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A PERFECT FOODIE DAY

Yesterday was the kind of day that foodies dream of—a whole afternoon devoted to food, friends, and family. As I mentioned in a previous post, my friend Kate Johnson, my daughter Shannon, and I planned to meet in Portland for a belated birthday celebration for me. We all looked forward to spending the afternoon together, but we were also eager to try some of the places mentioned in a recent New York Times piece. Since I was the “birthday girl” I got to choose where we would go. 

Now, even though I’m a right-brained person and, as a rule, rather disorganized, when it comes to food, I am sharp and focused. I’ve learned the hard way, through some miserable meals, that eating out is too important to leave to chance. Using the Times piece as a guide, Clif helped me put together a little personal foodie trail map through Portland. We would start out at Paciarino, an Italian restaurant, make our way to Standard Baking Company. for dessert, and then proceed to the East End to visit Rabelais Books, Deans Sweets, and Micucci Grocery Co., which specializes in Italian food. (I’m sure readers will notice a decided preference for Italian food, which I must admit is one of my favorite cuisines.) 

We all met at Paciarino, a small, friendly place on Fore St. Their lunch menu is quite limited, and on the day we went, all the sauces were tomato based, and ravioli was prominently featured. So, I ordered ravioli with a meat sauce, and what a dish that turned out to be! My mouth waters as I remember it. Never have I tasted such smooth ravioli and such equally smooth tomato sauce. Really, if I had been by myself at home, I would have been tempted to lap my plate. As it was, I asked for more bread so I could sop up the rest of that wonderful, mellow sauce, lighter than I would have believed possible for a sauce made with tomatoes. Kate also had the ravioli, and she called the filling “delicate” and the meat sauce “savory” with “such depth.”  Shannon had an unfilled pasta—whose name escapes me—with some of the same sauce we had on the ravioli. The next day, Shannon would remark that she was still thinking about that pasta and sauce, remembering the taste. 

Paciarino also sells pasta and sauces to go, and for $13 I bought a package of Ravioli Milano as well as some of that smooth tomato sauce, this time enhanced by meatballs. I figured Clif deserved a treat as well, since he was working at home while I was munching my through Portland. The official name of the sauce is Sug O Di PolPettine. There was enough sauce and ravioli for two generous portions, and as Kate pointed out, this was a very affordable treat. “Not much more than a meal for two at McDonald’s,” Clif would say later. But oh, so much better, which proves that delicious food can also be affordable. 

After good wine and a good meal, we were all in a jolly mood, and  we headed to Standard Baking Company for dessert. The sun was shining and the weather was crisp but warm. A perfect day for dawdling and detours. Into a kitchen shop we went, to look longingly at expensive kitchenware, less expensive gadgets, and other cooking folderol to tempt a foodie. Then we wandered into Gelato Fiasco, at my insistence, to “sample” some of the finest, creamiest gelato made in Maine. Naturally, we did more than sample. Finally we arrived at Standard Baking Company for tea and pastries, a chocolate hazelnut torte for me, just as rich as it out to be. 

Now, at this point, I should have been “full as a tick,” as my father would have said. Kate and Shannon certainly were. But being a prodigious eater as well as a good one, I was ready for more, especially as we took a bit of a break by walking to the East End to Rabelais Books, a shop that specializes in food-related books. Here again, there were many temptations, and although the store is small, within a span of five minutes I saw about ten books I would have liked to add to my growing library of food literature and cookbooks. I settled on Far Flung and Well Fed by the late R. W. Apple Jr., whose work I have long admired. 

Next door to Rabelais Books is Dean’s Sweets, which sells dark chocolate truffles. Did I have one? Of course I did, a maple-filled one, a perfect little mouthful. 

Onward we went, to the astonishing Micucci Grocery Co., a good-sized store chock-a-block full of imported Italian food, some of it familiar and some of it quite exotic, at least to this central Maine eater. To dazzle and tempt the palate there were pastas, cheeses, olives, bread, canned tomatoes, and much, much more. I bought a wonderfully soft bread, made at the store, and a flaky orange pastry. The big squares of pizza were also tempting, but enough was enough, even for me. My plan is to return to Portland in the very near future, and start with Micucci, so that I can spend quite a lot of time there when my stomach is not so full. I’d love to start sampling some of the various imported food and perhaps even have a piece of the pizza. 

Even after the eating day we had, there are so many places in Portland we’ve yet to try: Two Fat Cats, Bresca, Evangeline, and The Front Room, to name a few. I wish them all well, and I hope they can make enough to thrive in this uncertain economy. 

