Taking the waters, literally


Greetings from Spring Lake!

When we were kids, we took the waters with the whole extended family on Aug. 15 — the Feast of the Assumption popularly called “Salt Water Day” —  in our part of the Jersey Shore. According to pious legend, as the Blessed Virgin rose to heaven on this day, she wept and her tears fell into the ocean. The belief is that every year on this day, Mary’s tears reactivate, bringing good health to those who bathe in the sea.

For generations who had survived diptheria, influenza, polio and a host of other, now curable diseases, this custom had a powerful attraction. Our dad, who lost seven small  brothers and sisters to illnesses now easily cured, never failed to dip his feet in the ocean. And he started the family custom of bringing back water to those who could not make the trip themselves.

Many a Feast of the Assumption included a trip with our stationwagon filled with water jugs that were dropped off to neighbors, friends and relatives too ill to make it to the beach. They would pour the water into basins and dip their feet in with joy.

The event always ended with a wonderful seafood feast.

Things are scaled back now. The extended family has dispersed. Brother Mark, Sister-in-law Kate and our nieces and nephews gather each year on the Assumption at Chincoteague Island, Va.,  instead of the Jersey Shore. But brother Pete and I still keep the custom here with as many friends in tow as we can muster.

This year, good friend Linda Walls accompanied us as we walked down to the water’s edge in Spring Lake and gathered up two gallon milk jugs of water to give to friends in need of some help with their health.

I also still keep the custom of cooking seafood on this day in homage to Mom who really produced some of the best “shore dinners” I have ever encountered.

One recipe has become a favorite in the years since I’ve been doing the cooking. It’s an adaptation of a classic Triestine Seafood Stew. The rule on this stew is that it should be composed of at least five different varieties of fish and seafood. In Trieste, eel, mullet, fresh sardines and sole are  popular ingredients. When I go in search of the seafood — preferably at the Fisermen’s Cooperative on Channel Drive in Point Pleasant Beach — I have the wonderful opportunity to select from the catches of the day. Thus, the composition varies from year to year. Favorite ingredients have included large sea scallops, mussels, cherrystone or even chowder clams and monkfish fillets. It’s really up to the chef!

Cooks in Trieste favor removing all the shells if shellfish are used.  I don’t mind shells at all in the mix — as a “clamdigger”, I feel the shells add to the texture of the brew, but again, it’s up to you. The ingredients should, however, be comperable in size, so cut the fish fillets into chunks or strips about the size of the scallops or, if you prefer, shrimp.

Ingredients: 3 garlic cloves (2 cut in half, 1 minced), light olive oil (not EVO), 2-1/2 pounds of assorted seafood, washed, patted dry and cut into pieces; sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste; 1 large videlia onion, minced; 1 tablespoon tomato paste; 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar; 3 tablespoons unsalted butter; 8 slices of toasted or stale crusty bread.

Directions: Rub the sides of a wide, 4-quart heavy bottomed pot with one of the halves of garlic and add about 1/4 inch of olive oil; heat the oil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the seafood, taking care not to get splattered in the face. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook the fish, turning occasionaly so that it cooks almost through but isn’t brown. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate, pat off extra oil and cover. Add the onion to the pot and saute it in the same oil for about one minute. Add the garlic clove halves. Dissolve the tomato paste in the vinegar and add to the pot. keep cooking until the onion is soft, stirring occasionally so that it does not stick to the bottom of the pt. Add 2 cups of boiling spring water, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Then return to the fish to the pot for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the butter and minced garlic clove in a large skillet and melt over medium heat. Add the bread slices and fry on both sides until browned – 1 to 2 munutes per side. Place a slice of bread in the middle of each serving bowl and add the stew. Serve immediately.

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