Category Archives: Maine

mommom’s measurements

It continues to intrigue me how much more connected I have grown to the food and culture of my Italian heritage since moving to Maine, where I am away from the family, bakeries, and cities that have always been there to sate my cravings for specialty desserts and cured meats. My critical palate for Italian food has led to me to focus on learning how to make my favorite foods from scratch.

Next in line was pizza dolce. I called my grandmother and finally penned down her recipe for pizza dolce, pronounced by my Southern Italian family as “pizza dulch.” Traditionally made around Easter, this sweet pie is an Italian cheesecake made with ricotta. The  grainy-smooth ricotta cheese results in a very  light cheesecake, and the vanilla extract, orange blossom water, and cinnamon combine elegantly on the tongue. My mom and her sisters have the recipe, but I opted to go straight to the source: Mommom.

She rattled off the ingredients list with no hesitation and no recipe. For the crust, she recommended mixing the dry ingredients and adding water “until it-a form-a the dough.” For the filling, she instructed to add “half a box” of this to “a small glass” of that, among other equally vague steps. Her delivery left me stranded in a territory where many feel uncomfortable: baking without an exact recipe.

I barely use recipes to cook, but when I bake, I am still pretty reliant on them. The old world cook embodied in my grandmother doesn’t sweat the small stuff because she doesn’t need to. She knows how her food should come out and has perfected recipes by look and feel. She knows how each ingredient will alter the outcome, and I can only hope to gain some of this intuition with the mainstays of my family’s culinary history. If this pizza dolce project says anything, it whispers, “You’re on the right track.”

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biography of a simple dinner

My cooking style these days often strays far from recipes and sticks close to the desires of my eyes, stomach, and mind. My ingredients also speak to me: that cabbage is finally getting old, I have way too many eggs (is there such a thing?), the hidden apple butter was suddenly noticed after months of unintentional neglect, or I take a whiff of Chinese five spice and all neurons fire “YES.” Since the messages from my mind’s eye and kitchen’s pantry change every day, I rarely replicate meals exactly.

But two nights ago, I had a simple, rustic meal for dinner that I repeated tonight and will repeat whenever the I have all of the ingredients at once:  a heaping pile of warm greens over country bread and ricotta, a celestial combination of some of my favorite Maine eats so far.

I caramelized leeks in a trifecta of butter, rendered bacon fat, and olive oil. Then, I threw in several handfuls of chopped kale that I had previously de-stemmed. This helps prevent kale from wilting, similar to how removing carrot tops keeps the root firm. (Important: I threw the stems into a jar  with garlic, fenugreek, and a dried chile and covered them with a boiling mixture of water, apple cider vinegar and maple syrup for an impromptu refrigerator pickle.)

While the kale was wilting, I toasted a thick slice of country bread from Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland. This bread is baked in huge 18-inch rounds at least 6 inches high, so the folks at Scratch sell more manageable quarter- and half-loaves as well. On my way back from visiting a friend in Portland for the weekend, I picked up a quarter loaf in addition to a dozen  perfect bagels, this establishment’s claim to fame and key to my heart.

After the bread was toasted, I rubbed both sides with raw garlic, a move that elevates toast from plebian to glorious, and smeared a generous portion of Lakin’s Gorges Cheese Basket-Molded Ricotta, a Rockport-based artisanal cheese made using organic Maine milk. I saw owner Allison Lakin speak at the Camden Library about her transition from museum jobs and an anthropology degree to owning her own cheese-making business, and I have been wanting to support this soul-sister financially ever since. Her ricotta is different, as it is left to drain to the point where it is sliceable. I opted to smear it (heavily) on the garlic-rubbed toast and never look back.

I poured the kale and leeks over the ricotta-smeared toast, and topped the whole thing off with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt. Voilà: a dinner that managed, with each bite, to evolve through light, sweet, smokey, spicy, creamy, crunchy, salty, and chewy. And everything except the olives in the foreground and the olive oil was produced in Maine, within about 30 miles of my house. I’m real into it.

a christmas review

A celebration is rarely complete without food and beverage. My family, like most, has such ingrained food traditions that I come to expect certain foods on certain holidays. The winter holidays (namely, Christmas and New Year’s) are the most emblematic of these food expectations. Mom always makes approximately fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies the weeks leading up to the big day. Christmas Eve consists of fette dei sette pesci, or feast of the seven fishes, with dishes like baccala salad, fried smelts, and spaghetti with tuna marinara. And Christmas morning holds my favorite tradition of all: egg nog, clementines, and panettone.

