Thursday, July 26, 2007

we're back and I'm a little cranky about it


Some of it is the usual vacation-is-over malaise; some of it is the sense that but for oppressive student loan debt, I'd like to live on the island for at least a year or two. I've lived in the east village for nearly ten years now and, particularly during this third visit to Vinalhaven, I've come to suspect I could be really, really happy there. I also strongly suspect that whatever bacon I would be able to bring home there would fail to satisfy The Student Loan People's voracious maw.

But! Of course the preceding two weeks were not marred by gloom.

We sniffed at pine-scented breezes.


We ate superlative clam chowder, fried clams, blueberry pie.

clam chowder

fried clams

blueberry pie

The chowder, clams and pie above were from the Harbor Gawker, which happens to be for sale (scroll down). Any fantastically generous readers want to buy me a restaurant? I am smart enough not to tinker with their menu, nor alienate their super-friendly employees. And I'm a lawyer, which might come in handy if Rebecca Charles ever drops by.

We also ate plenty of fearsome creatures from the deep.

big bully

It's a bad season for lobstermen so far, and I understand last year was bad too, but the industry seems to be a sustainable one.

blue Maine lobster

steamed Maine lobsters

lobster rolls

We found a SPOOKY hidden graveyard in the woods.

hidden graveyard

We admired spindly, celadon green mosses and pearly seaweed.

spindly moss

Geary Beach park

It rained A LOT.

it rained a lot

Lane's Island on a cloudy morning

And it was foggy A LOT.

Geary Beach park

foggy Mill Creek

On the sunnier days, we drove around with all the windows open.

driving to town

Or we sat on the deck and watched for the birds: osprey, herons, the occasional bald eagle.

Mill Creek on a sunny afternoon

yes, that's Mill Creek again

I fell in love with moths and yellow spiders.

fuzzy moth

hairy moth

another yellow spider

luna moth

This preposterous fuzzy-headed creature in the faux bois style — a luna moth — alit on our door the morning of my birthday. He seemed determined to stay for a while so we moved him to a rock nearby, for fear that he'd be trampled by the guys coming to work on the hot water heater. He didn't move for a very long time, even after a breeze knocked him off the rock and onto the deck, and my mind rattled with plans for his florid little corpse: I didn't have a shoe box but I had a plastic container about the right size to transport him to Manhattan, and then he'd probably need to be sprayed with some sort of preserving tincture, wouldn't he, and maybe I ought to see about having a professional mount him in a little glass case, and wouldn't that be the most memorable birthday gift to myself? The little beast did not expire after all; he was only resting, and flew away before the morning was over.

Another one came by the next morning, and stayed until his impressive antennae were dry.

luna moth trying to dry after the rain

I'm still unpacking but hope to be posting recipes for lobster rolls and whatnot soon.

Carver's Harbor

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Committee adjourns for summer recess until July 22nd

For weeks I've increasingly found myself longing to be on Vinalhaven now, reminded, on a daily basis, of my love for the place by some sensory fragment or other.

On my way to work one recent morning, a problem with the F train compelled me to get off one stop before my usual one and walk up 6th Avenue. As droplets from the spray of the many fountains landed on my face, scattered by the wind, I could think only of how much I'd rather be on the ferry, passing by those first outlying islands so crowded with pines.

goodbye, islands!

On my way to the wine store another day I noticed a new ice cream shop in my neighborhood; I contemplated going in but it just couldn't taste as good as it does after an early morning hike on one the island's trails.

MCHT trail sign

maple-walnut ice cream

And on mornings when I've walked the dog and struggled to keep him from snacking on the discarded chicken bones and pizza crusts littering the sidewalk, I thought of how much nicer it is to take him for his morning walk at the Lane's Island nature preserve, where the only thing he'll get to nibble on is the occasional found blackberry I'm willing to share.

morning walk

Lane's Island nature preserve

A NOTE ON COMMENTS Please be patient if you leave a comment on any of my posts while I'm away; it won't appear on the site until I've approved it, and I may not be able to do that until I get back from vacation!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

there is zhough in everything

It's all gone now, but during one recent week the Yemeni spice paste zhough wound up in just about everything in the Tiny Banquet kitchen. Early one morning I crushed a pile of chile peppers, spices and herbs to a pulp with a mortar and pestle—not an effortless task, but fortunately I had plenty of coffee before I got started—and voila, the result was a generous quantity of spicy, delicious, vivid green zhough.

making zhough

The recipe below comes from Deborah Madison's Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets. Too often I buy a new cookbook and excitedly flag the most appealing recipes with post-it notes, only to put the book away without trying any of them. That's exactly what I did with Local Flavors, unfortunately. Sometimes it happens because I've only just discovered a book during the wrong season (like when I stumbled across Claudia Roden's Everything Tastes Better Outdoors one miserable February), but there are interesting recipes for every season in this book. I wish I could say I prepared an entire meal from it, but so far I've only gotten to the zhough.

