Maine is…

Maine is a very unique state. According to craigslist, Maine is one large interconnected region. That is to say, if you go to the craigslist site for Maine, under “cities” you’ll find “Maine.” If you ask a Mainer, they’d agree. A new friend and tattoo artist would tell you it’s because everyone knows each other through someone else. In Chicago we think we have it rough, you can pretty much play the 6 degrees of separation game with anyone you meet (biggest. “small town.” ever.) but in Maine, John would tell you, you can play that game with 2 degrees of separation…with the entire state.

Last time I was in his shop in Old Bay, Portland, delivering bagels from the magnanimous Josh of One fifty Ate (a phenomenal little bagel spot in South Portland) I met a farmer from Freedom, Maine, who knew the farmer I work for and was actually attending a conference with him after John finished working on his tattoo. I’m telling you, this state is one big SMALL town.

Don’t ask why I was delivering bagels from South Portland to Old Bay, it’s just something that happens when you’re in Maine. People do things for each other. Crazy.

So I figured I’d impart some tidbits I’ve picked up so far in Maine.

1. We are far enough North that there are Tim Horton’s here (Canadians or anyone who has spent time in Canada will know what I’m talking about)

Further research indicates that there are various locations across the US, but I happen to associate Tim Horton’s rather strongly with Canada, so I’m leaving this bullet point up.

Doesn't look that terrifying.

2. Everyone (from tattoo artists to farmers and bakers) has a story about a moose. There was apparently a pair of rogue moose terrorizing the tranquil South Portland area, and there are multiple claims out there as to who actually got to kill the moose.

Everyone I’ve encountered thus far has -or knows someone who has- successfully killed a moose and promptly bled and butchered it, stashing the 1200 or so pounds of meat in a freezer somewhere.

I’m assuming that every Mainer has a dedicated freezer that lies empty for years in anticipation of just such an event.

I heard one story about a guy who pulled up behind the site of an unfortunate accident involving a [now deceased] moose on a roadway. Before asking the shaken-up motorist who had just hit the moose if he was alright, the man asked “are you gonna take that home?” He proceeded to tie the thing up on the side of the road with some pulley devices he kept in his truck for just such an occurrence, and bled the thing out and started chopping it up before the Game Commissioner had even arrived on site.

You see, dear reader, there is a Moose Lottery here in Maine. Some folks have been on that list, waiting for their opportunity to take home their very own ton of moose meat, for half their lives. With that, I think I’ve exhausted the moose topic.

I’ll let you all know when I see one, I’ve been told there are black bears in the woods behind the farm! Moose can’t be that far away.

3. Every city outside of Portland is “oh, you know, out towards Unity.”

4. Tides are no joke.

You hear almost as many stories about unsuspecting tourists getting caught on a little inlet that’s closing in on them as the tide rises as you do about moose. 

They do create amazing pools though…that are fun to explore.

4. Maine has got to be the friendliest state I’ve ever visited. People go out of their way to help others. It can be very difficult to get anything accomplished because you end up stopping to chat with everyone you pass.

For instance, I had a long conversation with a man who was driving through town and wanted to know my life story since he didn’t recognize me. After about ten minutes, he was satisfied and pulled away… followed by the 5 cars that were waiting patiently behind him the entire time we were chatting.

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Cooking with friends: experiments with Mirin and Bok Choy

Pumba and I were at it again!

This time we decided to dip our toes into the world of Asian cuisine. Neither of us have much (read any) experience with this region. I did have that stint in Viet Nam, but the most I really got out of that in terms of cooking experience was a familiarity with their produce and some of their sauces. I pretty much made myself dishes I already knew how to cook substituting the Western ingredients I couldn’t find in South East Asia with their closest Asian cousins. You end up with strange dishes like glass noodles with sautéed shrimp and broccoli and pork with custard apple pan sauce.

So Gabs and I each picked a dish we wanted to try (one veg and one fish) and took a whack at preparing them.

Pumba took on the veg because that’s what she predominantly cooks for herself, and after the Wicker Park raw chicken fiasco of 2011, let’s face it, she just doesn’t really get off on cooking things that have the potential to cause food poisoning.

[N.B. It should be noted that thanks to a psychotic burst of energy and angst at 4am, the chicken was thawed,  recooked, then discarded and no one was poisoned.]

So first, the stir-fried bok choy with tofu and mizuna, expertly prepared by my former roommate.

What you’ll need:

  • 3 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
  • 4 teaspoons Asian sesame oil, divided
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar, divided
  • 1 16-ounce container extra-firm tofu, drained
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 4 baby bok choy, leaves separated
  • 12 cups loosely packed mizuna (about 8 ounces)

I always like to portion out the ingredients I need and prep the stuff that needs chopping or peeling.

