A sign in the Chart Room Restaurant says, “If you’re lucky enough to live by the ocean, you’re lucky enough.” I’ve tried to remember that, shivering as I have, through the past few weeks. Like many people, I eat a lot during these December cold snaps. I favor soups, stews, and home-baked bread, but I haven’t been able to eat enough to shake off the chill.
And lately, I’ve been cold and crabby. We are what we eat. Here in Del Norte County, crab is generally served right from the fridge (most people even bypass the warm butter). But I’ve been heating my crab up in the microwave in a vain effort to warm myself up.
Generally, I get my crab from Lucy’s Crab Shack, right at the harbor. But it’s also available cooked and cleaned at the new Egg and Ham place on 101 South. It’s open later than Lucy’s. The fact that I’m into late night crab buying tells you right away that I’m not equipped with my own pot, which is how many people in our area get their crab. Though I’ve been reading “Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager” by the prophetically named Langdon Cook, I still haven’t been inspired enough to capture and eat the majority of my own food. As a working mom, sometimes it is a struggle just to hunt food down at the grocery store. But the idea of standing out in the rain, hovering around the public dock waiting for crabs to investigate my crab pot doesn’t appeal in this weather.
I have made significant progress with my winter lettuce garden, though. I have a little hothouse and my greens are going strong with eight plants that yield enough lettuce to meet my weekly needs. On second thought, the sustainability of my little garden may actually be a result of reduced demand. Who wants a salad when the wind is howling?
But a “warm” local food that I do have standing by for the holidays is a stash of chestnuts, gathered from an ancient tree near Lake Earl. If the mere idea of chestnuts roasting by an open fire can’t warm me up, I don’t know what could. We don’t have a fireplace, but the oven works pretty well for chestnuts, as experimentation has proved. I just cut crosses into the tops of the nuts to keep them from exploding as they expand. Then I pop the meat out after the nuts have cooked and they are ready to eat.
It sounds simpler than it really is. The last time I cooked chestnuts, I ended up with tiny cuts all over my hands from the sharp inner peels. But I also ended up with the most marvelous soup. I pureed the roasted chestnuts and added them to chicken stock, and threw in a bunch of other good veggies. The chestnuts work like cream, adding add both bulk and richness to the broth.
I gathered the nuts this year from a chestnut tree that I found on a hike a few years ago. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the tree, had not a nice, elderly gentlemen been sitting beneath it, cutting chestnuts out of their impossibly prickly outer husks with gloved hands.
“They’re for my wife,” he said. “I come after the first big storm each fall. That’s the only way to get to the nuts — to let the wind knock them down.”
I don’t think I’ve seen anything sweeter than that devoted old man, hiking several miles into the woods to gather chestnuts, cut them out of their casings, and then bring back a bucketful for his dear wife.
Of course, Safeway also carries chestnuts, but that’s beside the point. So much of the sweetness of food — and its warmth, too — comes from its local source.