Wednesday, October 22, 2014

First Look at Bao Bao Dumpling House

Yet another much-anticipated restaurant opened last night: Bao Bao Dumpling House at 133 Spring Street in Portland's West End. The small dumpling shop is the Portland outpost of Brunswick chef Cara Stadler of Tao Yuan

I went over early in the evening to check out the renovation of the former home of the West End Deli and to nosh on some dumplings - the perfect comfort food for the perma-storm we're having this week. The restaurant space looks much larger than when it was filled with dry goods, wine racks, and a deli counter. The decor is modern with black tables and chairs, industrial lights, and banquettes covered in fabric printed with flying-dragons. One wall is dominated by a back-lit metal sculpture of a flying dragon. Pretty cool. 

After we were seated, our server left us with an extensive hot tea menu, and a food and drink menu. I dilly-dallied in picking my drink, so when the server returned, I ordered the first one my eyes landed on - a beet yuzu martini ($11). The other 10 speciality cocktails are Asian-twists on classics and tiki drinks, like a Sake-tini, a 5-Spice Pina Colada, Vic's Mai Tai, and a Scorpion Bowl for 2. 

My beautiful beet yuzu martini arrived quickly, and my first sip elicited such a reaction - puckered mouth, eyes shut, nose wrinkled up - that I completely forgot my sentence. My friend laughed hysterically at me, but then ended up making the exact same face after her sip. We both had a good laugh at each other. Turns out what I thought was simply a sugar rim, was a sugar SOUR rim, like what coats the Sour Patch Kids candies. I cleared a section of the glass and found an earthy, tart, surprisingly light cocktail. 

The menu is short and inexpensive - just a few starters and hot dishes, but mostly a selection of dumplings either boiled or pan-fried, at $6-8 for 6. To start, I ordered the black vinegar peanuts ($4) and the Asian slaw ($5). 

A large bowl of warm peanuts, softened by the black vinegar sauce, arrived soon for us, followed by the Asian slaw. We dug in with chopsticks, but I quickly switched to scooping peanuts up with my spoon. The peanuts were a nice starter, topped with cilantro and green onions, and threaded through with crunchy sticks of daikon radish. 

The salad was our favorite though - all the cabbage, peanuts, cilantro, and fried scallions, mixing together for a delightfully crunchy and fresh appetizer. 

We ordered two types of dumplings; while tempted by the lamb, black bean chili, peanut filling, as recommended by Rob at Eating Portland Alive, we went with the kung pau chicken and the pork and cabbage - fried, natch. 

We thought the chicken dumplings were a little plain; with a kung pau flavor, I expected some heat, but even the xo sauce on the table didn't get the spice level up there. The pork and cabbage, however, was delightfully savory and full of ginger. 

By the time we left Bao Bao, the 40-ish seat restaurant was full, with a few people waiting outside. Several people came into ask about take-out options (none yet). The restaurant never felt too loud or crowded, although we did clearly overhear our neighbors' conversation, so it's not the place for secret transactions. 

Rather, Bao Bao offers comforting Chinese delights, for which West Enders seem eager. Check out Bao Bao Dumpling House (open for lunch at 11:30am and until 1am); I'll be back for those fun cocktails and to sample the many more flavors of dumplings. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Portland Birthday Eats & Party Spots

I enjoyed such a fantastic birthday last Friday, thanks to my Portland family. They must know I like a good party (it's that obvious!?) and so they pulled out all the stops. Just for regular ole 32 too - not much of a milestone or anything. But hey, maybe that's what you need on a random early-30s birthday. 

Of course, much of my birthday centered around eating. To prepare for our weekend canoe trip, I had to get up early Friday and schlep across town to help load up our canoe. My boyfriend enticed me out of bed with the promise of buying me breakfast at Hot Suppa. They open at 7am, so we enjoyed a nice early breakfast there. 

As I was deliberating between their breakfast burrito and the green tomato eggs benedict, A. pointed out the specials. I immediately decided on the grits and black bean chili topped with 2 poached eggs, cheddar, and green onions, and served with crispy tortillas. It was yet another stellar dish that illustrated the appeal of Hot Suppa. While on the surface, something like a breakfast burrito or this dish might not sound very extraordinary, they are always executed perfectly. The grits were the perfect consistency and temperature, not too gummy or cold. The chili was savory and well-salted. The eggs were poached perfectly, with solid whites and runny centers. While I haven't had much I didn't really enjoy at Hot Suppa, I've never had anything at breakfast that missed the mark

A few hours later, after some Old Port shopping with Original Roomie A., we decided an Eventide Oyster Co. lunch was in order. We sat at the bar and ordered some bourbon cocktails to start - the Kentucky Cyclist, made with bourbon, Bonal, Chartreuse, and a twist. After we asked about it, our bartender explained that Bonal is a French aperitif, that used to be enjoyed by cyclists during the Tour de France. The herbal wine softened the boozy edges of the bourbon; the lemon and Chartreuse brightened it all a bit. 

