Friday, January 30, 2015

New in Portland: Saucy Fish Co.

Portland, Maine is known for its seafood industry. Millions of tourists visit a year and atop their list of goals to accomplish while here is to eat lobster. They want to walk on the working waterfront, sniff the low-tide smell, see seagulls waiting for bait scraps, and watch lobster and fishing boats romantically steam out into the ocean for the day's work. 

But people haven't been that good to the ocean, and the once-thriving New England fishery is on the decline. There's still plenty of lobsters, to the relief of all those tourists, but small populations of the groundfish that people associate with New England like cod and haddock.

Of course, there's cool stuff going on in Maine to help boost the fisheries, both from the research and conservation angle, and on the market side. Maine is the coolest! The community-supported fishery, Salt + Sea delivers shares of locally caught, sustainable fish weekly. (Or rather, they did and they will again after the owner's maternity leave.)

I always assumed Gulf of Maine Research Institute educated schoolkids and then housed a bunch of scientists and interns working in labs, but it turns out they also work to increase demand for sustainable Gulf of Maine fish species. Their sustainable seafood project manager, Jen Levin, helped all of the Delhaize Group's supermarkets create a sustainable seafood policy, which includes our local Hannaford. 

Are you a little bit surprised to learn the local supermarket serves all sustainable seafood - everything from the fresh fish counter to the canned fish to the sushi bar? Again, Maine is the coolest. 

All of this brings me to Saucy Fish Co. When their PR rep emailed to say that Hannaford now carries Saucy Fish and would I like samples, I didn't hesitate to say yes. (Well, I did hesitate a little, because while I like receiving free things, I don't necessarily like reviewing things on el blog.)

But I knew that because Hannaford was carrying Saucy Fish Co. it meant they were sustainable (they also work with the Sustainable Seafood Coalition). It doesn't always mean the fish is local at Hannaford - although it can be - and this is a UK company. So it's probably not coming from the Gulf of Maine. For that, head down to Commercial St. to Harbor Fish Market, Browne Trading Co. or Free Range Fish & Lobster

But if you're at the grocery store looking for a good, but not junky, last-minute meal, grab a Saucy Fish. The Saucy Fish is 2 fillets, sold fresh in the refrigerator section by the fresh seafood case. At $7.99-8.99, they're priced about the same as a pound of fish. The fish No preservatives, additives or flavorings. And with it, comes a little packet of sauce that is made out of recognizable, real ingredients. 

And I don't know why, but that little packet of sauce makes all the difference. If you pick up some fresh fish, you're like, sigh, now what... but with Saucy Fish, you're going salmon with chili, lime, and ginger; tilapia with mango chili; cod with tomato. Just add some rice and a veggie, and voila. No thinking, delicious dinner. 

I baked some Saucy Fish, I pan fried some, and even went en papillote. They were all delicious. They froze well, thawed quickly, and were a great quick weeknight meal. Thanks to the Saucy Fish Co. for the samples, and I recommend you seek them out the next time you're at Hannaford. 

Plus, Saucy Fish! is fun to shout when discussing dinner ideas.

Salmon with chili, lime, ginger, over baby bok choi en papillote 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Portland Spirits Society: Women's Whiskey Tasting at Portland Hunt & Alpine

The Portland Spirits Society, the women's spirits appreciation club I started with Lora just for the hell of it, has hit the ground running - our first event, a tour and tasting of Maine Craft Distilling's spirits (including their single malt whiskey, 50 Stone), is next week and it has reached its capacity with 30 whiskey-loving ladies planning to attend.

Photo by Sharon Kitchens for the Huffington Post

Lora and I quickly worked to schedule another beginner's whiskey tasting event with the gracious staff of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club. PH&A has a great selection of whiskey, and we'll learn from the knowledgeable and entertaining bartender, John Meyers. Bow Street Distributing's Paula Truman will also be there, as she's a whiskey enthusiast too.

The whiskey tasting is Wednesday, February 11th, from 6-8pm at the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club and this is a ticketed event ($25 plus a small service fee), which will cover the cost of several tasting pours of different styles of whiskey.

To get a taste of what we're in for, see my friend Sharon's post, inspired by Lew Bryson's book Tasting Whiskey (which she lent me, and I'll attempt to open before this event!). Sharon met with Andrew Volk of Portland Hunt & Alpine and Don Lindgren of culinary bookstore Rabelais for a "home" whiskey tasting a few months ago.

