.

Many watermen agree that wahoo is the most dangerous fish to have on the boat.  It is a ferocious fighter with very sharp teeth and strong jaws that will clamp on anything in its way.  Even on the dock, after hours in the ice, the razor sharp teeth can still inflict serious damage if not handled properly.  But it is certainly worth the risk!

I decided to honor the spirit of this tropical fish by mixing a tropical salsa and serving it with Carolina gold rice.


TROPICAL SALSA

One fresh, ripe pineapple, peeled and cut into small chunks.
One jalapeno pepper, seeds and core removed and thinly sliced.  

One small red onion, thinly sliced
One box ripe cherry or grape tomatoes, roasted
One garlic clove, minced
Handful of fresh cilantro or Italian parsley, chopped.

Mix and allow flavors to blend for at least 4 - 6 hours.

Roasting the small tomatoes brings out their flavor but it isn’t necessary when they are right off the vine. For roasting, cut the tomatoes in half, spread on a baking sheet and sprinkle a pinch of sugar and a pinch of sea salt.  Gently toss with extra virgin olive oil to coat and place in hot oven (about 400 degrees) for around 6-8 minutes but watch carefully and remove them when they are bubbly but not blackened.

Carolina Gold is wonderful rice!  

“The authentic heirloom grain that drove America’s rice culture in South Carolina” is again being produced and marketed through specialty food markets.  I use Anson Mills rice that is organically grown, fully ripened in the field, and processed in a specially designed mill that replicates the old method of hand pounding.  

So called because of the golden color of its husk, this sweet and versatile long grain rice was the heart and soul of the coastal plantation system from North Florida to the Cape Fear River of North Carolina, and I am thrilled to see it brought back.

Carefully follow the cooking directions on the package and fluff with a little butter when done.  This rice has a richness that you won’t find in other rice, and it is one of the few that I like.  

As you can imagine, we consume a lot of seafood.  But sometimes nothing satisfies like pasta.

During a business meeting in Rome some years ago, I was taken to Alfredo’s, the home of the original Fettuccine Alfredo, a luxurious dish full of butter, cream, and cheese.  

The story is that Alfredo concocted this luscious dish in 1914 to boost the failing appetite of his pregnant wife.  It worked, and since then few have been able to resist it, especially me.

Alfredo’s has branched out to New York and Orlando and still maintains the “only original recipe” but we can reproduce it well enough with high quality ingredients.

It is, in fact, so sinfully rich that it is probably best served as a small side dish or, as they do in Italy, a first course, but once in a while, it feels good to eat extravagantly.  


FETTUCCINE ALFREDO

1 1/2  cups heavy cream
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (Lee Robinson’s carries a Vermont butter that, while     lightly salted, is very good.)
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (Buy in chunks and grate yourself.  Do     not use packaged grated cheese.)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (Go easy on the salt if you use lightly     salted     butter.  Remember that the cheese is also salty.)
Freshly ground nutmeg, to taste
1 pound of fresh fettuccine

Combine the cream and butter in a large, heavy saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low and allow the mixture to simmer for about 1 minute.

Add 1/3 of the grated cheese and whisk until smooth, about 1 more minute.

Remove from heat and add the seasonings, being generous with the nutmeg but cautious with the salt.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the fettuccine.

Cook until al dente, about 1 -3 minutes, depending on the freshness of the pasta.  Drain.

Warm a shallow serving bowl or platter.  Put in the fettuccine, pour the sauce over it and sprinkle another 1/3 of the cheese.  Toss well and serve immediately, passing the remaining cheese at the table.


The Swiss chard, so pretty in its pot, is ready to harvest, so I cut some to serve with the fettuccine.  It made me feel the dinner was healthful!  If you don’t have Swiss chard, use fresh spinach.


SWISS CHARD WITH PINE NUTS

One colander full of fresh chard leaves (for two)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
One garlic clove
2 tablespoons pine nuts

Roast the pine nuts in the olive oil and sliced garlic until the pine nuts are fragrant and golden, 3-4 minutes.  

Rinse the greens well. Cut off the rib and slice into small pieces and roughly chop the leaves.

Place the still damp leaves into a dry sauté pan.  Cover and cook over medium heat until wilted – about 5 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking to cook off the excess water.

Pour the garlic-scented oil and pine nuts over the Swiss chard and mix well.


Serve with a sparkling wine, either an Italian Prosecco like Anime or a Portuguese Vinho Verde.


I still had some VinhoVerde in the pantry when Josh returned from colder, northern seas with beautiful sea scallops. There was also some couscous and tomato paste, so I combined them

SUMMERY SEA SCALLOPS

1 dozen fresh sea scallops
1 small zucchini
1 small yellow squash
Fresh basil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste

Cut a dozen scallops into small pieces along with a small zucchini and a yellow squash.  Slice the basil into chiffonade (fine strips). Sauté the scallops, vegetables and herbs in butter for about 1 minute.  Add the wine and reduced it by about half.  It is just enough to give depth to the sauce. Stir in the tomato paste.  

When it is all well blended, take it off the heat and slowly add cream, stirring all the time.

Top with more fresh basil and serve over couscous that has been cooked according to the package directions.  

There are juicy plums in the markets now and an Italian plum cake will nicely top off almost any summertime meal.  Baking requires an exact formula, and I have not mastered the skills (i.e. patience) necessary, so I looked to Williams-Sonoma (www.williams-sonoma.com.) for a recipe.


ITALIAN PLUM CAKE

1 pound plums, halved and pitted
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter
4 eggs, separated
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
Finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 375°F.  Butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust with flour, tapping out the excess.

Place the plum halves in a bowl and sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the granulated sugar.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on high speed, beat together the butter and the remaining 1 cup of granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Stir in the orange zest, lemon zest, and vanilla.

In another bowl, sift together the flour, cornstarch, and baking powder.  In yet another bowl, using the electric mixer (with clean beaters), beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.

Fold the flour mixture into the butter mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the egg whites and ending with the egg whites.  Do not overmix.  Spread half the batter in the prepared pan.

Bake for 10 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven and arrange the plum halves, cut side up, on top of the prepared batter.  Sprinkle with the liqueur.   Carefully spread the remaining batter evenly over the plums.

Return to the oven and bake until the cake is lightly browned on top, about 50-55 minutes.  Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes to loosen them from the pan.

Let cool for another 45 minutes, then remove the pan sides.  Using a small sieve, dust the top of the cake with confectioners’ sugar and serve slightly warm.

Be sure to present it on your prettiest plate!


(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront.  Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)



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