Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Acorn of My Eye

The acorn drop here in western North Carolina has astounded me this fall. Oaks of every variety have produced a mast crop the likes of which I have never seen. Before it got too cool at night to leave the windows open, Sue and I had trouble sleeping for the acorns that crash onto the neighbor's tin-roofed shed.
That's not the only factor leading up to this post. Last week, we had our friends, Troy and So Yung, over for a succulent wild duck dinner. The featured bird happened to be wood duck - a lover of acorns. I started thinking of other game animals we eat that relish acorns; white-tailed deer - good, wild turkey - good, gray squirrel -goooooood. The next day, our friends traveled to Atlanta and ate at "The Iberian Pig" of Decatur, GA. The Jamon Iberico served there is made from the famed Iberico pigs of Spain, which eat a diet of mostly acorns before slaughter to develop the prized flavor of the meat.
Add in the fact that I'd just started reading Euell Gibbons' seminal work on foraging wild foods, "Stalking the Wild Asparagus," in which he writes (in the first chapter no less), "If we consider the whole sweep of his existence on earth, it seems likely that mankind has consumed many millions of tons more of acorns than he has of the cereal grains, which made their appearance only during the comparatively recent development of agriculture. It seems a pity that the food which nourished the childhood of our race is today nearly everywhere neglected and despised." Well shoot, that settled it right there. We were going back to our roots to eat acorns.
The fact is, not all modern cultures have abandoned the acorn. The Koreans eat them several ways, including an acorn noodle. North Africans, Portuguese, Italians and Native Americans still eat them too. Over at his blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, Hank Shaw does a superb job of explaining the basics of acorn collecting, processing, storing and cooking. It's not like I was planning to reinvent the wheel. Lot's of people are doing it.
Maybe I should have taken a little more time for research and maybe I should have followed the advice I found a little more closely, but it seemed like everyone has his or her own way of making acorns fit to eat, so I decided to wing it with a mash-up of different techniques.
What oaks made these?
First, there was the gathering of the acorns. This was not difficult, for the reason I started this post. Acorns are abundant here. During a 1-hour hike just north of town, I collected 3-pounds of acorns. While I harvested, I cracked open the nuts of several varieties and tasted each to see if any were less bitter than the others. All acorns contain tannins that make them taste, well, poisonous. The white oaks are supposed to produce the sweetest acorns with the fewest tannins, but I couldn't detect any differences in the level of bitterness in the three or four varieties I found. I couldn't identify any of them with the guide book we have for oak trees because Sue had left it at work. Some were big. Some were long and narrow. A few had burly caps that almost enveloped the nut. They all tasted pretty toxic to me. No matter, I'd leach the tannins out by boiling the nuts when I got home.
Raw nuts
Shelling 3 pounds of acorns with a lobster cracker took a couple of hours. I had to throw a third of my catch into the forest, either because they'd been infected with the acorn weevil grub, or they were moldy inside.
Boiled nuts
With my raw acorn meats gleaming in the sun, I prepared the leaching bath - two pots of boiling water. One of these was for the acorns to start in, the other was for transferring the nuts at 20-minute intervals. Several of my sources warned against hot to cold water changes, as it locks in the bitter tannins (I don't know - I'm just telling you what I read). Mr. Gibbons also recommends tasting the acorns for bitterness after each 20-minute interval so as not to lose the natural sweetness of the nuts, which also reduces during the leaching period. I have to tell you I was still a little nauseous from sampling the raw nuts in the forest, so maybe I was a little over-anxious to get the tannins out. Though Gibbons says a 2-hour leaching process is normal, I decided mine were ready to come out after 80 minutes (on reflection, maybe it was my digestive system begging me to stop).
Oven-dried nuts
The boiled acorn meats were mushy and unappetizing, but I still had the drying process to complete before they'd be ready to cook with. I spread them out on a baking sheet and put them in a 200-degree oven for what turned out to be 3 more hours. During that time, the acorns shrank a bit and turned chocolaty brown, but not the good chocolaty. By this time it was 11 o'clock at night - past my bedtime. I'd been at this experiment, pretty much non-stop, for 8 hours and I figured they had to be done. I took out a small bite of acorn and ... ugggh ... tasted it. It was hard on the outside, chewy on the inside and, blast it to hell, still bitter! Discouraged, I threw the batch of semi-processed acorns in a Zip-Loc and tossed them in the freezer and went to bed for a fitful night's sleep thanks to my roiling stomach juices.