So you want to cut up your baby bok choy into pieces you can either easily stuff in your mouth, or about proportional to the pieces of tofu. Dice your fresh ginger and green onions, and then finely chop your garlic. We couldn’t get mizuna so we used baby spinach since mizuna is texturally a lot like spinach (and the taste of spinach pretty much yields to whatever you cook it in.

First she fried the segments of tofu in the peanut oil.

We set those aside on some pieces of paper towel to get rid of any oiliness.

You can then prep your sauce in a small mixing bowl: Whisk 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 teaspoons sesame oil, and 1/2 teaspoon vinegar.

Then you get to start putting together your flavors for the stir-fry. Add 2 teaspoons sesame oil and place skillet over medium heat. Add green onions, ginger, and garlic.

Once that becomes fragrant (you’ll know when you hit that point, but it takes a little under a minute), add remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce and 3 teaspoons vinegar, then your chopped bok choy. Toss until bok choy wilts. It should take about 2 minutes. We had to use the adult variety of bok choy (that’s all they had at Whole Foods) so it took a little longer. Add mizuna (read spinach) in 2 batches, tossing to wilt before adding more, 1 to 2 minutes per batch. Season greens with salt and pepper.

Then you pretty much throw it all together and it looks something like this.Simple as hell, right? That’s what we thought. We were somewhat daunted by the idea of cooking “asian” food. But we heard from a reliable source that what we made looked (and tasted) pretty great.

On to the black cod with mushrooms and sancho pepper:

We ran into to issues with this dish. Namely, the cod they had a Whole Foods looked sad and disheartened. So we chose a comparable white fish and chalked it up to experimentation in the kitchen. There was no sancho pepper paste either, so we just used Sriracha and cut our losses.

What you’ll need:

For broth

  • 1 cup water
  • 6 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground sansho pepper (sometimes labeled “sansyo“), plus additional for sprinkling, or 1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 shallot, sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced, divided
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 7 ounces fresh enoki mushrooms, cut into 3-inch lengths and spongy base discarded
  • 5 ounces fresh shimeji mushrooms (sometimes called beech mushrooms), spongy base discarded

And the fish, of course.

So prep the veg, then make your broth. It’s super easy, and it fills your kitchen with delightful smells.

Bring water, soy sauce, mirin, sansho pepper (we added a healthy squirt of Sriracha), shallot, and one third of garlic to a boil in a 1- to 2-quart heavy saucepan, then simmer 5 minutes. Let broth stand off heat 10 minutes.

You are going to discard the shallots, which is a painful thing to do since they’ve just spent 10 minutes soaking up all that flavor. So we saved the strained shallots and decided we’d use them on sandwiches or in other dishes.

Once the sauce is made, you sauté the mushrooms in vegetable oil. 

That will go onto another sheet or two of paper towel and rid itself of its unnecessary oils.

Finally, you need to cook the fish. Pat fish dry and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot, then sauté fish, skin side down, turning once, until golden brown, just starting to flake, and just cooked through, about 8 minutes. This depends on the thickness of your fillets and temp of the pan. You don’t want to overcook the fish, but you can tell when the fish is getting done by the color and texture it will take on as you observe the “raw” unflipped side.

Once your fish is cooked. you compile yourself a dish:

Et voilà! You have your meal. Enjoy.

Both recipes can be found at epicurious.com

The Existentialism of Mussels

“I don’t think I’ll last much longer,” my mother said putting down her spoon.

Well, it’s been nice knowing you, I thought, wondering if she was suddenly struck by an episode of food poisoning she knew to be fatal. At least we’ve established that those precooked mussels she’s had in the fridge for over a month -to which she calls attention every time she opens the fridge in my presence- were indeed not to be trusted.

This morbid moment proudly brought to you by the province of Québec, exporters of frozen seafood and grim moments of existentialism since 1975.

But let’s backtrack a bit.

“Is this really going to work?” asked my mother as we made slits in two cryovac-ed pouches of Sogel pre-cooked mussels hailing from Prince Edward Island (imported through Montréal). Yea, I turned cryovac into a verb.

