Monday, July 13, 2009

Honoring the Fish

This was Saturday night's dinner (and yes I'm going to post about the Mango Festival, but I had to talk about this first). These headless men are our next door neighbors and this picture was taken Saturday afternoon, just a few hours before dinner. It doesn't get any fresher than that and this fish was a total surprise. As much as I used to complain about having to live in Florida, I certainly can't complain about living in one of the few places in the U.S. where your next door neighbor can arrive at your house without notice, bearing fifteen pounds of dolphin that only hours ago was swimming offshore. Ok, so I know the rest of the country has jumped on the mahi-mahi bandwagon, but real Floridians call it dolphin and we know we're not eating the entertainment at Sea World when we do. This dolphin was like Christmas to me. It happens to be my favorite fish because it's mild, has a dense texture like meat and is obviously from right here where I live. I also love that the fish was caught by people I know and love, that I know they only caught one, and that we didn't waste any of it.

Some people may be horrified by fishing. The hook through the fish's mouth is pretty awful and I get the animal cruelty angle, but while I am very opposed to fishing purely for sport, I am strongly supportive of people who fish for food, only take what they can eat and then don't waste any of it. I think it's a lot less cruel than say factory farming for cows, pigs and chickens or commercial fishing where other species are tangled in nets and left to die. Fishing for your own food can also be pretty economical. At my local fish market, dolphin sells for fifteen dollars a pound. We got this fish for free. Had we paid for the meat, it would have cost us over two hundred dollars. Of course, our neighbors had to buy equipment and take their boat out, which involves a small investment, but if you fish regularly I think you make that up fairly quickly, plus you get a nice afternoon out to sea.

Years ago when I first began cooking professionally I was a vegetarian. I didn't want to kill animals and handle raw meat. The whole idea was appalling to me, but I worked in a large hotel and I couldn't avoid it, though believe me, I tried everything to get out of steaming lobsters and fileting venison. The chef I worked under noticed my aversion and asked me what was wrong. I explained to him how I felt about killing animals and how it made me sick and guilty. He took my concerns seriously. He validated my feelings about this, but then explained to me that when you cook meat you must always honor the animal who gave its life for our sustenance. You must thank it for its sacrifice and cook every single meal perfectly and with reverence. You must use every bit of the animal and never waste. This meant boiling lobster and shrimp shells, fish skins, heads and bones for stock. It meant finding uses for the parts of the animal most of us find distasteful (including me) and finding ways to make them delicious or useful. Honoring the animal also means supporting farmers and fishermen who raise their stock in a sound, healthy way - not cramming sick animals on top of one another, feeding them food that isn't what they're supposed to be eating and throwing anti-biotics and hormones at them. Never cook frivolously. Always be mindful. Prepare meat in the finest way you can, so as not to end up with something inedible that has to be thrown out, which, according to my chef, was an insult to the animal and a waste of its life. I have never forgotten the chef's words to me.

We honored this dolphin Saturday night. Everyone was thankful and we all felt so lucky to be able to eat this fresh, abundant fish. We seasoned it lightly and grilled it topped with mango salsa. The parts cut away during the cleaning process were saved for bait, although next time I'm asking for the head and spine to make stock so I can make a Bahamian style fish soup. This fish brought people together when it gave its life for our dinner. We bonded with our neighbors. Because there was so much fish, more people came over to eat it and new friendships were forged between people who may never have met. It was a beautiful night and we were all truly fed.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mango Festival

Don't forget the Mango Festival this weekend at Fairchild! The festival runs today and tomorrow. I'll be there tomorrow and a post will follow Monday with lots of pictures. I can't wait to eat all the samples and have been excited for this festival since March. Also, a lot of people don't know this, but teachers get in free with proof of employment.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Local Humor - Overheard at the Fish Market

I'm thrilled that so many people are making efforts to eat locally. I hear about it everywhere I go, especially at the fish market. Each time I'm sure to ask specifically where the fish comes from. Most of it is caught around here, but they also have salmon flown in from Ireland and a lot of fish from Chile. I avoid these options. I don't like salmon anyway. It seems my inquiries are catching on, but maybe not in the way I had imagined. Yesterday as I stood in line waiting for my pound of dolphin to be wrapped up I heard a man come in. Pointing to the lobster tank, with its large sign that read clearly "LIVE MAINE LOBSTERS" the man asked with great seriousness: "Are these live Maine lobsters local?" Maybe he thinks "Maine" is a breed? Luckily they pointed him to some spiny tails, although they were frozen and very out of season right now.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Blackberry Mush Recipe

Begin by placing your washed blackberries in a saucepan. I had about 2 pints give or take here. Then add about a cup of water, or enough so that the berries aren't swimming, but the water is almost level with them in the pan. Then add sugar. Now sugar is a very subjective thing. I added about a half cup to this pot. You may prefer more or less. Some batches of berries are sweeter than others, so there's no set rule about the amount of sugar to use. My advice is to start with a little, then once the berries cook down some, taste them and see what you think. Add more until you like the taste. I prefer enough sugar the bring out the flavor of the fruit, but not so much that it tastes like jam. I prefer a hint of tartness, but you may not and that is ok. The recipe is extremely forgiving. Bring your fruit to a gentle boil, stirring and mashing them with a wooden spoon.
Boil your blackberry, sugar and water mixture over medium for about twenty minutes to a half an hour. Stir and press on the berries to break them up. Do not allow them to scorch or to get too thick and jammy. If it seems to be too thick and as if it might stick, then add more water. At this stage you want it to be soupy.

