Cooking For Love With Me and My Prince Edward Island Guys

Cooking For Love With Me and My Prince Edward Island Guys

I received a call the other night from a pal from the US concerned that I had not been eating well as I had not made a post in a while.  I had to confess that my lack of blogging activity did not have to do with a lack of good food, but rather a prolonged hangover from my delicious month, away from everything, in Prince Edward Island.

Prince Edward Island is a small Canadian province in the Maritimes.  It is north of Maine, tucked between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  My love affair with the island started with a description of corn.  When my mother was a little girl in the years after WW2, her father, an RCAF pilot, was stationed on the island.  They lived in primitive housing near to the town of Summerside.  There was a common water pump that served the homes and I do not know whether or not there was consistent electricity.  My grandmother, with a new baby, hated it.  I have no idea what my grandfather thought.  My mother, however, fell in love with the island.  As children, my mother regaled my sister and me about her time there.  The simplicity, the peace, the parties with the other pilot’s families, the smell of it.  But mostly she talked about the corn. Fresh corn, fertilized with fish heads (according to her), the kernels white and small, bursting with sweetness.  When I was in my 30s, my sister mentioned to me that Prince Edward Island was actually a real place and not just the fairy tale that I assumed it was.  We decided to rent a house with our parents for two weeks.  Despite the mosquitos, the difficulty in getting there, the inconsistent weather, Prince Edward Island fit our family like an old sweatshirt; after a few years, we bought land overlooking the ocean and built one of the great houses of all time.  My parents are now there on an almost full-time basis,  residing there from May to December; my aunt and uncle purchased a farm nearby; and my sisters and I, our families included, manage at least a few weeks all together during the summers.

Why the hangover then?  Could Prince Edward Island be hiding a group of restaurants that would eclipse the glories of Tokyo?  No.  You can get a decent fish and chips, a scallop burger, a lobster roll; but really dining out is not the point.  What I do in Prince Edward Island is cook.  That’s it.  It is my absolute favorite place to make and eat a meal.

When I say, I do nothing in PEI, I really mean it.  I woke up early every day.  I stepped outside and walked the short path to the beach — the rays from the rising sun blossoming in gentle tendrils of color over the ocean.  I breathed in the air, scented with bay plum, roses, crushed sprigs of wild thyme, salt and the slight funk of seaweed fermenting on the beach.  I returned to the quiet of the house to make coffee and heat up milk.  At some point my son and daughter would wander down the stairs; my mother would emerge in her bathrobe to take the dog out, and my father — 90 and still going strong — would sit down at his computer to eat his pills and read the New York Times on his laptop.  We have a field of blueberries next to our house, so some mornings I would make smoothies with them, adding fresh raspberries, apples, peaches, bananas and yogurt. Other mornings I would take the eggs we get from a nice lady who tailors my father’s pants and make omelets using freshly pulled onions, some of that wild thyme and local cheddar.  I would fry up some of the bacon smoked by my aunt and uncle from pigs they raised on their farm.  It was summer and I had time, so sometimes I would get extravagant — making huge breakfasts with home fries; biscuits and gravy with a poached egg; strawberry and blueberry pancakes.  If there was corn leftover from dinner, I would make a stack of corn fritters.  With the dishes done, it was time to get serious:  What to have for dinner?  This is a real bit of business, the framing device for the entire day — there were consultations, minor areas of dissent and lists drawn up.

In PEI, I have my guys: The Cherry Tomato Guy (Charlottetown Farmers Market); The Fish Guy (either his pickup truck in St. Peter’s Bay or the main shop in Charlottetown); The Oyster Guy (in Morel); The Mussel Guy (also in Morel); The Corn Guy (pickup truck in the parking lot of Montague’s wildly depressing Downeast Mall); The Fava Bean Man (Charlottetown Farmers Market – not sure why he is a “man” instead of a “guy,” but he just is).  I even have a Dumpling Guy (who is actually a woman, a transplant from Beijing married to a Prince Edward Islander.  I met her at the surprisingly large Chinese market in Charlottetown where she was unhappily employed.  She informed me that she sold homemade dumplings, and like a drug deal, I would meet her in out-of-the-way locations for unlicensed dumpling transactions).  Other than my guys, I discovered an Asian Market that sold okra and Scotch Bonnet Peppers to the growing African and Carribean populations; a variety of vegetable stands and regular grocery shops.  Of course, there is always my Aunt and Uncle’s Ocean Mist Farm, where I can drop in and leave loaded up with freshly dug potatoes, garlic, onions, paper sacks full of cherries, currants and gooseberries; fresh lettuce; hefty roots of horseradish and clumps of oregano and cilantro.  And, moments from their home is St. Anns Bay, where an hour of digging with your toes at low tide will reveal dozens of hard-shell clams.