The tickets for this event are going fast, so if you're interested, grab yours now! Hope to see you there.

John Meyers of Portland Hunt & Alpine, teaching a cocktail class in October

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

DigPortland Closure, Maine Women and Whiskey

Portland's newest alt weekly, DigPortland, closed unceremoniously this week, and as a contributor to their Food & Draaaanks section, that means I lost my monthly column. While I have plenty of writing to do (see book manuscript deadline approaching quickly), many of my fellow freelancers unwillingly lost their bylines, and my editor and the staff writer both lost their full-time positions.

I don't agree that Portland wasn't big enough for two alt weeklies*, and I'm sad that there are fewer platforms for talented Maine writers. I was happy to be a part of creating something that diversified the media coverage in Portland and that helped to support artists, musicians, chefs, and food producers by highlighting their efforts. 

All of this is a roundabout way of saying, I'd written a column for this week's paper, and it won't be published. So you get to read it here! 

With my research into the history of alcohol in Maine, I've obviously been thinking a lot about booze. This "women and whiskey" trend in national publications has caught my attention and helped plant the seed for the Portland Spirits Society, a women's spirits appreciation group. We are having our first event, a private tour and tasting, in a week at Maine Craft Distilling (rsvp on facebook). If you can't make it, stay tuned; an announcement about our next event is coming before the end of the week. 

*I mean as far as coverage for two papers; I do not mean to comment on the financials. I don't know anything about that.

On a recent weeknight evening, similar scenes were happening behind the steamy windows in two adjacent East Bayside warehouses: Inside Maine Craft Distilling, a group of men and women from out of town sampled small pours of craft spirits. Karen Farber, co-founder of the business, tended to them, speaking knowledgeably about distillation, filtration, and flavor profiles. Next door at Rising Tide Brewing, co-founder Heather Sanborn waved goodnight to her staff as she headed home for the day. Behind the bar, Shonee Strickland, who is in the midst of opening her own brewery in Biddeford, filled in for tasting room manager, Stasia Brewczynski. Strickland poured me a Skipper, a hopped session ale, and then tended to a group of women next to me, explaining the different styles of beer available on tap.

That you might find women on either side of the bar at a brewery or distillery should come as no surprise. Since the industry’s inception in the late 1980s, women have come to occupy all positions within the production, marketing, distribution and sale of craft beer. And in Portland, you’ll find just as many women as men enjoying porters at Novare Res and saisons at Oxbow.

The local craft spirit industry is a bit behind that of craft beer when it comes to the number of women in its ranks. But craft spirits today are following the same growth rate as craft beer in the 1990s. Currently, there are fewer craft spirit producers and consumers than craft beer, and of the craft spirits crowd, women are a minority. Ideally, we can all agree that we’re finished with the stereotype that women don’t enjoy craft beer. But do we still need to shake the perception that barrel-aged spirits are a man’s drink?

Forbes magazine recently triggered a wave of think pieces on gender and liquor with their assertion that women now make up 37% of whiskey drinkers in the US, up from 15% in the nineties. Apparently the Cosmo is out and Canadian Club is in. In an attempt to learn what women in Portland think of brown spirits, I asked Maine Craft Distilling’s Karen Farber how women react to her products.

“We’re in a neighborhood of 3 breweries, and we get a lot of beer traffic,” Farber told me. “And for every woman who says, ‘oooo, this [spirit] is too strong,’ there’s one that suffered through a beer tour and is excited to come in here.” In particular, she finds a growing number of young women are interested in barrel-aged rum and whiskey.

Women have always played a role in the manufacture, distribution, and consumption of whiskey. As detailed in Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey by Fred Minnick, Laphroaig, Bushmills, Johnnie Walker, and Maker’s Mark have all had women as distillers or significant stakeholders. At home, whiskey was historically used as medicine for everything from constipation to fatigue and was administered to the ailing by women.

So why the splash surrounding Forbes' recent statistic? Part of it is marketing, as corporations stand to profit if they’re ahead of trends. More women are drinking whiskey? Great, let’s brand “Skinny Whiskey,” and promote it as low-cal. The other part is the very real notion of a “boys club” in craft beer and spirits. How else to explain the craft beer names, “Tramp Stamp,” “Raging Bitch,” and “PD” (where the illustration lets you know they mean “Panty Dropper”).

Fortunately, none of these are Maine beers. And thanks to the all-female Maine Beer Mavens, there’s a place for women to explore their love of craft beer in a novice-friendly environment. The recently launched Portland Spirits Society intends to do the same thing for women and whiskey. Beer Mavens co-founder Lora Burns and I are organizing tastings, tours, and educational events for wannabe whiskey aficionados.

