Harvesting the Island for a delicious winter menu

Hunt, Cook, Eat

by Chris Fischer

Hunt, Cook, Eat

Elizabeth Cecil

Winter Harvest Menu:  Shellfish Chowder with Bacon & Thyme, Grilled Rack of Venison with Garlic & Rosemary, Grill-Roasted Garden Leeks & Swiss Chard, Favorite Pie (serves 8)

When I was ten years old, my father gave me a CD player for Christmas; my older brother, Andrew, got a shotgun. I was happy with my gift, but envious of my brother’s—not of the actual object, but because of what came with it. It meant time spent between a father and son, sighting in the gun and walking through the woods together stalking deer and ducks. I knew I was missing something. But it wasn’t until years later, while working as a chef in New York City, that I truly understood the magic of hunting on the Island; the woods, streams, and ponds are like no others on earth. The farm-raised venison loin we served in the restaurant paled in comparison with a fresh one cut from a newly shot deer.

Later to the hunting game than my brother, I shot my first deer last winter. I saved the backstraps (the loin), the heart, the liver, and the kidneys for us to cook even before processing the animal. I cooked the backstraps seasoned only with salt and pepper in a hot pan to medium rare and trimmed the offal as I had been taught in the kitchen of St. John Restaurant (a serious “nose-to-tail” eatery) in London only weeks before. My father and I ate these delicacies standing up in front of the stove, enjoying the often ignored organs as if they were fine cuts of steak bought in a market.

My family has been hunting, fishing, and growing food on the Island for many generations. These are sacred and mostly solitary acts that have made my life—when I can stop and appreciate it—almost ideal. As Americans, we are gradually beginning to understand again the importance of knowing where our food comes from; and it is at this moment that, on the Vineyard, we’re beginning to remember that there are no better ingredients than those in our own backyard.

In the summer we’re spoiled with the likes of Jim Athearn’s corn and Caitlin Jones’ tomatoes. When fall arrives, after the beaches empty and the long winter nears, we have striped bass and bluefish, butternut squash and apples, and corn and tomatoes still ripening. Winter is cold and lonely for some, leaving us dreaming of warmth or fleeing to faraway places. But for many, there is hunting season to look forward to, and though I haven’t been taking part in this for long, I understand the special quality of time spent hunting—time alone in the woods. This is the season when the pace of life slows. And for me, that means preparing meals slowly and mindfully—an indulgence I never get to enjoy in the summer.

During the cold months here, the oysters in our ponds are as good as any I’ve had anywhere. So this winter, my father and I will once again put our waders on (after checking for holes in mine) and harvest enough for ourselves and a few friends. This makes the beginning of a meal easy, since nothing more is needed than a few lemons. Or if we find some other shellfish in the pond, we can make a hearty chowder like the one I’ve included here. We then head to the garden. Almost everything has been put to bed for the season except the leeks, some chard plants, and kale that grows sweeter as the snow buries its roots. A rack of venison from a deer hung for a week in the barn is undeniably succulent and best cooked simply with a savory rub of garlic and rosemary. And to finish the meal (if summer has been a bountiful berry season), I’ll use our frozen blueberries to make my grandmother’s simple, perfect pie.

Cooking with Island ingredients isn’t always easy, especially in the winter time. Vegetables pulled straight from the garden require a good amount of cleaning and trimming. And procuring and preparing your own meat is a true time commitment. But if you take the time to cook and eat mindfully from our Island’s bountiful pantry, your reward will be food so incredibly fresh and delicious that you’ll wonder why you ever ate another way.