We sipped on our drinks and settled on two old standbys: the fried oyster bun and the chickpea fries. The soft buns, topped with crunchy pickled onions and radishes, sliced jalapenos and tomatoes, are reminiscent of eating fast food, if fast food didn't fill you with shame and give you a stomachache. The chickpea fries are crunchy and salty, cut by the accompanying tangy-sweet raisin mostarda. If you frequent Eventide and have always passed over the chickpea fries, be sure to order them next time. 

Another safe bet is anything from the specials board. We ordered the red snapper, with radish and seaweed, over a shmear of miso paste. Such a great mix of umami flavors from the miso, with fresh, crunchy radishes and sesame seeds, earthy seaweed, and fresh fish. I could close my eyes and order a special at Eventide, and it would always be a winner. 

Later in the evening, my friends threw me a fantastic birthday party at Salvage BBQ, one of our go-to places for great food in a relaxed atmosphere. Our party took over a corner of the huge restaurant, hung banners, blew noise-makers, and covered tables with trays of spent barbecue detritus. Everyone was able to mingle; order drinks and food at their own pace; and pay separately. No "table for 20," separate checks (nightmare), waiting for overwhelmed servers to return with a tray of 10 drinks, or fear that we were the loudest group in the restaurant. I've hosted several after-parties, birthdays, and meet-up groups at Salvage BBQ, and I consistently find it one of the best places in town to accommodate a large, informal group. 

The best part, if I could possibly pick one, was my birthday cake. My friends have really stepped it up for me in the birthday cake department in recent years (remember the cake that had my face stenciled on it in cocoa powder?!?). My friend A. who owns East End Cupcakes, made me this incredible cake cat. And then, to boot, of my favorite flavor of hers: chocolate cake with salted caramel buttercream frosting. Hello. Or should I say, meow. 

If you find yourself in charge of throwing a party to celebrate a loved one, I can't recommend Salvage BBQ enough. The large, loud space with counter service lends itself well to hosting parties where guests come and go. Similarly, Bayside Bowl is another great place to host large parties. Obviously, there's the bowling, and lanes can be reserved for parties. But the bar area offers plenty of seating at large picnic tables and couches, and the staff is also very gracious and accommodating. 

As proper restaurant patron etiquette would dictate, my friends called ahead and arranged with the restaurants staff to have a party, as well as to bring in an outside cake, rather than order dessert from the restaurant. It's a testament to the hospitality of Portland's restaurant industry that they welcomed us, cat cake and all. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

First Look at Brahmall

Rejoice! The Bramhall Pub has opened again! Under new owners/management and with a new name (just 'Bramhall' now), but still with the same subterranean, dare I say, dungeon-esque feel. It's so exciting to see the space again - it's been over 5 years since I've been, and the details had become a little faded in my mind. 

The bar has been moved to a side wall, rather than directly in front of you when you walk in. Shelves stacked with liquor line the walls behind the long bar. Several brick archways and columns create smaller divisions within the bar, with tables and banquettes lining the walls. We sat in a table that fit 6-8 comfortably, and I overheard our sever explaining that the banquette folds up to make way for the band - the Jerks of Grass, who played from 9-12am, just like in the old bar. The pool tables have been removed, making way for more tables in the back room of the bar. 

Because it was the bar's grand opening, it was full, but never felt packed or too loud - I didn't find myself screaming at my tablemates at any point in the few hours we were there. 

We started with two speciality cocktails: the Scofflaw: bourbon, Cocchi Americano, housemade grenadine; and the Nurses' Aide: light rum, grapefruit, honey simple syrup, with a dark rum float. The printed menus are beer and wine, with the speciality cocktail list in the works. The extensive bar selection indicates they'll have a nice variety. Both drinks were very tasty and drinkable, others in our party enjoyed Banded Horn and pinot noir. 

There's a great food menu too - which is very different than my recollection of the old Bramhall! We tried several items - the loaded crips were a standout. Thinly-sliced potato chips were topped with bacon, green onions, and cheese curds ($8). They disappeared fast. We also ordered several dishes for the table to share meat plate, a cheese plate, and the Caribbean jerk wings. The bite I had of a friend's burger was outstanding - it was medium-rare, perfectly tender, with bits of bacon inside the burger. 

I'm so excited to have the Bramhall open again and look forward to my next trip there. The vibe is speakeasy meets dive bar, and so if you like drinking in dimly-lit bars, this is your place. 

