The Crabby Life

As I alluded to in my last post, these days the crabbing is FINE.  The crabbing life is a new routine for me, and I thought that it might be unfamiliar to many out there, especially those without much experience on the coasts.  I’ve also been reflecting on the idea of doing a few posts on the daily experiences of sustainable living–especially for those dreaming and wondering what it might feel like to live a little differently.  So if you’re stuck in an office looking at the fall rains, or if you’ve only ever eaten “imitation crab meat” from the grocery store or in a California roll (or both!), come with me on what has become our evening routine…

Evenings on Cowichan Bay

The phone usually rings about ten to five.  “Almost ready?” The Skipper calls when he’s a few minutes from home, and I start getting ready to head to the boat.  Sometimes I walk the 15 minutes to the marina, other evenings I hop in the van when he swings by.  Skipper comes in and grabs the bucket, some fuel, his old work gloves, and some bait from the freezer by the back door.

Crabs are the scavengers of the ocean floor.  They are notorious for eating EVERYTHING (they’re the ants or the cockroaches of the sea, really!), but they seem to particularly like fresh remains.  So folks around these parts save the bones and assorted carcasses from the salmon or other creatures they’ve caught through the season to feed the crab.

In the early evenings, the winds on the Bay are usually dying out, and we spend a peaceful few minutes motoring out in our wee sailboat out to our traps.  It’s a chance for us to unwind from the day a bit and hang out together without any distractions.  If there’s still a little wind, we might put up the sails for a half hour just to relax a little longer.

Our traps are down between 100 and 180 feet, depending on the location.  I haven’t thought much about those distances, other than to think about where the crabs might be (they like deep water).  But the Skipper observed this evening that these discrepancies mean that within a few hundred yards, the ocean bottom rises up 8 stories and then dips back down again!  There’s a huge hill under the water that we don’t even realize is there.  Amazing!

The trap’s location is marked with a small red and white buoy–you can just see it by the rail of the boat in the photo above.

Once we get to the marker, the real work begins.  I take the tiller and try to hold us in one place, while the Skipper gets ready.  He hooks the buoy with a pole, and then begins to haul the trap up by hand, up 200 feet of rope!  You can imagine how much effort that takes in the resistance of the water!  But he doesn’t seem to mind. 🙂  In fact, all through his teens growing up on the East Coast of Canada, he fished commercially for cod with his uncles.  They were “handlining” or “jigging”, which meant spending several hours a day pulling up 10-30 lb cod fish on a small fishing line with a hook, one after the other.  He swears that’s where his muscles come from!

The Skipper at Work

As the trap gets closer to the surface, he can start to tell how full it might be! (Either that, or we’ve caught an octopus, a giant starfish/sunfish, or hooked an old boot 🙂 )  Much anticipation until the trap breaks through the water….

Then, if we’re lucky…


We can keep 4 per fishing license per day.  So between the 2 of us, we’re looking for 8 males that are big enough to pass muster (there’s a regulated size limit).  Small ones and females go back into the deeps.

If they can get out, they're too small!

Big ones go in the bucket where they wrestle for space and make funny whispery noises to each other–almost like they’re smacking their lips.  If they had lips.  Maybe that was me.

The bait gets replaced and the Skipper hefts the trap back over the side.  We’re so low-tech that he measures the depth by the feet of rope left after the trap hits bottom.  Simple, but it works!

Once we’re home, the big pot gets some water under the steamer basket and gets set on the stove.  The Skipper has the slightly grisly job of “dressing” the crab, which means he pops the big back shells off them and rinses out all the guts and brains.  They get cracked in half and stacked in the pot, then steamed for 15-20 minutes.  Then we usually eat dinner–usually not crab!

We’re stocking the freezer these days, so after dinner, once the beasties have cooled off, we spend the evening shelling and then vacuum sealing the meat.  Crab in pasta, sushi, chowder, pizza…it’s going to be a good winter.

It’s a time consuming routine, and my hands are toughening up from cracking shells every evening, but it’s very satisfying.  And still feels like a miracle to bring wild foods–exotic and special when purchased in the store–into our staple diet.  And shelling, like so much of the fun of self-sufficiency, is easy to do while being entertained by episodes of The Simpsons or Trailer Park Boys! 🙂

The next day, I’m faced with a big smelly pile of shells.  There’s so much nutrient value in there that I’ve been loathe to throw the pile away.  But they can’t go in the regular compost pile, or we’d have every cat and raccoon for miles around in our backyard.  So I’ve been burying the shells in the trenches where I’ve just pulled up our potatoes.  I’m hoping by next summer they’ll be broken down enough to feed some happy plants.  Next, I have to find out what veggies like calcium!  (I know about tomatoes, but they’re in the potato family and can’t go there next year…any ideas?)

