THIS SUMMER, our immediate family is heading Down East to Maine -- which is always considered down and east, no matter from where you start. My family infests a small section of the mid-coast region, and we plan to immerse our small children in a flood of aunts, uncles and cousins. I am getting so excited I can taste it . . . and what do I taste?
Maine food, like that of the Canadian Maritimes, Quebec and the rest of New England, is rooted in a long tradition of hard winters. The raw ingredients are the same throughout the region, and even now, with modern storage and distibution, the most typical fare is drawn from those foods that always kept well through months of cold weather. Apples, root vegetables, dried peas and beans, cured meats and smoked and salted fish, maple syrup and molasses are among the staples of Maine cooking. Thus, the New England boiled dinner is corned beef, potatoes, onions, carrots, rutabaga and cabbage. And in this frugal region, leftovers are as important as first round. Take that boiled dinner, grind it up with some cooked beets and you'll have red flannel hash. Be sure to serve them both with a cruet of apple cider vinegar to pour over.
The fresh foods of any given season always stood out against this background with an intensity that made them truly cherished. In the fall, half the population was out in the woods seeking a supply of venison and the first fall apples. Spring brought early fiddlehead ferns, an important occasion. And beet greens with tiny baby beets . . . and dandelion greens . . . and the first green peas. Blueberries in August.
Now lobster is almost always too expensive for the natives to eat, except on special occasions. But I can remember, quite a few years back, seeing shrimp for sale along the roadside in February at five or six pounds for a dollar. Shelling them was drudgery, for they were small, only half an inch to an inch across their tightly curled bodies. But they were so good when cooked, firm and sweet. The simplest way was the best after the laborious shelling, so a Maine shrimp stew is an exercise in minimal art. Connoisseurs prefer it re-warmed after a night spent in the refrigerator. MAINE SHRIMP STEW (6 servings, as an appetizer) 3 tablespoons butter (not margarine) l pound small shrimp, fresh or frozen, shelled and deveined 4 cups whole milk (or 3 cups milk and 1 cup cream) Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a heavy-bottomed pot, melt butter over low heat and gently saute the shrimp until just cooked -- pink and firm, but not dry. Add the milk and cream (which is really gilding the lily), and heat gently until just below the boiling point. DO NOT BOIL. Season to taste. Cool and refrigerate for 24 hours. Reheat to almost boiling and serve with fresh bread or biscuits or buttered pilot crackers.
At the other end of the culinary spectrum lies the salt cod, once the mainstay of the Maine economy (well, once a mainstay). When I was small, my father would bring home bundles of dried codfish that had been cleaned and split, rubbed with salt and stretched on racks to dry in the sun. They were hard as boards, but the pungent flavor was irresistible and we would peel off chewy strips and eat them all day long. Modern hygiene has mostly stopped this poetic practice of home drying, and even in Maine salt cod has become an expensive import commodity, traveling in from the Canadian Maritimes in prepackaged portions. It is available here in the Washington area usually in the same pre-packaged condition, and when I am homesick to the point of perversity, I sally forth to buy a plastic-wrapped portion to make salt fish and potatoes. SALT FISH AND POTATOES (4 servings) 1 pound salt cod fillet 6 medium-large boiling potatoes 1/2 pound salt pork (as lean as possible) 1 medium onion
Check the cod. If it is very dry and salty, it will need to soak in cold water overnight. If it yields to the touch, soaking is probably unnecessary. Discard the soaking water, cover with fresh cold water and simmer until falling-apart tender, usually less than hour. Taste along the way to be sure that it is not too salty, and change water if necessary, Keep warm.
Peel the potatoes, halve them and cook in salted water to cover until tender.
Dice the dalt pork as fine as you have patience and cook over moderate heat in a small frying pan until the pork is crisp. Put it in a sauceboat with all the grease that has fried out of it. Keep warm.
Mince the peeled onion and put in a serving dish. Serve each person a portion of fish and potato, which is mashed on the individual plate with the individual fork. Pass the salt pork and minced raw onion, and let each diner sprinkle his fish and potato with onion and pork to taste. You are supposed to use the pork grease as you would otherwise use melted butter. The marriage of flavors and textures is exquisite, strange as it sounds, but definitely not for those on a salt-restricted diet!
Any leftover fish and potatoes should be mashed or coarsely ground, mixed with chopped raw onion and an egg and fried as fish cakes. Some hardy souls eat them for breakfast, but they are nice for lunch, too.
I wonder if I can finagle Grandma into making a clam chowder . . .?