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Cooking Out on Goat

Cooking Out on Goat
October 2016
Chef Craig Deihl serves up a feast at his family’s rustic island retreat, cooking most every dish over fire

When four-time James Beard nominee Craig Deihl and his family invite you to a rustic feast on an island accessible only by boat, the only possible answer is “Yes.” (Truthfully, I can think of more enthusiastic answers, none suitable for print.)

Past overturned canoes and a hammock strung beneath palmettos, the path opens to a wide clearing where Deihl’s wife, Colleen, offers refreshing gin cocktails she’s dubbed the “Goat Negroni.” The resonating melodies of Cane Creek String Band—whose fiddle player, Bertha Booker, made the sea salts that will grace our table—set a festive mood.

But the real star of the evening is Deihl himself, busy tending to his multi-level, self-constructed fire pit of cinder block, rebar, and smoldering coals. Guests wander over to marvel at the action and to drool over dishes to come. Potatoes sizzle alongside whole garlic cloves and rosemary sprigs. Likewise, squash and zucchini bathe in crackling olive oil, as beets roast to a charcoal black, their interiors still blood-red and juicy. A wire-tied pig floats above smoking embers, its body reconfigured into the elongated spiral of Deihl’s signature porchetta, with skin crisping to perfection.

Goat Island feels worlds away from the chef’s downtown fine-dining venue, Cypress, and his charcuterie mecca, Artisan Meat Share. Yet he seems very much in his element here. Deihl industriously stokes coals and shovels them both underneath and above closed pots containing the Dutch oven apple crisp that will grace our dessert plates. He hand-packs a local snapper in a casing of snow-like salt mixed with egg whites to form a sort of “clay pot” encasement to bake in the heart of the pit. His hands bear the battle scars of a culinary juggler who deftly raises, lowers, and shakes myriad hot and heavily laden cast-iron vessels, his timing always just right, his fingers often directly in the flames.

It was on this very island that Deihl married Colleen 11 years ago. The place belongs to her parents, Dennis and Diann Clark, who bought property here in the 1980s after one too many Pennsylvania winters. Colleen’s younger brothers grew up on Goat Island playing in tree houses amongst the palms, but since all of the children have now grown and flown, the Clarks offer their property for special events under the title “Goat Island Gatherings.” It’s an enviable retreat, only a few minutes boat ride from civilization as we know it, yet as remote in spirit as Gilligan’s Island.

While Deihl preps the meal, I steal away to explore. A path leads back across the island’s main “road” (a dirt path strewn with fallen palm fronds that locals call the “Leisure Trail”). I am not alone: The scurrying sound of hundreds of fiddler crabs fleeing my every footstep keeps me on my toes. A long pier stretches far into the marsh on the backside of the island. A few white egrets scavenge the pluff mud for treats. I realize why Goat Island’s dozen-or-so “full-timers” have fought off all proposed bridges. There is a stillness here, the vestiges of a wilder barrier island existence that begs to endure.

I return to find Deihl roasting oysters under a moist burlap sack. He lifts the cloth to reveal jagged clusters nestled into aromatic juniper branches. We dig into the oysters, discerning their lightly piney and peppery notes, as the breeze rustles the very tree from which the juniper was harvested. Next up for the stand-and-snack hors d’oeuvres is the peel-and-eat shrimp, freshly smoked in the charcoal pit and slathered with lemony garlic butter.

Sitting down to dine with glasses of bubbly, followed by wines curated to complement each dish, we wiggle our toes in the sand as we feast and imagine that Thurston Howell III would have been thrilled to be stranded permanently on this island. Alas, for the rest of us, the fabulous dinner comes to an end, and we are ferried back to our waiting cars, hoping to one day receive another such invitation to this idyllic retreat.

The Feast (with Wine Pairings):

Cedar-Roasted Oysters with Juniper-Horseradish Mignonette*
Charred Local Shrimp with Lemon-Garlic Butter*
{Chandon Étoile Brut NV Napa Valley}
Heirloom Tomato Salad with Bacon Mayo, Lemon, & Celery
Fire-Roasted Beets with Cucumber, Yogurt, Black Olive Oil, & Mint
{Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon Margaret River 2015}
Keegan-Filion Farm Porchetta with Roasted New Potatoes, Rosemary, & Garlic & Salsa Verde*
{Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir
Marlborough 2013}
Snapper Baked in Salt Crust with Grilled Squash & Zucchini, Charred Eggplant, & Pecan Pesto*
{Newton Chardonnay Napa Valley 2014}
Dutch Oven Apple Crisp with Milk Jam & Vanilla Ice Cream
{Chandon Rosé Summer Edition Napa Valley}