My acorns are still in the freezer, where they may remain indefinitely. In time, I may muster up enough courage to throw a handful into a hearty soup or stew, but for now, I have no stomach for it. Looking back, I certainly made my share of mistakes. I should have looked for white oaks and been more refined in my leaching and drying processes. I may revisit this experiment sometime in the future, but for now, I'm willing to claim victory in the fact that I produced something marginally edible that Sue and I can survive on in the case of famine. I'm also quite happy to leave future acorn processing to the deer, ducks and squirrels. I'll just get mine from them.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Nobody seems to have time to make dinner - at least, that's what 90 percent of the cooking shows on television and magazine articles would have you believe. Even my favorite, go-to source for culinary ideas, "Cook's Illustrated" magazine, seems hellbent on cutting corners and eliminating steps to create the perfect, 20-minute pot roast or "no-stir" risotto. I understand a lot of folks are pressed for time, but if you don't have time to cook healthy, wholesome meals from the heart, it's probably because you've chosen other things in your life to prioritize over the food you eat. I know some people for which food is simply fuel to run daily bodily functions while they pursue happiness away from the dinner table. I, on the other hand, am at the other end of the spectrum. Life is too short to eat bad food. Here's a particularly worthwhile example:
Wood duck confit on a bed of arugula.

Confit (pronounced cone-fee) is an ancient method of preserving meats, traditionally duck or goose, in their own, rendered fat. The pieces of fowl are salted and seasoned, then completely submerged in fat and slow-cooked until they are fall-off-the-bone tender. Once that is achieved, the meat can be stored, in stasis, for weeks, even months, in a cool dark place (or, in more modern times, the refrigerator). When one is ready to serve the confit, the vessel containing the solidified fat and delectable morsels within is heated to liquefy the fat and allow access. The meat is then seared on the stove top to give it a toothsome crust and served forthwith.
Though fairly straightforward, the process is time-consuming and perhaps daunting to those living in fear of the perceived evils of animal fat. The result, however, is nothing short of miraculous - turning dense, fibrous portions like legs and thighs into melt-in-your mouth tidbits of richly complex protein. The technique is a Godsend to hunters who have long wondered what, if anything to do with those leg-and-thigh quarters of their wild ducks and geese, which are usually best-prepared separately from the breast meat because they take longer to cook. Since developing my own method for confit of wild game a couple of years ago, I typically start the process by saving all of the plucked leg-and-thigh quarters from my ducks through the season until I have enough to do a big batch that will keep practically indefinitely in the fridge (though it never comes close to lasting more than a couple of weeks).
The pricking of the skin
First off, one must have duck fat and lots of it. In some parts of the country, the wild ducks have enough fat to render for this purpose, but in my experience in North Carolina, the birds are too skinny to make such an endeavor worthwhile. The easy thing to do would be to buy canned duck fat in the gourmet store or online, but that means you're giving up the second best reason to render fat - eating the duck. Store-bought domestic ducks have gobs of fat and are typically available in the freezer section for $16-18 for a five-pound bird. You can kill two ducks with one recipe by following "The Amazing Five-Hour Roast Duck" recipe, attributed to Mindy Heiferling in "The 150 Best American Recipes" cookbook - another must-have, favorite of mine. The gist of Heiferling's technique is shallow pricking the skin all over the duck and roasting it in a low, 300-degree oven for the first four hours. At one-hour intervals, you remove the duck, pour off the rendered fat into a container, re-prick the skin, turn the bird over and return it to the oven. In the fifth and final hour, you turn the oven up to 350 to crisp the skin. Allow the bird to rest for 20 minutes, then carve and serve. The result is absolutely delicious AND you get about 1-1/2 cups of liquid gold. I have found I need approximately 5 cups of fat to cover a batch of duck legs, so I repeat the process three times leading up to the hunting season so I'll have what I need when it's time to make the confit (trust me, eating three domestic ducks roasted in this fashion is not a hardship). The fat is kept covered in the fridge for months until I'm ready to use it.
Let's skip past the gathering of the wild ducks for now and assume you have 8-20 leg-and-thigh portions defrosted. The next step is to cure the meat for a short period in a mixture of:
  • 2 cups of Kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 2 Tbsp black peppercorns
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
  • 1 bunch of fresh thyme
Duck legs on the cure. Cover them with the remaining salt and seasoning mixture.
The ingredients and proportions listed are used by chef Tom Colicchio at his "Craft" restaurant in New York City, but you can play with them to suit your own taste. I diverge from Colicchio in the time the duck is allowed to cure. Where he uses big, fatty domestic duck legs and cures them in the refrigerator for 12 hours, I'm using relatively tiny and skinny wild duck legs and cure them for 4. Once the cure time is finished, take the legs out of their salty bed and wash them off thoroughly under the faucet. Pat them dry, place them in a pot big enough to hold them in a layer or two and cover them with melted duck fat. Bring the fat up to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and leave it for 2-1/2 hours or until the meat begins to separate from the bones. If you aren't intimate with the vagaries of your stove top, watch the process carefully until you're satisfied the fat is holding at the gentlest of simmers. Do not let the fat come to a boil, as this will toughen the meat irreparably. Now cool your confit and place the covered vessel in the fridge for at least a week, until you're ready to move forward with the final steps, as described above.