I was intrigued by Madison's suggested uses for it: "A chile paste from Yemen with a hint of sweet spice, zhough can be spread on pita bread or stirred into vegetable stews, soups, and sauces. Try it with grilled sweet potatoes or whenever you want extra heat and spice."

Madison explains that "[y]ou can use jalapeños, serranos, Anaheims, poblanos, or perhaps another chile that grows in your area. I usually use jalapeños with 1 serrano thrown in for extra heat and flavor." I only had serrano peppers, which can be quite a bit hotter than jalapeños, so I used only half the amount of them. 2 ounces of serrano peppers, if you were wondering, looks like this:

serrano chile peppers

I was pleased with the level of heat; the paste was spicy, but not painfully so.

Green Chile Paste (Zhough)

4 ounces fresh green or red chiles [see comments above]
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
olive oil to moisten
pinch sea salt

1. Remove the seeds and veins from the chiles, chop by hand or in a food processor and set aside. (If using food processor, stand back—the volatile oils can be irritating.)

2. Crush the peppercorns and spices in a mortar. Add the chopped chile, parsley, cilantro, and garlic and continue to work to make a smooth paste. Add oil to moisten—the zhough should have a paste-like consistency—and a pinch of salt. Keep refrigerated and use within a few days.

I was initially afraid I wouldn't be able to use all my zhough but I ended up using every last spoonful. The first dish I made with it was possibly my favorite: I rubbed about two tablespoons of it underneath the skin of a chicken breast, and roasted it as usual.

roasted chicken breast with zhough

It smelled fantastic, and the spice paste kept the meat juicy. I particularly enjoyed the flavor of the caraway and I regretted than I hadn't made an entire chicken this way.
If you want to try this, use your fingers to gently separate the skin from the meat, and evenly distribute about a tablespoon of the zhough underneath the skin on each side of the breast (or a bit less if your chicken is in smaller pieces; I'm sure this would be good with chicken thighs or legs as well). Rub the outside of the skin with a bit of olive oil or softened butter, season it with salt and freshly ground pepper, and roast as usual.

On the side we had braised carrots with galangal, which was inspired by Marcella Hazan's simple (but precise) method of cooking carrots, which you can read about here. It sounds like it requires you to pay an inordinate amount of attention to your carrots, but it's not labor-intensive and the results are worth it. To make them with galangal (or fresh ginger) rather than Parmesan, simply add a tablespoon of grated or minced galangal (or ginger) to the pan along with the salt and the sugar, and omit the cheese.

I also want to mention something we ate before the chicken, because it was so good and I know I won't manage to fit it into another post: remember the za'atar I wrote about a couple weeks ago, in my scallop post? It is amazing in deviled eggs, and fun to eat. When was the last time you ate deviled eggs? Possibly years ago, right? I am definitely going to make these more often because the za'atar was so good with them, and it's not even necessary to make it in advance: simply stir a little fresh thyme and toasted sesame seeds into the egg yolk mixture (you only need a tiny bit of mayonnaise, more for texture than for flavor), and sprinkle a pinch of sumac on top after you've spooned the yolk mixture back into the egg whites. If you have any interest in assembling a vaguely-Middle-Eastern picnic, this is the perfect food to start with.

Returning to the zhough, my second-favorite use for it was stirred into chickpeas. Canned chickpeas are ok for this; just rinse them well under plenty of cold running water, drain them well, and pat them dry. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a sturdy pan over medium-high heat, add the chickpeas and cook until they are heated through and beginning to brown, and stir in a rounded tablespoon of zhough, or a little more or a little less, to taste. That's it. Chopped fresh parsley or cilantro is nice, but not necessary. If you have some good plain yogurt, a spoonful would be nice on top. These chickpeas as good at room temperature as they are warm, something to keep in mind if you are considering a vaguely-Middle-Eastern picnic.

chickpeas with zhough

I used the rest of the zhough to marinate some shrimp, which I broiled and served on top of a simple green salad dressed only with olive oil and lemon juice.

broiled shrimp with zhough

salad with broiled shrimp

They were good but not as good as the chicken, and I think the reason was their brief time under the broiler. Shrimp of this size need to cook only for about 3 minutes, but the heat mellowed the zhough's spiciness more than I expected. If I make these again I'll set some of the zhough aside and use it to make a dressing for the cooked shrimp.

Monday, July 02, 2007

the portable kitchen

topographic map of the island

We reserved our customary crumbling hippie shack on the island of Vinalhaven, Maine for two weeks in July and suddenly it's time to start thinking about what to bring.