Bramhall is at 769 Congress Street and is open from 11am-1am. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bonfire Country Bar, Wharf St., Portland

I was excited to have happy hour at the new Bonfire Country Bar on Wharf Street in Portland. My country-lovin' friend LBK wanted to go, and I was intrigued by their self-service beer wall after reading about it on Eater. After a courage-fortifying drink at Central Provisions, I made my way down the cobblestoned Wharf Street, following the sound of a loud countrified version of "Wagon Wheel." Once inside the open entrance, we were greeted by some plaid-clad, jorts-wearin' hostesses. They got us set up with our self-service beer wall cards and we picked out a table. 

Of course, Bonfire takes the country theme and runs with it. There's saddle stools, tire-swing seats, and Solo cups. It's a brand new bar and looks it; but the whole thing feels rather...corporate. And indeed, Bonfire is owned by a hospitality group that also owns Wharf 51 (across the street) and FortiFem Martini Bar (next door). I was shocked to learn from the back of my beer wall card that there was even a place called FortiFem Martini Bar. So that right there let's you know where I'm coming from. 

The staff (mostly ladies, aside from some beefy door guys and bartenders) was very friendly and quickly offered us free bacon after we sat at our table. We obviously accepted, but didn't eat much of the cold, flaccid strips that arrived. Never mind that though, there was a self-service beer wall to be explored. 

After you purchase a beer wall card ($1), you load it up with money (the hostesses recommended $12-13 for about 2 beers) and head over to the wall. The wall is very close to the bar, so you're never very far from a staff member if you need help. There are 10 beers to choose from, each ranging in price from $0.35-0.40 per ounce.

To activate the taps, you slide your card into a slot, then start your pour. The all-craft-beer line up included Rogue Dead Guy, Shipyard's Pumpkinhead, with Allagash White, Sam Adams Rebel IPA and OktoberFest, Gritty's Halloween Ale, 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon, and Long Trail Double Bag.

I enjoyed the novelty of the DIY (pour-it-yourself?) beer wall. I only tried two beers, the Sam Adams IPA and the Rogue, but the wall allows you to sample small pours of several beers. LBK was able to try a smidge of the suspicious-sounding watermelon beer without committing to a pint - although yes, most bartenders will offer you a sample of something before you order your drink.

Now that I've thought about it for a while, the beer selection from Bonfire's self-service beer wall is really strange. The wall is stocked with craft beers that aren't cheap. Neither are the walls themselves. According to an IndieGoGo page for a Freeport bar in the works, these self-service beer walls can cost up to $13,000 for a 10-tap wall. The bar, however, is planted squarely in the heart of the drunken, debaucherous shit show that is weekend nights on Wharf Street. If the wall served flavored vodka shots and Coors Light, it'd make more sense to me. I just don't know who their target audience is with this thing. The beer wall would be more at home in a place like Little Tap House, a place known for its wide selection of Maine craft beers.

Anyways, after our stint at the wall, we took our red Solo cups (I'll fill you up!) and saddled back up to catch up. My legs fell asleep a few times in the saddle (and yes, I tried to sit side-saddle too), and the noise level in the bar slowly grew, until it was 8PM and we were shouting. We ordered some food from the surprisingly large menu, but were disappointed with the tepid french fries and off-tasting fried green beans. Bonfire doesn't have a kitchen, so the food is ferried in from next door. But the fried food quickly deteriorated during its trip between the two bars.

Bottom line: If you're interested in going to check out Bonfire, I'd recommend eating elsewhere, and going on the early side if you wish to avoid the crowds and resulting noise. (Unless you're in Bonfire's target demographic, and then have it. I'll be home by then anyways.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Maine Brew Bus, Geary's Tasting Room, The Well at Jordan's Farm

The Maine Brew Bus as a shuttle to Geary's new tasting room

D.L. Geary's Brewing Company, the oldest brewery in Maine, opened a new tasting room last week, embracing the public's growing interest in craft beer. Located in Portland's industrial Riverside neighborhood, Geary's brewery neighbors the Allagash Brewing Company complex and the "beer incubator" that houses Bissell Brothers Brewing, Foundation Brewing, and Austin Street Brewing

Before the small tasting room was roughed out of the industrial brewing space, Geary's offered tours daily, but there was no retail space in which to relax and enjoy a sampling of their beers. Of course, breweries are working spaces, with things to trip over, slip on, get your fingers caught in, etc., so Geary's tours were previously limited in size and scope. While some would like to venture into the brewing space and hear about specific gravity and malt profiles, others would rather simply pull up a stool and sip on a few brews. The new tasting room and continued tours will allow you to do both! 

Geary's new tasting room

During the grand opening, the staff at the tasting room was pouring 6 beers, and I sampled the Autumn, a brown ale; the London Porter; and the cask-conditioned Hampshire Ale. I enjoyed the gentle, malty flavors of Geary's beers, but then was grateful to have the Maine Brew Bus as a shuttle to get home! The 7% ABV Hampshire Ale began to catch up with me by the time the shuttle was due to leave. 