National interest in craft spirits is growing among both men and women. While Maine may be a little further behind in the number of small distilleries or spirit-centric bars, we excel in entrepreneurialism and access to agricultural products to ferment. So while the rest of the country may be just learning that women like whiskey, we in the Great White North have always known that to be true.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Reading the Tea Leaves

The Honey Paw on Middle Street

In 2015, over 100,000 cruise ship passengers are scheduled to visit Portland between May and November (up from 82,000 in 2014). Hoteliers aim to fill the 575 new rooms that opened up in the last year, plus the additional 110 planned for this one, with visitors that arrive by plane, train, and automobile. With Portland’s ever-growing reputation for an exceptional dining scene, more and more restaurateurs are hoping to be the answer to the question, where should we eat tonight? More importantly, where will we locals retreat to hide from all those tourists? 18 restaurants and bars are planned to open in 2015, building inspectors willing.

Here are the ones we’re most excited about and what these business plans might mean for Portland.

The Washington Avenue corridor

With multiple high-end real estate projects developing on the north side of Munjoy Hill and into East Bayside, many restaurateurs are eyeing the available spaces on Washington Avenue. Two unnamed restaurants are in the works, one in a former restaurant space near Silly’s, the other in the former J.J. Nissen Bakery building. The immediate success of Oxbow Brewing’s tasting room behind Coffee By Design on Washington Avenue points to the pent up demand for comfortable, casual spots around Munjoy Hill. In general, as the Old Port continues to maintain high occupancy rates, business-owners are looking for space in outlying areas, like the Arts District and the West End.

The wrath of grapes

As discerning diners like to know the provenance of their food, the traceability and hyper-localism spill over into beverages, illustrated by the growing demand for craft beer, wine, and spirits. Maybe wine is getting its time in the spotlight, alongside craft beer. The owners of Maine & Loire, a natural and biodynamic wine shop also opening on Washington Avenue, sure hope so. As do those of UnWINEd, the Blue Lobster Urban Winery, and Lincolns. UnWINEd, opening soon on Congress St. in the Arts District, will serve wine and appetizers in a comfortable lounge setting. The Blue Lobster Urban Winery has been in the works for several years now, but the proprietors assure Anestes Fotiades of Portland Food Map ( that they plan to complete their microwinery in 2015. Lincolns, while promising a selection of alcohol and beer, is co-owned by Mark Ohlson of MJ’s Wine Bar. This underground lounge at 46 Market St., where everything costs only $5 (hence Lincolns), is sure to offer a limited selection of quality wines.

Superstar expansions

While some businesses, like Lincolns and UnWINEd, are hoping to capture the local love with inexpensive, stripped-down lounges, others are aiming high with premium real estate and prices to follow. Dana Street (of Street & Co. and Fore Street) will open a 144-seat eatery on Maine Wharf with a high-end seafood menu and retail seafood market. The owners of Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co. are expanding their restaurant row down the block with The Honey Paw. The new restaurant’s concept is scant on details other than “non-denominational noodle restaurant,” but will surely continue the tradition of well-crafted, thoughtful, delicious food. Small Axe food truckers Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy find a brick-and-mortar home in the East Ender space—same name, new menu; don’t worry, their cold-smoked burger will make the transition.

Portland’s food and drink scene continues to expand, seemingly unabated, causing many to wonder when the bubble is going to pop. With residential real estate development, cruise ship schedules, and the number of hotel rooms increasing, many powers-that-be with money are betting that the bubble is still inflating. For the most part, these planned restaurant projects are still chef-owned and operated; Portland has not yet seen an influx of corporate restaurant groups. Here’s hoping the addition of these new projects continues to add to Portland’s high-quality dining scene.

To see a complete list of food-related businesses opening in 2015, visit

Originally published in DigPortland, January 1, 2015

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Customer Appreciation Month

Ask any restaurant owner in Portland and they’ll say one of the hardest parts of owning a restaurant here is the bipolar cycles of customers. While Portlanders enjoy a relative glut of wintertime activities compared to other coastal towns that close up as soon as the last cruise ship departs, restaurateurs still feel the pinch in the winter.