What did I do with this bounty?  I dusted thick steaks of Hake with panko and fried them to glorious perfection. I poached fresh halibut and doused it in a sauce of pureed new peas and tarragon.  I made soups with mussels, clams, haddock, roasted cherry tomatoes, white wine and fennel. I made garlic scape pesto with new potatoes.  I made a Jamaican-style chicken curry. I smoked pork spare ribs over white oak.  I grilled beautiful baby eggplants (white, deep purple and green) and served them with a miso sauce and bonito flakes.  I made Korean Kim Chee Jigae.  I made skewers of lamb shoulder (also from my aunt and uncle’s farm) marinated in turmeric and yogurt. I went nuts with crudites, arranging a variety of veggies (some from my mother’s little garden) with dips made from local blue cheese. From the Cherry Tomato Guy — a soft-spoken gent who loves my Uncle Yossi — I bought a bagful of “Black Grape” cherry tomatoes,  split these in half, lined them up on a baking pan, added olive oil, slivers of fresh garlic, fresh thyme, salt and pepper and baked them for about 90 minutes.  When done I pureed them in the blender.  I served this lush, rich, deeply tomatoey tomato sauce over tagliatelle   I roasted red peppers over flame and marinated their sweet flesh in garlic, olive oil, marjoram and vinegar and left them on the counter to gobbled up as the day passed. I fried up baby zucchini with blossoms still attached as an appetizer.  I made a hearty broth from pork bones and used that as a base for hotpot with fresh vegetables, tofu, udon and thin slices of island beef and lamb.  From the Oyster Guy (who I impressed by tipping him for his excellence in oyster selection) I bought dozens of huge, briney Red Head Selects (best oysters ever) and ate them almost every day on the half shell, grilled on the hibachi or fried up in a little egg batter and panko.  And the corn…It came late in the season due to a cold Spring, but when it did, we started every meal with dozens of ears…gluttonous indulgences of corn so poppingly fresh it reminded us of caviar and hardly needed salt or butter.  I even made a dessert, something I never do: A trifle with layers of all spice-tinged tapioca, crumbled toffee cookies, English custard, blueberries and freshly made whipped cream.

Yes, every day found me driving around, picking up ingredients, digging in gardens and marinating, roasting, frying, sauteeing, baking, smoking, grilling and poaching and loving every moment.   We have a  kitchen that a joy to work in — beautifully designed with lots of counter space and a big-ass stove with 6 burners!  It is an open kitchen, so while I prepared food, I sipped wine, gin, beer and chatted with whoever’s around.  As Prince Edward Island is far north, the sun sets quite late, so while cooking I got to witness the protracted drama of the sun gradually dipping into the ocean – the crescendo of which typically happened as our dinners finished up.  But, really what makes cooking in Prince Edward Island so enjoyable is the simple fact that no one enjoys my food as much as my family.  My father, my mother, my sisters, my nieces, my kids, my aunt & uncle, my brother-in-law, my wife, my two friends (who are so close they are like family) are an appreciative and vocal lot.  The praise my skills with sizzling fish; they note how good the potatoes are; they thank me for taking the time to make a gin and tonic with a splash of Aperol and fresh mint.  My father actually spent the summer blogging rave reviews of everything I cooked on his HungryGerald.com website. As much as I love being in Japan, I have missed my family. Two years, while feeling like no time has passed, is actually a long time.  Watching my 90-year-old father cuddle with my daughter or my 13-year-old son show off a newly learned bass line to my 78-year-old mother is to partake in a slightly morbid game of odds.  How much longer will we all be able to gather together? There are so many things that I can’t give back to my family, financially, emotionally, spatially; but what I can do is invest the very best aspects of myself into cooking for them —  hoping that whatever generosity and love I have all tucked inside myself  is expressed in each morsel of food I serve.  I know of no better way of saying thank you as the years dwindle away.

 

 

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