Beach House

Big meals, lobster rolls, Andre Dubus III margaritas, and more!

We’re very lucky for the second summer to be renting a house directly on the Westport River, a mile north of Elephant Rock Beach. Few pleasures are as deep as an afternoon reading in a hammock strung between old twin junipers or having a gin and tonic on the beach in the golden evening light.

But such pleasures must be shared and so we have had lots of guests, up to ten at a time. And this requires a cooking strategy. Why Ann made five tomato pies two weeks ago, for instance.

What are our big go-to meals for big groups for ease and absolute deliciousness? If there is a certain theater company in residence, it’s my pulled pork, based on east Carolina barbecue (post and recipe here). It’s also the most economical main course you can offer a big group. If you can find a bone-in skin-on pork shoulder, that’s ideal. But any pork shoulder cut will work. The sauce is little more than a cup of cider vinegar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, loads of pepper, pinch of chili flakes. I added some soy sauce to this batch as we didn’t have any fish sauce to give the sauce some umami. But by far the best thing I did was to grill the shoulder first to get a lot of smoke on it.

Another great meal—also a whole-leg cut—is a marinated leg of lamb (Ina Garten) combined with vegetables cooked on a sheet tray (NYTimes), both of which Ann found online, both on a regular rotation for entertaining.

And when our numbers were reduced, we splurged on lobsters (perhaps the least economical main course you can choose unless you’re on Penobscot Bay). Ann requested grilled, so after a day at the beach I precooked the lobsters to basically rare, halved them so they’d be ready for a hot smokey grill. One lobster reserved for lobster rolls the following day.

Dessert? The excellent pies at Lee’s with some of the best ice cream in New England, Woods.

The Best Lobster Roll Ever…

Mine. According to my beloved, at least. I daresay, I can’t name one I’ve had that’s been better. And once you have the lobster meat, it couldn’t be easier. Key points are fresh cooked lobster, a toasted bun, and don’t hold back on the fresh tarragon.

  • 1 large shallot, minced (a quarter cup or so)

  • kosher salt as needed

  • juice from one lemon

  • 1/3 cup of roughly chopped tarragon leaves

  • 1 cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise

  • 2 to 3 cups lobster meat (tail, claw, knuckles, but not the claw tips which I find nasty)

Put the shallot in a small cup and salt it liberally. Let it sit 5 minutes while you ready the remaining mise en place. Add the lemon juice to the shallot and let it sit for 10 minutes. This salting and macerating of the shallot in lemon juice rids it of it harshness, leaving only sweetness.

Use a fork to remove the minced shallot from the cup (retaining the lemon juice), and add it to the mayonnaise along with some of the lemon juice. Lemon juice to taste but you’ll likely need all of it. Add two-thirds of the tarragon to the mayonnaise. Taste it. It should be distinctly lemony, shalloty, and fragrant with tarragon.

Salt the lobster lightly then stir in the aromatic mayonnaise. Taste. Add more mayo and lemon as needed. Finish with the remaining tarragon.

Toast (or better yet, grill) four New England-style hot dog rolls (split on top). Stuff with the lobster salad. Serve with a serious old-school chardonnay.

If you happen to be near a beach, take your lobster rolls and wine to the sea. If you are with your beloved, it will be a moment to treasure.

Alexis Handelman, posting as abcnapa on my wife’s instagram shot of the lobster roll, wrote:

I call those MFK Fisher moments—when the food and the place and one’s beloved all melt to create a culinary memory that’s indelible.

Indelible, unique, unrepeatable, I would add. Thank you, Alexis.

And one last note. Nigel Vincent, estimable chef at The Back Eddy, our favorite local joint here in Westport, noted that he adds Red Boat fish sauce to his lobster roll mix. A man after my own heart.

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Beach House Essentials…

If there’s one thing that you can count on in a rental house, especially a summer rental house, it’s a drawerful of impossibly dull knives, knives that were certainly sharp when they were purchased in 1978, but have not known a sharp edge in decades.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes cooking more of a chore than a dull knife. So, that is one fundamental item I bring to a rental house. A big one and a little one.

One way to test whether or not you have dull knives? Do you reach for a serrated knife to cut a tomato? If yes, it is because you have been trained by dull knives.

As fate would have it, a woman named Sarah Murphy from Nakano knives, asked if she could send me a knife and if I approved, would I post on instagram about it? I am a knife hound and will never turn down a free knife. The above chef’s knife is excellent—sturdy and lightweight and a very reasonable price. I can, happily, highly recommend this one.

