Looking north from Fire Island

Looking north from Fire Island
Continuing the cooking articles I write every summer

Monday, August 25, 2008

Septober - Beach Plums

Septober – The Bestest Season
"Ya gotta take the bitter with the sweet. Anyone who knows good cookin' knows that." September, the most perfect month of my Fire Island year, still has its down side. I don't mean the hurricanes, they're Nature; they put me in the right perspective, remind me I'm just a puny creature. The season is again drawing to another end, as always too soon. Renters leave in droves, then the birds, the skies get more blue, whites whiter, sunsets get gloriously fire red. Soon I will pack up my little household of me, dog and cat, and hibernate in Manhattan until spring. It's here we live. My herb garden looks tired for lack of sun. This is the best time to harvest all those herbs and dry them for winter use. What can make a winter meal as nice as knowing you grew the herbs last summer?
I spent this perfect afternoon at the home of my friend Mary Cole. Our conversation drifted from food to the changes the island is undergoing. She cares that folks here want to bring the city here. Despite the rush to crush every vestige of it, this is still a magic wilderness fighting for its life against the ravages of folks marching under the false flags of Change and Progress. Those of us who are here because we love this aspect of Fire Island are blessed. We are islanders, and proud of it.
Cooking on Fire Island liberated me from so many rules I thought I needed to follow. I no longer fear making a mistake; I'm human. I never measured a thing except for baking cakes. If I goof, how bad can it be? My dog Blondie will eat everything I make, and she's a tough judge. I've earned the title of Master Chef, but I've never been able to cook exactly the same dish twice. Ever. Where's the excitement in that?
Despite my neighbors' fancy Wolf ranges, my crude thirty year old kitchen serves me well for anything you can conjure. Equipment doesn't matter--at least not in the kitchen. :-) Cooking and eating here under a sky, the sounds of surf and crickets in the background make preparing and eating food here an unparalleled experience. My hope is that my scribblings will encourage you to take bigger steps and try different ways of cooking. Be the individual you are, the person who embraces a place like Fire Island.
My neighbors are harvesting clams, conch, blue crabs, beach plums, and berries, or fishing on the beach for Blues, Wild Striped Bass, and Weakfish. There's more. The list of the bountiful edibles the island yields to us proves we can truly live off the land. That is, until Man destroys this precious, fragile ecology as he has so many others. We approach the time of harvest. We owe ourselves the joy of experiencing our island's bounty. If you make salads, and have fresh herbs, use more of them, just to give you the idea of how much they enhance everything. You only need coarse salt, fresh ground pepper, a drizzle of red vinegar and some EVOO to make the best salad dressing that never needed a bottle. As you eat, the herbs mini-explode flavors on your palate like summer fireworks. Ranch dressing is for kids who hate lettuce. . This is the best time to pick your fresh herbs and dry them on a rack so you can store them in jars back in town. You can also make herb vinegars, hey, Christmas gifts.
If you find yourself overstocked with tomatoes, can them; it's so easy. Choose good ripe tomatoes, skin them in boiling water for half a minute, and push the skinned fruit tightly into sterilized Ball jars, almost to the top. Add a pinch of salt, and a few fresh basil leaves, and a drizzle of EVOO. Cover not too tightly and set the jars into a large kettle to process them for an hour. This means cover with boiling water. Very carefully lift out the jars, tighten the lids, and set on a kitchen towel to cool. When you jar the lids pop, they are sealed and safe for future use. In case the lids don't pop, store the tomatoes in the fridge and make sauce, which you can freeze.
My freezer is filled with rhubarb, basil puree, wild berries. The local strawberries have a fragrance nothing in the whole world can match. They freeze well with some sugar to draw some of the juice. We have till next year to prepare. I'll thaw them this December and serve them on vanilla ice cream. Killer. Skillet cooked pork chops with some of the rhubarb puree mixed into the juices at the end make a good meal memorable.
The bay is now well stocked with clams and Blue crabs, but there are those pesky whelts (spiral conch shells); they eat the clams. The Italians call them scungilli, they are delicious. Eat the enemy. Scungilli Alla Sorrentina: 2 lb Fresh scungilli or conch, 1 Wine cork, 2 TB Vinegar, 4 TB Extra-virgin olive oil, 1 med red onion chopped 1/4" dice, 2 TB fresh thyme leaves, 1 yellow bell pepper stemmed, seeded, chopped 1/4" dice, red is fine, too, 1 cup dry white wine, 3 Italian Roma tomatoes chopped 1/4" dice to yield 3/4 cup, S&P to taste. Place scungilli in a pot and cover with water. Add a wine cork and 2 tablespoons vinegar and gently boil 1 hour until tender. Drain and cool. Remove from the shell, cut off the thin shell-like part. Slice into 1/4-inch rounds and set aside. I have no Earthly idea what the cork is for, but the Italians always do it. In a tall sauce pan (6- to 8-quarts), heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, thyme leaves and bell pepper and cook until softened, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add white wine, tomato pieces and scungilli and bring to a low boil. Lower heat to simmer and cook 15 min. Season with salt and pepper, serve in shallow bowls with lemon wedges.
Last summer for the first time I picked beach plums, expertly guided by my friend Gary Sullivan, the Euell Gibbons of our island. We didn't just pick, we cooked and preserved. Gary made jelly, I made jam which for me was easier and has more fruit flavor. The hard part was calculating the mysterious formulation of pectin, sugar, and acid. I think my jam was hit or miss, but it worked the same way that I make soup. Taste as I go. Add a little here, balance there, go slowly, a bit at a time, taste often and pray that I don't have to feed it to the dog. I got lucky. That jam lasted in the fridge for almost one year, and still has the same complex, exciting fragrance and taste of those plums. I'm thinking fine wine. Nothing I ever bought in a store even comes close. And the sweet joy of knowing I made it, well, wow.
The Beach Plums grow in sunny places. The dunes are best, but watch out for the cops. They will write you up just for foraging for food. Bring a bucket. Pick as many as you can, the darker purple ones are best, but also use some greenish ones; they have the pectin we need for jelling. Wash the fruit, pick over it and throw away any that are soft or partly rotted. Now the pits need to be removed, so call a few friends to help this go quickly. Just like pitting an olive, give a sharp smack to the fruit. The broken flesh lets the pit slip right out.
Use a food processor to coarsely chop up the fruit, and mix it with an equal amount of sugar. Place it in a heavy non reactive pot and slowly bring it to a low boil. Pulverize a few cloves, and some cinnamon. if you like, or not. Not so much that you can discern what it is, add them to the pot. My advice is follow the instructions on the pectin package, but never add the pectin to the hot liquid. Lumps. There are powders, liquids, and one where you have two powdered thickeners. Boil one with the fruit, then add the calcium to the pot to instantly thicken the jam. Often they tell you to use so much sugar your teeth ache, remember you can cut back a bit. Trust your taste. That's our golden rule. My way of testing is a teaspoon onto a plate, and leave it in the fridge for a few minutes. Check it, and if it's right you'll know. If not, it might want more thickening. You will need jars. Ball jars are excellent. They come in 6 ounce sizes, and have those special lids that hold a vacuum. A canning rack, a huge pot, and a jar holder so you don't scald yourself while canning are required. I bought some online, and the pectin at Stop n Shop, or at All Star in Sayville. Everything you use in canning food must be spotless and sterilized by boiling. Lay a clean towel on your table, using tongs, hold your jars under the boiling water for a minute, and invert on the towel to dry off. Lids too.

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