by: Terry Pommett
photography by: Terry Pommett
When ISLAND CHEFS describe their cuisine, they often say, “We only use the freshest ingredients available.” There are, however, a number of chefs who stretch this philosophy a bit further whenever possible. They are the “hunters and gatherers” of Nantucket’s wild edibles.
Taking a page from the island’s Native American cookbook, these chefs are not content with the best products their food purveyors, island farms and fishermen have to offer. Given the opportunity, when the time is right, they personally head to Nantucket’s fields, marshes and waters in search of what nature can provide.
One of Club Car chef TOM PROCH’S earliest discoveries occurred 15 years ago and was brought to his attention by then town biol- ogist Ken Kelley. Salicornia, or “sea bean,” is a succulent herb that grows in salt marshes, near beaches and along inland waterways. Kelley was wondering how best to cook it, while Proch was wondering just what it was.
“It tastes best when harvested young, in mid-summer,” Proch says. “It’s naturally salty, although it is not a seaweed. I blanch it several times to tenderize and reduce the salt content, sauté it in olive oil and then lightly season it with a rice-wine vinegar. It’s a great accompaniment to seafood or in a bouillabaisse. And it looks so intriguing.”
Years ago while walking in the moors, Proch noticed some mushrooms growing that made him wonder if they were edible or not. The following day he returned to harvest and take them to a botanist friend, but they had disappeared.
“I guess either a mushroom-hunter or a deer got them, so I suppose they were edible,” he says. He then found another patch nearby and these he was able to identify. Once he was sure they were safe to eat, he sautéed
them in shallots, white wine, lemon and butter. “Divine,” was the botanist’s response. Thus began Proch’s love affair with wild Nantucket Boletus.
“I love the feeling of being able to go out and forage and then bring them back to the restaurant and serve them fresh that night. They are meaty, solid and tender when young, a bit softer as they grow older. My kids wouldn’t touch a mushroom until we found some together and then cooked them up. Now, they can’t wait to try them again and again,” Proch says.
Company of the Cauldron’s ALL KOVALENCIK has remained true to his Italian roots, having gleaned foraging skills from his father and uncle. The tradition of searching for cardoons, also known as artichoke thistle and similar to wild burdock, began in the old country with his grandfather.
“I used to go out with my father and uncle and harvest the plant in rural New Jersey on the sides of roads and near farms. My grandfather’s brother was a first-generation Italian who worked as a junkman. Cardoons were considered weeds in the Polish neighborhoods so he would offer to clean them out of people’s back yards and then go sell them in the markets on the Italian side of town. He’d tell people he used the plant as “medicine for my horse.”
Kovalencik first discovered the plant on Nantucket growing behind the Off Center Cafe (now Centre Street Bistro) and DeMarco restaurant a number of years ago. When the chef from DeMarco asked him why he was cutting down the “weeds,” all he could think to say was “It’s medicine for my wife’s horse.”
Generally served as a passed hors d’oeuvres, Kovalencik harvests the plant in the spring when the stalks are four to eight inches high. He cuts away the leaves and roots, washing the stalks in cold water, then peels away the fiber like a celery stalk. The next step is to blanch it, bathe it in an egg wash, dust it with seasoned flour, fresh bread crumbs and oregano, fry it up and serve it warm with a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese.
“Almost invariably when I serve these, especially during the wine festival, someone in the restaurant will say, ‘Hey, these are just like something my grandfather used to make’,” Kovalencik says.
In addition to the cardoons, Kovalencik is fond of a similar stalk called pokeweed or inkberry, which is plentiful all over the island. It does have some toxic elements when it grows older, however, and should only be eaten when very young. It is also a simply-prepared dish, best grilled and served in olive oil, lemon and garlic.
Wild grapes are a Nantucket staple for those who know the spots to find them. A number of chefs use them to make jams and jellies, and in duck sauces and glazes.
AMANDA LYDON and GABRIEL FRASCA of Straight Wharf Restaurant have a delightful twist on using the island’s Fox grape, an eastern U.S. cultivar that is related to the Concord grape. Lydon is the “chef du forage” in most cases, and keeps her favorite gathering locations close to the vest. When time permits, she makes jams and jellies. But the real crowd-pleaser at Straight Wharf is Frasca’s “good-old days” grape soda.
“I purée the grapes, strain them with a cheesecloth to reduce them to a grape syrup and then use a vintage soda siphon, mixing sparkling water together with sugar and the grape syrup. I then add a scoop of our homemade ice cream flavored with lemon verbena from our garden and top it with fresh whipped cream. Voila, it’s an old-fashioned Nantucket float and a visual delight,” he says.
Straight Wharf also uses Lydon’s grapes to infuse vodka for the bar crowd.
CHRIS FREEMAN of Òran Mór has a whole range of wild Nantucket edibles that he incorporates into his menu during the season. He enjoys any opportunity to get out and rake for clams or pick mussels. Joining him in the search for Nantucket’s hidden bounty is sous chef Justine Schultz, whose penchant is finding wild mushrooms, most notably black trumpets and chanterelles. Freeman typically serves the foodstuffs the day they arrive in the kitchen, either as an ingredient in a special fricassée or as an accompaniment to a fish or poultry dish. Also a native-grape picker, Freeman uses the prolific fruit to infuse vodka, create sorbet, jam and jelly and seasoning for foie gras. Wild blueberries and black- berries, when quantities are sufficient, are served as dessert specials during the summer.
Perhaps no one chef is more connected to local fishing than MARK GOTTWALD from the Ships Inn. Gottwald got his commercial-fishing permit in 1993 and has been serving his fresh catch ever since.
“It’s not an easy process and involves a long paper trail of permits. I need a license for the boat, the captain and the restaurant in order to serve my own fish,” he says.
The work effort required is softened by the fact that Gottwald is an avid fisherman whether he is in Nantucket, his former home in Florida or his winter abode in Los Angeles.
“My daughters used to fish with me a lot, but now that they’re teenagers, they seem to have lost interest. Before I got married, my wife Ellie used to enjoy it as well. Mostly now it’s just me,” he says.
That is understandable, considering the demands Ellie has in running the inn and keeping an eye on the girls. Also, some of Gottwald’s trips are two days out and back to the deep-water “Canyons” off the island’s eastern shore, where he fishes for wahoo, mahi mahi, bigeye and yellowfin tuna.
“My personal favorite is the bigeye tuna, which can get up to 250 pounds. The meat is excellent either seared or as sashimi. I only serve my own tuna. Customers often call wanting to know when the tuna is in,” Gottwald says.
Most of his fishing is done inshore after July 4 to mid-August when striped bass are available. “On nights when I have fresh bass, a third of my dinners will be the “Chef-caught Bass Special,” he says. Gottwald also smokes his own bluefish, which he serves as a paté appetizer.
While no one was inclined to reveal the whereabouts of their favorite hunting grounds, there are undoubtedly wild edibles to be discovered across Nantucket’s landscape and waters. For a culinary-appreciative public, it is appetizing enough to know that the island’s chefs are making the effort to share their finds.