The Maine Brew Bus drove us back to the Great Lost Bear, another cornerstone of Portland's early craft beer scene. On the way, owner Zach Poole and VP of Operations Don Littlefield entertained us with the story of the Brew Bus' origins and tidbits about Maine's craft beer scene. While I was only onboard for a total of 30 minutes or so, Zach and Don impressed me with their knowledge of both the beer-side and the business-side of the craft beer industry in Maine. The Brew Bus offers not only beer-themed tours, but features other exciting locally-made brews like craft spirits, kombucha, and mead. I'm looking forward to checking out a full Brew Bus tour soon - let's call it research for my second book

Similarly in the "showing off Portland" category is a recent meal I enjoyed at Eventide Oyster Co. Every time I eat there, the food and service solidify the place in my Top 10 Portland restaurants. I went for lunch with a journalist, who interviewed me for her upcoming book about what makes a place "home." I figured with all of the people I interviewed for my first book, I needed to return the favor by contributing to someone else's research! 

My connection to the food scene was obvious in thinking about what makes Portland my home. My love affair with Portland was ignited by the incredible food and drink scene I discovered upon moving here. And nowhere is that sense of place through food expressed better than at Eventide. Local this, local that; in tune with the seasons, the land, and the ocean...and of course, tasting great at every step. 

We sampled lobster rolls, lobster stew, the chickpea fries (mandatory), the arctic char special (pictured above), and the razor clam special. Thin slices of char gravlax came piled up next to cucumber slices, pickled red onions, dots of creme fraiche, and dill fronds. "Everything" crumbs (like the bagel flavor) sprinkled on top gave a nice crunch. 

The razor clam special was another standout, with white beans and clams drizzled in a thin, slightly spicy orange sauce, and topped with pickled mushrooms, and thinly sliced radish. It was frankly not even something I thought sounded very appealing! But it was a great parade of textures and flavors, further proving one should trust in the great all-knowing chefs of Eventide. 

Farm fresh produce is overflowing at the farmers' market...but this is the time of year when it's here one week and gone the next. If you've got your eye on preserving anything or getting in one last gorging on a seasonal dear like tomatoes, sweet corn, or green beans, get to the Portland Farmers' Market ASAP - either tomorrow in Monument Square or Saturday in Deering Oaks Park. 

And speaking of seasonal dears, I made it to The Well at Jordan's Farm - I am nothing if not motivated by deadlines, as we eked out a dinner on the second to last night of service before the restaurant switches to weekday lunches. 

The Well at Jordan's Farm is a restaurant on the farm - Jordan's Farm in Cape Elizabeth. The kitchen is in a small shed-esque building, encompassing not much more than the kitchen line and the counter at which you order. Chef Jason Williams, formerly of the Back Bay Grill, approached farmer Penny Jordan a few years ago about starting a seasonal restaurant on the farm, using the farm's produce. Penny agreed and the restaurant has been a huge success ever since. Think Back Bay Grill quality food, but served in a picturesque Maine farm field. 

The evening's menu is written on a chalkboard sign as you approach the gazebo kitchen. We were able to choose a pork, fish, chicken, or vegetarian entrees and then just one salad, appetizer, and dessert option. Nice and simple. 

Our first round of food was delivered to us while we enjoyed the bottle of wine we brought (water, cups, and wine bottle openers are provided). We ordered several plates of the salad ($8) and lamb sausage appetizer ($8) to share. The salad greens were dressed with an aged balsamic vinegar with golden beets, Stilton cheese, grilled onions, and "crumb"tons or (crushed croutons). It was a fresh, simple salad that reminded me how delicious salads can be (I'd fallen out of love with salad greens over the summer). The lamb sausage appetizer was very juicy, perched on a piperade or a pile of thinly sliced peppers. 

While we waited for our entrees though, the sun began to set over the farm fields and the mosquitos descended. Our gracious server got the 5 of us set up in the gazebo-built-for-4 by squeezing in some stools so we all had a seat. Once enshrouded in mesh screening, we relaxed and enjoyed our meal once again. 

For my entree, I ordered the hake with a side of farro, roasted cauliflower and romanesco (cauliflower's fractalized cousin). The fish ($24) was also simply prepared, with tender flakes of fish filet held together by crispy skin. Elsewhere around the table, friends were declaring the chicken with squash puree, potatoes, and chard ($23) "the best I've ever had," and nibbling on strips of pork fat that accompanied the giant pork chop set over cranberry beans and braised red cabbage ($26). Everyone's plates were scraped clean, and we pushed back from the table, only to finish our glasses of wine and ponder how many apple compote donuts ($9) we were going to need to order (answer: 3). 