As I sawed off the top bit of sealed plastic so it wouldn’t melt away due to contact with the coils of the toaster oven, I shrugged and went about my business of doctoring up a bath for the somewhat suspect looking mollusks being zapped in the microwave.
After scouring the fridge for things to embellish the greyish frozen liquid generously supplied by the purveyors in the package of frozen precooked seafood, I decided on pancetta, green onion and some garlic which I sautéed in clarified butter, seasoned with salt, hot pepper flakes and thyme then doused that with about half a bottle of dry white wine. Once the alcohol cooked out, I added a cup and a half of the chicken stock I had previously made from some unfortunate whole chicken I roasted.
After 4 minutes in the microwave, I tentatively checked the mussels. “I’m not sure what we should be looking for,” I offered “but at least we know they’re cooked.”
So I threw them in the pot with the makeshift sauce..
and hoped for the best.
———————————-
The meal itself turned out quite well.
The mussels did not kill anyone, or even give us food poisoning. In fact, they weren’t half bad. The fascinating thing about all this is that I have a strong bias against things that are precooked, and when possible, would rather just get live mussels from the grocery store.
And this is where I get existential. One of the things I like so much about cooking is the satisfaction of transforming something from its un-actualized (and sometimes inedible) state into an experience. If our lives are truly defined by the sums of our actions, existentially speaking, life then boils down to our experiences. In some ways, cooking is the most concrete experience of existentialism. With very little (a knife and in some cases a source of heat) coming between the person acting and the thing acted upon, we create an experience for ourselves and others that can truly change the way we nourish ourselves. When you cook, you’re taking control of every aspect of the experience that defines you.
While I suppose I see the merit in being able to safely keep 2 lbs of mussels in a tidy vacuum sealed pouch for months on end, somehow it takes away from the experience.
While we threw away the extra mussels and leftover fries, my mom did keep the one component I made from scratch: the broth I made to conceal the uninspired quality of those shifty little precooked Canadian mollusks that tried to rob us of life itself… if not by killing us literally, then by killing the experience.

Credit- The Goosefoot Experience

I’m not entirely sure where to begin my report on our experience at Goosefoot.

Should I rattle off all the reasons Goosefoot is a unique restaurant? Or should I take you course by course through Chef Chris Nugent’s incredibly well thought out menu? Do I give you the inside scoop, straight from the chef’s mouth, on where to shop for groceries? (Oh, I’m onto you, all food obsessed people are constantly on the prowl for the best places to shop.)

I know! I’ll start by saying Chris Nugent has some sort of psychic ability…. he came out for a tableside chat during one of the dessert courses [that’s right, for all of the sweet toothed folks of Chicago, there are two of them not including the cheese course] and he flat out asked: you’re a soup person, aren’t you?

Sure, that could have been a shot in the dark, though that would imply that he randomly goes up to all his diners guessing, carnival attraction style, what their favorite dishes and preparations are…and since he’s not in the least socially awkward, it has to be that he has a 6th sense for taste.

It would explain plate after plate of visually stunning culinary innovation.

If I had to choose one word to describe Chris Nugent’s menu, it would be assiduous. Not in an overly fussy sort of way either. The vibe of the restaurant as a whole is laid back, casual and very upbeat. The celebratory ambiance could have stemmed from the 6 birthdays being celebrated that night, but I get the sense that Goosefoot is no stranger to birthdays. I’d imagine this is exactly the kind of place you would take a food loving friend for a festive meal. To my right were seated a chef (celebrating his birthday) and his date, and to my left sat a professor (also celebrating a birthday) with his wife.

But back to assiduity. The attention to detail within each dish, but also when it came to the conceptualization and orchestration of the meal as a whole, was astounding. It seemed as though each dish was meant to play off some aspect of the one before or after it. Clearly a lot of thought went into the menu planning, and it paid off. After not one but two amuse-bouches, we were taken on an intricate 8 course journey.

It’s true that you eat first with your eyes, and in some cases it was almost a pity to destroy the presentation by eating. But I sucked it up and ate every bite off every plate. My favorite courses were (unsurprisingly) of the seafood persuasion.

The lobster had a delicate curry sauce and was paired with flavors and textures (hubbard squash and licorice root) that meshed perfectly with the dominant flavors of lobster and curry.

The loup de mer (French sea bass) was also perfection on a plate. Perfectly cooked and served with a meyer lemon sauce with tapioca pearls and sunchokes. I only wish I could have requested a double portion!

Of the remaining courses, the angus beef was the most straightforward (not a bad thing!) The chestnut soup with white alba mushrooms and truffle essence and the quail with spiced beluga lentils as well as one of the dessert courses struck me as more playful and innovative. Each had elements that could have been featured on the pages of Modernist Cuisine. Hell, the soup has “smoke” listed as an ingredient. The cinderella squash with nougatine and spice meringue was also a prime example of how to use modernist techniques to play with textures without assaulting your diner with them.

Chef Nugent clearly knows how to innovate without intimidating and that’s sometimes a fine line to tread.

