Cleanin’ Out My Cabinets: Triggerfish and Little Compton wrap up

Mommy Ryan’s annual Little Compton rental was the past two weeks, hence the lack of posts.  I swear that the internet is barely functional no matter where I go in that lovely seaside town, plus it’s no fun to sit inside writing a blog post when you are at a beach house.  It’s also no fun to pause and take pictures of what you are cooking, so this won’t be my strongest post.

That’s not the house Ma Ryan rented, but it is a pleasant place to have a beer on the deck when the weather is nice.  This was taken a few seconds before Janet started eating pebbles and grass like potato chips and I had to sprint towards her to make her laugh at my lack of athleticism and slow her progress

Little Compton is a bit shaky on the grocery store front, and the best idea is usually to head out of town for most supplies.  The fresh food options are fantastic though, with Walkers (the farm stand en route), dece foraging, the Sakonnet Lobster Company, and a new discovery from this trip on the best place to buy fish.

No real secret to Walkers, just insanely fresh, ripe, locally grown produce that is always delicious.  For the foraging, there are a few sandy spots where you can covertly go quahoggin’ but I have never participated due to fears of undercover shellfish cops.  Elsewhere, the mussel population was unfortunately destroyed years ago due to the introduction of a non-indigenous crab species that wiped them out.  But, we’d heard rumors you could find them on the rocks.

As usual Buschy wanted to go foraging, which meant he wanted to watch and ask questions without getting his nails dirty.  What we discovered on the rocks in front of the house was a huge mussel population well on the way to a full rebound but still a little young.  I plucked a few of the biggest ones for a small appetizer.

I prefer this to the foul smelling mud where I’ve mucked mussels in Maine, but I was consistently positive I was about to break a bone on these rocks

I only pocketed a couple dozen since the mussel population on these rocks likely needed another year to have a full crop of standard-sized shellfish.  The ones we did have were awse; very clean with meat that was tender, sweet, and more white than the usual pink/orange color.  Lots of potential for future years.

Back to the local food sources.  To get the best lobsters and feesh, it’s best to arrive at Sakonnet point between 9 and 10AM.  For the lobsters that will earn you some well priced monsters.

The beer bottle does a far worse job than expected of providing a size and scale reference for the lobsters

To explain, Sakonnet Lobster Co sells on a progressive per pound scale where the larger lobsters are also more expensive per pound.  Pretty standard, but there is a separate price structure for “Cull” lobsters which are priced at 6 or 7 dollars a pound.  Cull generally refers to single claw lobsters, but there are also usually a few that have two claws and are too ugly to be sold for full price.  Considering that you’re not eating the shell, who cares if there is a barnacle or divot on the outside?  You gotta get there early when they are sorting the day’s catch, though; these two pounders with a couple stray barnacles usually go home with the fishermen.

Similarly, around the corner by the jetty at Sakonnet point there is a commercial fishing dock where they sort the day’s catch before 10AM.  If you have cash, you can pay wholesale prices for whatever is fresh caught that day before it heads to the fish markets in Fall River.  Sometimes it’s common fish like Striped Bass or Cod, but the day we went I encountered three fish species I’d never cooked before: Tautog, Triggerfish, and Scup.  After parting with my $8, I headed home with two Triggerfish to clean and prep.

Didn’t get a good shot of the fish, or the awkward 5 minutes where Buschy and I were standing outside the commercial fish docks too nervous and intimidated to go in and ask if they sell fish.  We were acting like high school kids hanging outside a liquor store hoping someone would just offer to buy us some beer instead of asking

Triggerfish are ellipse-like in shape and have a little mouth full of sharp teeth.  Their outer skin is like a solid coat of armor with small scales that were seemingly impossible to remove by scraping.  Since these were whole and fresh off the boat, I wanted to remove the guts and clean them to get that step out of the way.

I learned how to clean trout in Michigan when I was 10.  This wasn’t that similar with the massive air bladder and huge liver, but I got through it

These weren’t the simplest fish to clean since the opening wasn’t easy to get my hands into.  Plus, the air bladder was pretty thick and difficult to remove.  Aside from that, I was surprised by how large the liver was for a relatively small fish.  Once fully cleaned I rinsed the insides out with a hose and put the fish in the fridge until dinner prep.

But I certainly wasn’t going to waste that liver.

This is after a rinse in the sink.  I had to at least try them, right?  I mean what kind of weirdo would just throw that away?