Even owner of the popular (now shuttered) restaurant Bresca, Krista Kern Desjarlais, told me, “To be a restaurant owner here…is extremely challenging. It’s very magnified. You can take a walk around town on any January, February, March…midweek evening, and we’re all waving at the window at you, like, hey, come on in!” Business owners employ several strategies to lure in reclusive diners, discounting meals or offering special menus. Others take advantage of the slower pace to do some much-needed maintenance and renovations.

Eventide Oyster Co. and Hugo’s owner Arlin Smith doesn’t mind that there are fewer customers in his restaurants this month. A construction crew is working in the adjacent space, expanding Eventide’s dining room and the restaurants’ shared kitchen, while adding yet a third restaurant, The Honey Paw. Both Eventide and Hugo’s will be closed for a week at the end of January while dining room walls are demolished and drywall dust flies. Smith knows the staff will appreciate the time off guilt-free, as they aren’t missing lucrative tips.

Sonny’s, Local 188, and Salvage BBQ also gave the staff a break after the busy holiday season while owner Jay Villani closed the restaurants last week for deep cleaning. When they reopened, Villani began the annual “white sale” (a name that traditionally refers to linen sales at department stores in January), a 15 percent discount on food at his three restaurants. Villani says the promotion is a form of “customer appreciation,” in the colder months and of course, helps counteract the post-holiday (literal and figurative) belt-tightening.

Other chefs use the slower pace of the winter to flex their culinary creativity or feature a popular menu item for a limited time. At Hugo’s, the chefs are bringing in whole sides of pork and beef, which allow them to serve big cuts of meat family-style for the relative bargain of $45 per person. Arlin Smith says these promotions might not be the biggest money maker for the restaurant, but energize staff and excite customers at an otherwise quiet time of year.

Back Bay Grill chef Larry Matthews is bringing back his famed burger for a few nights this week. Matthews served the local beef patty, topped with shredded lettuce, a creamy garlic dressing, and Stilton bleu cheese on a brioche bun, as a bar menu item in his classic Bayside bistro. When Matthews did away with the bar menu a few years ago, many mourned the loss of the burger. Now, he brings back the burger to fill the house during otherwise slow weeks. Matthew enjoys that the burger’s scarcity creates demand and give people a reason to go out in the winter. And it works; the restaurant fills and the burgers sell out (call ahead to reserve one for this week or next).

The ultimate wintertime promotion is Maine Restaurant Week, launched locally by foodie PR firm gBritt seven years ago. Jim Britt specifically planned the event to occur in March, “to stir up business during the darkest days of winter.” Participating restaurants serve special tasting menus, designed to entice housebound diners to cash-hungry dining rooms.

 Even those with nothing to gain other than fun have helped promoted local restaurants during the colder months. Event planner Emily Hricko and graphic designer Cecilia Ziko began Plow-WOW, a pop-up happy hour, three years ago to liven up the otherwise unpleasant task of moving one’s car in a snowstorm. This year, the happy hours are at Local 188 from 6-8 pm during parking bans. Follow Plow-WOW’s facebook page ( to be updated on the next event.

If you’re willing to endure, slippery sidewalks, reduced parking, and biting winds for dinner, some of Portland’s finest restaurants will be there to reward your loyalty. But call ahead first…just to be on the safe side.

Originally published in DigPortland on January 14, 2015.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Portland Spirits Society

A few weeks ago, an NPR story caught my attention: Not Just a Man's Drink: Ladies Lead the Whiskey Renaissance. Women? Whiskey? Yes, please. 

The story featured Heather Greene, who teaches Whiskey 101 at New York's The Flatiron Room. Greene relayed a growing interest in whiskey amongst women, but that they often wondered if drinking whiskey would make them seem too aggressive or were intimidated by the male-dominated culture of whiskey drinking.

In listening, I thought of the Maine Beer Mavens, a local group of women interested in learning more about craft beer. The Mavens have the expected beer tastings and brewery tours, but also offer looks into the angles industry, like distribution, HR, and marketing. Then I thought, I wonder if the Mavens would be interested in learning about whiskey too?

So I got in touch with Maine Beer Mavens' coordinator Lora Burns to ask her about coordinating a women's whiskey tasting. We met for some whiskey at Portland Hunt & Alpine (OK, I got sucked in by my favorite cocktail of late, the Jack Rose: applejack, grenadine, and lemon juice - kind of the polar opposite of whiskey). And it turns out Lora has also had thoughts about starting a spirits appreciation club. Thus, the Portland Spirits Society was born.

Design by Elizabeth Hunter (my sister!!)