By 8pm, we were not the last people lingering outside under the darkening Fall sky, warmed by the glowing lights of the cozy restaurant kitchen.  After admiring the clear night sky, in which the Milky Way was visible, we hopped in our cars and headed back to Portland. 

The Well at Jordan's Farm served its final dinner for the season last Saturday. But they'll be serving lunch on weekdays, starting October 1st (tomorrow!), so it's not too late to try some of Chef Jason Williams and crew's simple, local fare. Be sure to grab a taste of summer's fleeting experiences before we settle fully into fall, whether it's via the farmers' market or directly on the farm at The Well. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Canning Spaghetti Sauce in a Pressure Canner

My love for fresh, local tomatoes cannot be overstated. But (and I feel I'm making a bit of a canning confession here), I think preserving tomatoes in a way that captures their sweet, in-season taste can be a struggle. Preparing tomatoes for canning is always a process, no matter what method or recipe you use. In years past, I've canned crushed tomatoes; whole, peeled tomatoes; and basil-garlic tomato sauce, all in a boiling water bath canner. This method requires the addition of bottled lemon juice for safety, which (as much as I've tried to convince myself it doesn't) imparts a tart flavor. 

So if you're going to go all out - peeling tens of pounds of tomatoes, scooping hot tomatoes through a food mill, lots and lots (and lots) of dripping tomato juice - you'd better be sure that when you're finished, you have jars of something you're excited to use. So this year, I pressure canned spaghetti sauce. 

The peeling process is still necessary - or at least, I think it is. You don't have to peel your tomatoes (for safety reasons), but I prefer the resulting texture of a sauce made without tomato skins. So I score the non-stem end of all the tomatoes, drop them in boiling water (using a blanching insert in my stockpot helped hasten the process), and then cool them in an ice water bath. This took about an hour for a half-bushel of plum tomatoes (about 20 lbs.) from Fairwinds Farm in Topsham, Maine. 

Then, I made my spaghetti sauce: chopped tomatoes, sauteed garlic and onions in olive oil, and let it simmer for hours until it was reduced by about 1/3. The recipe suggests to reduce it by half, but I found my sauce was a desired consistency before that. At the end, I seasoned the sauce to taste, by adding a lot of salt, freshly-ground black pepper, a bit of sugar, and lots of fresh, chopped basil. The recipe calls for the addition of green peppers/celery or mushrooms, but I opted to leave all of those ingredients out. 

I filled 10 pint jars with the sauce and left an inch of headspace. I screwed on my lids and bands and lifted my jars into the pressure canner, which was filled with 3 quarts of boiling water (I use a 16-quart Presto weighted gauge pressure canner/cooker, so I simply followed the instructions for how much water to add, how to operate, etc.). 

Once the canner was full (it holds 10 pints), I locked the lid on, and waited for the water inside to come to a vigorous boil. I vented the canner, by letting it fill with steam for 10 minutes (start a 10 minute timer when a strong V of steam comes out of the canner's vent pipe). This step is important, because it ensures the canner is full of steam, rather than steam and air, which will result in the proper internal temperature. 

I processed the spaghetti sauce for 20 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure (11 pounds if you're using a dial gauge canner). Pressure canning feels like a lot less hands-on work than boiling water bath canning. I don't think that's actually true, but after pressure canning, I was left with the very satisfying feeling that it was a lot easier than boiling water bath canning. 

After I removed them from the canner, the 10 pints of sauce sealed almost immediately, but I let them cool completely until the next evening before I labeled them and put them away. 

This spaghetti sauce recipe is great, because it doesn't require the addition of bottled lemon juice for safety. You can season your spaghetti sauce however you'd like; the addition of a few teaspoons of ground herbs and spices won't alter the pH significantly enough to become a safety concern. As always, do not change the quantities of food (tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers/celery, and mushrooms) in this recipe or risk creating a product that might be unsafe for long term storage. Note that I left things out, rather than add more things in. Omitting low-acid ingredients is OK, but adding more is not. 

If any of that sounds like Greek to you, read up on how to preserve food safely using a pressure canner. I'm also teaching a pressure canning workshop through Scarborough Adult Ed. on October 23rd. 

Spaghetti Sauce

30 lbs tomatoes
1 cup chopped onions
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped celery or green pepper
1 lb fresh mushrooms, sliced (optional)
4-1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp oregano
4 tbsp minced parsley
2 tsp black pepper
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup olive oil

Wash tomatoes and dip in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds or until skins split. Dip in cold water and slip off skins. Remove cores and quarter tomatoes. Boil 20 minutes, uncovered, in large saucepan. Put through food mill or sieve. 