It’s going to sound bizarre, but the main reason for why I cooked the livers was the highly encouraging smell.  They were clean/not fishy smelling, and had the general aroma of a freshly steamed New England mud clam (or steamer).  So, once they were fully rinsed and patted dry, I threw them in a pan with olive oil and a couple twists of coarse sea salt.

After a few minutes browning on each side, they were ready.

I wish I had bought 100 Triggerfish just for the livers.  These things may have looked foul and smelled super-fishy at first, but they were pretty incredible

The texture was liver-like, soft with a crispy outside from cooking in the olive oil, but the flavor didn’t have a hint of what you expect from liver.  They tasted most like a fried clam belly and were very mild and rich.  I was stunned when Kristi took a bite and more surprised when she agreed with my previous assessment.  She even commented on how my lunch of fish livers on an English muffin looked good!  I’ve created a monster.

When it came time to cook the Triggerfish, I didn’t have many options.  The skin was like armor with small scales which made boiling it a tricky proposition and I’m not good enough with a knife to fillet a fish that thin.  So, I went with what I know and packed it in a mixture of kosher salt and egg whites with the cavity stuffed with sliced lemon and bay leaves for a salt baking.  As with my previous experience, it came out surprisingly well.

I was a little sloppy removing the huge crust of salt on top and a little flaked back on the fish, but the skin easily pulled away in one solid piece which cleared most of the salt away.  Yeah, like I was really nervous about salt getting on my food

I was pretty into this fish.  The meat near the ribs and collar was very buttery tasting and tender while the more dense meat towards the tail was dense but flaky and more like a traditional whitefish flavor.  Really good.  Next time around I think I will be stuffing with lime, chili peppers, and cilantro to use the fish meat for the best fish tacos of all time.  Can’t wait to go back to those docks.  Thanks to Buschy and Taylor for all the pictures.

My freezer is completely full due to the recent arrival of a tuna head and guts courtesy of the Hard Four crew (big ups to Johnny of course, and Brother Tim for carpooling with the head).  Not sure if it will be the post for next week, but I have some other posts in mind.

Shellfish in Harpswell, Maine

This past weekend we headed to Harpswell, Maine to celebrate Kristi’s 30th with her twin sister Kate at her husband’s family vacation home.  As usual, I was obnoxious about wanting to cook certain dishes and look for food as the weekend progressed.

For five months every year, Maine is the most beautiful place in America

In the morning I went looking for mussels at low tide.  Very different from my previous experiences since the mussels were buried in sand instead of mud.

Thousands of empty mussel, clam and scallop shells littered the beach, perfect for putting some fresh gashes in my feet

I looked for mussels the only way I know how: look for the biggest ones with as few barnacles as possible while dismissing any found by other people as “not what we’re looking for”.  Eventually I had a few pounds in my trusty Hannafords bag.

So far on this blog I have worn a Rolling Rock shirt, a "snoozy baby bear" shirt, and two absurd sleeveless tees. With that history in mind, I present my Le Tub Restaurant pocket tee. It has a huge hamburger on the back. I am 30.

I definitely had some concerns about how gritty these mussels would be so I soaked them in fresh saltwater for about 6 hours changing the water about every hour.

After two good experiences with wild mussels I was a little too optimistic about these

While the mussels soaked we played lawn games and waited for the main event to be delivered; a container of 16 lobsters from a friend of Reeves’ family.  Since, food is always better after you have had a few beers in the sun, we did just that.

Don't worry, she's cool, we hid her giant plastic keys before she started tipping them back. Plus, another outstanding tee shirt by me

After some giddy celebration when the lobsters showed up, they were all thrown in a giant steaming pot on the beach.  I would love to take credit for the setup, but the neighbors were also having a lobster bake and offered to cook ours with theirs.  While they cooked, I steamed up the mussels and put them out as an app.

Uneaten mussels on the left, empties on the right

The mussels had more pearls and were generally grittier than the mussels we found by Hermit Island.  They also were not as pretty, with very few having that nice orange color that you see in the header image on this blog.  The taste was solid, but all of the extracurriculars made it less enjoyable.  My brother in-law Chandler was undeterred by the grit and probably ate half of them.

Upon returning to the beach we saw this:

Its gonna take the birth of my first child to knock this out of the #2 spot on the "happiest moments of my life" list. Sad that a wedding and a kid would be the only two inedible items on that top ten list

After gorging ourselves on butter and lobster for the following hour we still had a few leftover so we decided to harvest the meat and save it for the next day.  As usual, this turned into one of the better meals of the weekend when we tossed the meat with diced red onion and celery, little mayo, little olive oil, and salt and pepper. Plop that on a hot dog bun and you have pure deliciousness.

