Memory Fish

It was 7:30 straight up when the phone rang. I was peeling a large red papaya, thin skin curling back over itself as I drew the short paring knife’s blade slowly down, imagining a bow drawn over a violin. Music was in the air, and the ringing phone a discordant intrusion.

“Miss Beth, you got some coffee?” Harold’s voice boomed out from the speaker of the phone, which I had punched with a papaya juice-stained finger.

“Nope, not yet,” I said. “I meant to, but I’ve been writing.”

“Running? You say you been running?” Harold sounded stunned.

“No,” I said. “Writing. Like a book. Writing.”

“Well,” he continued, “I got a little care package for you, if you and that old man are going to be around.”

“Come on,” I said. “I need some coffee, too. It’ll be ready when you get here.”

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Harold came in with several plastic grocery store bags and a tightly capped plastic bowl.  He grew the onions, squash and cucumbers in his garden. His wife, Louise, grew the tomatoes and bell peppers in flower pots in their yard. As we drank our coffee and talked, a pungent raw onion smell began to permeate the kitchen.

Harold had not made a move to open the plastic bowl. I’m sure he knew he could outlast my curiosity. He was right.

I pulled the bowl toward me, and asked, “What’s in here?”

“I don’t know if you two eat these,” Harold said coyly. “My boy and me caught them in Miflin Lake over in Baldwin County. Them’s Alabama fish.”

By this time, I had pulled the top off the bowl. Ten pretty little bluegills (bream) sprinkled with ice chips nestled inside. I pulled out three of them to make a picture.

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When my brother, Wally, and sister, Flo, see this photo, I know it will take them back to central Florida, cane pole fishing, and neighborhood cats circling the backyard table where Daddy cleaned his catch. I smell the not unpleasant fresh fish smell, remember the click sound of scales, and hear water running from a garden hose.

Tonight, we’ll dredge the bluegill in cornmeal and fry them in peanut oil. Buck hired himself out as a ten-year old fishing guide on the Escambia River long years ago. He and I will chew our memories slowly tonight, savoring every bite.

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Late at night, I read tomorrow’s headlines from The New York Times by the light of my Blackberry. When I’m driving in the car during the day, I listen to National Public Radio for the news. But when I want to plug into the visceral interpretations of rural everyman, there’s no source like Harold. If the NYT is the brain, he is the guts, and his opinions hold equal weight with me.

Weather Retorts

Weather reports are just that. Reports. Predictions. Guesses. Today’s weather guess for Panhandle Florida prepared us for a classically warm rainy winter day, ushering in a fresh cold front and freezing temperatures tomorrow.

The weather guessers may be right on the second half of their prediction, but they were delightfully wrong on the rain forecast. Today was beautiful: sunny and a perfect warm-in-the-sun, cool-in-the-shade kind of day. It was windy, for sure, and the wind’s direction is changing tonight so that a small fire feels just right. I saw pictures of blizzard conditions in the northeast and thought how pretty it looked from the safe distance of the television screen, and how nice it is to step out onto the now screen-less porch and feel the cooling wind whip up around my bare feet.

I’m a lackadaisical housekeeper between bursts of industry. Today was a good day for opening the house to the breeze and scrubbing everything in sight. Late in the afternoon, I put a pork loin roast in the oven. It had been marinating in a paste of fresh rosemary, garlic, coarse black pepper and olive oil. Soon the fragrance had Maggie following her nose in through the open door. She found her mat near our work table and rolled over onto her back, head totally relaxed, nose pointed toward the oven.

We had a pretty supper last night, with the bright colors of sautéed sweet red and yellow peppers, zucchini and onion, a pan-seared salmon laced with soy sauce, honey and Dijon mustard, and a baby spinach, mushroom and radish salad tossed with a light vinaigrette. A scoop of curry-scented couscous and a fresh Plant City strawberry completed the still life.

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That green vine isn’t part of the salad, although it looks like it could be. It’s a sweet potato plant.

 

Breaking Ground

I UNDERSTAND LIFE IS SHORT, that trees planted today may grow to maturity in some other person’s prime. That I may have moved on to some other plane of existence by then.

We are building a home which will outlast us. Is it vanity to make such a dream reality during our short tenure here?  Ah, well, that is a question for someone wiser, or more philosophical anyway, than I.

Here is what I know: the bulldozer came to Longleaf today, and the kinetic excitement it wrought, with its earthmoving power, its growling tiger paws, made my heart beat faster. I jumped all around, camera in hand, as the operator, Mack Godwin (Harvey’s son), pushed down the damaged pine just in front of the current structure, and pushed down the cluster of three scraggly blackjack trees too close to the future porte cocherre (a lovely French word for car port).

