Thursday, November 21, 2013

A farm-to-food-truck tale made in Maine

Originally published in the Portland Phoenix on November 7, 2013

Austin Chadd of Green Spark Farm
After years spent working in some of Portland’s finest restaurants, two chefs looking to open their own restaurant ultimately decided to start small. Now cooking out of a 26-foot mobile kitchen, Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy are serving a small, but distinctive menu using local and sometimes unusual ingredients.

The two chefs launched Small Axe food truck this year, after more than 10 years of friendship. They met working together in the kitchens of Hugo’s and Miyake, restaurants known for their carefully wrought preparations of the best local foods. The aim of their new venture, Deuben says, is to “cook carefully crafted food that tastes good.” At breakfast you’ll find eggs over hash browns with a green chili gravy, egg sandwiches with a peanut satay sauce, homemade granola, and yogurt sweetened with vanilla and star anise; the lunch menu includes curry rice bowls, fried haddock sandwiches, grilled cheese and tomato jam, and savory hand pies.

The meat, fish, dairy, and produce Small Axe serves is all from local sources, drawing on Deuben’s and Leavy’s longstanding relationships with nearby purveyors. Small Axe’s vegetables come from two farms, one in particular that focuses on unusual varieties appealing to chefs: Green Spark Farm. Deuben first noticed the attractive display of Green Spark Farm’s produce at the Portland farmers’ market while shopping for Miyake’s tasting menu. He was further drawn to the farm for the varieties of produce growing there, in particular Asian greens and cabbages like totsoi and red choi.

Green Spark Farm is a small organic operation in Cape Elizabeth, farmed by Mary Ellen and Austin Chadd. Drawing on Mary Ellen’s extensive knowledge of herbal medicine and botany, the Chadds sought to set their product apart when they started their farm in 2009. They grow traditional vegetable varieties, but also types they know will be attractive to chefs, like spicy Japanese stir-fry mustards, Asian salad greens, and Shishito peppers (a sweet, Japanese pepper also called the “Russian Roulette” of peppers because about one in ten peppers is slightly spicy). They are trending on menus, appearing at El Rayo and Grace as an appetizer, seared and sprinkled with sea salt.

Small Axe’s smokestack lightning burger had people buzzing this summer, a cold-smoked beef patty, with Jack cheese, Shishito peppers, and Gochujang ketchup on a soft 158 Pickett Street Bakery bun. I never had a noticeably spicy Shishito pepper, but they added a nice crunchy, almost bitter element to the otherwise rich burger. But on the day I spoke to Deuben and Leavy, the last of the season’s Shishito peppers were in their cooler. “That burger was made for those peppers,” Deuben told me. So when the peppers are gone, the burger is done for the year.

Small Axe’s menu items follow the seasons, says Leavy — for instance, the curry bowl, once stocked with zucchini and broccoli, now contains thinly sliced rings of Delicata squash. Although the smokestack lightning burger is gone, you might find a tempting pork belly sandwich with slaw and pickles when the truck is parked at Bunker Brewing Co. or Rising Tide Brewing in East Bayside. Deuben and Leavy frequently add a menu item that they think will appeal to their location’s customers. Pairing pork belly sandwiches and local craft beer seems about right to me.

Find Small Axe truck for a meal that might only exist that day, for once the location and season change, these fleeting tastes are gone. Fortunately, you can be sure they’ll be replaced by something equally good.

SMALL AXE TRUCK | | 207.400.9971

GREEN SPARK FARM | 316 Fowler Rd, Cape Elizabeth | Farm stand hours: 8 am-8 pm, June-Thanksgiving |

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Portland's Turkey Options

It's once again time to talk turkey! Options abound for frozen and fresh turkeys in the greater Portland area. I want to help you make the right decision in purchasing a bird for your holiday meal - whether you'd rather have the cheapest, biggest bird available, the tastiest breed, or the most local. So here's 15 options for turkeys in Portland; please leave other options you may know about in the comments. 

Hannaford, Forest Ave. 

Hannaford has the most turkey options, most likely satisfying your needs if you're looking for a really large turkey or a really cheap turkey. 
  • Marval $.49/lb. available from 10-14 lbs. and 16-24 lbs. - This brand was once rated by Cooks Illustrated as the tastiest and is owned by Cargill, the country's largest private company that manufactures everything from food additives to fertilizer. 
  • Hannaford $.79/lb. from 14-17 lbs. - It's hard to say where these turkeys are produced since all Hannaford offers in the way of the source of their store brand products is that they are "products that are equal to or better in quality than the leading national brands for a lot less."
  • Shady Brook Farms $.89/lb. - Also owned by Cargill, Shady Brook Farms turkeys come from all over the US, are fed vegetarian feed, are not free range, and are hormone and steroids free (but it looks like antibiotics are fair game). 
  • Butterball $1.49/lb, 10-14 lbs. and 16-24 lbs. both fresh and frozen - There is very frustratingly little transparency from Butterball about how their turkeys are raised, other than that they are never given hormones/steroids (as prohibited by the USDA) and several of their facilities in North Carolina have been investigated with several workers receiving convictions for animal cruelty. These turkeys have been injected with a solution of 'Water, Salt, Spices, and Natural Flavor." 
Shaw's, Rte 1, Falmouth

Shaw's offers the same products as Hannaford, but $.50-$.90 more expensive! I knew it all along, Shaw's. 
  • Shady Brook Farms $1.79/lb, 20-24 lbs.
  • Butterball $1.99/lb, 6-12 lbs.