Saute onions, garlic, celery or peppers, and mushrooms (if desired) in oil until tender. Combine sauteed vegetables and tomatoes and add remainder of spices, salt, and sugar. Bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered, until thick enough for serving. At this time the initial volume will have been reduced by nearly one-half. Stir frequently to avoid burning. 

Fill jars, leaving 1-inch headspace. Adjust lids and process at 10 pounds of pressure for 20 minutes (pints) or 25 minutes (quarts). 

Yield: About 9 pints

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fishin' Ships Food Truck

By far, the launch of the Fishin' Ships food truck was the one I was looking forward to the most. I followed the build-out of the truck on facebook, I counted down to their launch at Rising Tide Brewing Co. (and then was disappointed when it was delayed by a day), and promoted their appearances at Flea Bites food truck clusters on the First Friday of each month this summer. You'd never know, for all that, that I hadn't actually eaten from the locally-sourced fish and chips truck until last Tuesday night.

Owner Sam Brown taking orders

Fishin' Ships, along with several other food trucks, was at Portland Greendrinks, the monthly environmental networking event, at Thompson's Point. While I sipped on a Sebago Bonfire Rye, I ordered up an O.G. fish and chips ($10), described as "a classic preparation," on the truck's chalkboard menu. The hearty pieces of pollack were coated in a pleasing PBR batter and served with tartar sauce, plenty of fries, and a lemon. 

The O.G. fish and chips

Because I've been chatting with the Fishin' Ships guys on twitter, they kindly kicked me over a fish taco to try as well. The fish taco ($5) also featured pollock, crusted in what they call their High Thai'd batter, a ginger, thai basil and chili-flavored batter, made with Bissell Brothers Substance Ale. The fried fish is served in a corn tortilla and topped with a poblano-mango salsa, cilantro, and a spicy aioli. 

The O.G. preparation of the fish and chips was certainly good - crispy batter, flaky fish, not unpleasantly greasy, with crunchy fries - but the taco was my favorite. Next time, I'll explore the flavored batters and dipping sauces, as I'm more excited by the unusual flavors the rest of the fish and chips preparations have to offer. 

High Thai'd fish taco

And about that fish: Fishin' Ships is a Gulf of Maine Research Institute Culinary Partner, which means they have pledged to always have a locally-caught and sustainable seafood option on their menu, are educated on sustainability issues surrounding the Gulf of Maine's fishing industry, and are working on increasing the overall environmental sustainability of their business. Pretty cool for a food truck. 

When the Fishin' Ships food truck first launched early this summer, I'd heard complaints from customers that the portion sizes were small and the prices high. I was satisfied with my portion of fish and chips for $10, and while my fish taco was on the larger size compared to other options in Portland, I would want to eat more of them than I could reasonably afford at $5 a pop. 

However, I trust that the guys behind the Fishin' Ships truck have set prices that allow them to use local ingredients while still eking out a profit. Perhaps Fishin' Ships sits at the intersection of the expectation that food from mobile vendors should be inexpensive and the fact that local and ethical food sources are not always the cheapest option. 

If that was too much food systems analysis for you in a food truck review, I leave you with this beautiful sunset: 


Follow Fishin' Ships on facebook, twitter, and Instagram to see where they'll be for lunch and dinner in the greater Portland area. 

Fishin' Ships on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Talking Preserving on MPBN and Maine History Book #2

Last week, I was on Maine Public Broadcasting Network's Maine Calling program, discussing preserving with two friends and fellow UMaine Extension Master Food Preservers. The three of us had a great time in the studio (despite that I was very nervous at first, natch) with host Jennifer Rooks. We discussed recommended methods for preserving, what to add to peach jam to make it delightfully spicy, the best recipes for beginners, and Laura's fermented Kosher dill pickles.

Listen to the program:  Canning (and other ways to save your garden's bounty)

And speaking of producing media...I'm writing another book! The History Press, publisher of my first book, Portland Food: the Culinary Capital of Maine, has commissioned me to write an account of the history of alcohol in Maine, due out September 2015. The working title is A Spirited History of Maine, and I'll cover Maine's complicated relationship with alcohol, from the nation's earliest prohibition in 1851 to the revival of craft distilleries and the farm-to-flask movement today.

While the project will be different from Portland Food, in that it will be a more historical account than that of our fairly recently developed food scene, I'm excited to interview Maine distillers, craft cocktail bar owners, bartenders, and historians.

Rum barrels at New England Distilling

If you feel you've got something to add, be it an idea, a person to interview, or a resource for me, I'd love to hear from you! Please leave a comment or email me at

Cheers! I'm looking forward to all of the "research" that will go into writing A Spirited History of Maine

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Preserving Peaches with Food In Jars' Marisa McClellan

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of hosting Marisa McClellan, author of two preserving cookbooks and blogger at Food In Jars, at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Falmouth. We were all particularly excited to be a stop on Marisa's book tour, since we teach food preservation here and have a big group of volunteers trained to do so as well (Master Food Preservers). I was excited to meet Marisa and then sit in the audience and relax while someone else demonstrated food preservation and fielded questions about jamming and pickling. 