Mack brought the huge blade over to the remaining juniper plants in harm’s way. It glinted darkly silver in the afternoon sun and slid smoothly under the plants, lifting them from their moorings while his assistant, Chuck Jansky, grasped the large prickly plants at their base and tugged them free. Once the juniper bed was cleared, the dozer began clearing and smoothing the house expansion’s footprint. Big Foot.

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Buck herded the dozer like it was a rogue bull, pointing and shouting when necessary, making sure Mack didn’t accidentally run over any young pines when he pulled forward into the rough to turn around.

Mack and Chuck left about 5:30. In the growing dark, the bulldozer on the flatbed disappeared completely down the dirt road toward the gate, a rumbling chimera.

Buck and I looked at one another and at the smooth dirt surface one step off the screened porch, its sweet fragrance wafting in on the evening breeze. “We’ve done it, now!” Buck said. We laughed and went inside to fix a celebration supper.

Early this morning, I drove into town and picked up some fresh scamp fillets for dinner, plus a special treat of jumbo lump crab meat. and a baguette of warm sourdough bread. Scamp is a type of grouper, really a lovely fish. I baked it in my favorite of the moment Greek-style with onions, tomatoes and oregano. This time I added a garnish of Honey Bell tangelo segments. The crabmeat was warmed carefully with a mixture of butter, lemon juice, Old Bay seasoning, and Worcestershire sauce.

We’re really not champagne fans, but a gift bottle of Dom Perignon from some close friends had been chilling in the fridge for months and we decided to pop the cork. It was remarkably good with the fish and crabmeat. Pretty good with chocolate ice cream, too!

Tomorrow morning a different bunch will come to shoot their angles and pour the footings. We’ll have a pot of coffee and the gate will be open.

Skopelos on the Bay

Some of our favorite restaurants, like Jamie’s and The Marina Oyster Barn, were creamed in Hurricane Ivan. They have not been able to reopen yet. I ran into one of Jamie’s servers at another restaurant Saturday night, and was glad to see he was working, but it was yet another reminder of the wind-wrought displacement of people.

Another of our favorites, and really, the one that feels most like home, is Skopelos on the Bay. It was founded by Paul Silivos more than 35 years ago. Paul now spends part of his retirement at his birthplace, the Greek island of Skopelos, and some time at the restaurant visiting with guests — almost all of whom, including Buck and I, consider Paul their friend, as well.

Gus Silivos owns and manages Skopelos now. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institue of America, a highly talented chef, and — I think — the best staff trainer in town.

On a recent visit, Gus was serving a classic Greek style red snapper dish that was one of the best we’ve ever eaten. The fresh-caught thick fillet was covered with sliced tomatoes and onions. There was some olive oil, garlic I think, and maybe a little paprika and lemon drizzled on top. Then it was baked and finished in the broiler so that the onion had some good-looking brown bits on top.

We picked up a couple of swordfish steaks from the newly re-opened Joe Patti’s Seafood, thinking about grilling them. Buck saw one lonely tomato on the kitchen counter and said, “Hey, I’ll bet that swordfish would be good the way Gus did the snapper. Think you can?”

Oh, yeah. All in all, I like the red snapper better, but this was a great fish dish, too. Try it. If you like a light tomato touch, it’s scrumptious.

Marinate the swordfish in some olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and black pepper. Slice the best tomato you can find on top and add some sliced red onion. Drizzle on a little more of the marinade. Dust with paprika and baked covered with foil for about 20 minutes, then broil for 5 or 10, depending on thickness of the fish.

Quite nice with a scoop of couscous and sauteed snow peas.

 

Passed Over

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What a morning. Not a cloud in the sky Our pink flagging tape around some trees is blowing like a wind sock in the brisk northerly breeze. I am sitting on the screened porch cradling a mug of chocolate syrup and milk-laced coffee, shivering in my tank top and shorts. It’s 65 degrees. In August. In panhandle Florida.

I just got off the phone with a friend of ours who lives right on the water in Naples, Florida. Their home and one of their neighbors were virtually untouched, but most of their neighbors were not so lucky. Hurricane Charley smashed parts of Florida’s southwest coast to bits. It’s all over the news. There’s a lot of suffering in the wake of this storm.

I have a sister in Plant City and a brother in Lakeland, both near misses for Charley’s path. And six of our seven grandchildren and their parents are in Orlando, staying at the Rosen Centre Hotel adjacent to the Orlando Civic Center. Most of them are competing at the civic center today in the International Tang Soo Do Federation martial arts world championship. They say the hotel windows buckled, but everyone there is fine. I am sure this is a trip they will never forget.

The storm used our area’s hot humid air to feed itself, leaving Pensacola with summer-on-the-Maine-coast temperatures for a few days.

Yesterday afternoon, we zipped over to Joe Patti’s Seafood for a whole red snapper to bake for dinner. Counting our many blessings, we ate supper on the porch, from brilliant sunset all the way to dark-thirty. It was a progressive feast.

