Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fall Raspberry Picking and Donuts Galore

The seasons have changed here in Maine, both literally as the fall equinox has passed, but more so that the weather caught up with the calendar. Summer stretched through the middle of September, hitting 80*F two weekends ago. So while my friends and I thought we were setting off for the ultimate fall activity, apple picking, we ended up acting as though it were mid-July. 

We headed out to Limerck, about an hour southwest of Portland in the rural countryside of York County. Our destination was Libby & Son's U-Pick, not for the apples necessarily (since I'm participating in the Out on a Limb apple CSA share again this year), but for the raspberry picking. 

Who knew fall raspberries were so abundant? I always thought they were a weak shadow of their summer fruiting cousins, but at Libby & Son's, we found rows of raspberry canes dripping with ripe berries of all sizes and even a few rows of golden raspberries. We quickly filled a few quarts with berries and then headed back to the farm stand to be ferried off to the apple trees.


Apple picking is a convenient excuse to eat apple pastries - first and foremost, the apple cider donut. The ones at Libby's are very dense and almost like they're undercooked (they're not, they're just very moist inside). We devoured them quickly before heading out to wander amongst the apple trees. 


It was actually my first time picking apples, and we chose to picking in the fading rows of the Paula Red trees, although I was eyeing the nearby Honeycrisps. My friend A. wanted to avoid them, as they're a club apple variety, which involves some politics I'm not familiar with. A little more research is required...

After the orchard, we swam in the Saco River and then headed to Funky Bow Brewery to enjoy a beer in the late afternoon sunshine. Turns out it was Funky Fest with 10 York County breweries, food trucks, and live music. We were just in for a pint, so we had the brewery's yard all to ourselves. We stretched out on lawn chairs and sipped G String pale ales. 


At home, I froze my raspberries for making into jam, smoothies, and pie at a later date. While the golden raspberries taste the same as red ones and were harder to pick (think about it, how do you tell if a golden raspberry is ripe when the unripe ones are white too?), they are beautiful when mixed in with the red ones. 

I loved the experience at Libby and Son's, but there's many an orchard in Maine that fries up apple cider donuts. I even went so far as to contribute a map to Eater Maine comprised of all of the recommendations I received for the area's best ones. 


My first donut map for Eater prompted me to make some detours during my work travels to some of the recommended spots - first, Congdon's in Wells, a very old school "family restaurant" and bakery. I figured I'd shoot the moon and get a half dozen - I entertained the thought of eating only half of a raised donut so I could enjoy half of a different flavor too, but I ended up scarfing the whole thing without a second thought. I shared the other flavors, which received rave reviews as well. 

A day trip to Kittery allowed me to go by Lil's Cafe on the foreside and get a glazed cruller. I've heard so much about these eggy pastries, but have only ever gone to Kittery at night when the cafe is closed. The cruller did indeed deliver a great combination of crispy fried exterior with a shockingly sweet glaze. 

Next I'm off to Thompson's Orchard in New Gloucester to check out their apple cider donuts, this time on a fall adventure that now has the weather to match. 


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fall Garden Harvest: Jalapeno Poppers and Basil Pesto

Football season has returned! And while it's a strange time of year when football and sailing season overlap, I so enjoy the return of fall Sundays spent inside watching TV, eating hearty football fare, and drinking a few beers in the afternoon. 

This past Sunday was actually not sailing weather out on Casco Bay, so we were free to enjoy the games guilt-free. As has become an annual tradition, we harvested our garden's jalapeno plant and made poppers out of our spicy, bountiful pepper harvest. 

Purple gloves and jalapeno poppers means football - go Ravens!

First, A. squeezed his man hands into my gloves and began preparing the peppers - slicing and deseeding them. I prepared the filling of cream cheese and shredded cheddar. 

Is it just me, or is the availability of cream cheese-filled jalapeno poppers diminishing? I have no time for cheddar cheese-filled peppers; the one true, correct option for stuffing spicy peppers with is cream cheese. 


We then just coat the stuffed peppers in egg wash and breadcrumbs and freeze some for future football games. Just thinking about a freezer full of poppers for snowy football Sundays makes me feel cozy. 

