Friday, August 16th, 2013

MAINE Food Paradise Part 1: Cottage Cooking

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We just returned from our annual vacation to the rocky and spectacular midcoast of Maine, and as always, the trip was full of berry picking, brisk dips off the dock, long walks to our favorite “secret beach” (sorry, I can’t tell you where it is), rainy afternoons at the used bookstore, copious lobster consumption and, for me, good times in our little cottage kitchen coming up with meals to feed the masses, using only what was grown and fished nearby.

What makes these annual “cottage meals” different from the cooking I do the rest of the year? First, there’s more time to just enjoy the process of making a meal. I can put together at least two or three vegetable-grain-salad dishes, as opposed to the one I might tackle on a weeknight at home. Second, because the ingredients are so fresh and we’re eating them at the height of summer, they need little embellishment beyond salt, freshly ground pepper, lemon juice, chopped parsley/basil/tarragon/cilantro, maybe a sprinkling of toasted nuts, and some really good olive oil. An example is this sauteed zucchini and summer squash dish—mixed with caramelized onions and topped with mint, toasted walnuts and lemon juice—that I made almost every other day and was inspired by a recipe in Deborah Madison’s must-have cookbook Vegetable Literacy.

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And third, I serve everything buffet style on the counter: no setting the table, help yourself, find a place on the dock, porch, lawn to eat, wash your own dish, done.

So here is a selection of some of my favorite meals, starting with this pasta dish that I made for dinner and then we ate cold the next day for lunch: linguine tossed with raw tomato sauce (recipe from KEEPERS!), torn mozzarella, and corn sauteed in brown butter. I added some chopped parsley the next day to liven it back up.

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One of things I look forward to the most every year, is when my college roommate and her family, who now live in Maine, come up for our annual reunion. There’s always a big lunch on the picnic table (see below) and berry pies that they bring from Portland’s Two Fat Cats Bakery. (Someone also started this cruel tradition where Ali and I have to clasp hands and jump off of the dock into the frigid Maine water at the beginning of each reunion–it’s a heart stopper).

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For this year’s lunch we had a big spread with crab cakes from Jess’s Market—a  family-owned fish store in Rockland—  along with roasted golden beets and goat cheese, rigatoni with basil-walnut pesto, a carrot and cabbage slaw tossed with rice vinegar, grapeseed oil and a little sugar, a tomato-zucchini-garlic-panko gratin (recipe from KEEPERS!), and a side of yogurt-buttermilk-herb-lime juice dressing.

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Another day we had a spinach-radish-toasted walnut (clearly toasted walnuts are a key-ingredient when I go on vacation) salad, chopped avocado, steamed new potatoes with more of that buttermilk-yogurt-herb dressing, and wilted red cabbage with caramelized onions. For the green salads I make one standard dressing in a jam jar and just keep replenishing it whenever it gets used up: red wine vinegar, lemon juice, minced garlic, chopped shallot, dijon mustard, maple syrup and olive or grapeseed oil. Shake.

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One day we bought fresh halibut at Jess’s and I made fish tacos (recipe also from KEEPERS!), dusting the fish with cumin, a little chile pepper, salt and pepper, and sauteing in peanut oil; topped with sliced tomato and avocado, shredded cabbage, and more of the buttermilk-yogurt dressing…and a side of beer.

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One of my favorite dinners was a halibut dish inspired by the upcoming Gramercy Tavern cookbook. I’ve been pouring over the book, which takes recipes from the restaurant and simplifies them enough so they are doable for the home cook. In the cookbook’s recipe they use flounder, but the halibut we get in Maine is my favorite white fish, and so fresh, that I substituted it. The halibut gets salt and pepper on both sides and then it’s sauteed in a hot pan with olive oil until there’s a nice crust but it’s barely cooked through. The warm fish is then placed on a bed of thinly sliced cucumbers that have been briefly marinated in vinegar (I used rice) lime and lemon juice, dill and salt and pepper. The cucumbers are placed on a sauce made with yogurt that’s thinned a bit with water and mixed with vinegar, lime juice, honey, and herbs (I used cilantro and parsley). All three elements together are a spectacular combination of creamy, tender, bright, sweet, tangy…

Halibut

I wish every day was a cottage meal day, but then we probably wouldn’t appreciate it as much, so it’s something to look forward to each summer. Next post: photos from my new most favorite place to eat in Maine!

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