Piney Woods Pasha

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Mid-day Saturday we got our tasters up for something fishy, loaded into Boss Hog (a/k/a the van), fixed two cups of ice, grabbed a couple of bottles of Diet Coke and drove into town. We arrived at Joe Patti’s Seafood Market at the zenith of the weekend rush. Wading into the throng, our noses were assaulted by a complex gumbo of smells, mostly distinctly non-fishy, including sun tan lotion and stale cigar smoke lingering on a huge man’s pseudo Hawaiian shirt.

Undeterred, Buck grabbed a number and got into line. His number was B07. The Joe Patti folks had just announced A80 over the microphone, so I ducked into the adjacent Amangiari deli while Buck waited his turn. I scooped up the non-seafood ingredients needed for the evening’s feast, including fresh fettuccine, English style double cream, Italian plum tomatoes, Romaine lettuce and Feta cheese. For our impromptu picnic lunch, I found a small container of freshly made West Indies crab salad, a chunk of butter kaese cheese, and a very hot just out of the oven baguette of French bread. Oh. My. God.

I stepped out into the maelstrom of humanity again and swam over to where Buck was paying for his purchases: a portion of jumbo Gulf shrimp and one of huge sea scallops.

Feeling the hot bread against my leg through the bag, we pardon me’d and gently pushed against the tide to the exit. Buck had found a parking spot for Boss Hog right at the water’s edge. We drank our sodas, broke off hunks of cheese and warm bread (you know, the good kind where it has a nice crackly crust on the outside and is tender as a mother’s love on the inside), and ate bites of the crab salad from a shared container. We watched seagulls wheeling around the decks of the fishing boats, pelicans swimming in patient circles, and a great blue heron standing one-legged on a post.

That evening I played in the kitchen. All my tiny bowls of ingredients were mis en place just as they should be when one is preparing something rather complicated so that it comes out looking simple. Getting the fettuccine and sauce ready at just the right time, while sauteing scallops and shrimp so they’re not overcooked is an experience akin to what I imagine juggling might be. I must tell you, darlings, a glass of wine on the sideboard was an absolutely essential accoutrement to my serenity!

Buck says he lives like a Piney Woods Pasha.

 

Gazpacho and Salmon Salad

Spring officially arrived a few days ago, and lunch on the porch is usually the order of the day. When a friend arrived to join us on this day, however, a too cool breeze brought with it a fresh dusting of yellow green pollen, and we opted to stay indoors.

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Grilled salmon is mixed with capers, celery, red onion, dill, raspberry vinegar and olive oil for this salad. Gazpacho is a staple in our fridge once the weather begins to warm. Those glass mugs are 1950s era Fostoria glass — a gift from my late mother-in-law’s own kitchen. I like their geometric look and chunky feel; the perfect vessel for a root beer float.

 

 

 

Boiled Shrimp Supper

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It’s always busy at Joe Patti’s Seafood. . . even on a Monday afternoon. We picked up some pretty shrimp for tonight and some salmon for tomorrow.

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We cooked the shrimp with a bag of Zatarain’s Shrimp Boil, spiced up with extra cut dried red peppers, a lemon, a bottle of beer and some salt. For dipping, I like to mix ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish and Tabasco.

 

Gourmet Leftovers

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Buck created this good-looking lunch from his foraging adventure in the refrigerator. There’s a few bay shrimp left from our shrimp bust last night, a chunk of grilled swordfish, some slow-roasted tomatoes, and a scoop of West Indies crab salad.

Anyone who turns up their nose at the idea of leftovers needs to re-examine their thinking.

 

Warm Weather Menu on a Cold Night

Earlier today, when it was dark and dreary outdoors, I declared it was time for Black Bean Soup. That was before a brilliant sun and cerrulean sky appeared. There’s a old saying: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.” My cooking moods are often like that. Yours, too?

So, following a field trip to Joe Patti’s Seafood, tonight’s menu has shifted to one that evokes thoughts of dinner on the patio on a balmy springtime evening — only tonight we’ll dine indoors by firelight!

Greek-style grilled swordfish
Slow roasted plum tomatoes
Corn on the cob
A couple of grilled asparagus spears (It’s a rule. You have to put something green on your plate. Besides, I love these.)

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Usually, I serve  couscous with the swordfish, but this time, we were lucky enough to find an ear of corn. The tomatoes really made this dinner. I used 12 plum tomatoes, cut in half and tossed in a bowl with one minced shallot, a minced clove of garlic, fresh ground black pepper, about a tablespoon of thyme, 1/4 cup olive oil, roughly 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and a generous sprinkle of cut red pepper, baked in a 300 degree oven for about 2 hours. (These are great on pizza or pasta — especially with a few shrimp thrown in. They’re also wonderful for bruschetta.)

That funny-looking chunk on top of the tomatoes is a piece of the grilled “freebie” tuna.