Travel Food Round-Up: Pleasure Beats Habit

Sorry to the Harvest Monday folks; as we were away this weekend, there’s not too much to report.  But I did harvest 3/4 lb of carrots and 1 1/2 lbs of peas for the trip, and I pulled up the last of the early potatoes last week, about 4 1/2 lbs.  And now that we’re back–the blueberries are ready!  So I had fresh blueberries with breakfast this morning, instead of the strawberries that have been sustaining me so far.

We had a great sailing trip, though we’ve come back tired and a little sunburnt.  In decent wind, it officially takes us 10 hrs to go from Ganges on Saltspring Island all the way around the top of the island and then back down through Samsum Narrows back home to the Cowichan Bay.  The weather was glorious, but that’s a long day.  No complaints, though!

What struck me most as I thought about food during our trip, though, was the regular dilemma that I presume we all go through: what’s the best way to change bad habits, pleasure or pain?  In other words, do we change habits naturally once we get a bigger payoff from a new, healthier habit, or do we need to hear the dire warnings and serious consequences of what happens if we don’t change?

Before we left, I joked about our travel food habits: pack lots, eat a little of it, and go to the pub.  We like going out to eat; we both have lots of pleasurable memories and love the feeling of relaxing on the patio with good beer.  We have been fish and chip connoisseurs over our lifetimes, and have enjoyed pub food (yes, we are a little quirky!).  At various times in our travels, we have blown our budget in order to go out, and not suffered for it.

Recently, though, things seem to be changing.  It’s partly a lifestyle change.  We love being at home, and we’re eating amazing flavours out of the garden.  I’m off at the moment, so I have more time to enjoy cooking, and we’re less likely to go out just because we’re tired and hungry.  Now that the weather’s great, the picnics on our own patio or on the boat are better than any other experience we can think of.  And that, I think, is going to finally break us of the pub habit.

We were well prepared for our long days of sailing, with lots of snacks, sandwich makings, and chips and other treats.  We had a couple of really enjoyable feasts on our way to Ganges–and the best parts were the peas and carrots, cherries and blueberries!  We arrived in port in the early afternoon, and had plenty of time to wander happily through the amazing Saturday market.  We treated ourselves to fudge and lemonade and some fresh mini-donuts.  We headed back to the boat to relax in the late afternoon and have a beer in the sunshine.  We got chatting to other boaters moored around us, and were having a great time.  We got hungry around 7, and as we had planned to eat out for dinner, we headed to the pub at the marina.  We figured it was Saturday night, and there was no point in walking back into town where there would be more selection–everything would be packed, and my blood sugar was dropping rapidly!

Our meal was fine.  The beer was good, the oysters were fresh, and the mains were tasty.  But the bill was high, we had as good beer in the icebox, and the view from the patio couldn’t beat the one from the cockpit.  We’ve always known that it’s a rare meal that’s better than the ones we make ourselves, and this was not an exception.  In the end, I think our tastes are simplifying, and the sheer pleasure of the picnic on the boat is going to finally overcome the pleasures of the pub in a way that all the budget warnings or other moments of dissatisfaction never did.

I get that this is what simpler living is all about.  We’ve been working on simplifying our lives for several years, with many successes.  But the missing link at times has been a level of inner fulfillment that we’re finally experiencing now.  Much of our previous simplifying has been a matter of living ethically and without ravenous consumption, as well as trying to live in a financially sensible way.  But in our last living experience, in the city condo, I actually started to feel that life had become TOO simple; we’d let go of too much that was meaningful and creative for us in the name of de-cluttering and simplifying.  That life was still too much about work and not enough about pleasure.

Here, I think we’re finally finding out what simple living is really supposed to be about.  The garden, the sailboat, the house, the small communities are so enriching our lives and giving us so much pleasure, that we are willingly walking away from the things that we used to use to compensate for or recover from the stresses that otherwise occupied our time and attention.  My hope is that as we continue on this journey, in a natural, rather than punitive way, we will continue to reduce our cost of living until we need to work fewer hours to pay for our lives.  And isn’t that what sustainable living is all about?