For those of you who read all the way through this post muttering “will she just get to where the chef buys his groceries?” that time has come.

Chef Nugent told me to check out Harvest Time Foods on Lawrence right next door to Goosefoot, and after my own trip there I urge you to do the same.

A Holiday Roast Beast…

…and a big huzzah to those who got the Grinch reference.

Every Christmas it is my privilege to spend a week with my slightly crazy family in California. It’s not just the (welcome) climate change that makes it a privilege, but the opportunity to pin down exactly how inevitable it was that I turned out as batty as I did!

This Christmas marked the first time that I was able to go to a family gathering feeling 100% confident that I am moving in the exact right direction with my life. I may not be galloping out of the gates, but I know I must be doing something right when upon hearing of my new proposed vocation, the family assigned me to cook for all of them. You know you’re on the right path in life when being forced to feed over a dozen hungry family members actually sounds like the best way to spend your days. It’s also encouraging that I get paid to document every triumphant success or epic failure of the process.

I love everything about food, especially being able to be in proximity to those who are truly gifted at preparing it. It seems only natural that I put in my time writing about those who do it so much better than me. I have big plans [top secret, sorry] of ultimately selling the entirety of my soul to this fickle industry, but until I do, I might as well enjoy experiencing others’ great food while I have the time.

But today it’s time to document one of my own feasts, prepared over the holidays:

Pork loin with pear and shallot, roasted fennel bulbs and Thomas Keller’s savory bread pudding with leeks.

I figured apples with pork is getting a little tired… so I decided to use pears (slow down, crazed adventurer!) I know, I know, it’s not the biggest departure. It turns out that they compliment pork nicely AND since their meat is a little more delicate and pulpy than that of an apple, browning them in the sauté pan yields a lot more fresh pear juice for your pan sauce.

I seasoned the gargantuan piece of meat with a lot of salt and pepper about 45 minutes before I intended on getting back around to messing with it. The pork loin was so gigantic that I had to cut it in half to be able to sear its sides in a pan before putting it in the oven.

Then in a bowl, I mixed enough olive oil to coat the meat with fresh thyme and minced garlic. Simple. DONE. I trussed the loin and smeared the mixture of oil, garlic and thyme on the beast and then seared each side of the loin until achieving that pretty brown quality you want to see. To borrow a word from my dad, the “grumph” will fall off the meat. (If you haven’t gleaned from the context… grumph refers to the non essential though tasty bits of garlic and thyme that you lose to the pan).

I chose not to clean the pan before I sautéed the pears and shallots in it. After transferring those elements to the platter (which I served “as is” to accompany the pork) you’re left with a wonderful assortment of juices and flavors swimming around in the pan. I added a few cups of pear nectar and a bit of chicken stock for saltiness. I sprinkled in some flour to get a more dense consistency, oh and a (rather large) slab of butter.

As for the remarkable savory bread pudding, you can find it on epicurious.com or, if you’re really committed (and you should be!) to trying out Keller’s recipes… go ahead and purchase Ad Hoc at Home.

With that, I leave you with the idea of roasted fennel bulbs (halved) which we brushed with oil and dashed with salt as the final touch on a meal that turned out to be deceptively easy to pull together!

Behold the bulbs:

Discredit- Radio Silence

After a few weeks of utter silence on the world wide web, it’s time to kick it back into gear.

This is my announcement of posts to come:

1. My thoughts on my wonderful experience at Goosefoot

2. The first steps on my plans and feasibility to develop a destination restaurant/small scale inn to bring a touch of crazy to a midwestern farming community. (They’ll thank me in the end) I’ll start by announcing my bid to volunteer my services on any working farm to learn the ropes.

3. Coverage of my cooking escapades in Laguna Beach with my California family.

Let the writing begin! More soon.

Who Ate My Potstickers?, I Was Told There Would Be Ham… and other tales from beyond the operating table.

Vignettes from the last two weeks of my life:

December 5, 8am: No food or drink since yesterday at noon. No coffee. I wonder if it counts if it’s administered intravenously… Worst. Day. Ever.

December 6-9: I was wrong. This is WAY worse. Don’t speak to me, don’t even look at me. The thought of interaction makes my throat want to jump out of my body and run away.

December 10, 10am: Apparently your body acclimates to a strict diet of codeine and shaved ice. Will try to eat soup tomorrow.

December 11, 7pm: Christmas party. There is ham. Can barely swallow water, but might steal the leftover ham and weigh the possibilities of making a ham smoothie. Need. Ham. Now.

December 12, 3pm: Still no ham, puréed peach and ice is taking its toll.