Marisa demonstrated two recipes from her new book, Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces. These are small-batch recipes, usually yielding one to two pints, and can be completed in an hour or so. Marisa was particularly entertaining as she demonstrated these recipes, quickly putting nervous new canners at ease with her light-hearted approach to the process. After a two-hour demonstration, no one was scared of canning anymore, and we were all inspired by Marisa's delicious recipes. 

Specifically, Marisa demonstrated making a peach Sriracha jam, which we sampled alongside Cabot's clothbound cheddar cheese. It was a perfect balance of sweet and spicy, with about 1/4 cup of Sriracha added to about 2 lbs. of mashed peaches. Other than the traditional uses for jam, Marisa loves this spread on turkey burgers and roasted sweet potatoes. 

Peach Jam with Sriracha
from Preserving by the Pint

1 quart (about 2 lbs.) peaches
1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup Sriracha hot sauce
juice of 1/2 lemon

Wash and quarter peaches. Remove pit. Drop quarters into boiling water for 30-60 seconds, then move to a bowl of ice water. Let cool and remove skins. Place peeled peaches in a large skillet and mash with a potato masher. Add sugar and let stand for a few minutes. 

Add lemon juice and heat fruit mixture over medium-high heat. Bring fruit to a boil and stir frequently, until fruit is reduced and thick, about 10 to 12 minutes. Look for jam to thicken so that when you pull a spatula through the jam, the mixture doesn't fill in the space you created immediately. Stir in Sriracha and remove from heat. 

Ladle into hot half-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes or place in the fridge to enjoy within 2 weeks. 

Makes about 3 half-pint jars

As a hostess perk, I was left with a pint of this peach jam, so when I turned to preserving my own peaches, I went no-frills. I canned peach slices in a light syrup, thinking I can make jam, chutney, sauce and pie (or more likely just eat them straight from the jar) later. 

I ordered a case of peaches from Maple Springs Farm in Harrison (a vendor at the Portland Farmers' Market) a few weeks ago. Farmer Mark of the Peaches drives down to Connecticut, loads up the truck, and sells cases (about 26 lbs.) for $50. I got my own cases two years ago, but that was a fairly traumatic experience (see the never-ending peach processing). 

So this year, I split both the case and the processing with Vrylena. We canned the peaches in one evening, but it still took about 6 hours. We ended up with 9 pints and 10 quarts of peaches, plus a pile of quartered peaches that were too stubborn to peel, that will end up in a raspberry peach pie. 

Peach Slices in Light Syrup

For the light syrup: 
10-1/2 cups water
1-1/4 cups white sugar

Combine water and sugar in a large stock pot, bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer while packing your jars.

For the peaches: 
Wash and quarter peaches. Remove pit. Drop quarters into boiling water for 30-60 seconds, then move to a bowl of ice water. Let cool and remove skins. Slice quarters in half again, if desired. 

Pack peach slices into hot quarts or pints, cut side down. Ladle hot syrup over peaches, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Remove bubbles, adjust headspace if needed. Wipe jar rims and apply lids and screw bands. Process in a boiling water bath for 25 minutes for pints, 30 minutes for quarts. 

Yield: 17-1/2 lbs. needed for a canner load of 7 quarts, 11 lbs. needed for a canner load of 9 pints

Lastly, in self-interested news, the Maine Sunday Telegram is looking for a restaurant reviewer. Their interim critic, Melissa Coleman's stint is up at the end of the summer (I guess that's now? *sniff*), so the hunt is on to fill her spot. With so many great restaurants in Maine, I'd love to see our state's largest paper have a serious food writer/restaurant critic. See the job description below, and forward it onto anyone you think would be a good fit. 

The Maine Sunday Telegram is looking for a freelance restaurant critic to write our weekly Dine Out Maine reviews. Is that you?

You need to know about food, dining and restaurants. You need a sophisticated palate. (Do you also know wine? Even better.) Just as important, you can tell a good story. Your reviews will critique a restaurant’s food and service, of course, but in the process will tell an engaging story. We are looking for reviews that have beginnings and endings, themes and ideas, and a strong point of view. You also can describe food in interesting, evocative ways, and you must be able to explain clearly why a dish was outstanding or disappointing. (“It was delicious” is not a critique.)

