Sunday, August 14, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Maine I - Oh, there's more in the sea than the lobster! (Hey, ya!)

The next few posts take us back to New England, as far as you can go up the Eastern seaboard. We're gettin' down with the Down East (oh Jesus, I cannot believe I actually typed that).

Official Name: State of Maine
State Nicknames: The Pine Tree State
Admission to the US: March 15, 1820 (#23)
Augusta (9th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Portland (largest); Lewiston (2nd largest); Bangor (3rd largest)
Northeast, New England; New England (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Maple Syrup; Clambake
Bordered by: New Hampshire (west); Québec (Canada) (northwest); New Brunswick (Canada) (north, northeast), Bay of Fundy (due east), Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Maine (southeast)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: wild blueberry (fruit); Maine wild blueberry pie (dessert); whoopie pie (treat); Moxie (soft drink); landlocked salmon (fish); moose (animal)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: New England foods; seafood, especially lobster, haddock, swordfish, salmon, clams; blueberries and apples; fiddle head ferns; whoopie pies; foods in common with southeastern Canada, including poutine

What can one specifically say about the cuisine of the Pine Tree State? Brooke Dojny, author of The New England Clam Shack Cookbook, discovered this after moving to Maine from her native Connecticut. She compiled a cookbook that "captures authentic Down East flavors" in her Dishing Up Maine. Therein she lists many reasons why she has fallen in love with the foods of Maine. There are too many to list, though she definitely notes that it isn't all about the lobster. Mainers still eat by the seasons, and did so before it became fashionable everywhere else:

In winter, it's likely to be thick pea soup with smoky ham, vegetable-rich pot roast, rich and reamy seafood casserole, or cranberry-glazed meat loaf; in summer, thoughts turn to the likes of crab cakes, lobster rolls, barbecued chicken, and farmers' market pasta with Maine chèvre. [Dojny 2006: 11]
She also notes that the "artisan movement thrives in Maine" (Dojny 2006: 11) - everything from maple syrup to pickles to freshly picked blueberries and locally made sausages and cheeses are readily found in this Northeastern-most portion of the country.

A few months ago, I consulted this same cookbook when I got inspired to make myself a lobster roll for the first time ever (due in part to an exceptionally good sale on Maine lobster at the local Graul's). Why Dishing Up Maine for the lobster roll? Because lobster is one of the most iconic foods of Maine, and I figured a Mainer, even a new one like Dojny, would know what she was doing when describing this dish to a poor little ol' cook from below the Mason-Dixon Line like myself.

I am surprised in retrospect that I never wrote about this venture, but am happy to finally post some photos of the project here:

This little fella is probably not expecting what is about to hit him. At least I threw him in the freezer for a bit.

Nope, the little guy didn't see it comin'. Unlike in Cajun Country, where you never steam a crustacean, or the Chesapeake, where you almost never boil one, in New England - apparently - you can boil or steam your crustaceans. I went all Chesapeake and steamed mine.

The recipe is very simple: lobster, lemon juice and mayonnaise. That's it, plus optional salt and pepper to taste. And then you need something to put it in: a hot dog roll for each person, toasted and brushed with melted butter (the hot dog roll, not the person), and maybe chopped chives or parsley to sprinkle on top.

And the final lobster roll, on a buttered toasted hot dog roll, accompanied by my own wasabi mayo-dill potato salad with sliced chili peppers.

I liked Dojny's "classic Maine lobster roll" (found on page 49 of her Dishing Up Maine cookbook), but I knew there were other ways to prepare lobster, and other edible sea life around Maine. I found a whole new (albeit overlapping) world of lobster and seafood recipes in the book Recipes From a Very Small Island by Linda Greenlaw and her mother Martha. The "very small island" in question where the Mss. Greenlaw reside is Isle au Haut, floating smack dab off the middle of the Maine coastline. The elder Greenlaw (Martha) points out that "[w]e New Englanders are a sturdy breed and tend to stay pretty much where we're born. Nowhere is this more true than in Maine" (Greenlaw and Greenlaw 2005: 9). Martha's daughter is a cook, fisherwoman and lobsterwoman, and so neither has very difficult access to fresh New England seafood (the younger Greenlaw also has acclaim as an author, and as the only female swordfishing boat captain on the East Coast).

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Greenlaws' cookbook has an embarrassment of riches from the sea - a partial list includes not just lobster but also scallop, crab, haddock, halibut, clam, mussel, and (duh) swordfish. But to narrow down my choices a wee bit, I wanted a lobster dish that wasn't in "roll" format. I eventually went with a creamy casserole, the kind that Dojny says is more suited for winter. This one features not only lobster but also the humble and widely available haddock. The recipe, I think, is Martha's, and is named for Head Harbor, much closer to the easternmost point of the state (and of the United States).