"Bunged" and ready for storage.

I've made this with both wild duck and wild goose, and I daresay the technique would work for rabbit and squirrel as well. If you're a waterfowler who breasts out his birds and deems the rest too troublesome to bother with, I beg you to give this confit a try. I guarantee you'll be plucking all of your gamebirds and breaking out the legs and thighs for this ultra-slow food preparation for the rest of your hunting days. If you don't hunt, try it with domestic duck parts, or rabbit, or pork. Either way, it will be worth every single minute, hour, day, week and month you put into it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Birding the High Country

You could go with this - Craggy Gardens, Blue Ridge Parkway
We had good intentions Saturday, I swear we did. We were supposed to be doing yard work for most of the day. Lord knows our little lot could use some TLC. After whoever cleared the homesite, they took away all of the topsoil and replaced it with mulch to cover up the clay. To keep the mulch from washing down the hillside, they planted vinca, which now of course is trying to choke off all other plant life that remains. Yep, Sue and I were going to spend the day planting native vegetation, marking out future footpaths and pulling that goddamn vinca, but then there was a chip note ... and then another.
Tennessee warbler
With binoculars in hand, we went onto the back deck and started searching the treetops; Tennessee warbler, black-throated green warbler, rose-breasted grosbeak, Swainson's thrush, scarlet tanager - the fall songbird migration had come to our backyard and as bird watchers, we are helpless to resist its siren song. In addition to the birds flitting about the trees, a look skyward showed many more still high in the stratos. The vast majority of migratory songbirds travel at night and navigate by the stars. At dawn, the weary travelers descend into whatever landscape lies below to rest and refuel until the sun sets again. By 9 o'clock, the skies were clear except for a kettle of 12 broad-winged hawks Sue spotted gliding over the house while I was inside pouring another cup of coffee. The action in the trees, however, didn't stop the entire day. The Tennessee warblers foraged in the pokeweed while thrushes, tanagers and rose-breasted grosebeaks attacked our two black cherry trees for fruit. The pewee (a type of flycatcher) hawked insects from exposed perches while our cadre of ruby-throated hummingbirds buzzed around the feeders in their never-ending quest for world domination. It was a most-pleasing riot of feathered life. I am reluctant to put numbers to the species we spotted using the yard to forage and bathe. I got the impression most of our visitors from the northern breeding grounds were hanging around with little turnover. In the name of scientific documentation though, these are my guesstimates as to the magnitude of the count (though Sue says I'm being conservative).
Or you could go with this
  • Swainson's thrush: 6-8
  • scarlet tanager: 5-7
  • rose-breasted grosbeak: 3
  • eastern pewee: 1
  • Tennessee warbler: 20
  • black-throated green warbler: 3-5
  • black-throated blue warbler: 2
  • black-and-white warbler: 2
  • blackburnian warbler: 5-6
  • bay-breasted warbler: 4-5
  • blackpoll warbler: 2
  • blue-gray gnatcatcher: 4-5
  • broad-winged hawk: 14
It was about as much fun as I think anyone can have in their own backyard. Sue and I spend a rather significant portion of our lives searching for birds, so it's especially rewarding when they come to share our little habitat oasis with us. The action finally settled down as dusk approached. I guess the migrants used the time to take a siesta from their frantic search for food, and prepare for the long journey ahead. Many of the birds we saw will be in Central America or the Caribbean in just a few weeks, where they will spend the winter in lush tropical forests where the living is easy. But why were they here now? Much of the Southeast has been trapped under a stagnant high pressure system for the past 10 days. In addition to their own wing power, migrating birds take advantage of passing cold fronts and their accompanying north and northwest winds to help push them southward. We haven't had favorable wind conditions for a couple of weeks. Maybe the birds just got tired of waiting around for the travel forecast to be perfect. Maybe they just decided it was now or never.
That night, we opened our copy of "The North Carolina Birding Trail - Mountain Guide" to search for a high-elevation site where we could get closer to the pulse of the migrating wave. We settled on a spot on the Blue Ridge parkway at around 5,600 feet above sea level called Craggy Gardens. Would there be anything happening up there in the morning or was the phenomenon in our backyard merely a flock of gypsies, waiting around for conditions to improve? We'd just have to wait and see.
Getting out of the house the next morning took us a little longer than it should have - it always does. But even at the relatively late hour of 8 a.m., we knew we were in for a special day. At 4,000 feet and climbing, we started to have to use the brakes to keep from colliding with birds as they crossed the road heading up the mountain. By the time we pulled into a parking space at the ridge-top visitors center, the awesome spectacle of autumn migration was pouring over our heads through the mountain pass. From the incredible vista to the northeast, songbirds of every description followed the topography until they went up and over the spine of the Blue Ridge, right past our noses. This was not birdwatching for those who prefer leisurely looks at pretty passerines. These birds were on the move, and unless you had some solid experience identifying songbirds in flight or by flight calls, the tiny travelers would have to go unnamed. For me, the easiest to name were the boldly-patterned rose-breasted grosebeaks - more than I had seen at one time in my life. Others were ocassionally identifiable; black-throated blues, thrushes, etc. At an early point for Sue and I, however, the massive flight over the mountain became more of a life experience than a test of our ID skills. How many birds and of what kinds? Sue says I'm being conservative again, but here goes ...