Did you happen to read Cynthia Zarin's "Fantasy Island" in last August's Gourmet supplement, about the challenges of cooking in a rental on a small Maine island? Zarin was writing about Swan's Island but her description of the sad little grocery store reminded me of the one on Monhegan Island, which we visited several years ago:

The owner of the cottage had left a map marked with the location of the grocery store and the historical society. (Later I was to reflect that these were, in some respects, one and the same). We piled into the car, still packed with our swimsuits and summer reading, our towels and orange peels. A few minutes later, I stood in front of the vegetable bin, which contained three molting cabbages and a few wormy potatoes. Too late, I read the message of those grocery bags on the ferry. Dismay hit. What would we eat?

Fortunately the author's neighbor on the island turned out to be a lobsterman amenable to bargaining, but after five days of boiled lobster, sautéed lobster, grilled lobster, and lobster salad, "[t]he children had recoiled from lobster's waving tentacles, its garish red hue, and by Thursday, so did we."

I'm hesitant to tell anyone, but the situation on Vinalhaven is much more agreeable. There's a small but well-stocked grocery store (Carver's Harbor Market, shown below), and an even-smaller but also well-stocked store across the street (Island Spirits) that sells wine, cheese, olives, bread from Atlantic Baking Co. on the mainland, and good coffee.

Carver's Harbor Market

The Victorian-style house to the right of the post office belongs to the artist Robert Indiana.

Many (most?) of the island's year-round residents are lobstermen, and at the Vinalhaven Fisherman's Co-op — just down the road from the grocery — you can choose a vivacious local lobster from the tank while you put gas in your car.

It's hard for me to get used to thinking about food shopping in advance when at home I pass by so many grocery stores and markets on foot every day, but my vacation cooking tends to be improvisational, and a forgotten bundle of chives or whatever can always be worked around.

We're fortunate with respect to the kitchen at the cabin. It's small, but so is the one in my apartment and this one's got a nicer view. It's also unusually well-equipped for a summer cabin kitchen: there's a full-sized food processor, a coffee/spice grinder, decent pots and pans (plus a few pieces of Le Creuset, which are more than decent), sharp knives, and the lobster crackers and their accompanying picks and forks and butter cups are all accounted for.

Nonetheless, I bring a box of kitchen must-haves, and over the past couple years I think I've refined my packing list to the point where I'm bringing only things I know I'll end up using. Of course much of the list that follows is a matter of one's cooking style and preferences, but I hope it will be useful to those of you who will have occasion to take your batterie de cuisine on the road this summer:

the Tiny Banquet portable kitchen (summer edition)


  • kitchen shears

  • timer

  • tongs (there are probably some there but I can't remember, and can't deal with two weeks without them)

  • favorite corkscrew

  • muslin (for straining seafood shells out of stock)

  • twine (for who-knows-what)

  • pastry blender (it's definitely not too hot to bake there)

  • biscuit cutter

  • lemon reamer

  • tiny strainer (am I the only person who finds these indispensable?)

  • tiny whisks (like these; I know they look ridiculous but I use them constantly for making small quantities of salad dressing)

  • small Kyocera ceramic slicer (like this)

  • microplane grater

  • silicone basting brush

  • small silicone spatula


  • peppermill and plenty of peppercorns (Malabar)

  • flaky sea salt

  • smoked salt

  • Aleppo pepper (a flavorful red pepper from Syria)

  • Pimentón de la Vera (hot Spanish smoked paprika)

  • cayenne pepper

  • coriander seeds

  • cumin seeds

  • cardamom seeds

  • fennel seeds

  • whole nutmeg

  • five-spice powder (a versatile blend of star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel and white pepper)

  • Old Bay seasoning

  • saffron


  • silicone muffin pan (in anticipation of Maine blueberries)

  • small cast iron skillet (9") (the pans at the cabin are all larger, and this one is my most-used pan at home)

grilling paraphernalia: I know the grill there is rusted and unusable. I'm bringing a small charcoal grill this year, and they require a few accessories.

  • wire brush for cleaning

  • chimney for starting charcoal

  • hardwood chips

  • bamboo skewers

condiments & etc.

  • favorite olive oil

  • Vinagre de Jerez Sherry vinegar

  • Champagne vinegar

  • Maille extra-hot Dijon mustard

  • Kewpie mayonnaise

  • salt-packed capers

  • good imported tuna in olive oil

  • pine nuts (why is it that in many places they seem to be sold only in tiny, overpriced jars?)

grains and such

  • good dried pasta

  • good polenta

  • chickpea flour

  • de Puy lentils

  • Calasparra rice

It's a lengthy list, I know, but most of these items are small. At least, that's what I tell myself.

I didn't include cookbooks on my list, for a few reasons: (1) as I mentioned above, I don't often cook from recipes while we're there; (2) there are a few cookbooks at the cabin in case I'm stuck on making something I can't improvise (the most useful seems to be a giant Craig Clairborne book, as big as a dictionary); and (3) I've got lots of recipes in my laptop, stored in MacGourmet. I've also got lots of newer recipes in my, but there's no internet at the cabin, so I'll have to go through and see if there are any I have to add to MacGourmet before we leave.

Think I've forgotten anything important?