Travel Food

It’s official: The Skipper and I are off sailing for the weekend!  It’s a first for us together; we’ve slept aboard once before, but I didn’t actually do the sailing part.  So this time we’re sailing briefly this evening, spending the night anchored somewhere, then making our way hopefully to Ganges (Saltspring Island) on Saturday, so as to do a bit of poking about on land before heading home on Sunday.  Not much wind expected, so it will be a slow sail, but calm seas make for happier sleepers, I expect :).

So today I’m contemplating the provisions.  The Skipper and I have done a lot of camping and other traveling over these many years, and I always say, somewhat sheepishly, that we tend to travel for the weekend, pack enough food for 2 weeks, and then when we get to our destination, we head straight for the pub. 😉  After all, eating in new places is part of the reason to travel, right?  Food memories are visceral memories, and they are the ones that we revel in later–for better or worse.

Those who’ve travelled with us will know that we chart our knowledge of the small communities around the province by what we know is good to eat there: we know that the best butter tarts on the Island used to be at a cafe in Qualicum Beach, that Port Alberni has some of the best fish and chips around, that the Crofton pub is best avoided, but the Crow and Gate (as much for the ambience as the food) in Cedar is worth its own trip.

Choosing food to travel with always feels like a vacation from regular eating to me too.  It’s my big chance to re-live my junk food habits: chips, Dairy Queen, soda.  Special foods that I don’t eat in my everyday life, but that match that feeling that I’m doing something different.  The problem is, I also always end up on an expensive run to the grocery store before the trip, and then we go to the pub. 🙂

We’re keeping watch over our pennies a little more carefully at the moment, so I’m trying to think a little differently about provisioning this time.  Plus, we’re not bringing a stove (haven’t quite figured out a way to cook safely at sea yet), so that simplifies things greatly.  Our standard fare for road food is good sandwiches: good bread, good cheese, avocados and sometimes tomatoes.  We usually snack on nuts and fruit too.  I don’t think I’ll upset that routine for this trip–sandwiches are easy over the two days for lunches, and we already have nuts, some chocolate-covered almonds (you know, health food 🙂 ), and I think there are some cherries left.  We’ve got some hummus, so we just need some foods for dipping.  I’m having flashbacks to road trips with my grandparents as a child and mason jars filled with cold water and carrot and celery sticks!  I’ve got carrots waiting to be pulled, peas waiting to be harvested, and a bell pepper in the fridge–I’ll skip the celery (didn’t plant any)–and maybe I’ll use that mason jar trick.  Cereal for breakfasts, but I’ll miss my fresh picked strawberries on them!  And we’ll PLAN to hit somewhere on land for Saturday dinner.

It’s been so long since it’s been warm that I’m reveling in how little besides food there is to pack–usually I’m rolling up wool pajamas and as much fleece as I can cram in a backpack.  Not during this heat wave!  Woot!  Enjoy the July weekend, and I’d love to hear your favorite road food stories…

Summer Picnics

Summer has FINALLY arrived here on the west coast, and I couldn’t be happier.  Not only will my beans, tomatoes, peppers and squashes finally be happy, but we can start eating outside again in earnest.  Poor Skipper’s been trying to get me out in the evenings for a month, but it wasn’t much fun huddled in a sweater feeling like I was camping in March.

We’ve been eating out of the garden pretty much exclusively for the last few weeks, which is great.  One of our favorite meals on the warm days has been variations on Salad Nicoise (the c is supposed to have a do-hickey under it, but I don’t know how to do that outside of Word).  Traditionally, Salad Nicoise is a mix of new potatoes, fresh green beans, and tuna, all mixed with a garlicky vinaigrette–yum!  But we’re mixing it up with the ingredients we have on hand.

First up was the mix of purple and white new potatoes with blanched peas, salad greens (lettuce, mesclun, beet greens), spring onions/scallions, all with a sprinkle of herbs, capers and feta cheese.  The dressing is lemon juice, red wine vinegar, dijon mustard, honey, garlic, salt and pepper, and then as much olive oil as you like.  Voila!  Delicieux.

Spring Salad Nicoise!