  • rose-breasted grosebeak: 400
  • unidentified thrush (mostly Swainson's): 275
  • Tennessee warbler: 800
  • unidentified passerines: 3,000
I know more seasoned birders could have garnered a more accurate count and description of what took place, but in the grand scheme of things, it was enough for us just knowing it had happened over the course of 90 glorious minutes. To be sure, our experience is not unique among birdwatchers in the Blue Ridge. The region is hallowed ground for those who find themselves compelled to seek out mass movements of birds. The birds themselves have been using the mountain range to guide their migrations for eons. Undoubtedly, they will be using it for eons to come, but how many will largely depend on the health of the ecosystem and the habitats they require on two continents. I'll think about my role in meeting those challenges another day. For now, I'm just going to revel in the splendor of nature.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Griddles; the Grail of the Grill

Editor's note: For whatever reason, this post was deleted from the blog. It originally appeared in late July. Please forgive me for publishing it again here and now. It bothers me just enough that I'm willing to face your wrath. Thanks. The Bushman
The summer grilling season is past its peak, but here in North Carolina (and much of the country for that matter) there's still weeks to perfect your marinades and hone your skills.
This year, my Dad upped his game by taking the lessons he learned reading Francis Mallmann's "Seven Fires, Grilling the Argentine Way." No, he hasn't been cooking any whole animals over open flame (as the book so beautifully illustrates), but he has brought the joys of griddle cooking to our patios and porches.
I saw my first outdoor griddle this spring, when Dad brought his self-designed and locally fabricated fire box on a family camping trip. With a shelf for a griddle to hover over the open flame, Dad cooked chicken fajita filling over a wood fire that beat anything we'd ever tasted at a restaurant.
Shortly after our enthusiastic response, my sister and I received griddles of our very own, and I've taken my outdoor cooking to new heights in the months that followed.
So what is a griddle? It's just a thick, flat cast iron tray that fits on the grate of your gas or charcoal grill. Like cast iron pots and pans, griddles distribute heat evenly - a great boon to outdoor cooks who constantly struggle with hot and cool spots on their grill, trying to get a consistent result in their cooking. Purists will turn their noses up at the idea of losing those beautiful grill marks on their steaks, burgers and fish. I wasn't too thrilled about the idea either, until the evening I saw nine venison backstrap medallions receive a perfect crust and identical, medium-rare interiors in just 6 minutes on a griddle over a gas flame.
Since then, I've used mine to cook just about everything you can imagine. Vegetables don't fall through the grate and cook alongside fish fillets (otherwise unsuitable for the grill because they're too delicate to flip), breakfast parties come off in a snap because I can cook eggs, bacon, sausage for a crowd, all at one station - and not heat up the house in the process.
And the burgers - oh the burgers - are the best I've ever made. But that has a lot to do with my preparation. As you know, Sue and I rarely eat red meat other than venison (assuming it's available in our freezer), but I've struggled to make venison burgers for years. The meat is so lean, it dries out on the grill long before it's ready to eat. I'm loathe to add beef fat to the mix (as most meat processors do with venison) as that would defeat the purpose of eating this healthiest of proteins. Those troubles are now in the past since the happy introduction of the griddle and the panade.
My hunting partner Brian makes the best venison burger I've ever had. Last winter, I got to see his secret when he mixed up a pound of ground venison with some bread crumbs and milk - this is a panade, though I didn't know it at the time. Later, I read the description in an issue of "Cook's Illustrated" magazine on making the perfect meatball. The recipe suggests a panade of bread crumbs, one egg yolk, 1/3 cup of buttermilk and fresh herbs. That's what I needed to make my super-lean venison burgers juicy and flavorful - a glorified meatball patty! (A note to purists; this technique will NOT give you that classic "burger" texture. It's definitely more like a meatball than the satisfying crumble of a perfectly balanced hamburger patty.) All that liquid and binder solves my "dry" burger problem, but now they are quite fragile and apt to fall apart on the grill. The griddle came to my rescue. I mix the panade into the ground meat and form the patties. As the grill comes up to maximum heat, with the griddle in place and the lid down, I put the patties in the freezer to help them stay bonded. With the griddle smokin' hot, I add just a little bacon fat to the surface and slap those burgers down, flipping them easily when the bottom is perfectly browned. When the burgers come off, I tent them with aluminum foil and turn the flame down before adding my hamburger buns and the piece de resistance, a farm fresh egg to the griddle. The over-easy egg is a decadent topping for my cheeseburger - so good, I'll wager that once you've tried it, you'll never go back to naked burgers again.
