Eats goes to New England
We came from San Francisco to Brunswick, Maine. Folks assembled came from Monroe, Maine; Providence, Rhode Island; Seattle, Washington; Beacon, New York; Bar Harbor, Maine; Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Maine, Brookline, Massachusetts, London, England; and Grundisburgh Woodbridge Suffolk England. All are connected to our hosts, Katy and Bill, and have been part of this gathering over the years. Katy was our neighbor on Harrison Street in Newton for many years.
“Marc, Carol, Brian, Eric and Alison,” Katy said, “meet Ethan and Sally, Chloe, Kareim, and Suha, Michael and Felicity, Conner, Elisa, and William, Dan and Jill, Susan and Andy, Peggy and Marie, Donna and finally, Phoebe.” Eric and Alison live nearby in Monroe, Maine and attend this Thanksgiving celebration annually, so they know folks, the rest of us haven’t been for years so we’ll get to know them over the afternoon and evening.
It all began on Madison Avenue in Newton Massachusetts somewhere in the early 1990’s and continued when Katy moved to Maine in the mid ‘90s.
As with all good gatherings, the kitchen is the hub. Everybody is involved at one time or another, cooking, assembling, serving, carving and of course, eating. A spread of appetizers occupies the breakfast area: cheeses, liver pate, dilly beans, bread and butter pickles, breads and crackers. Grazing was happening.
Rhubarb is finally plentiful in the East (I’m sure it’s been in the West Coast farmers’ markets for a while now), and it’s a great mark of the seasons change from Spring to Summer. Real rhubarb (grown in a garden or field, not forced in hot houses as the year-round stuff is) is a sharp tangy taste of spring sunshine and cold rain. Classically it makes a great pie — more complex than sour cherries in my opinion — but can pair well with meats, especially pork. Next time you brine a pork loin before roasting, try adding a couple of stalks (chopped) of rhubarb to the brine; you will not be disappointed.
Rhubarb reaches sublime heights, in my opinion, in a brilliant yet easy to make cake that I first found in Susan Loomis’s Farmhouse Cookbook. It’s a moist and buttery sheetcake with just the right amount (not too much) sugar, punctuated by exclamation points of rhubarb chunks throughout. So simple but so good, and worth waiting for that spring sunshine to perk up the palate.
February is soup season in Maine; with all due respect to San Francisco in the summer, it can get pretty cold here. Our very favorite cold weather soup is an ancient recipe from Rome that includes bread, egg, cheese, and garlic in chicken stock. When it’s done right, it’s not even a soup really — it’s so thick that each spoonful will crown over the spoon edge. The garlic opens your often stuffy nasal passages, and the egg and bread fill you right up. There’s nothing better to be eaten in front of a roaring fire on a dark winter night. The recipe we normally use is from a 1993 SF Chronicle article by Carol Field who calls it “Pancotto.” However, there’s another good recipe in The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines where Jeff Smith traces a bit of the history of the soup, and then offers a version that makes “rags” out of semolina, eggs, and grated cheese that are cooked in the broth just before being served. Either way, you can’t go wrong when you’re looking for a quick filling way to warm up.
February is also Maine shrimp (Pandalus borealis) season, when this smallish species (averaging 30 to 60 pieces to a pound in the conventional shrimp meat measurement) of comes south for the winter from its summer home in the Arctic ocean. The nice thing about buying these shrimp in season is that you can often buy them directly from the fishermen, who sit in pick-up trucks just off Route 1 (the coastal State highway) propping up hand-lettered signs advertising their catch. And, believe it or not, these days the shrimp, often less than 24 hours out of the net, cost $1.00 or less a pound (the best I got this winter were $0.75 a pound)! That’s in the shell, but you can get more than a pound of tail meat from two pounds of shrimp, and that’s a very nice meal for two to four people. The remaining shells make this deal even better because the heads and shells contain lots of flavor of their own (and often the shells also include eggs stuck to the legs because the shrimp breed at this time, and the roe offer even more rich fat and flavor), and you can make some serious shrimp stock for poaching other fish, or as a base for sauces or soups.
Chinese dumplings (part of dim sum meals) are easy! If I sound a bit like the Frugal Gourmet by loudly announcing this, it may be because Jeff Smith has gone a long way to proving this to me. And I’m not just talking about buying wonton or gyoza wrappers at the store and filling them with a ground pork mixture, I’m also referring to the act of making the dumpling wrapper dough, which is no more complicated than making fresh pasta — maybe even easier (because you don’t have to cut it to ribbons). It’s certainly easier than making gnocchi because you don’t have to boil potatoes ahead of time.
Cooks Illustrated just published (Jan-Feb 2006, issue #78) an article by Rebecca Hays breaking down “Hot and Sour Soup at Home” as only they can do. They also claim to have turned it into “a 20-minute dish.”
I recently had a bit of surplus pork loin on-hand, and a pot of fresh chicken broth, so I went ahead and made a pot, something I hadn’t done in probably twenty years. The last time I made this dish I used a recipe either from The Chinese Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee or The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines: Chinese, Greece, Rome by Jeff Smith. Since both books are so old, I’ve reproduced those recipes below.
MARC’S SPAGHETTI SAUCE
I sent an e-mail to the kids with a newly made up recipe for quick and easy tomato sauce for spahgetti. (I wrote this in January, so there were no fresh tomatoes around. In season, by all means, use fresh — seeded and peeled.) The e-mail exchange follows:
From: Marcus Rector
Monday, January 24, 2000 3:13 PM
Dear ones —
I told Brian about this on the phone last night and he said, “So what makes it so special?”
“Well… its quick, easy and good… whaddayawant?”
I cooked this really good spaghetti sauce last night, and after eating, Carol said I should write it down.
Just after Christmas 2005 I began reading one of my Christmas presents, The Perfectionist; Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski. It’s the story of Bernard Loiseau, a three-star French chef of a legendary restaurant called “La CÃ´te d’Or” in Burgundy who killed himself when his restaurant was threatened with the loss of a star. But Chelminski was still “setting the stage” early in the book, describing Loiseau’s family and father, when I read this passage:
“…soupe au chou: cabbage quarters simply boiled in water with potatoes, carrots, and onions and a large slab of smoked lard (a cut similar to unsliced bacon), chockablock with rich, cholesterol-laden fat. Cut thick slices of sourdough peasant bread to serve with it (not forgetting to first whip the knife back and forth over the loaf in a quick sign of the cross) and you have a dish that is the closest thing to the magic potion of Asterix and Obelix. Soupe au chou is a true French icon, a peasant curative and forifiant that can go head to head with the world’s champion of Jewish penicillins.”
It was cold and gray and snowy most of the week before the New Year, I had all the ingredients on hand (in fact had GROWN all the veg ingredients myself, and had KILLED and salted the meat myself) and could think of no better time to find out if Chelminski was right about this Gallic version of chicken soup. I’m also very partial to cabbage and all of it’s brothers and sisters in the Brassica oleracea clan, and we have an abundance of red cabbage in our root cellar from our 2005 garden. The idea that this is a “French icon” that I’d never heard of or tasted was also very appealing.