Summer vacation is this critic’s chance to forget about celtuce and sea buckthorn, to revert to stuff he’s been eating all his life. He stays in a shack on the beach near the part of New England where he was raised. And he cooks.
There are people who plan their vacations around restaurant reservations that have to be secured months in advance. I am not one of them. When I need to get away from it all, competing for a table is one of the main things I’m getting away from. That, and meals longer than a filibuster, and hearing that “chef” would like me to eat this particular taste in one bite while rubbing my stomach and patting my head.
You can put down your tiny violins; it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of an overfed restaurant critic don’t amount to a hill of fava beans in this crazy world. I have lucked into a job that’s more interesting than I am, one that gives me a front-row seat to a runway parade of generosity and egomania, innovations and knockoffs, money-minting empires and tiny bootstrap operations that struggle to pay the rent.
Eating in a different restaurant almost every night, I am rarely bored. But I do get a little misty-eyed for the civilian life I’ve left behind. I start to miss those heartwarming scenes of domestic bliss around the family hearth: bleeding on the chopped onions, raising welts the size of hamsters on my arms each time I get near an oven rack, and erupting in language that my children would otherwise have to learn from Judd Apatow movies.
Summer vacation is my chance to bleed on the onions again. It’s also my chance to forget about celtuce and sea buckthorn, to revert to stuff I’ve been eating all my life. We stay in a shack on the beach near the part of New England where I was raised.
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All the markets have the ingredients I grew up with. When I need salt pork, oyster crackers, brown bread in a can and hot dog buns split along the top so the exposed white sides can be toasted on the grill (I can’t tell you how crucial this is), they will be there. And I will find what I think of as the holy trinity of New England-Portuguese food products: linguiça, its spicier cousin chouriço and bolos levedos, sweet, flat muffins that are always a half-inch too wide to fit in the toaster.
When I manage to cook at home, it is usually a one-night stand. My vacation cooking is a longer commitment. Tonight’s dinner may start with last night’s leftovers, and the remnants of a cilantro bunch I chopped on Monday may come in handy on Thursday. With a whole week at hand, I find my kitchen rhythm again.
With the salt pork, along with dried beans and molasses, I am on my way to a pot of Boston baked beans, which I’ll stash in a warm oven right after breakfast. They will be soft enough to eat in a couple of hours, or about the time it takes me to apply a primer coat of sunscreen, go for a fast swim, then put on a second coat.
I have been taking liberties with a recipe from Boston chef Jasper White for years. If the beans don’t turn into lunch, they’ll cool their heels in the refrigerator until a night when my sun-baked brain can’t think of anything more creative than Portuguese sausage on the grill (top-split buns optional, but recommended). I like baked beans with fish, too, although I’ll concede that it may take a New Englander to appreciate seafood with molasses.
Experts in beach vacationing agree that one of the best practices in the field is to spend as little time as possible in the car. I make an exception for fried clams; everyone should make an exception for fried clams. I also allow myself a daily run to one of the local seafood markets, which swim circles around anything I’ve seen in New York.
They all sell quahogs. These are the size of a woman’s purse and should not be eaten raw unless you are a sea gull. This makes them useless on the half-shell but perfect for the clam chowder I’ll cook with potatoes, onions, a few more slabs of salt pork and enough cream to drown a kitten. Cream mixed with the cloudy, salty juices that spill from opened quahogs gives me more strength than any superfood I’ve ever heard of.
Fishermen back their pickups up to the doors of these markets to unload ice chests full of striped bass, fluke and bluefish. This summer, there aren’t as many striped bass in the water, so I gave them a year off, with best wishes for a speedy recovery. Bluefish is never in short supply. I eat as much of it as I can stand, and I can stand a lot more than most people.
Because of its unpopularity and its uncanny talent for smelling like cat food after a night or two out of water, bluefish seldom turns up in restaurants. To me, a shiny raw bluefish fillet on ice is more exciting than foie gras. I will cook it skin-side down a few inches away from a small pile of charcoal with the lid on the grill.
Hot smoked like this, it can push back against the most overbearing sauce I can think of: lemon, Dijon mustard, maple syrup and horseradish; a salsa verde of tomatillos, jalapeños and onions, all softened on the grill; or, easiest of all, cherry tomatoes cut in half and left to relax for a few minutes with salt, chives, olive oil and sliced fresh chilies.
Before the end of the week I will buy a small fleet of lobsters. Eating whole lobsters in a restaurant is a Tom Sawyer deal; you do all the work, then you pay. It’s a messy, chaotic demolition zone, with shell fragments zinging around like shrapnel and hot juice squirting in your eyes. It’s a meal for the beach, for T-shirts and bathing suits that will be washed in the sink.
The best lobsters I ever made were boiled in saltwater I carried up from the bay, but usually I just steam them. More important than technique is quantity: There must be too many lobsters, or else the next day there will be no cold lobster salad for lunch.
Because I have the time and because my two boys will hate me if I don’t, I make dessert. My summer vacation desserts are not geometric or asymmetrical. If they contain crumbles or streusel, they will be baked on top, not scattered across the plate like a Martian soil sample. My shortcakes and cobblers are as attractive as a pile of wet beach towels. They are also gone before anyone notices.
Before anyone gave me an expense account to write about restaurants, I did almost all my eating at home. Cooking was a hobby that metastasized into a career. The people who advise you to find a job doing what you love never tell you that if you do that job long enough, you will rise up and out of the thing that you loved in the first place. These days, I need to take a vacation to get back to the thing that got me into this mess.
Then I come home. This year I returned with a chunk of the beach shack’s back porch lodged deep inside my left foot, but I still had a bounce in my step that first night when I shampooed the sand out of my scalp, shaved off my vacation beard, remembered how shoelaces work and headed out to a restaurant.
Before vacation, restaurant kitchens sometimes strike me as hermetic environments. After, I remember that professional cooking builds on what we civilians do, adding a different set of pleasures. These may be pleasures of refinement and simplicity, or ones of elaboration and complexity. Either way, my time at the stove helps me to see just what’s on the plate in front of me. Then at the end of the night, all those plates go away and somebody else washes them. Civilization!
BOSTON BAKED BEANS
Makes 8 to 10 servings
1 pound dried navy or Great Northern beans
½ pound salt pork or bacon, rind removed, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup dark molasses or maple syrup, preferably Grade B
¼ cup ketchup
3 tablespoons mustard powder
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon pepper, plus more to taste
1 thyme branch (optional)
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon cider vinegar, plus more to taste
1. Pick through the beans for stones, rinse them thoroughly and soak in water overnight. (Leave soaking until ready to cook; you’ll need the water.)
2. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Place a Dutch oven, 5-quart size or larger, over low heat. Add the salt pork or bacon and fry until crisp, 12 to 15 minutes. Raise heat to medium and stir in the onion. Cook until onion is translucent, stirring occasionally, five to eight minutes.
3. Add the beans to the pan along with enough of the soaking liquid to cover them by ½ inch, adding fresh water if needed. Add the garlic cloves, molasses or maple syrup, ketchup, mustard powder, Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon pepper and the thyme branch and bay leaf, if using. Stir well and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and put in oven.
4. Check the liquid level in the pot every hour or so, and add hot water as needed to barely cover the beans. Cook until beans are very soft but not falling apart, two to three hours. Remove from oven. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon vinegar; let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, then taste a bean and some liquid, adding more salt, pepper or vinegar, if you like. Serve, or cool completely and reheat.