Happy grilling.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Babe in the Woods

I've been nervous about this moment since I moved to the mountains of North Carolina back in February. For all that Appalachia has to offer; fantastic scenery, unlimited hiking, diverse eateries, slow food, the No. 1 beer city in the country (Asheville), a vibrant music scene ... the region is NOT held in high regard for its abundance of game (with the exception of wild turkeys, which are everywhere). Up until this point, virtually all of my hunting experience has come from the Coastal Plain, where white-tailed deer are often so abundant they are consider a nuisance, waterfowl winter in huntable numbers and small game opportunities abound. I had the best hunting season of my life last year on the Coastal Plain, bagging five deer and various and sundry ducks, doves and rabbits. In western NC, I've heard the deer population is spotty and ducks are virtually non-existent.Now that dove season has been underway across the state, my pals from back east have been sending photos and e-mail accounts of their hunts and in doing so, gave me the kick in the pants I needed to get out in my new environment and start figuring how I'm going to fill my game freezer this year and the years to come. I started by taking stock of my assets.
The mourning dove
Western North Carolina has ample public lands available to hunters, the largest of which are Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. The feds don't manage their lands specifically to benefit hunters, so most of the acreage is aesthetically-pleasing, ecologically-important, but deer-devoid tracts of mature woods. State managed game lands are smaller (usually around a few hundred to a few thousand acres) and receive the brunt of the hunting public's attention. On the coast I had permission to hunt on two private farms. In the mountains I have yet to make any similar connections, though I do plan to hunt the undeveloped land Sue and I own in Cleveland County, with a modest deer population that abuts more than 19,000 acres of South Mountains Game Land. Back east, my hunting buddies and I religiously applied for several permit hunt drawings in areas with limited access, but great opportunity. I have been drawn for several such deer hunts here in the mountains, but I know much chances for success will be slimmer, especially as I face a steep learning curve in figuring out how mountain white-taileds move through the landscape. There's not much learning that can be done sitting in front of a computer, so earlier this week I gathered up a couple of boxes of shells, my 12-gauge and a camp stool and drove off in search of Sandy Mush Game Land, about an hour from the house. Being as it's just 8 miles north of Asheville, Sandy Mush's 2,600 acres gets thoroughly hammered by all those poor, city-bound sportsmen. To remedy the overcrowding during the first week of dove season, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission recently made Sandy Mush a permit-only hunt for that period. Now anyone can pay a $5 chance to be one of the 125 folks drawn to hunt the game land during any of the first four hunt days of dove season. I went on the first day that permits were not required, but since it was midweek, I practically had the place to myself. There was one guy in the parking lot who was packing up when I pulled in. We exchanged pleasantries, during which he admitted to having seen just a handful of birds and shooting (and missing) only once. That was not the kind of report one wants to hear, but I figured this was more of a scouting mission than a hunting trip. What I found was inspirational. Unlike the public dove fields back east, which are supposed to be planted in millet, milo and corn, but all to often come up as acres of ragweed, the wildlife management plan at Sandy Mush is top rate. A patchwork of open fields among the ridges and hillsides are planted in small plots of dove-loving food crops. The place even had a powerline going through it - long known to wingshooters as dove magnets, powerlines offer the birds superior perches from which they decide where they want to go next. In the shady, woodlots surrounding the fields, a fresh flight of question mark butterflies had emerged in what could only have been a day or less before my arrival. The striking colors of their wings flitted everywhere I looked across the dappled sunlight.
A freshly emerged question mark
Without any local knowledge of the place, I had no idea which fields the birds preferred or what food crops they were hitting during the early season. With so many different spots to hunt and only a few hours to spare, I did some "lazy man" scouting, consisting of walking around the edges of fields and along the ridge tops and listening for shooting. When I didn't hear any, I did the next best thing by trying to figure out where there may have been shooting in the past. Unfortunately, this is fairly easy to do as an unacceptable percentage of dove hunters do not pick up their spent shells at the end of the day. Finding places where the action had been hot and heavy was as easy as looking for piles of red-hulled No. 7-1/2s and 8s. When I found a suitably large trash heap, I picked up the mess and set out my stool. The Blue Ridge Mountains and small, picturesque high country farms to the north spread out before me in the beautiful, late-afternoon light and I couldn't help feeling a bit out of place. Normally, when I gaze upon a view such as that, I'm on vacation. I remember watching, with jealousy that made my stomach ache, the Italian hunters in Umbria standing like sentinels on rocky outcrops in the Apennine Mountains as they waited for passing shots at wood pigeons. This place felt like that scene still burned into my memory. It felt ... exotic. The only thing keeping this post from being perfect is that the doves did not fly. I saw two during the course of my three-hour sit, but they were too fast and too far for me to even consider raising my gun, but I really couldn't have cared less. As a hunter, I all too often feel as though society is pushing me to the wastelands, places no one else wants to be. On the edge of that field, with the sun setting at my back, I couldn't think of anyplace I'd rather be.