If you need a good, but relatively inexpensive knife, click this Nakano link and use the code RUHLMAN for their 20% off sale.

Essential #2: We all love our strong morning coffee so Ann always brings our coffee machine to the beach (or sometimes to Ireland and Italy). Yes, there would probably be a Mr. Coffee machine at the beach house, bought the same year as the knives. But we’ll never go back to a machine that continues to cook the coffee after it’s done, and adore the carafe system. Pricey at $175? I haven’t done accurate math but I’m guessing this machine costs a dime a day for all we use it.

What we’re reading…

Having finished, sadly, the delightful My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, I moved on to The Heart of the Matter, a Graham Greene novel I’d always meant to read and which I found on the bookshelf at this beach house. Evidently purchased well before the knives and coffee machine (the paperback has a cover price of $0.35), this story of a maybe Catholic English married police chief in Sierra Leone grapples with a love affair in the tropical heat.

Far too much agonizing over God, and a not-believable love affair make this one to skip, I’m afraid. Greene is always a pleasure to read, page by page—so I enjoyed it page by page—but I’d still go to The Quiet American, Our Man In Havana (very funny), and my favorite and one of the best novels of the 20th century, The End of the Affair.

After he made his Friday Cocktail Hour (on Wednesday), Andre Dubus recited verbatim that book’s epigraph, classic Graham Greene if it hadn’t been by the French writer Léon Bloy:

Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.

This from my dear wife on what she’s reading:

I always need a book nearby wherever I am sitting. My beach book this week, which is now beautifully sandy and waterlogged, is Morningside Heights by Cheryl Mendelson, a comedy of manners about the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As someone who has spent about four decades below W 14th Street, this is a curious, delightful new world. (Beware: there is a new novel with the same title, which may be as good but I have not read). My bedside and couch book is the absolutely wonderful Mrs. March by Virginia Feito, coincidentally about the Upper East Side! And finally, as I wander around the kitchen I'm listening to The Plot by my friend Jean Hanff Korelitz, a fun read that keeps me guessing with lots of juicy twists and turns.

What we’re watching…

Not much, as we’re at a beach house! I watched 10 minutes of the movie Coda with Ann before falling asleep, and Ann didn’t even alert me to her viewing of Holy Motors until after she’d watched it (!) so I’ll let her step in to recommend each and why:

My son, Sam, has been recommending Holy Motors, a French film directed by Leos Carax, for months now. Since my beloved and I are awaiting the release of Annette by the same director, I decided it was finally time to watch it. What a movie! I loved every minute. Denis Lavant is absolutely incredible as a man whose job is to play strange, unscripted roles around Paris. Usually I'm the one who falls asleep during movies if we start watching after 8:00. But this time, Michael went down, so I watched Coda beside my darling sleeping husband. Emilia Jones won my heart as the only hearing member of a deaf family. Her rendition of “Both Sides Now” had me weeping.

What we’re drinking…

It’s gin and tonic season here, so that’s the call at The Hour. We make ours with Dingle Gin, the best aromatics for a G&T we’ve found, along with Fever Tree tonic can’t be beat.

I‘ve also been loving Mayflower porter, a delicious amber ale, and their excellent IPA as well.

And for the Friday cocktail hour, which came last Wednesday, we were joined by Andre Dubus III (author of House of Sand and Fog, Gone So Long, and Townie), who made his own margarita, the Grand Gold Margarita (1 ounce each, 100% agave tequila, Cointreau, and Grand Marnier, 1/2 ounce lime juice, splash of cranberry or pomegranite). Instagram video here.

Links we’re liking…

This is a fascinating article on the dying malls of America, the speed of which has no doubt been greatly hastened by the pandemic.

The title says it all: The Scandalous Decision To Pickle Admiral Horatio Nelson in Brandy. Also from Gastro Obscura, this story, on sheep bones used as apple-eating utensils. Such was the problem of toothlessness in pre-20th century England.

Peter Schjeldahl’s exquisite essay on dying (and living), from The New Yorker. Schjeldahl, the magazine’s art critic, is 79 years old.

A passionate argument against reading at the beach! (via The Atlantic. Thank you, Ann.)

A fist-fighting festival in the Peruvian Andes, an equal opportunity affair. (NYTimes.)

And finally…

I leave you with John Prine and Nanci Griffith singing “The Speed of Loneliness.” Griffith, a singer-songwriter who bridged folk and country music, died this week age 68 (read her NYTimes obit here).

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See you in a couple weeks!

—Michael