At the end of this happy day, after I said goodbye to Kate and Shannon, I walked around the city for a little while, carrying my bags of goodies, things I had bought and presents from Kate, lovely placemats with autumn leaves and a banana bread with roasted pecans. (No, I was not too full to have some of this delicious bread when I got home that night. However, I did abstain from the ravioli and the sauce.) 

The autumn light was slanting between buildings old and new, on pavement and on cobblestones. Fallen leaves, mostly yellow, lay scattered between empty black café chairs and tables, which will soon be stored until next summer. Autumn in Maine, a lovely but melancholy time of year, a dazzling end to summer that with increasing each year feels all too short. What a comfort to think that none of the places we visited are seasonal, that they will be there through gray, austere November, through the deep cold of winter, to our fitful spring, and to the brief warmth of summer, and finally back to beautiful but melancholy autumn. Food to delight the palate through every season and to comfort us as well.

TO PORTLAND TOWN I GO

This might be October 2nd—and a bright and beautiful sunny one at that—but to me it feels a bit like Christmas Day. For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading about all the great restaurants and shops in Portland, and today I’m actually going to this blessed foodie town to eat at some of the places featured in a recent New York Times article. I’ll be meeting my friend Kate Johnson and my daughter Shannon, and we’ll be munching our way down Fore and Commercial Streets, gradually making our way to the East End. We won’t be able to hit every good place, and I thank my lucky foodie stars that there are too many hot spots for that. But we will make a good start, knowing that we will have to return for more. I expect next time the two husbands and the fiancé will be in tow, but for today it will be a “girls” day out, a belated birthday celebration for me. (We had originally planned to do this in mid-September, but family matters called Kate to Pittsburgh.)

Oh, the anticipation! I had a light breakfast, and as soon as I’m done writing this, I’ll be on the exercise bike. To borrow a phrase from President Obama, the good eater is all fired up and ready to go.

MORE BIRTHDAYS

September seems to be quite the month for birthdays—mine and Clif’s as well as the birthdays of two good friends, Diane and Claire. Last weekend, we celebrated Clif’s and Diane’s. 

Diane’s came first. She is a fellow foodie, and for her gift I decided to put together a basket with homemade goodies as well as some other food-related items. Our plans were to get together on Saturday for a trip to Peaks Island, so Friday was a flurry of cooking—bread, spiced walnuts, and cinnamon pie knots (recipe below), all to go in the basket. I’m always a little nervous when I make food for presents. I want the food to be especially good. Luck was with me that Friday, and everything came out just the way I hoped it would. Along with the food, into the basket I tucked Julia Child’s My Life in France and some food photo note cards that Clif made. I must admit that both Clif and I were pleased with the results, mostly made-from-scratch gifts that came from the home and the heart. 

Luck was also with us on Saturday for our trip to Peaks Island, which is a ten- to fifteen-minute ferry ride from Portland, Maine. The weather was September gorgeous—warm, dry, sunny, with a brilliant blue sky. There were five of us: Diane, Clif, our daughter Shannon, her fiancé, Mike, and me. Oddly enough, none of us had ever been to Peaks Island before, and we unanimously decided that this was one of our favorite places in Maine. Even though Peaks Island is only ten minutes or so from Portland, it nevertheless has the charm and tranquility of an island community. There is hardly any traffic, and indeed many people use golf carts to zip from place to place. A three-and-a-half mile road loops around the circumference of the island, and most of that road goes along the edge of the sea so that walkers and bikers have the sparkling ocean, rocks, birds, a lighthouse, purple asters, and rose hips to delight them as they walk and ride. Benches are strategically placed along the way, and one of the most impressive thing about the island and this walk is that most of the shoreline is accessible to the public. The lovely houses are across the road, and while they have a fine prospect, they don’t monopolize the oceanfront. Outside of a state or a national park, this is rare, and, again, very impressive. Over and over, we asked ourselves why we had never been to Peaks Island, but one thing is certain—we will return. We are thinking it might even be an annual September event. 

Sunday was Clif’s birthday, and this meant more cooking. In our family, the tradition is for the birthday boy or girl to choose the meal. Clif decided on scalloped scallops, a simple but rich dish that has cream and buttered crumbs to go along with the scallops. It’s a Yankee dish, which yet again proves the point that plain food can be delicious if the ingredients are first rate. We also had roasted chicken, baked potatoes, corn on the cob, and buttermilk spice cake, made fresh that morning. 