December 13, 1pm: scrambled eggs… puréed with water. Can I get a side of puréed bacon?

December 14: Venture out of doors to get chinese food. Order egg drop soup, eat entire bowl meant to serve a family of 4. Take potstickers home in carry out container with another gallon of egg drop soup for tomorrow.

December 15, 7:30: Egg drop soup for lunch… dinner time. Tore apart fridge, one question remains to be answered: Who ate my potstickers?

December 16: Can someone explain to me why everything tastes like gummy bears?

December 17: Mentally and emotionally preparing myself for the prospect of Honey Baked Ham (Round 2) at one of three holiday parties I must attend.

December 18, 4pm: I was told there would be ham. Holiday Party #2 boasts a beautiful spiral cut ham…. I watch it being glazed…. I watch it emerge from the oven… and I have to leave to make it to the next party without so much as a mouthful of the glorious beast.

December 19: Still sour about the ham.

Silent Night

The words Silent Night are powerful and steeped in enough tradition in the United States that they quickly evoke myriads of different images and memories for people when uttered. Whether it’s thanks to the carolers outside your door, or because that damn song  has come on the radio 25 times during your 10 minute car ride with your boyfriend to pick out a Christmas tree, the song is virtually inescapable.

I remember, for instance, the year when a family member of mine put a lot of effort into compiling and binding enough christmas carol books for each member of our rather large family. We all sat down with every intention to chant a few christmas carols, but quickly realized that despite the continuous loop they appear to be on from Halloween to New Year’s Day, none of us really knew what we were singing… even with the lovely, bound booklets my aunt had made. Who knew that Frosty the Snowman has three distinct verses?! That said, the one song we all made it through was Silent Night. It felt like an accomplishment, but I think secretly we were all grateful it was over…

The true sentiment behind Silent Night is never really what jumps to mind when you hear the song, is it? Your mind never really races to that serene country church glowing in the darkness of a cold winter’s night (above). It’s probably for the best, since I doubt there were many churches covered in snow on night of Christ’s birth anyway.

Last night I attended a holiday party at my family friend’s house. There were no Christmas Carols, but the jovial ambiance and warmth emanating from the busting Gold Coast home would have done nicely as that memory evoked by hearing a Christmas carol.

People who hadn’t seen each other in ages flocked to the kitchen, sharing food, drink and stories of their children and travels over the past year. It was exactly the type of scene you would expect from a movie montage playing a song like Silent Night in the

background as the scene fades to black and the credits roll at the resolution of a Christmas movie about a great group of friends.

But this year I experienced a whole new take on Silent Night. Having just had surgery on my throat, I attended this gathering of some of my family’s closest friends as a mute. I was never worried about feeling out of place around this group of people, but the thought did occur to me, how much could I enjoy a party of which I couldn’t really be a part?

To my surprise, I enjoyed the party more than I’ve enjoyed a holiday party in a long time. There’s something to be said about the power of quiet observation. I was able to take in every interaction, every detail of the party unfolding around me.

From my perch on the couch that I occupied the entire night, I noticed things like the genuine smiles on peoples’ faces when they greeted each other, and I caught up (vicariously) with more people than I could have possibly talked to that night.

The most endearing thing was that despite my complete silence, I was never alone on that couch. There was a constant stream of people who would come sit by me on the couch and put their arms around me wishing me a speedy recovery. They would ask me as many yes or no questions as they could muster, and then almost as suddenly as they arrived, they would depart to get more wine or talk to someone who could hold a conversation.

This was a completely unique experience for me, and if I learned anything from it, I believe the lesson would be that we should all spend a little more time being silent and taking things in… whether it’s the energy of a room full of friends, the beauty of a piece of music or a passage from the book we’re reading. But especially, perhaps, as a speaking member of society, we should all spend a little more time really listening to what the other person has to say and less time thinking about what we can throw into the conversation as soon as he or she is done speaking.

You never know what you might learn in one silent night.

Old news from afar!

Hello readers, please note that I have added a new tab entitled “Old News from Afar!”

A friend stumbled upon my old travel blogs from my journeys during college.

I could have sworn they were long gone.

 

 

 

The new tab is right up there next to “Home” and “About”… So go ahead and take a look, it will certainly start to fill up some of those empty “travel” categories.

 

 

The trips chronicled there are a far too brief trip to Turkey and some thoughts I had while living in Vietnam in 2007, as well as some random posts from my brief hiatus from travel when I spent the summer back in Chicago.

 

 

So if any of these photos seem like experiences you want to know more about please visit the new tab!

 

 

 

 

 

Or just visit http://blog.travelpod.com/members/leighhansen