While frying is obviously the best way to cook a jalapeno popper, baking is a nice sane substitute. (Maybe Santa will bring me a Fry Daddy? Hello, football Santa?) Bake them at 350*F for about 30-40 minutes, or until golden and some have started to ooze. 


Try topping your poppers with seedless raspberry or blackberry jam - far superior to serving them with sour cream or Ranch dressing, since that verges on creaminess overkill. 

I also pulled up half of my gigantic basil plant (tree) to make some pesto for the freezer. 


I whizzed up a relatively small batch (about a cup) in my food processor with Parmesan, walnuts, garlic, and olive oil. But there's still tons left in the garden, so I'll make another batch and freeze it...but then what? 

I don't find pesto heats well (cheese melts, the oil breaks) and it often becomes mealy in the freezer. I don't particularly enjoy pasta salads tossed with pesto - they're always dry and lacking. Which is too bad, because when it's fresh, basil pesto is amazing. If you have good pesto uses, please let me know!


These frozen herb silicone starter trays are made by Ball and are available online or in some big box stores. You can also use an ice cube tray - either way, I transfer the cubes to a freezer-grade plastic ziptop bag, labeled and dated, after they're frozen.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Making Kombucha + Preserving Maine Summer Vegetables Fast

Business up front, party in the back! Tonight, I'll be at Boothbay Craft Brewing for trivia night from 4:30-8pm with copies of my book DISTILLED IN MAINE for sale. Tomorrow night, I'm reading and giving a talk about the book at the Maine Historical Society at 5:30pm. Steve from Vena's Fizz House will be mixing up cocktails using a local spirit. Tickets are $10-15.

Next, I'm coordinating a very exciting Portland Spirits Society (a group of women interested in learning about booze) event - a Bourbon and boozy chocolate truffle tasting with restaurant Grace and Dean's Sweets on October 1st at 6pm. The tickets are $25 (plus service fees) and include four samples of Bourbon and chocolate truffles. Spots are limited and tickets are going fast, so get yours soon if you're interested! Ladies only, please.

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Now onto some recent food projects... my kombucha is finally finished! It tastes great, but it's not as fizzy as the store-bought stuff, so if anyone has any tips about a secondary fermentation, hit me up.

When we last chatted about kombucha, that intriguing, tangy fermented tea drink, I was growing my own SCOBY or starter from a batch of store-bought booch. Well, grow it did, and after a week, I had a new SCOBY that was ready to go.


I followed the recipe from Drink the Harvest by Nan K. Chase and DeNeice C. Guest, a beautifully done book that details how to make meads, ciders, syrups, and juices from fresh fruit and herbs. 

Once I grew the SCOBY, I was ready to make the actual kombucha. To start, I brewed a batch of strong tea (2 cups of water, 8 organic black tea bags) and stirred in a cup of white sugar to the hot tea. I then let it cool down to room temperature and added 2 quarts (8 cups) of filtered water. 

I poured this mix into a glass one-gallon container from Ball (not a canning jar, but good for fermenting) and added my new kombucha SCOBY, plus 1 cup of the tea/kombucha liquid in which it was growing. (This extra cup of liquid is to ensure that the next batch of kombucha is properly acidified so no nasties grow in it before the kombucha bacteria/yeast do their naturally acidifying thing.) 


Above, you can see the first kombucha SCOBY I grew, over top of the one that grew in my one-gallon container. SCOBYs will grow to fit the container they're in, and so the second one is very wide. They're both in a cup of kombucha that I reserved, in a jar in my fridge, waiting until I need to make another eight cups of kombucha. 

After ten days of fermenting, I tasted the kombucha and found it to be pretty tangy like I like it. I strained out the SCOBYs (reserving one cup of kombucha to go with them) then filled three quart jars with kombucha. 

I was hoping to achieve a secondary fermentation in order to make it a little carbonated by adding a bit of honey and letting it sit, covered, at room temperature. Alas, no significant carbonation built up, so I strained it again and transferred it to the fridge for storage. 