I’m starting–I know, I’m a little slow sometimes! :)– to clue into the fact that many traditional or classic recipes DO in fact use ingredients that are available, ie harvesting, at the same time.  We’re eating an early variety of potato right now, far earlier than our green beans will be ready, but when the first bush beans are ready next month (hopefully!), there should also be new potatoes ready from the main crop.  We had the same meal a couple of nights later, only this time without the peas and added a can of local smoked albacore tuna.  Fabulous.

The second meal came out of the 10 POUNDS of fava beans that I harvested yesterday afternoon.  I had simply decided that the plants needed to come out, so I spent the afternoon chopping up the huge stalks and picking off the best beans (there were lots more I let go).  It’s a pretty good harvest from seedlings that I stuck in the ground last September, with no idea what they might come to!

I went looking for recipes, and found one classic Italian one for fava, artichoke, and pecorino (sheep’s cheese) salad.  I thought that sounded like a tasty combination–and also spoke to how favas are really a summer crop, ready when the artichokes are (also now-ish and into later summer) not an overwintering spring one as I had hoped.  I thought the salad would work well as a pasta salad for dinner, and might work even better as picnic food.

Here’s what I came up with:

Late Spring Garden Pasta Salad

Ingredients:  1 lb? Shelled fresh fava beans

1 lb pasta–shells that the beans will tuck into work well

Olive oil

Zest and juice from 1 lemon

1 head green garlic (the garlic bulbs you pull up now that haven’t cured yet)

3 sizeable spring onions, or several scallions

1 cup chopped artichoke hearts (cooked fresh, canned, or marinated)

1/2 cup ? of feta cheese, or pecorino, or other hard salty cheese

salt and pepper to taste, any herbs that might be tasty–chives, parsley…

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.  Add favas and blanch for a minute or two, until the skins start to split.  Pull them out with a strainer/slotted spoon, and dunk them in a bowl of cold water.  Add the pasta to the boiling water and boil until desired doneness (a little underdone means the warm pasta will soak up the salad dressing).

Taste the favas with their skins on and decide if they need to be shelled again.  Really young fresh favas are usually fine with the skins, but as they mature, the skins get bitter.  Squeeze the green insides out of the skins if necessary; they will usually pop right through the split skins after being blanched.

When the pasta is done, drain and return the pot to low heat.  Add oil, then the chopped onions and green garlic and lemon zest and herbs and fava beans.  Rinse the pasta if you like to cool it a bit, then add to the beans in the pot.  Add chopped artichoke hearts, lemon juice, cheese, salt and pepper, and more olive oil.  Stir and let sit for a few minutes, then stir again and taste, adding more seasonings as necessary.  The pasta will take up the salt and dressing, so the whole thing may need more lemon juice, oil, and seasoning after it sits for a few minutes.  Enjoy warm, cool, or cold.

We packed up our salad, added some leftover olives, mixed up a jar of the Skipper’s famous C G and Ts (gin and tonics with lots of lime and a healthy shot of unsweetened cranberry juice), and headed down to the boat.  It was a glassy evening on the water, so we motored over to a small cove, and set anchor to eat.  Bliss!

Ahh summer...
Pasta Salad Picnic

There was enough of a puff of wind to sail leisurely home across the bay.  Summer took a long time to arrive, but we’re making the most of every gorgeous moment!

Restaurant Review: Genoa Bay Cafe

A friend of ours had a birthday this past week and at the spur of the moment, she decided she wanted to come up to our neck of the woods and do something.  Conveniently, there was something we’d been wanting to do, and without knowing it, she gave us the perfect excuse.

We have a very small sailboat moored just outside of Cowichan Bay.  Our closest destination across the bay is another small bay, Genoa Bay.  It’s a tiny spot, with just a few houses on the point and a marina with some float homes and sailboats.  But it has a not-so-hidden secret: the lovely Genoa Bay Cafe.

Genoa Bay Cafe

Skipper and I had a lovely dinner here years ago, but had heard that things had gone downhill more recently.  Until new owners and a new chef took over in February–since then it’s been nothing but raves.   On a beautiful afternoon a few weeks back, we sailed over and had no luck getting in for dinner; even with the patio, they were booked solid.  Lesson learned: call ahead, even on a weeknight.

So we did!  Got a reservation for 6pm, all arrived at our place at 5pm, we set sail at 5:30pm, and even without high winds, we docked up at the marina’s transient finger at 6:01.  After a warm greeting, we were off to the patio to admire the view and begin the relaxation process.