Beyond these, you must meet deadlines, write accurately and fairly, and be familiar with the restaurant scene in greater Portland and Maine. We won’t be assigning which restaurant to review each week – we expect you to keep track of openings and new chefs and to propose restaurants yourself. We also expect you to dine anonymously. You will be paid as a freelancer, per review. As a restaurant critic, you cannot attend industry events and meet and befriend chefs -- this job requires that you remain an outsider. Finally, you will need a thick skin. Reviewing restaurants inspires passions, especially in a town like Portland, so you should expect strong responses from readers who disagree with you -- and, when necessary, be willing to defend your opinions.

Email writing samples and a resume to Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky at Finalists will be expected to write a sample restaurant review. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Summer Pickling in Maine, Continued

In researching my recent Portland Phoenix column, Preserve precious produce, I, as usual, gathered information that wouldn't fit into the column. I talked pickling at length with the chef at Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, a place that brings cocktails to mind before pickles. But Ricky Penatzer pickles a lot of produce (and even fish!) to serve on their Scandinavian-themed sandwiches and bords

The nitty-gritty of Penatzer's pickle process was left out of the column, but he has a lot of interesting techniques. Because of health code regulations and time constraints, Penatzer doesn't can his pickles, but instead makes batches of refrigerator pickles. Fridge pickles can last a few months (in the refrigerator, of course), due to the high acid content (i.e. added vinegar) and allow more freedom in your recipe creation. 

Penatzer creates brines based on the flavor profile of the produce he's pickling. Thinly sliced sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) are pickled in a sweet "bread and butter" brine with caramelized onions, celery seed, mustard seed, peppercorns, and lots of turmeric. He blanches the sunchokes in the brine (they shouldn't be eaten raw, as they can cause stomach troubles) as he heats the brine to dissolve the sugar and salt. 

Conversely, he avoids heating delicate wild Maine blueberries when pickling them, since cooking them toughens their skins. Penatzer boils the brine, but then lets it cool to room temperature before adding the fruit. To add a more complex flavor without the added expense, Penatzer adds a little bit of aged white balsamic vinegar to the blueberries' brine. He uses ratio of equal parts white or cider vinegar and water to create the base for the brine, then adds a bit of flavored (i.e. more expensive) vinegars at the end, after heating and cooling the brine. 

The jar pictured above is pickled fennel, and I should have taken a page from Penatzer's book and blanched the fennel slices in the brine. Pickled raw, the resulting pieces are a bit tough. The brine is equal parts cider vinegar and water, with a tablespoon of salt, and a sprinkling of mustard seeds, peppercorns and red pepper flakes. 

You can pickle jalapeno slices (they stay nice and crunchy without any added heat), purple cabbage - both great for topping Mexican dishes - red onions, green tomatoes, cauliflower (blanch it), and green beans (again, blanch for fridge pickles). 

If you love dilly beans (pickled green beans), as much as I do though, you'll have to break out the boiling water bath canner to put up a year's worth of pickles. I made one batch resulting in 7 jars, and certainly need to at least double that volume to make it to next summer. There's a lot of Bloody Marys to be had during football season. 

Dilly Beans (Pickled Green Beans)

4 lbs. tender green or yellow beans 
8 to 16 heads fresh dill
8 cloves garlic
1/2 cup canning or pickling salt
5 cups white vinegar (5 percent acidity)
5 cups water
1 tsp hot red pepper flakes (optional)

Wash and trim ends from beans and cut to 4-inch lengths. In each sterile pint jar, place 1 to 2 dill heads and 1 clove of garlic. Place whole beans upright in jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Trim beans to ensure proper fit. 

Combine salt, vinegar water, and pepper flakes (if desired). Bring to a boil. Add hot solution to beans, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Add lids and apply screw bands until fingertip tight. Process for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath. Let cool, check for seals, and label and date.

Yield: About 8 pints

If you're into fermenting to get your pickles, I can't recommend this ceramic crock enough: the Harsch fermenting crock. It's not cheap, but it's doing a great job of keeping my cucumbers fully submerged in the brine. The water lock around the lid is keeping the mold out - my other batch of pickles fermenting in a 5-gallon plastic bucket has blue mold around the edges, whereas the crock has not a hint of mold (the spots you see in the photo below are scum from the fermentation process and floating spices). 

The 5-gallon pickles have been fermenting for about 3-1/2 weeks and the larger batch in the crock for almost 2 weeks. I sampled the smaller batch of pickles a week and a half ago, and deemed them to not taste like much more than salt. I diluted the brine and left them to ferment a bit more. Hopefully they'll have a tangy, acidic flavor the next time I dip in for a sample. 

For more information on fermenting, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation's page on fermenting. Sandor Felix Katz is a great resource for fermentation as well, but more so his book Wild Fermentation and the Art of Fermentation than his website. Canadian bloggers at Well Preserved also do a great job explaining fermentation. But really, you've just got to get in there and start something fermenting. The produce is in, so start pickling!