By Thanksgiving, panettone have arrived at the seasonal displays at our local grocery stores in New Jersey, and around December 15th, there are already a panettone or two in the house waiting to be unwrapped: the most desired and fleeting gift of Christmas morning. This year, though, I spent the weeks leading up to Christmas in Maine. As I might have mentioned here a few times before, Maine has few Italians and even fewer places to by Italian food. So one night, before venturing on the twenty minute drive to the nearest Hannaford to fulfill my panettone craving, I gave them a call to see if they had it in stock. After my inquiry was misheard as “melatonin” and I was transferred around between four different employees, I finally caved. I was making panettone myself.

Following Mario Batali’s recipe, I mixed the dough and watched it through the first and second rise, kneading it a bit here and there and finally adding the raisins. I was a bit hesitant about getting the shape right (right = pretty much a top hat), but the oven and the yeast seemed to do all the work for me. When I took this out of the oven, I almost sang.

Speaking of Italian pastry one cannot find in Maine, easily or at all, I visited New Haven, CT on my way back north and went to Lucibello’s Pastry Shop. The smell of butter and sugar smacks you on the head when you walk into this very unassuming bakery, coaxing you to buy their cookies and pastries. I got two pignoli cookies (probably my favorite cookie of all time) and a sfogliatella (or lobster tail, or lobster claw, or ricotta-filled pastry) for the bus.

views from the road

One warm September or October day, I pulled over and hung out with these cows for a while. Look at their view! Pasture and sky for miles.

Fall in rural Maine comes with more apples than a normal human can consume. Apple trees are everywhere which means one thing: free apples are everywhere. This tree was dripping with fruit, and after gathering a bag full, they were made into that “apple butter” stuff.

three months in maine

It has required more than one pinch for me to believe that I am already a quarter of the way through my contracted time in Maine. These three months have been very fulfilling: sometimes difficult, often fun, and nearly always delicious. Cooking has provided a consistent comfort throughout these three months of hard work and increasingly short days. Shopping at Rising Tide Community Market and Sheepscot General Store have made that cooking even more enjoyable because I look forward to the actual food shopping as much as putting the ingredients together. I often resort to Facebook Mobile Uploads to share images of my culinary endeavors instead of this blog because by the time I’ve worked all day and finishing my meal, I’m ready to drink a beer and go to bed. Since my blog audience and Facebook friend community are nearly identical, I am not going to fret about my delinquent ignorance of “one palate, many plates.” Instead, I will fill in where it seems right, and settle into the rhythm of a long winter’s blogfest. Or at least that is the intention.

Image

Pictured above is some apple-zucchini bread French toast. Half a loaf was going stale in my refrigerator so I revived it into French toast. I credit San Francisco’s famous Mama’s for turning me onto making French toast out of quick bread. Their cranberry-orange bread and banana bread versions blew my mind and altered my palate to crave this denser French toast.

A few notes about the other items in the picture:

  • Since moving to Maine, I have made the switch to raw milk as my milk of choice. The last time I went to the store, they ran out of my favorite (from Straw’s Farm in Newcastle), so I got some raw goat’s milk instead. It is delicious, with an almost savory tang that lends goat cheese its distinctive taste. [The next product I want to try from Straw’s Farm is the lamb. Lee Straw boats his animals out to an island where they forage on seaweed and other goodies until it is time for slaughter. I don’t think I’ll ever find an animal that has lived a more chill life.]
  • I put maple syrup on/in everything. Yogurt, roasted vegetables, cookie batter (instead of sugar), tea, toast, salad dressings. You name it.
  • That smaller jar has homemade “apple butter” in it. I use quotation marks because whatever that stuff is does not resemble apple butter in the slightest, but it is a delicious apple spread that I’ve enjoyed coating breakfasts like this one, mixed with Grey Poupon and apple cider vinegar to drizzle over roasted squash, or eaten by the spoonful straight out of the jar.