Lora and I are very excited about mobilizing some whiskey-loving ladies to meet the people behind Maine's craft spirits and to explore our newfound whiskey preferences. We're planning a beginners tasting event and tours of local whiskey distilleries. We hope to find knowledgeable ladies who work in the whiskey industry to talk and drink with us.

Once the Spirits Society gets rolling, we'll expand to learn about other liquors based on the group's preferences. Follow our page on facebook to be updated with future events, and if you have any ideas for the group, be it topics or contacts within the greater Portland area, email me (ha, I typed femail - perfect) at blueberryfiles at gmail dot com.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Maryland Blue Crab, Shrimp & Grits, New Year's Eve Dinner, and Portland Eats

I visited my family in Northern Maryland for a week, and as usual, made it my mission to consume as much Chesapeake Bay blue crab as possible. I know Maine is known for its seafood, and while I have embraced our access to fresh fish, scallops, shrimp (sometimes, sniff), and lobster, none of it compares to backfin lump crabmeat. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that...

I started with inhaling a fried crab cake sandwich at Nick's Seafood in Baltimore's Cross St. Market, where we watched the Ravens game on a Sunday afternoon. I met a friend for happy hour at the An Poitin Stil in Timonium, and was so absorbed in catching up that I hastily ordered a wedge salad. When it arrived, I was delighted to see that it came covered in crab meat. The seafood was overwhelmed by the strong blue cheese and bacon flavors, but I was pleased by the principle of the thing. 

I love being in Ravens Country again, especially ogling the wall of gear at the grocery store (the things they they stick Ravens logos on never ceases to amaze me: Mr. Potato Head, hair scrunchies, serving trays, coasters, oy!).

My brother-in-law is a big Haloti Ngata fan, so my sister and I giggled as we snatched these Old Bay-coated cheesy poofs featuring Ngata on the bag for him. They were...strange, as the cheese powder fought for dominance over the Old Bay.

This commemorative bag of Utz crab chips, however...maybe I am a sucker for anything with a Ravens logo on it (yes, yes I am). These chips are spicy and salty, like a barbecue chip but without the sweet. You'll eat them until your tongue feels raw and then keep eating more.

Before I left Portland for a week, I made sure to have a few holiday treats, as a refuge from all the holiday shopping and parties. I had lunch at Hella Good Tacos, where I ordered my usual taco plate with chorizo and fish tacos. The plate now comes with a cute little salad, which further adds some nice crunch and freshness to the meal. 

During some Old Port shopping, I learned my friend had never been into the soda bar Vena's Fizz House. Even though we had just come from lunch and hadn't even done much shopping, I pulled her into the shop to browse their barware selection and have a soda. 

I loved this spiced pear mocktail, and I sucked it down, loving that I didn't have to fear it going to my head like it would if it were full strength. That said, owner Steve recommended adding rye whiskey for an adult version. As Vena's owners have applied for their liquor license, we may get to enjoy said version sometime soon. 

I also enjoyed cooking some new dishes at home, as well as some that are quickly becoming old favorites. One weeknight, I mentioned idly to Original Roomie A. that I'd never had shrimp and grits. She said, why don't we? So we trucked down to Whole Foods for shrimp, bacon, and grits. 

We used this surprisingly simple Saveur recipe to make a Rachael Ray-style 30-minute meal. I think you could even make it healthy if you backed off on the butter/oil/bacon grease/cheese (but WHY). 

And on New Year's Eve, I hit on what may become my new tradition. I invited a few friends over and Original Roomie A. hosted us for a dinner party. We had pepper-crusted seared scallops, mushroom risotto, and a grapefruit, avocado, mustard salad that I have begun to crave (recipe below).

Save for the risotto, this meal wasn't too much work, but felt delightfully decadent (but yet balanced by the outstanding salad, which no one would see as an afterthought).

I hope your holidays were enjoyable and that you are relishing the relatively quiet pace of well as playoff football. On that note, Go Ravens!

Grapefruit, Avocado, Mustard-Dressed Salad

Finely chop one shallot and add to the bottom of a large salad bowl. Add a big spoonful (about 2 tablespoons) of Dijon mustard. Supreme a grapefruit over the salad bowl, letting the grapefruit segments and juice fall into the bowl. Toss ingredients in salad bowl to make dressing. Add a little olive oil if desired.

Add chopped avocado and salad mix, toss to coat salad greens with dressing and to distribute ingredients. Add roasted sunflower seeds, if desired. Eat and enjoy the mix of creamy, tangy, bitter flavors.