I frowned when I saw Kristi had added salad to my plate before I noticed a handy bottle of ranch dressing to avert any chance of ingesting something healthy

The texture of the big chunks of lobster meat made the sandwich.

I hope the day never comes where looking at this doesn't make me painfully hungry

And that was it.  We headed back to the far less delicious mainland and I have been thinking about it ever since.  I can’t wait to go back, eat a ton more lobster, and get another shot at the mussels.  Thanks again Kate, Reeves and family!

Next week, an attempt to make a good meal out of some lesser used cuts of meat.

Foraging for Food: Mussels

One of my favorite things to do is cook and eat food that I have had some hand in finding/catching/growing/hunting.  However, I have the following things working against me:

1) I didn’t grow up shooting guns and have only done so in the past year.  At brightly colored pieces of clay.  Poorly.

2) I think if I ever shot and killed an animal I would likely cry about it for a few days.

3) I suck at fly fishing and somehow can’t even catch a fish with a spinner reel and a worm.

4) I over-water or under-water vegetable plants until they die.  There is no in between for me.

The one thing that I have figured out I have a talent for, meaning its extremely easy, is catching/gathering shellfish with the intention of eating them.  They are basically rocks with a sweet delicious inside: right up my alley.  The first installment of Foraging for Food focuses on the shellfish that surprised me most with its quality: mussels.

Here’s all that’s needed: running water, possibly a scrub brush, some salt, a steamer pot, and something to soak the mussels in.  Oh, and a bay that smells a little funky, preferably in picturesque Maine.

See that white house in the distance? Its a bar where I watched the U.S. lose to Ghana and got the liquid courage to walk out into the muck

According to the drunks at Pollys in Beach Haven, NJ, the best time for going after any mollusk is a couple hours before, or right at, low tide. Make sure you leave your douchey footwear on shore.

Artsy shot from Kristi. Also, the Nike factory store in Freeport is on the way to Phippsbugh, ME

Mussels basically grow on anything stationary in tidal areas.  I didn’t just make that up based on my experience.  As far as you know.  If you dig in the mud around rocks you can pull off clusters of mussels.

Glad I never got an ill advised tattoo on the small of my back in my teens

In about 5 minutes I was able to find 3-4 pounds of mussels and put them in my handy Hannaford’s shopping bag.

I either need to stop eating food drenched in drawn butter or get some sort of training bra

The biggest difference between mussels you find and what you will get in a restaurant is that they are a lot uglier. They are covered in mud, nicked up, have barnacles growing on them, and will be attached to empty shells and sticks.  They need to be rinsed and scrubbed thoroughly in fresh water and have all attached debris cleaned off.  The barnacles are fine; they fall off in cooking and are actually edible if you are feeling adventurous.

Once they are clean they should be placed in a container of salted freshwater for at least an hour to get some of the remaining sediment filtered out.  If you have time, change the water halfway through and soak them longer.

Forgot a bowl so I soaked in the steamer pot

Close up. Not as pretty with all the barnacles but just as delicious if not moreso

Once they have soaked, they are ready to be steamed in the same manner that you would steam any other shellfish.

About a half inch to an inch of water in the pot, then a steaming insert goes over that inside the pot

I have washed my hair four times in two days and I think I still smell like smoke

I personally like to overcook them a bit since its very hard to make mussels chewy and its better to be safe than sorry with something you pulled out of foul smelling mud a few hours earlier.  Also, given that history, its amazing how clean and fresh the mussels taste.

White wine, drawn butter, and mussels. Doesn't get more straightforward than that

This shot makes me so hungry. They were so good and tasted distinctly different than farmed mussels

As far as the barnacles go, they pop right off after cooking and if you find a large one that fell off, you can scoop out the meat from the back.  Very sweet meat, with an interesting texture.

Kristi loved the mussels too which is a good sign of whether its just my adventurous tastes. She didn't even mind the occasional mini pearl you find in wild mussels

And thats about it, easily the cleanest and freshest tasting mussels I have ever had and so good with simple drawn butter.  These mussels wouldn’t hold up as well if cooked in wine and served in a broth due to all the extras on the shell, but on their own they were definitely impressive.  As is Maine, what a place.

The crazy thing is this shot doesn't even come close to capturing how beautiful it was

Next week, New Jersey littleneck clams.  Definitely with an extra-large helping of sleeveless shirts and general DBishness.