Claire’s birthday is next. She has left the dinner choice to me, and I can’t decide whether I should make rolled chicken breasts with an herbed cream cheese filling or beef cooked with wine and spices, a sort of boeuf bourguignon. Stay tuned!

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 Cinnamon Pie Knots

For the pie dough: 

2 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of salt
¾ cup of shortening
½ cup of cold water 

Combine the flour with the salt. Cut in the shortening until the mixture is crumbly. Add the cold water and stir until the ingredients form a ball. Do not overmix or the dough will be tough. 

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 

On a floured cloth or counter, roll the dough into two long rectangles, one at a time, of course. On each rectangle, brush a tablespoon or so of melted butter. Then sprinkle with a cinnamon-sugar mixture. Clif always complains that much of my cooking doesn’t rely on exact recipes, and he is right. Basically, I put some sugar into a small soup bowl and add cinnamon until I get the color I like. Then, I cover the dough with a layer of the sugar and cinnamon mixture. Don’t be stingy with the mixture. You want a good cinnamon taste. 

Roll the dough from the wide end so that you have a thick rope of dough. Make cuts, halfway through, along the rope in two or three inch intervals so that you have will have nice little pieces when the dough is cooked. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and cook for twenty minutes or until the dough is golden brown. Once the dough has cooled, finish cutting so that you have indivdual pie knots.

MUTANT NINJA CARROT

Shop at any supermarket and you will find vegetables and fruits that are perfectly formed, and equal in color and symmetry. There are no wormholes, blemishes from hailstones, or discoloration caused by leaves or grass. How different it is in our home garden, where we wage a constant battle with cabbage moths, Japanese beetles, and slugs, not to mention the deer, crows, woodchucks, and skunks that covet our harvest. That is why we relish every morsel we glean from the garden. Today I made potato salad from potatoes too small even to be used for seed potatoes. It included our own fresh celery and onions and tasted much sweeter for knowing the toil that went into its production. Last week, I harvested some carrots. Although their misshapen roots would never have made it to the supermarket shelves, I loved imagining what the twisted forms represented. My favorite was a mutant Ninja carrot. Odd shapes do not affect the flavor, yet they make the harvest full of surprises. I wonder, if we could let go of our societal quest for perfection, whether we might not find many other surprises offered by nature.

carrots

THE EASTERN STATES EXPOSITION

One of the nicest parts of the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts, is the avenue where each of the Eastern States has its own exhibit hall. In addition to informational displays, crafts, and manufactured products, there are a variety of foods that are legendary in that particular state. At the Vermont exhibit, I purchased perhaps the best maple walnut fudge that I have ever tasted and later had to go back to buy some more. I quenched my thirst with some good fresh Vermont milk. At the Maine exhibit I had Wyman’s blueberry juice. My daughter Lisa had heard that the Maine potatoes were worth buying; however when we got to that exhibit, there were hundreds of people in line to buy a $5 stuffed potato. At the other end of the exhibit there was no line to the $8 rolls that were overflowing with lobster. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the potatoes, but I was more than happy with my lobster roll.

Maine potatoes 

(The Eastern States Exposition runs from September 18th through October 4th, and their website is http://www.thebige.com/index.html)

PORTLAND, PORTLAND: WHAT A FOODIE TOWN

The food accolades just keep coming in for Portland, Maine. First, Bon Appétit gives its Foodiest Small Town in America Award to Portland. (Never mind that by Maine standards, Portland is the big city, and I jokingly refer to it as “the Babylon of Maine.”) Then, shortly after, the New York Times has a very nice piece written by Julia Moskin about how great the food is in Portland. As if this weren’t enough, my daughter’s fiancé, Michael, informs me that Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic for the Times, was on Charlie Rose, and when asked where the best up-and-coming places to eat in this country were, guess which city got mentioned? Portland, Maine, of course. (As well as the other Portland, the one on the West Coast.) 

Why Portland, Maine? Why the wealth of markets and restaurants? In the Times piece, Julia Moskin lists some of the reasons why chefs and cooks have settled here: affordable real estate, quality of life, and Portland’s relative proximity to Boston and New York City. Because Portland is within an easy drive of two big metropolitan areas, tourists can easily come just for the weekend, not only for the beaches but for the food as well. Maine’s ruralness is surely another factor. It means that much of our food can be grown, caught, or produced nearby.