But, regardless of the scenery, the habitat and the great work that has been put into the place, Sandy Mush was a bust when it came to doves, at least during my hunt. For whatever reason, the birds simply weren't there. Maybe I was between migrating waves, or the doves had gone elsewhere after getting shot up during the first week of the season. Maybe the place never has very many doves. I'm not sure why, but I'm going back to try to figure it out. I've got a freezer to fill you know.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Got the Chesapeake Blues

I'm not sure how I managed to fritter away the summer without a single fishing trip (with the notable exception of my catfish noodling adventure - click here), but it happened. Now that I live among some of the best trout fishing water in the Southeast, it's unconscionable that I haven't picked up a fly rod. I will remedy the situation soon.
So it was with great anticipation that I drove to Virginia's Eastern Shore last week with Sue to visit her parents. Their house on the bayside offers immediate access to Hungar's Creek and all the fish and crabs it holds. My enthusiasm continued to mount upon our late-night arrival, when my mother-in-law, Sally, informed me my first job in the morning would be to check the crab traps she had put over the side of the dock earlier in the day.
At the appointed hour, I walked down to the water in my pajamas, coffee in hand, (this is not the Bering Sea you know) to inspect the catch. The first trap held nine beautiful blue crabs; the second had three more. I checked the bait (roasted chicken carcasses) and dropped the traps back in to keep catching while my mind started to spin over the coming menu. Crab cakes are a classic, but I've done the the last three or four times we've visited the Eastern Shore. It was time for something different.
After breakfast, I went to the garage and cobbled together a couple of bottom rigs from my father-in-law, Hank's, ample fishing stores. A quick trip to the roadside fishmonger for some bait shrimp and I was ready to go. In the past, I have caught weakfish (gray trout) and Atlantic croaker from Sally and Hank's dock. I was hoping for more of the same on this trip. I baited two rods up and cast them into the creek, propped them on dock pilings and sat back to wait. It didn't take long for the first nibble. In less than five minutes, I had a fight on my hands, but my adversary wasn't either of the usual suspects - it was an American eel of around 18 inches. Now, if I had access to a motorboat and the big water of the Chesapeake, I would have turned that eel into striped bass bait. Stripers, or rockfish as they called south of Delaware, love to eat a lively eel. Instead, I considered my slimy catch and all of the cultures around the world that love to eat it. Most Americans by now have had Japanese cured eel (called unagi) in their supermarket sushi boxes, but eels are treated like culinary gold wherever they swim. We would eat this eel. I just needed to think about how to clean it and prepare it.
Got em on!
By then, Sue had come down to the dock. She was a little surprised at my decision to keep the eel, but she didn't make me let it go. Just as she settled down to enjoy the view and a little sunshine, one of the rod tips started bouncing and I directed her to capture the perpetrator. The fight that followed was epic. Our hero gained line and lost line as the great fish slashed back and forth out in the murky water. Eventually Sue worked the fish in to the point where she was going to have to lead it between two pilings like a field goal kicker. Just as I informed her of this tricky, but required maneuver, the line went slack and the fish was gone. I thought it had wrapped itself on a piling and broken the line, but closer inspection revealed the knot I had tied at the swivel had failed. My fault. No matter; in less than 10 minutes, we had caught an eel and lost something substantial. I figured the bite was on, and while Sue fumed back to the house, I rebaited and set the lines out again.
The next strike came as quickly as the first two, but this time there was no tentative nibble. This was a steady, powerful surge on the line that threatened to drag the rod overboard before I could reach it. When I set the hook, the monster just kept on going without regard to drag (set at it's highest level - stupid) and within seconds broke off. I had a theory for what it was that was born out when I reeled up what was left of my rig. The creature had broken off a brand new croaker hook at the bend. Only one denizen of Hungar's Creek is capable of such feats of strength - the stingray.
I wasn't too disappointed about the ray. Heck, if the fight had gone on much longer than it did, the fish probably would have made off with half of my line too and been doomed to die in a hopeless tangle of monofilament. By then, however, the action died off and all I managed over the course of two hours was to feed the crabs, small fish and Lord knows what all else bits of shrimp to no avail.
By late afternoon, another four blue crabs had entered the traps and it was time to process the catch. To be legal, blue crabs must measure 5 inches from point to point across their carapace. Female crabs carrying eggs must be released, but most of my 16 crabs were males and none of the females had eggs so into the pot they went.