It's very important to strain your berries once they've cooked down a bit and the fruit is broken up. Blackberry mush is smooth and velvety. You don't want a mouthful of gravely seeds here. Pour the cooked berries into a fine mesh sieve set over a bowl and mash the puree through by pressing and scraping it with the back of a spoon. I hate this step, but it's infinitely worth it. Just be patient and keep pushing so you waste as little fruit as possible.

Return your strained blackberry puree to the saucepan and bring it back to a simmer. Make a slurry of cornstarch (non-GMO) and water. I used a couple tablespoons for a medium sized saucepan of berries. It's hard to measure. I just add a little at a time until the mush is thickened to the consistency of pudding, while stirring constantly. Remember, it will thicken a bit more once it's cold.

The Finished Product - Blackberry Mush

Just pour it into a glass dish and chill before serving. If you can wait that long. A lot of people like it warm and I confess to sneaking several spoonfuls of it while it was still warm. It's such a pretty color.

Blackberry Mush

Worse than buying food shipped clear around the world, is wasting any food period. I hate food waste. When I waste food I feel terrible guilt and I feel like a bad person, so when confronted with several pints of non-local blackberries, I certainly wasn't going to toss them. They were good quality, perfectly fine berries and they were going to get eaten. What then, I thought, was the best way to honor the fruit? There was no way I could eat them all plain and raw. Should I make a pie or a cobbler? I didn't feel like dealing with the seeds stuck in my teeth for days. No, instead I would make blackberry mush.

Recently I became a member of Slow Food. In addition to promoting local edibles, Slow Food is committed to preserving heritage foods and recipes unique to certain cultures and areas. Every time I go to Delaware to visit relatives I am deeply saddened by the fact that no one of the younger generations (including my own) can cook my great grandmother's recipes, most of which are completely unique to that part of the world. My grandmother, her daughter, remembers many of the recipes, but doesn't like to cook and doesn't have anyone to cook for anymore. When she is gone, the recipes are gone for good. That's why I've vowed to preserve these dishes and to cook them as often as I can. One of them is blackberry mush.

It doesn't sound good at all. Mush makes me think of cornmeal porridge or something gruel-ish. Blackberry mush contains no grains and is more like an unusual pudding, yet it contains very few ingredients, none of which come from animals. It's completely vegan. I have never, ever seen it anywhere else in the world besides Southern Delaware. A google search of "blackberry mush" turned up very few relevent results, one of which was a discussion board from Southern Delaware where some people remembered their grandmothers making it. I think some of the people didn't know how to make it. Well, I do and I'm going to show you how it's done properly, just like my great-grandmother who was born in 1893 and grew up outside of Felton, Delaware on a farm called Paradise Alley, when local eating was the only option.

I loved Blackberry Mush when I was little, but no one loved it as much as my grandmother's sister, my Aunt Janet. She would eat bowlfuls of it every summer. It was her favorite food. There are several uses for the stuff, which is nothing more than a thickened, strained puree, but my great grandmother ate it over clabber, which was a homemade plain yogurt she also used to make. She lived to be a hundred, so I'm thinking she was on to something here. It's excellent on any kind of yogurt though and would also be good on hot cereals or ice cream. I'm like Aunt Janet. I like it plain. You can serve it warm or cold, but I like cold.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Not-So-Local Blackberry Situation

Growing up, blackberries meant summer to me. In Delaware they grew wild, like weeds all over everything, rambling across every fence rail, covering the backsides of old barns and tangling themselves into walls of briar, veiled in spider webs. As a teenager I'd pick them and sell them on the side of the road in brown paper lunch bags and another summer I visited Vermont and filled pail after pail with the dark, tart jewels. Imagine how excited I was to find blackberries from a Florida farm. Sunnyridge Farm, located in Winter Haven, fit my definition of local and I had no idea that blackberries grew in a tropical climate. I looked it up and apparently there are several varieties of the berries which do just fine here and even better in North Florida. Ok, I thought. This is fantastic. I can have my summer blackberry fix! I was so excited that I went to Sunnyridge's products page. I wanted to learn more so that I could write about Florida blackberries. Well, I was in for a major disappointment. I had been mislead by the packaging which said nothing more than the "farm"'s name and location. Most people would assume that berries labeled with the name of a farm came from that farm, right? Of course, and that's exactly what the packaging misleads one to believe. Most people wouldn't go that extra step like I did and look up the website, which is very clear and honest about the origins of its berries. Sunnyridge farms may very well grow some blueberries and strawberries, but it looks like it's more of a berry distributor than an actual "farm" which is really sad, because the name Sunnyridge Farm brings to mind an idyllic scene. Turns out these blackberries were probably shipped from Georgia, repackaged to make it look like they came from a "farm" in Florida and sold in grocery stores where people like me, who make an effort to buy local products end up deceived. I was really disappointed and this experience got me thinking about how many other products use subtle, misleading tactics to trick consumers into purchasing something they think comes from nearby. In other posts I've already complained about the fake "homemade" jams and jellies sold at farmer's markets, and I've lamented "farmer's markets" which ship in produce from as far as whole other countries and are nothing more than the produce section of a grocery store, just outside. None of these businesses are outright lying, but to me, this constitutes lying by omission and they're getting away with it. Had I known that these berries were from another state, I wouldn't have bought them. But I had bought them and now I had several pints that I couldn't waste. I had to make this a positive, non-wasteful experience. It was time to turn non-local blackberries into blackberry mush.