First up, beer.  Unfortunately, this was the only complaint.  They have the usual suspects, but for a restaurant of this caliber, we were surprised that their only craft or micro brew was Vancouver Island Brewery.  So Piper’s it was.  Not my first choice with all the amazing beer out there these days, but as I said to the server, if I HAVE to sit on the patio on a summer night and enjoy a beer, I guess I can manage whatever they put in front of me!

We managed to tear ourselves away from the view and the conversation and take a look at the menu.  It’s small–the kitchen must be tiny!–but reasonably varied, and very fresh.  Note to vegetarians, though, you might get lucky with the specials, but otherwise you’re out of luck.  I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if they would accommodate you upon request when you call ahead.

We started with Saltspring Island mussels in white wine and BC Calamari.  The mussels were delicious, but the calamari was a revelation.  Tender strips had been “ginger marinated” and then deep fried.  They had a very light batter of some sort (not often I’m stymied, but this might have been just a light flouring), so they weren’t crispy like calamari often is, but wow.  Fantastic.

For mains I tried the halibut and chips, our friend had a burger, and the Skipper decided to splurge on the 8 oz Ribeye with garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal veg.  Though the prices were comparable with many higher end restaurants we’ve been to, the portions were definitely more generous.  The fries, and you’ll have to trust that we are connoisseurs in this regard, were outstanding.  Kennebec potatoes, again very lightly deep fried, not greasy at all, just light and crispy with lots of flavour and not overly salted.  The burger was approved, the steak was cooked exactly as requested, veggies were not just a pretty side, and the garlic mash was creamy and savory.  My halibut, like the calamari, was deep fried almost without batter–not a finger food because of it, but delicious, tender, and as fresh as it gets.  My only quibble was the apple-fennel slaw, which was a little goopy with mayonnaise, rather than the julienned, crunchy, vinegary freshness I was hoping for.

Despite the portions, we decided we couldn’t resist homemade dessert.  Warm berry crumble and Callebaut chocolate terrine were worth being stuffed to the gills as we stumbled out.

The service was outstanding, the view second to none, the food worth paying more for.  A friend was recently cranky about paying $16 for a burger at the Canoe Club in Victoria.  I think we all get cranky when we’re getting basically the same meal that we could have had cheaper somewhere else.  But when food is so well-prepared, and goes beyond the care that we might take at home (no matter how passionate I am as a home chef, a Tuesday night is not usually quite this extravagant 🙂 ), then we are happy to pay the extra.  And by the way, the burger here was $13.50.

And the best part?  Not having to drive home!

I know. Life is awful. 😉

(Yes, we do have extra life jackets on the boat.  Why, would you like to come too next time? 🙂 )

Our Mini Spot Prawn Festival

The Second Annual Cowichan Bay Spot Prawn Festival started on Saturday.  We had intended to walk down into the village to enjoy the festivities, but got too caught up in our work in the garden and the sunshine.  This evening we headed down to our prawn and crab traps, and after a little sail in a light wind, we hauled them up…. after being skunked for weeks, we pulled up 4 big prawns!  Time for our own celebration!

When we got home, I debated about how to cook them–stretch them with other ingredients on hand into a Thai curry?  Or just saute them in butter and eat them out of the pan on their own?  The Skipper and chief trap hauler voted for something simple.  So into the hot pan went some garlic and butter.

Then I remembered that earlier in the day I had harvested the 1 asparagus spear that had appeared in the strawberries.  That got chopped up and added to the pan, and our Mini Meal was born.  I raced out to the garden with a bowl and my scissors, and quickly harvested a couple of handfuls of baby spinach, arugula, pea shoots, a small volunteer lettuce head recently revealed under a cold frame we moved, some chives and blossoms, and a few leaves of pineapple mint.  Yum!  They got washed and dressed with a bit of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.  I divided them up between 2 small plates, and topped them with the warm prawns and asparagus–2 each!–and spatula-ed the garlic butter over the lot.

As the Skipper likes to say, “Out-STAND-ing!”

It was a Mini Meal, though, so we supplemented with some not-so-local toasted sourdough, brie, and avocado, with pineapple for desert.  🙂  Accompanied with some almost-in-our-backyard Merridale Cider, though!

Here’s to our first garden salad!