In his essay, Movable Feast, Henry Beetle Hough writes: “People talk of the good old days on the Vineyard — the nineties, when croquet and bicycles were fun . . . Someone was young then, and for him who was young it was the golden age.” Mr. Hough, the late editor of the Gazette, is speaking of the 1890s, and though the 1990s were a time when I was young and bike riding was fun, croquet has never been fun no matter how hard I try to give it a chance. The only time I recall croquet being fun was when I took the mallets to my grandfather’s melon patch with my brother at the age of six. During the 1990s I picked strawberries at Thimble farm for Chip Lombardi, climbed trees for my cousin Josh, washed dishes at the Feast of Chilmark for Dave and Tony, all the while having the time of my life during ideal summers playing wiffle ball and peaceful winters playing basketball in warm gyms.
Mr. Hough also daydreams about summer in his essay, Butterfly Weed: “It takes only a little butterfly weed in a field of waving meadow grass to set the day ablaze, sun or no sun. Walk out in July and see.”
My grandfather planted a field of butterfly weed on his farm, with abundance over the years that has caused them to spread to almost take up an acre of meadow space. In late June, when the last of the lupines he planted for my grandmother are blooming, the first orange blossoms of butterfly weed start to make their statement to the world. The butterfly weed has come to stake its claim on our farm each year for at least a month in such vigor that the farmscape looks like it was a bed of slowly burning coals on the bottom of a grill. As the butterfly weed dies back and hibernates for the winter, Canada geese come back to occupy our fields, the hazelnuts ripen too quickly for us and the squirrels eat them all, stinging nettles grow new tender shoots, our fennel plants go first to flower, a brilliant yellow blossom filled with pollen, and then to seed and the year moves on into winter. Now we sit, post-Thanksgiving and pre-new year, almost dreading another heavy supper eaten nearly two hours after the sun has gone down.
It is duck and goose hunting season and it’s clear that my brother Andrew has been successful, judging by the carcasses and feathers he deposited in my compost pile over the weekend. This is also a good time to eat squirrel and rabbits from the backyard and most everyone should be making room in their freezers for the venison hanging in barns, sheds and walk-ins all over the Island. Meat that comes from our woods needs a different kind of cooking than the standard corn-fed proteins filling supermarket aisles. For the most part these wild foods are overlooked by today’s consumer, as they are not readily available to most. Their flavors are more severely milked from their lean meat through long slow braising, rare, brilliant hot sautÃ©ing (in the case of certain choice cuts of venison) or slow rendering of fat from the breast of a goose.
Goose meat is mentioned only once in Waverly Root’s 750-page book The Food of Italy, in a single sentence about the traditional Trevisan preparation of wild goose meat with celery. There is no actual description of the cooking process or other ingredients involved. A meager excuse for a recipe, but a good start — and the base for the classic French dish called cassoulet. Cassoulet is a dish that sounds intimidating at the outset, but is actually very simple and approachable for a cook of any skill level or economic status. Its main components are white beans and meat, preferably pork mixed with some sort of game meat or combination of game meats. I think of a great cassoulet in these simple two parts. The beans get a mixture of whatever stock vegetables I have on hand: garlic, carrots, onions or celery (stale bread is also a welcome addition) as well as dried or fresh herbs like parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme. This makes up two thirds of the dish, the rest should be meat-based. Pork is always preferred in some quantity, with the remaining meat from an assortment of animals from the winter months. I find myself with goose meat this time of year as well as an abundance of venison, some duck and the occasional rabbit.
The best goose I ever ate, and the only time I truly liked it besides when in cassoulet, was a pair of goose breasts cooked by Devon Greene on a cast-iron skillet in my kitchen from a goose which he had shot over a month before that had been left to hang in a shed at the Allen Farm, neither de-feathered nor gutted. They were cooked perfectly, for almost an hour, skin side down with a bed of burnt onions next to them in the pan, adding a smoky flavor to the succulent pieces of meat.
Last weekend, in Brooklyn, I roasted a whole deer in a wood oven built in a friend’s backyard. We ate oysters from Tisbury Great Pond and drank home-brewed pear cider. We baked some white beans in the oven that cooked more than we had hoped, but were the ideal consistency for cassoulet. The starch in the beans had leached out into the cooking liquid that had now reduced to a thick, mud-like consistency, and the beans were mushy and breaking apart easily. Leftover celery greens were roughly chopped and added to them along with copious amounts of salt and olive oil, with a few squirts of lemon juice. They were perfect served at room temperature alongside the venison, lamb and Portuguese sardines grilled over the fire. If there had been any leftovers, the whole of their parts would have made for a perfect cassoulet. Fortunately all the meat was devoured, as were the potatoes fried in duck fat, while old friends and new socialized late into the evening, long past nine o’clock.
Cassoulet in Two Parts:
Day One, White Beans
1 pound dried white beans, available at almost any supermarket
1 large white onion, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
6 cloves garlic, skin removed and left whole
2 carrots, cut into one-inch pieces
4 stalks of celery, cut into one-inch pieces
Any assortment of herbs, dried or fresh
Combine the beans with two parts cold water in a large mixing bowl. Allow to sit for at least 12 hours. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees, drain the water from the beans and add the vegetables and herbs to the beans in a Dutch oven. Cover with water, place lid on tightly and put onto the middle rack of the preheated oven. Cook for 4 hours. Remove from oven and place in refrigerator overnight.
Day Two, Cassoulet
Beans cooked from the day before.
Approximately 1 1/2 pounds game meat with some pork.
Stale bread, whatever you’ve got
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large mixing bowl place the meat, which has been defrosted and cut into one-inch pieces, any assortment will do even if it is only venison mixed with pork sausage; season generously with salt and pepper, then stir in up to two cups of stale bread, the precooked beans and an equal part water to the beans. Season again generously with salt and pepper and cook in preheated oven for at least four hours, stirring occasionally and removing or adding a lid based on the rate of water evaporation. Allow to rest for 30 minutes before serving with lid off.