I decided to steam this batch without any seasoning at all so that we could chose later how to enjoy the sweet, succulent meat without any cooked in flavors to sully the deal. 18 minutes in Sally's big steamer did the trick, and the crustaceans came out bright orange and ready for the refrigerator to halt the cooking process.
16 crabs ... whaddaya get?
We left them in there overnight and the next day, Sue and I brought the cooked crabs down to the dock for picking. It goes without saying that picking a pile of blue crabs on the Chesapeake Bay requires a bottle or two of beer and that's how we spent the next hour and a half. To anyone who wrinkles their nose at the thought of shelling out $21 or more for a pound of lump meat crab at the fish market, I challenge you to pick your own pound out of a mess of in-shell crabs. The process is ... time consuming, not to mention the dozens of nicks and cuts your hands receive from all those sharp points and edges that bristle from every surface of a blue crab. Ah but the meat, the beautiful meat. Sue and I plucked just over 2 cups of white lump and knuckle meat from our crabs, and another 1-3/4 cups of sweet claw meat.
For the white meat, I decided to try a pasta. I could have easily just made something up, but I decided to look through Sally's collection of cookbooks for inspiration. When I saw one of my favorites "On Top of Spaghetti" by Killeen and Germon (click here) I figured I couldn't go wrong with the "gently spiced crab spaghettini," but I was. Looking back at the recipe, it seems Killeen and Germon must have decided their book needed a crab recipe and threw this one together. The pasta is sauced with clam brine and seasoned with pepper and salt. To this you add the crab meat, where it becomes completely overwhelmed by the salty elements and is lost in the dish. Two cups of hard-fought crab meat down the drain. It would have been a complete failure if not for the eel, which I filleted (following some online video instruction), lightly dusted in seasoned flour and sauteed in butter and lemon. Wow, what a flavorful fish. If I had to do it over again, I'd skin the eel before cooking. American eels have thick, fatty skin that is both delicious and hard to chew. The ladies at the table had a hard time getting past the rubbery skin to enjoy the succulent eel and I'm not sure I blame them, though I had no problem downing a second helping.
The next crab meal I made sure the crab was king. I took the claw meat and made quesadillas topped with a mango salsa. I moistened the crab with a little mayo and added a sliced scallion and some Old Bay seasoning. It was excellent. The next time I try this, I'll go in an Asian direction and maybe make scallion pancakes for the quesadillas and use cilantro and ginger in my crab mix.
For the rest of the week, the hook-and-line fishing was a complete bust and the crab pots were slow to fill. To pass the dry spell, I drove 12 miles down the peninsula, just past Cape Charles to one of my favorite truck stops, Stingray's, which Michael Stern of "Road Food" fame recently wrote a review of here. I stopped in for breakfast on my way to the hawkwatch platform at Kiptopeke State Park, and ordered my usual scrapple, egg and cheese on a bagel. Doesn't that look incredible?
I think of how much time and money I've spent at Stingray's over the years. It's an institution on the Eastern Shore. My only regret this visit was that I only ordered one item. If you order more than one, or order in a group, the long-standing joke is that the counter staff will screw up your food one way or another. The joke remains funny because everything is good; it doesn't matter what you get in the brown paper bag - just eat it.
With time running short, I had just one more opportunity to cook from the bay. The traps provided another dozen crabs, which I picked with much greater efficiency the second time around. I stopped at the fish market and selected a couple of nice rockfish (striped bass) fillets. For these, I mixed up a crab stuffing; white and claw meat, 1 egg, mayo, Old Bay, and piled it high on top of the fish. I lay these down in an oven-proof pan with some olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic on the bottom and topped them with panko bread crumbs which I added grated pecorino cheese and moisten it with olive oil. I threw the "stuffed" fish into a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes (I knew I could get away with the long cook time because the crab layer was so thick) and behold, the best meal of the week. The crab complimented the fish beautifully and the panko bread crumbs browned up just like I wanted them to. Served with a mushroom and herb risotto and a garden salad and the dish was ready to go up against the big boys.
You know, with all of my recent success catching, processing and cooking crabs, maybe I will head north for the opilio crab season. I understand the Time Bandit is looking for a new greenhorn.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Bridge to 50 Years Ago

When I left Black Mountain last week to first pick up Sue in Raleigh and then continue on to her parents' house in Exmore, VA, I wasn't sure if we'd make it or not. Hurricane Earl was churning along an angle of attack that would meet us somewhere around Virginia Beach, and it was still an enormous, Category 3 storm that at one point had threatened the Outer Banks of North Carolina as an even more terrifying Category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds of 135 mph.
When I worked for a newspaper on the coast, I covered the approach of Hurricane Isabel - also at one point in its evolution a Cat 4. I interviewed the Swansboro Fire Department chief, a couple of days before landfall, as he prepared for the worst and he told me there was no plan for a hurricane of that magnitude. "A Cat 4, you just try to get everyone the hell out of here and kiss everything goodbye. If a storm like that hits here, there won't be a Swansboro anymore." Luckily, Isabel weakened significantly before it touched the coastline around Bogue Inlet, and Swansboro is still a picturesque, vibrant little village on the sea that I miss dearly.