I added a bit of honey to the jars for my secondary fermentation, as suggest in The Art of Fermentation, hoping the kombucha yeast/bacteria would eat up the honey and produce some fizz. But I also read that kombucha needs sugar, not honey, to ferment, so maybe I should have added sugar instead. 

Finally, I added some blueberry juice from Worcester's Wild Blueberries, to one of the jars, sent to me in my Box of Maine, a box of Maine-made goodies. I was thrilled to remember I had the juice in my fridge, because making fruit juice seemed like a daunting hurdle and probably wouldn't have happened. But now I have plain and blueberry homemade kombucha! 

Kombucha
Adapted from Drink the Harvest by Nan K. Chase and DeNeice C. Guest

2 quarts, plus 2 cups filtered water
1 cup white sugar
8 black tea bags
1 kombucha SCOBY, plus 1 cup of SCOBY liquid

Boil two cups of water to a boil, and stir in sugar. Stir to dissolve. Add tea bags and let steep for 10 minutes. Remove tea bags and pour tea into a glass jar or ceramic crock with at least a half-gallon capacity. Add two quarts water and let cool to room temperature. Add SCOBY and reserved kombucha to the tea. Cover and let stand for 7-10 days.

Begin to taste kombucha after one week. When the flavor is to your liking, remove SCOBY and 1 cup of kombucha for your next batch. Filter kombucha and pour into jars or bottles. Add in 1/2-1 cup of fruit juice, a few tablespoons dried herbs, or a handful of fresh herbs for flavor, if desired. Keep in the refrigerator and use within one month. 

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After vacation, I returned home to crisper drawers full of CSA vegetables. I guess I'd hoped they'd magically disappear while I was gone? Fortunately, none of them had liquefied, but they needed to be moved along, and fast. After all, there was another share arriving in short order. 

Flipping through my new copy of The Backyard Homestead: Kitchen Know-How by Andrea Chesman, inspiration struck. She has a recipe for a vegetable base that uses up 8 cups of vegetables and stocks your freezer for future meals. 


I chopped up every soup-related vegetable I could find: onions, celery, carrots, sweet peppers, summer squash, fennel, garlic scapes, and Swiss chard. I sauteed it until crisp-tender in a large stockpot, then added about two cups of tomato puree that I'd made in a separate pot with my garden tomatoes. 

The whole thing made about four pints, or eight cups, of what I'm calling vegetable base. It's thick, so I can see diluting it with stock and adding beans, lentils, potatoes, and/or meat to make soup or just thawing it and serving it over some grain like couscous or quinoa, again with beans or meat. 

I don't know why, but I felt so damn satisfied that I'd managed to get rid of heaps of produce in such a short time and in a way that I really feel like I'll use come cooler weather. Give it a whirl!

Frosty jars from the freezer

Disclosure: I received complimentary copies of both books I mention as review copies, as well as a free sample of the Box of Maine service. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Dining Out Casco Bay Islands: Down East Feature

First, the business! I'll be reading from DISTILLED IN MAINE and sharing stories of Maine's alcoholic past and present at Maine Historical Society on Friday, September 11th at 5:30. What - that's cutting into happy hour, you say? I hear ya. Cocktails will be provided by Steve from Vena's Fizz House. Tickets are $10 for MHS members and $15 for non-members. Hope to see you! 

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I was asked in early July to write a feature for Down East magazine, and I was extremely! excited! One, I'm always excited to write for magazines, and two, the feature was about eating out on Casco Bay islands. The Island Issue is on stands now - pick it up to see my seven page spread (!!!) of dining on three islands in Casco Bay: Peaks, Great Diamond, and Chebeague Island. 

But then there was a catch: a short deadline, made even shorter by my family's visit over the upcoming weekend. So I had about a week to visit the islands and write the piece - which meant I visited three islands in three days. It was a whirlwind tour, but certainly a worthy challenge. 

After my friends and I caught the ferry back to Portland, we really felt we'd gotten away - more so than if we'd driven to Cape Elizabeth or Yarmouth for dinner. The islands are special places, and when you visit, you feel like you're part of a club or at the very least, capture some of that feeling you get when you're on vacation, far from your daily responsibilities. Check out September's Down East for my write-ups as well as some behind-the-scenes tidbits below. 