Trader Joe's, Marginal Way

I hope it comes as no surprise to you that Trader Joe's is not very transparent about the source of their products either - that's kind of their bit. All we know about their store brand turkeys then is that they're available brined ($1.99/lb.) and Kosher (which are salted and for $2.49/lb.). Both are antibiotic-free and Kosher turkeys are raised according to strict standards, but I can't tell if this means the birds are treated/killed humanely or if it's a sort of greenwashing. 

Whole Foods Market, Somerset Street

Whole Foods Market has a lot of turkey varieties, fresh, frozen, pre-cooked - heck, you can order an entire pre-cooked Thanksgiving feast here. Each brand is rated using the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating by Global Animal Partnership, which is very comprehensive in its scope of turkey treatment assessment. All turkeys available at Whole Foods are rated Steps 1-3, with 5 being the highest rating. As always, no turkeys here are given hormones or steroids and one antibiotic-free version is available. 
  • Jaindl Farms $2.49/lb, 8-30 lbs. - herb-rubbed or brined, free range, Step 2
  • Plainville Farms (PA) $2.99/lb, 8-30 lbs. - free range, antibiotic-free, Step 1
  • Jaindl Farms $3.99/lb, 8-20 lbs. - organic, free range, Step 3
  • Koch's Turkey Farm $3.99/lb, 10-24 lbs. - heirloom variety, free range, Step 1

Rosemont Market, Commercial St, Congress St, Brighton Ave. 

Turkeys are available from Mainely Poultry in Warren that are free range and cost $3.99/lb. They also have organic, pasture raised turkeys from Serendipity Acres in North Yarmouth at $4.69/lb. Birds are available in 13-16 lbs., 17-20 lbs., and 20 lbs. and up. Turkeys must be pre-ordered and are available for pick-up Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.

Sam's Club, South Portland sells their store brand Members' Mark for $.99/lb. I called for the price and a membership is required to shop.

Today's Press Herald says two local options are sold out for this year, but for next, Wolfe's Neck Farm sells free range, farm fresh, sustainably raised, etc. etc. turkeys for $4.50/lb. Frith Farm in Scarborough sells organic turkeys for $4.50/lb.

The Cumberland Farmers' Market Association just posted on their facebook page that turkeys will be available for preorder from Valley View Farm and Spring Brook Farm at tomorrow's market (at Allen, Sterling, and Lothrop on Rte. 1 in Falmouth) for pick-up next Wednesday, both at $4.50/lb.

Turkeys priced highest to lowest:
  1. Serendipity Acres organic, $4.69/lb. available at Rosemont Market
  2. Valley View Farm, $4.50/lb. available at the Falmouth Farmers' Market
  3. Spring Brook Farm,  $4.50/lb. available at the Falmouth Farmers' Market
  4. Wolfe's Neck Farm, $4.50/lb. (sold out)
  5. Frith Farm organic, $4.50/lb. (sold out)
  6. Mainely Poultry, $3.99/lb. available at Rosemont Market
  7. Koch's Turkey Farm heirloom variety, $3.99/lb available at Whole Foods Market
  8. Jaindl Farms organic, $3.99/lb. available at Whole Foods Market
  9. Plainview Farms, $2.99/lb. available at Whole Foods Market 
  10. Jaindl Farms brined or herb-rubbed, $2.49/lb. available at Whole Foods Market
  11. Trader Joe's store brand Kosher, $2.49/lb. 
  12. Trader Joe's store brand brined, $1.99/lb. 
  13. Butterball, $1.49/lb. at Hannaford and $1.99/lb. at Shaw's 
  14. Shady Brook Farms, $.89/lb. at Hannaford and $1.79/lb. at Shaw's 
  15. Members' Mark, $.99/lb. available at Sam's Club 
  16. Hannaford store brand, $.79/lb. 
  17. Marval, $.49/lb., available at Hannaford 
OK, after all that, I admittedly just might buy a chicken! Enjoy your feast, and check out Portland Food Map for places to eat on the holiday if all this turkey talk has you throwing in the kitchen towel. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sunday Visit to Bresca and the Honey Bee

It was a sad day for Portland's restaurant scene when Krista Desjarlais announced that she was closing her restaurant, Bresca. Fortunately, the news came quickly that she and her husband Erik (also a chef), bought the Snack Shack at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester. This summer, they served sandwiches and ice cream lakeside, and you could also rent paddle boats and floats, lounge in the shallows or dive off a swim platform. 

