Nantucket: The Art of Winging It


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I’ve always envied people who can look in a fridge, grab a bunch of things and whip together an impressive meal.

The times that I’ve done that, I’ve managed to oh, muster up a ham scramble.

As someone who entered the kitchen fairly late in life, my insecurities always get the better of me. So when it comes to cooking, I’m much more of a planner — I like to think things through a fair bit first if I’ve never made a dish before. I’ll look up dozens of recipes before settling on what to make. And I’ll read a recipe several times over to plan any changes or additions before setting foot in the kitchen.

But, watching the ease and freedom of chefs who cook purely by instinct — that confidence always gets me. I can’t help but feel like the child on a tricycle, watching far braver kids whizzing past on ten-speed bikes.

How to bridge that gulf?

In the kitchen of a little beach cottage on Nantucket, I started taking baby steps.

It helps, of course, to be vacationing with a chef.

In my case, this would be chef Simpson (of Cafe Asean in Manhattan), a fellow native of Southeast Asia who has tremendous amounts of patience.

We’d cooked together on vacation in Sicily before — and in New York, of course. But watching him at work in a bare-bones, beach house kitchen was quite another thing.

For starters, there were the breakfasts — made by a chef who doesn’t much care for eating or making breakfast.

With some pancetta and mozzarella from New York’s Little Italy and organic eggs, baby potatoes and tomatoes from a Nantucket market, Simpson produced a lovely (and delicious) dish of pancetta and sunny side-up eggs over a bed of baked sliced potatoes, tomatoes and melted mozzarella.

The dish smelled so good it was literally responsible for rousing me from my bed.

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For lunch one day, Simpson had some tom yum paste on hand, vermicelli from New York and super fresh tuna from the major fish store in downtown Nantucket.

Some chopping, stirring and a little light searing later, there it was–summery, chilled tomy um noodles topped with tuna, cilantro and fried shallots.

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Toward the end of the trip, a new quest arose: How to take the little bits of Nantucket we’d gathered on a whim at various little markets …

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… and turn them into dishes so we wouldn’t have to throw them out?

For starters, we bought some shrimp and clams …

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… then, while the clams were being steamed, Simpson chopped up leftover tomatoes, garlic and shallots and sliced corn kernels off some cobs we’d grilled but had never gotten around to eating.

The tomatoes, garlic, shallots and remaining baby potatoes were sauteed, and clams, shrimp and corn were tossed in. Leftover fresh thyme, red pepper flakes and mint leaves were sprinkled on top, the pot was covered and so was the grill …

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… and not long after, Simpson added some sauvignon blanc to the mix, letting it boil a little more. And soon, an impromptu kitchen-sink clam stew was on the table.

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(With a side of colorful, grilled Swiss chard.)

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By the time we sat down to breakfast on the last day, I felt I was beginning to get it.

Watching Simpson take a look at the stray blackberries and peaches we had lying around and the bag of flour I’d bought when I thought I’d have the energy to make a crisp, I could see a lightbulb flash.

A short time later, we were sitting down to a buttery and fruity breakfast pizza made with Peter Reinhart’s dough recipe from the Bread Baker’s Apprentice.

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“This is just kitchen-sink style,” he said, pooh-poohing the praise we were mumbling in between big bites. “It’s nothing.”

I was thinking about this when we got back to New York, a hair past dinner time and just a little hungry. My first instinct was to grab my iPhone and look up some recipes.

But the feeling of the Nantucket sun was still on my skin and the memory of the morning’s blackberry and peach pizza was still somewhat fresh.

So instead, I peeked into my kitchen.

There was tofu, egg noodles, a head of garlic and some fermented bean paste — not a lot to work with.

But with a deep breath, a dash of adventure and a generous sprinkling of just letting go, it was plenty.

                                                                                      ~~~

Simpson’s Kitchen-Sink Clam Stew

Ingredients:

  • Clams
  • Shrimp
  • Grilled corn (or uncooked corn), sliced off the cob
  • 1 or 2 large tomatoes, diced
  • 1 or 2 shallots
  • A few red baby potatoes, scrubbed and unpeeled
  • A few teaspoons of minced garlic
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup or more white wine
  • A little bit of fresh thyme and mint leaves (optional)
  • Water
  • Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

Wrap baby potatoes up in tin foil and roast them in the oven to soften them. (About 375 degrees, for about half an hour.) Then, dice the potatoes.

Peel the shrimp and toss the shells into a large pot. Fill the pot with two to three inches of water and bring it to a boil. Add clams and cover — steam for a few minutes or until clams open up.

Remove clams with a slotted spoon and run the hot liquid through a sieve to remove sand and shrimp shells, reserving the liquid.

Place pot on a large grill (or stove), add a tablespoon or two of extra-virgin olive oil and turn on the heat. When oil is hot, saute garlic then tomatoes, potatoes and shallots. Add shrimp, then clams, corn, red pepper flakes and reserved liquid then cover and let it simmer for about 10 minutes — let it go longer if you’d like a deeper flavor. Add wine and simmer five to 10 minutes more.

Remove and sprinkle thyme and mint leaves and serve immediately with toasted bread.

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