We thought it'd be great to sail to Peaks Island on a Sunday for lunch at Milly's Skillet, the new food truck on the island, or The Cockeyed Gull, an adorable shingled restaurant I've always wanted to visit. Unfortunately, our sailboat's steering gear had other ideas and we ended up being towed back to Portland before we could dock at Peaks. Whomp whomp. 

But a schedule is a schedule, so we hopped on the ferry and motored back out to Jones Landing. I ordered aggressively from Milly's: fish chowder (not normally green - the hue is borrowed from the picnic table umbrella), fish tacos, a lobster roll, and fried Brussel sprouts. 


The lobster roll was a hit - the brioche bun was thick and sweet, with a nice, buttery crunch. There was tons of lobster meat and was enough to split for $18. Portland Food Map recently shared the update via the Forecaster that owner Molly Ritzo will open another truck in Falmouth on Route 100, so look for Maine Mountain Trader to get a taste of Molly's cooking if you don't make it out to Peaks before she closes for the season. 

But there's still plenty of good weather forecasted this summer in which to check out the Cockeyed Gull. After our food truck lunch, we headed to the Gull and sat on the deck overlooking the water. While we ordered several things, my favorite dish was the risotto with peas and mushrooms, topped with scallops, shrimp, or chicken. I went for grilled scallops - I can't get enough of them. 


When I saw that the Gull made their own desserts, I had to order a slice of key lime pie, even though we were all groaning with discomfort from our double lunches. The pie didn't disappoint, tart and creamy with a nice crunchy graham cracker crust, even though we were seriously pushing the limits of reasonable consumption at that point. 


The next night, we caught the ferry from Portland to Chebeague Island. I'd never been, and we loved the luxury of being picked up by the friendly young guy from the Chebeague Island Inn in a van that shuttled us from the southern end of the island to the restaurant, three miles away. 


We dressed up for the occasion, as the Inn is a little more formal, although like most things in Maine, it manages to be refined and relaxed at the same time. I have to admit that dinner at the Chebeague Island Inn would be out of my weeknight price range otherwise, but you could manage a less expensive version by sticking to the burger and a beer. 

The arugula, tomato, feta salad was zippy with strong flavors from the Aleppo pepper and pickled watermelon rind throughout (and room temperature, which is a rarity). We didn't love the mussels, that while local, were dry rather than in a broth for slurping and sopping. 


Aside from the burger, which was salty and rich with onion rings on it, the seared scallops over white asparagus were my favorite entree. The other fish dish we ordered was a little overcooked, and thus dry, so stick with the scallops and the burger. If nothing else, the porch of the Inn is a great place to enjoy a cocktail during the sunset. 


We were on track to miss the ferry back to Portland, so we opted to take the shorter ferry to Yarmouth and fortunately one of our dear friends was available to come pick us up in Yarmouth. The ferry ride from Portland is lovely, but it does take longer, so be more prepared than we were to call it an early night. 


Lastly, I headed out to Great Diamond Island to Diamond's Edge with my honey. We enjoyed a romantic date on the lawn of the restaurant - until the rain began and forced us onto the deck of the restaurant. 

I'd been to Diamond's Edge several times for drinks in the past, while out sailing, but never for dinner. The menu is huge, so there's surely something for everyone. The standout for me was the fried oyster, pork belly, and spinach appetizer - all served over a bold mustard-Porter sauce. 


We both enjoyed our entrees, an island bouillabaisse packed with tons of seafood and the filet mignon - classics that were satisfying in their familiarity. Instead of dessert, we retired to the bar for a nightcap, watched the Red Sox with a few other people, then strolled down to the ferry dock when we saw its lights appear around the corner of the cove. 

It's pretty special that we're able to pop out to an island in Casco Bay for an evening, letting you leave behind the rhythms of daily life to enjoy a special late summer meal. If you're the summer bucket list type, I suggest adding an island drink or dinner to your list as we enjoy these last few weeks of my favorite season in Maine.