Yet Portland has always been where it is, about two hours north of Boston and five hours north of New York City. The land has always been relatively affordable, and the rural quality of life was just as nice twenty years ago as it now. So why the current food craze in Portland? The only answer I can come up with is that the stars are aligned in Portland’s favor, just as they were in Julia Child’s favor in the early 1960s, when America was ripe for a food change. 

Perhaps America is ripe for another food change. Perhaps we have finally had enough of what our national food has become—highly processed, tasteless, and commercial—as well as the results—obesity, diabetes, and a frazzled, joyless attitude toward food and cooking. However, we are still feeling our way when it comes to cooking and eating delicious, nutritious food. The change is far from complete, and it is a gross understatement to say that the food industry and the government are dragging its collective heels, that they are in the way of progress. When subsidies and tax breaks start going to small farmers and food artisans, then we will know that the change is lasting and real. 

Until that time comes, it is heartening to discover that a city such as Portland, a city of the hinterlands, after all, is in the vanguard of good eating. And how lucky for me that Portland is within an easy drive of where I live. I guess the stars are aligned in my favor, too.

MAINE COOKING VS. COOKING FROM AWAY

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was a terrific piece about how good the food is in Portland, Maine—the restaurants, the bakeries, and even a couple of food markets that sell baked goods along with fresh fruit and vegetables. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/16/dining/16chefs.html?ref=dining 

I was familiar with some of the eateries and stores listed in the article, but quite a few are unfamiliar to me. And even though the drive to Portland is more than hour from where I live, I am looking forward to visiting these places and munching my way through the city. A Portland food trail, as it were.  

However, one line in the article really caught my attention: “Many of the customers who keep these premium-priced places running are people “from Away” who have moved to Portland…” And judging from the descriptions of the chefs and bakers, I would have to say that many of them are from away, too. Now, as a native Mainer, I am not one of those who thinks people should just stay put and leave our state alone. I even think that new people and new ideas are vital to a place’s well-being. However, implicit in that sentence in the Times is the idea that without people from away, we would not be able to have good food in Maine. Indeed, over the weekend at Maine Fare, during one of the panel introductions, I even heard someone state that Maine was once the land of bland cooking, and we can thank those from away for rescuing the natives from their dreary food. Fortunately, this wasn’t the prevailing attitude at Maine Fare, but it is an example of how people from away get a bad reputation. 

As someone who has eaten most of her meals in Maine, I am in a pretty good position to comment about Maine food. My memories of eating stretch all the way back to the 1960s, a time that is generally considered a culinary wasteland, not just in Maine, but in the rest of the United States as well. (This was also when Julia Child made her grand appearance.) In truth, some of the bad reputation is deserved. I remember eating a great many casseroles that involved canned cream of mushroom soup, egg noodles, and either tuna or hamburg. Veg-All just compounded the misery, and Jell-O, either plain or as a molded salad, made frequent appearances. But I would argue this wasn’t so much Maine cooking as it was American cooking, and it definitely was not the whole story. 

When I was eight, my family moved from Waterville, a small mill city, to North Vassalboro, a small mill town that was quite rural. Many families in North Vassalboro had big gardens, and my family was one of them. As a result, we had wonderful, fresh vegetables in the summer, along with raspberries, strawberries, and rhubarb. My mother, like many other women on our road, canned and froze the surplus, and summer was a flurry of snipped beans, sliced carrots, steaming jars, and the beautiful sound of snapping lids. She made different kinds of pickles and relish, and our pantry was well stocked by the time winter came. Again, I want to emphasize that this was not unusual in our neighborhood. 

My mother also made from scratch most of our baked goods—cookies, pies, brownies, muffins, and cakes. Once she made a cake from a packaged mix. When we all decided that we liked her cakes better, she didn’t use a mix again. She made tourtière, a Franco-American spiced meat pie that we ate at Christmas, and a similar spicy meat stuffing for our Thanksgiving turkey. She made fudge and candy for the holidays. Do I need to add that other mothers were doing similar things in houses up and down our road? While the food wasn’t fancy, it was certainly tasty, and only one family in our neighborhood was overweight. The rest of us were pretty lean and active, and we were all good eaters. 

Now, I’m not pining for the old days. Times change, and not all changes are bad. I just wanted to add a little perspective to what cooking was like in Maine in the “old days,” before those from away rescued us natives from our so-called food doldrums. In fact, some of our food was very good, and right now, I wouldn’t mind having one of my mother’s frosted chocolate cookies, soft and chewy. And I haven’t even touched the subject of lobster and steamed clams, yearly summer treats for a central Maine girl and her family.