Hurricane Earl didn't weaken much, but it did stay far enough offshore to allow travelers to move with relative impunity. Most importantly, the winds never reached the level it takes for officials to close the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel - the 20-mile time machine that allows us to cross the bustling city of Virginia Beach at the mouth at the mouth of the bay and land at Kiptopeke, the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Our crossing took place at night, so we couldn't see much past our headlights on Hwy. 13, but Sue and I have history on Virginia's Eastern Shore, and we know the lay of the land that rushed past in the darkness about as well as any place we've ever been. We were, in fact, married there a little more than nine years ago, in a stone chapel on Bayview Road. After the ceremony, our guests and we celebrated at a reception hosted by Sue's parents, at their home on Hungar's Creek. It was that same home where we spent the next six days - visiting familiar places and reconnecting with old friends, as we have done every year since we left the Eastern Shore for our honeymoon and a new home in the Old North State.
Even far offshore, the hurricane's rain and wind kept me from my reunion with the places I love best, but our first full day was time well spent with family. Sue's parents retired here more than a decade ago, after raising their two daughters in northwestern New Jersey. Hank loves to fish and Sally keeps beautiful gardens. Their home on the bayside exemplifies each of these passions, and the view from the back porch - looking up Hungar's Creek - is so intoxicating, it's easy to go out with a cup of coffee in the morning to watch the sunrise and then wonder where the day went when you realize you've missed lunch.
A couple of days of such behavior is all well and good, but Sue demanded action by the start of the weekend, so we lowered the 2-person kayak into the creek and headed off for a paddle. Early September on Hungar's Creek is a time of transition for wildlife. The birds that have nested there are picking up and starting their migration south, while the northern breeders are still weeks away from their annual layover. One constant is the creek's pair of bald eagles, which we saw every day, but never so closely as while we were in the kayak. I watched the male (he's 1/3 as large as the female) fly to a perch in a secluded cove and had my camera at the ready as Sue eased us around the bend. From his point of view, we must not have been much of a threat and the eagle allowed us to drift within a stone's throw before taking off for a more peaceful spot.
Seeing the great raptor at such close range put my heart in a nostalgic mood, so the next morning I drove 15 miles back down the peninsula to Kiptopeke State Park (click here for info) - the place that started my fascination for the Delmarva. The landscape is as it has been for decades - largely agricultural with large landholders and a poor labor force. Oh sure, there's a Food Lion in Cape Charles now and a swanky golf course too, but It was back in 1997 that I signed on to trap and band migrating birds of prey for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (click here), which, in some form or another, has been monitoring bird migration at the tip of the Delmarva since 1994, in conjunction with a songbird banding project that started back in 1963. Today, CVWO employs seasonal biologists every fall, from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30, to count (and capture for banding) migrating hawks, songbirds and butterflies. The nerve center of the operation is at the hawkwatch platform at the state park, and it is there I went to revisit the site of past glory. I consider the three fall seasons and one spring season that I spent as hawk banding coordinator and spring migration counter as the most exciting and rewarding in my career as a field biologist. Over the course of those disjointed 12 months, I saw things in the natural world that have never left my consciousness. I witnessed there what was, at the time, the largest single day count of migrating peregrine falcons the world had ever seen (365) and a year later, it happened again with their smaller cousins, the merlin (over 600, of which, I caught and banded 61 - also a record at the time). I saw warbler fallouts that set the ground moving with tiny feathered travelers. You had to kick the American redstarts and northern waterthrushes out of the way before you could safely take a step. I saw nighttime roosts of thousands of migrating monarch butterflies that set the pine trees alight with Halloween colors of orange and black. Every day, something extraordinary happened when I was there, and, as I found out last week, it still does.
The Delmarva Peninsula is the perfect trap for migrating birds and insects. As autumn cold fronts sweep in from the northwest, the birds and butterflies (and some dragonfly species too) allow themselves to be pushed against the coast. From there, they are funneled down the length of the peninsula - as they have little desire to turn back and fly across the mighty Chesapeake or the unknown of the Atlantic - and so they bunch up at the tip, right at Kiptopeke State Park, until they gather enough courage to make the leap across the bay because there is no other choice. The toll is devastating. It is estimated that more than 75 percent of migrating songbirds perish during their first trek to the wintering grounds in Central and South America. Those that survive to become adults, avoid the same mistake and stick to inland migration routes.
The migration has barely started however, and my few hours on the platform and around the park were spent mostly catching up with a few old friends who, whether they know it or not, gave me great comfort to think that I could come back to experience the migration as I did during those carefree years as a transient field biologist. No matter what has happened in my life - good or bad - the birds still fly over the watch.