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The Cape, Sea Salt, and Starving off the Land

by Marge Perry on June 27, 2012

Last weekend, Ebo and I packed up the car with Metro shelving, shorts, t-shirts and Tevas and headed to Cape Cod.

Some of my happiest memories from childhood are from the summers I spent in West Dennis, in the little house right behind the dune we rented every year. It was there I learned to love falling asleep to the sound and scent of the ocean; to get up before every one else for a private swim in the surf; to raise a kite high in the sky on a seemingly windless day; and to lust after steamers, lobster and fried clam bellies.

That fence in front was much higher when my big sister Barbara shouted "BOO!" and made me fall from my perch on the top beam. The ocean is just beyond the dune in the far right of the picture.

By coincidence, my son Zak (who did not grow up going to the Cape) ended up living in Dennis this summer. He and his girlfriend, Hope, won seed money (in a business competition hosted by their college, Skidmore) to start an ecologically sensitive sea salt harvesting business. Their company, Wellfleet Sea Salt, marks the revival of a Cape Cod industry that once boasted four hundred forty two companies—and more recently had none. Zak and Hope designed and built the very cool barges pictured below, which look more like something you might see floating on the Mekong than in Dennis, Massachusetts.

Wellfleet Sea Salt barge

Wellfleet Sea Salt barges

After many years of running our own small businesses, Ebo and I thought we might be able to help them get set up and organized. (Thus the car full of metro shelves, the metal units found in many restaurant kitchens, whose very presence all but guarantees a proper place for each and every packing slip, purchase order and adhesive label). Besides, it had been years since I’d had good fried clams. Most places that make fried clams do strips, not bellies. Crazy. Not only that, but they make them with clams that have been out of the water more than a couple of hours. Really crazy. To learn almost everything you need to know about good fried clams go to this wonderful award-winning story written by my colleague David Leite. (But  please understand that I do not share David’s preference for Ipswich clams. I want my clams straight out of the Cape waters).

Fried clam bellies: plump and juicy inside, crisp and crumbly outside

There was something else drawing us to the Cape. Our friends Tamar Haspel, author of the blog Starving Off the Land, and her husband Kevin Flaherty moved to the Cape from New York City three years ago. Tamar’s blog is a smart and often funny chronicle of their efforts to grow and raise as much of their diet as possible. Its arrival in my inbox triggers a Pavlovian response: I immediately stop work to gobble her words.

Lately, Tamar has been posting (boasting?) about the gorgeous and surprisingly large striped bass they’ve been catching. I needed me some of that,  so I mentioned to her I was coming their way…

Tamar and Kevin invited all of us to dinner. To our delight, she offered to lay out provisions from their gardens, hen house and boat (!) and we would cook up a mighty feast together.

First, she patiently taught us her method for filleting striped bass. Ebo and I were surprised by her approach, which is counter to the way we would have done it– but every bit as (or more?) efficient and effective. I guess that’s part of what makes Tamar and Kevin’s life so interesting: they read voraciously and research, but often put new twists on established methods– whether for raising pigs, creating a vegetable garden, building a hen house or keeping bees. They are, in a word, inventive. And incredibly generous to let the kids learn on their fish.

Zak learns to fillet a whole fish

Hope, a former vegetarian, was as excited to learn as any of us– and did a great job. We think she has a future as a fishmonger.

Hope, a fishmonger-to-be

I wanted to learn Tamar’s method, which meant cutting towards me. It is completely counter to my instincts and training to do so, but it works.

Employing the Haspel Method

But dinner was not just fish. Kevin pulled some carrots…

Kevin examines the interesting shapes of his carrots

Hope and Zak gathered radishes and stopped to talk to Curious Hen…

Hope, Zak and Curious Hen

And at some point, someone picked enough strawberries and cut enough rhubarb that we were able to make a crisp for dessert.

Strawberries in the garden

Just before the sun set, we grabbed a few eggs from the hen house.

The Henhouse

And Tamar and Kevin gave us these beautiful blue, green, beige and brown eggs  to take home:

Beautiful fresh blue, green, brown and beige eggs (Look-- the feathers are still stuck to them!)

Finally, it was time to cook. This is where my pictures end because this is when we opened the wine. I will leave you with a tried and true recipe that we adapted for the herbs growing in their garden and the thick fillets from the enormous — and enormously tender, sweet and moist– fish they caught.

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Simple Roast Fish Fillets

This is one of life’s great pleasures: a dish that is as good as the ingredients will allow. There are no fancy techniques and no tricks: Just fresh fish and herbs, good extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. I like it best when made with striped bass or red snapper.

1 1/2 pounds fish fillets

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or marjoram

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Coat a sheet pan or the bottom of the broiler pan with cooking spray or brush it lightly with oil. (The pan must have low sides for the fish to cook properly).  Place the fish, skin side down, on the pan.

2. Whisk the olive oil, salt, lemon juice and lemon zest together; spoon evenly over the fish. Sprinkle the fish with the thyme and oregano and roast in the center of the oven until the center pulls apart with little resistance, about 13 minutes.  (The fish should have just lost its  translucency. Use a fork or butter knife to pry it gently apart along a natural seam in the flesh and peek in.)

Makes 4 servings

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