Recipe: Head Harbor Lobster & Haddock Casserole

The authors note that "any mild, flaky white fish" can be used in place of the haddock, which I found during my shopping is not the most readily available fish down here. For the complete recipe, including exact amounts, check out page 55 of their Recipes from a Very Small Island.

For their lobster and haddock casserole you will need:

* lobster (As we all know, this is not cheap, so you have to find it as cheap as possible when you can. Ever the opportunist, I profited off the misfortune of Super Fresh, which shut down in Baltimore recently, by picking up two frozen lobster tails for half the price at $10! That said, it only afforded me half the lobster I needed for this casserole, which in retrospect would have worked as well had I halved it. To make up for it, I did buy a small pre-steamed lobster for $12 at Wegman's)

Hey, do you know a crawfish I boiled recently?

* haddock (I almost got some on sale at Harris Teeter for $8 a pound, only to find that it was sold out. Eventually I picked up a 2 lb bag of frozen haddock for $12. I later kicked myself in the rear when I went back to Harris Teeter only to find haddock at the ridiculously good price of $6 per pound. Sigh.)
* Dijon mustard, ketchup, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce (These I already had)
* horseradish (I actually did not have this on hand, but I picked up a bottle of Inglehoffer's cream-style horseradish for about $5. I know I will get plenty of use out of this eventually)
* medium-dry sherry (If you don't have sherry on hand, no problem: a passable substitute is red wine, which I do have)
* salt (have it)
* all-purpose flour (have it, too)
* whole milk (picked up a quart for $1.30 - I don't drink a lot of milk. I later found that I left half and half off my shopping list, which I needed instead, but here's a trick I read about online: if all you have no half and half, an acceptable substitute is an equal amount of whole milk with one exception: replace one tablespoon of milk per cup with a tablespoon of butter. That is, if you need two cups of half and half, you can substitute two cups of whole milk, but replacing two tablespoons of the milk with two tablespoons of butter. This only works in cooking and baking)
* butter (have it)
* fresh parsley (got it from the garden)
* bread crumbs (it plays to freeze extra bread after you bake it - I had a lot of this on hand)

There are a lot of ingredients, but the procedure is relatively simple once you have the ingredients in place.

First, simmer the haddock until it is opaque (a little longer if yours is frozen). Once this is done, you will cut it into chunks and set it aside.

While you poach the haddock, tear into the lobster and remove the meat. Don't just use the tail meat, of course - you need the claw and leg meat, too, and if you can get to the tomalley (the green stuff that is analogous to crab mustard and crawfish fat) add some of that, as I did. This is not in the Greenlaws' recipe, but I don't think they would object.

Just to gauge your meat level: a small lobster, weighing a little over a pound, yields a little over a cup of lobster meat.

Take all your lobster meat - for me, that included the tails I bought separately and at a discount - and cut that up as well, and set it aside.

Next you make a roux. That next part seems almost Cajun in practice, but it should come as no surprise, given how close Maine is to Québec and to French Canada, where you often start with a roux. The roux comes from the butter and flour, which you will whisk together over medium high heat.

When you have the roux, add the rest of the ingredients except for the haddock, lobster and bread crumbs, and constantly whisk together until thick.

It will end up being very thick.

Add the seafood and pour into a 3 quart casserole dish.

Top with bread crumbs (note: if you are dealing with frozen bread, toast it first in order to dessicate it, and then throw it in the food processor for much easier crumbs).

Bake the casserole at 400°F for about 35 minutes.

If Maine is a hearty state, then this dish most certainly exemplifies that fact. This casserole is very filling, and you won't need a lot in any one sitting. This casserole, as a friend pointed out, combines a high falutin (to me at least, though maybe not to Mainers) seafood - lobster - and a very plebeian seafood - haddock. The two blend together nicely. It also gives a nice blend of textures - the hearty seafood, the creamy sauce, the crunchy bread crumbs, all making up a fascinating and lovely casserole. But next time, I will cut this in half. it's just too much food!


Dojny, Brooke. Dishing Up Maine: 165 Recipes That Capture Authentic Down East Flavors. Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA, 2008.

Dojny, Brooke. The New England Clam Shack Cookbook. 2nd edition. Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA, 2008. Portions also available on Google Books.

El-Begearmi, Mahmoud. Facts on Fiddleheads (Bulletin #4198, Facts on Fiddleheads). Updated by Alfred Bushway, Beth Calder and David Fuller. Cooperative Extension Publications (University of Maine): Orona, ME, 1995 & 2010.

Greenlaw, Linda, and Martha Greenlaw. Recipes From a Very Small Island. Hyperion: New York, NY, 2005.

Yankee Magazine. "Dijon Fiddleheads". From "Weekly Wisdom", May 2002. Copyright 2011 Yankee Magazine.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Maine" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Maine".