When I lived at home, it was not uncommon for my father to bring home an unmarked paper bag filled with fresh mozzarella (like, milk-leaking-everywhere fresh, not whatever that stuff is you buy at the supermarket), butcher paper lined with thinly-slice prosciutto di Parma, and a loaf of panella bread sliced to order. At Haverford, I lived minutes away from Carlino’s Market where I could get my fix. In Maine, I have to search a lot harder, but I occasionally visit Sweets & Meats for positively scrumptious baguettes and an expertly curated selection of meats and cheeses. The sandwich above is from the first visit to the store. I layered foraged oyster mushrooms (first sauteed in butter) on the bread with prosciutto and local cheddar for a Italian-American/Mainer fusion sandwich that hit the spot, and several other spots I didn’t even know were there until I was hitting them.

Fried eggs are the perfect food; the runnier the yolk, the better. My eggs come from the backyard of one of my co-workers, whose sons raise chickens and sell their unbelievably fresh, orange-yolked eggs for $2.50 a dozen. This dish paired a fried egg with roasted radicchio with balsamic vinegar and a sourdough olive roll from Borealis Breads. Few things are better than sopping up egg yolk (this time with balsamic vinegar as well) with good bread to finish a meal. Yum.

august

This August was the busiest month of my life. After closing out my time at Mano Farm, I traveled up the California coast–along the water and through (commercial agriculture) farm country–to San Francisco. I spent one full week in SF hanging out with a lovely smattering of folks and an even lovelier smattering of nibbles and libations. A short flight from San Francisco to Seattle left me in the Pacific Northwest for the first time, where I hung out with my friend Hannah and her family and a lot of really good sandwiches. I cannot wait to return.

The East Coast finally reeled me in, and I spent about two weeks ridding myself of a lot of unwanted belongings and organizing my thoughts and things for the long drive up to Maine. Luckily, Hurricane Irene left me and my father alone on the trip, save for a little rain and the news that a giant oak tree fell on my lawn in New Jersey. Apparently, my family is going to be without telephone, internet, or cable until October 1st, but that is only if they make it that long.

Nanette Cherichello's sittin' in a tree; it's so very B-I-G.

I had my first day of work today, and my first day of exploring on my own in the Pine Tree State. Naturally, I have a lot to report but since I want to do justice to the people, food and revelry of the past month, I will be rolling out entries over the course of this week that concern not-Maine. Trust me, the wait for Maine will be well worth it.

Oh, okay, fine!–one quick sneak peek:

That’s the Northeastern Special from the Southgate Restaurant in Bath, ME, where I am currently living with my friend Carrie and her fabulous family. Blueberries and Canadian bacon (from Canada? I have no idea…) put the “Northeastern” in this “Special,” but geography aside, this breakfast left me satisfied and absolutely stuffed for the majority of the day. Enough food for three meals, it was kind of an unruly choice for my first breakfast in Maine, setting quite the obesity-precedent and antithetical to the reason I am here in the first place (i.e., farming, nutrition, etc.). But the last time I was there, back in 2009, I vowed that as soon as I possibly could, I would bring my dad because it reminded me so much of diners back in Jerz. Except this one opens at 5 am to accommodate the employees of Bath Iron Works and closes at 2 pm because Bath lacks that certain je ne sais quoi of drunk Jersey guidos that power diner business back home.

Hopefully, all the goings-on of my August will help me be august (ba-dum-chh) in my new position in my new community in my new state. I can tell already that it is going to be one helluva year.

oh and also

Starting on August 29, I am going to be the Farm-to-School Coordinator for the Knox-Lincoln County Cooperative Extension through the Maine VISTA Program! I am so pumped to settle into my (currently unknown) house in Maine, grow some food, forage some food, harvest some weeds, buy some stuff from the local co-op, buy some other stuff in bulk, etc. etc. I am also obviously pumped to be working in a position that I feel is so important. It is going to be a challenge, I think, but a wonderfully rewarding one.

And something else pretty sweet entered my life yesterday: chocolate chia seed pudding. Chia seeds mixed with raw cacao, honey, maple syrup, and vanilla extract are soaked in milk for at least 20 minutes and they soak up all the goodness to create a yummy pudding. A+, will make again.