Now Bresca and the Honey Bee is open on the weekends serving sandwiches, desserts, and hot beverages, with a bonfire and some Adirondack chairs to relax in. In the winter, they hope to have ice skating rentals too. 

The blogger contingent set out for the lake last Sunday and were one of a few groups passing through the Snack Shack. We chatted inside the low-slung shack kitchen with Krista while she prepared our sandwiches - I ordered a mushroom and Gruyere panini ($8) which was like French onion soup in crispy, buttery sandwich form. 

We were most looking forward to desserts at the Snack Shack since Krista's desserts at Bresca were always amazing. She told me she was looking forward to the slower pace of the fall to focus on desserts, in particular pastry. I had a hard time narrowing down my choices, since there were several tiers of pies, cookies, and tarts. (I wanted all of the fruit tarts.) 

I settled on a raspberry plum tart ($4) and a peanut butter chocolate O cookie ($2) and took them to go. After enjoying the beautiful scenery, the autumn sun, and my friends' company, we hit the road back to Portland. While it was only a short trip away, it was nice to leave the city to do something different and come away with a low-key, inexpensive, and delicious lunch. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

90+ Cellars and Fall Foods

You all know I love Maine. I love the ocean, Portland restaurants, the big city/small town feel, our unique architecture, (lobsters are alright), the creative and hilarious people I've met here, the absence of significant traffic, and the seasons - this one especially.

But recently I visited a place that made me say, wait, why don't we live here? No, like let's all pack up and move out here. I have no idea what we'd do to pay our rent but who cares. There's an orange tree growing in the front yard. 

I went to Northern California.

Oh, California. You are SO not Maine. You are dusty and constantly sunny and people say "far out" with a straight face. Yes, the ocean is over there too, but it's cold and looming and people don't tend to get in it and sail on it the same way we do out here.

But those oranges. Those grapevines. That view! It triggers that dreaming response.

So I was delighted when Liz representing Boston-based 90+ Cellars got in touch to offer me some wine (I mean, obviously). But especially delighted when she offered wines from California, one from the Russian River Valley, where I'd recently had the pleasure of vacationing.

The Russian River Valley is known for their Pinot Noirs, and I sampled many a fine one while I was out there. I didn't go to the trouble of shipping wine home, being under the assumption that you couldn't ship wine to Maine. Liz was happy to set me straight, and I was happy to receive a 90+ Cellars Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (Lot 75) and a Sonoma Chardonnay (Lot 88).

90+ Cellars is a unique model, buying wine from wineries that have excess for various reasons. The wine is sold at a discount, being only identified by its variety and 90+ Cellars lot number thus avoiding any discount-wine backlash. So assuming you like what you taste, the idea is that 90+ Cellars will do the legwork to find great wines, and you'll benefit by not paying full price.

I love the idea. I love that it strips you of your expectations that may be associated with a brand. And of course, I love wine that isn't expensive but is still of good quality. (90+ Cellars tells you what the wine would normally retail for, so you feel like you're getting a deal.)

This Pinot Noir is just like ones I drank on my California vacation, silky and tasting of ripe red fruits. Easy to drink and pairs with most any foods. I, of course, was thinking about in season produce like Brussels sprouts and squash. I drank my Pinot Noir with a dinner of roasted Brussel sprouts, mashed winter squash sweetened with Vermont maple syrup and garlic braised chicken thighs.

You can order 90+ Cellars' wine through their website, where there's also a very tempting wine club, or find it at your local Hannaford (I saw a Merlot for $9.99 last week). Any 90+ Cellars wine will be a great go-to for holiday dinners and hostess gifts or even with this weeknight meal for a relaxing, quiet night in.

Braised Mediterranean Chicken Thighs

1 pound skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 fresh parsley sprigs
2 fresh thyme sprigs
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
Juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup green olives, pitted and sliced

Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper.

Heat butter in medium-sized wide bottom sauce pan over moderately high heat until foam subsides. Brown chicken all over and remove from pot. Reduce heat to medium and briefly saute garlic (being careful not to burn). Add wine and deglaze pan by scraping up any brown bits.

Tie fresh herbs into cheesecloth to create a bouquet garni. Add to pan along with chicken, skin side up, and any juices that may have accumulated on the plate. Add stock and olives, and simmer, covered, for 25 minutes. Chicken is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F and the juices run clear.

Before serving, add lemon juice to pan sauce and stir. Note: Because of the small amount of liquid this recipes calls for, I did have to add more stock while the chicken was cooking. If your sauce is too thin when the chicken is finished, just reduce it by heating uncovered over medium-high heat until it is half the original volume.

Roasted Brussel Sprouts

Slice washed Brussels sprouts in half, dice thick cut bacon (raw), and toss all together in a bowl with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in 400 degree F oven until sprouts are caramelized, about 20 minutes.