corntomatoes-collage

Sooner than later the two most revered crops of summer—corn and tomatoes—will disappear from our farmers’ markets.  Replacement vegetables such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, squash and roots will be bright and colorful on their farm-table displays until we have a few hard frosts that make the growing fields strain under the chill of seasonal change. But corn and tomatoes will be sorely missed.

Merrifield's $1 per pound tomatoes

Merrifield’s $1 per pound tomatoes

Still these two stellar crops have been showing up as great specimens from the growing fields.  Ears of corn started out small and slim earlier in the season because of the drought but eventually became sweet and delectable.  My favorite growers included Harris Farm’s ultra-sweet corn available in southern markets such as Saco Farmers Market and at their farm store in Dayton.  The various varieties that are grown at Beth’s Farm Market in Warren are some of the best and sweetest.  And more locally Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth put on a good show with their large, sweet stalks stacked on the table at their farm store in Cape Elizabeth.

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potatoes-2

Recently I discovered a super-duper potato variety at the Portland Farmers’ Market. They’re sold by John Carter who owns the Middle Intervale Farm in Bethel.  I occasionally buy other items from him such as his pastured beef and especially his corn, because he grows the rare all-yellow variety that I prefer. Few farmers grow this old-fashioned corn anymore.

Several weeks ago I noticed these large, gnarly potatoes at Middle Intervale’s stand.  Carter saw me eyeing them and said, “These are the ones that Central Provisions buys.” Now that’s an endorsement you can’t ignore–certainly from one of the best restaurants in Portland.

Middle Intervale's yellow-fleshed potatoes: used in (L to R) alongside pot roast; mashed with pan-seared pork chops and roast chicken

Middle Intervale’s yellow-fleshed potatoes: used  (L to R) alongside pot roast; mashed with pan-seared pork chops and roasted on a bed of potatoes, onions, fennel and carrots

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multi-empire-chinese-room

After all of its preparatory time you’d think that the new iteration of El Rayo, which opened on Free Street earlier this week, would have managed to include dinner service in its debut.  Instead, for now, it’s breakfast and lunch only, as though we all want a burrito to start our day.  I have an open mind about the new restaurant (it looks great inside), but I never considered it much of a contender in the  Mexican cuisine category beyond the  Americanization of its menu serving ersatz south-of-the border grub.

For now, then, I’m offering a multi-review of Portland eateries since there’s nothing that compelling to write about in the new and novel category. In fact, I had an interesting mix of dishes all week, including breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Moody's Indian pudding

Moody’s Indian pudding

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Arrange the beef on a platter with potatoes and carrots

Forget about cheffy burgers, artisanal farm-to-table pork buns or the progression of locally sourced, pastured and sustainably raised datum of dishes one must eat for culinary correctness and instead plunge your fork into the classic pot roast.

It’s so old-fashioned—but never out of style–it may rank as the perfect helping of comfort food. And the thing is it’s so easy to make at home as an especially good Sunday supper.  All you need is some time for low and slow oven roasting in a covered pot.

A Dutch oven is the cooking receptacle of choice, and the best are those enameled cast-iron pots made by Le Creuset.

A chuck roast is braised in a Dutch oven with onions and surrounding vegetables of potatoes and carrots

A chuck roast is braised in a Dutch oven with onions and surrounding vegetables of potatoes and carrots

Traditionally the two best cuts for pot roast are the chuck roast or brisket.  Other cuts such as shoulder, rump and top round don’t have the same marbling as the very fatty cuts of chuck.

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The perfect tuna melt  offered at the Palace Diner

Biddeford’s Palace Diner has in two short years become the holy grail for diner geeks out for hash, home fries, stack cakes, etcetera, of the highest order. Call it the quest for the ultimate diner-car cuisine– pretty basic food elevated to something culinary and worthwhile.  Consider their classic cheeseburger, which I ordered the other day on my first time back to the place in nearly two years.  It was one of the best I’ve had in recent memory.  It was slathered with mayonnaise, mustard, housemade pickles, shredded lettuce and a draping of perfectly melted Cheddar cloaking the beef patty –not the thickest in the world— but it had great char and flavor from good-quality beef.  Even the roll stood up to all this burger frippery.

The vintage, classic Palace Diner

The vintage, classic Palace Diner

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victuals-pork-chops

Kentucky cookbook author and food writer Ronni Lundy is one of my favorite chroniclers of American regional cookery as found in two of her books, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken: The Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens and Butter Beans to Blackberries: Recipes from the Southern Garden.  But right now I already have a few stained pages as I’ve begun to cook through her newest book, Victuals.  This tome focuses on the cooking of the Mountain South and Appalachia.

The recipes lovingly extol exquisite country cooking.  Dishes such as old-school tomato gravy (spiked with sorghum) served over salmon cakes (made with canned salmon) was delicious simplicity.  Another dish I prepared was slow-cooked pork shoulder on the bone.  I bought local pork from Sumner Valley Farm, which, incidentally, has the best price at $7 per pound.   It was cooked in a crockpot, a utensil I rarely use since I favor a traditional Dutch oven for cooking low and slow in the oven.

The pork is seasoned with salt and pepper, browned all over and put into the slow cooker with sliced onions and sorghum and deglazed (with water and cider vinegar) pan juices.  It’s supposed to cook for 4 hours until fork tender, though I thought that wasn’t enough time and I kept it on low for an additional 90 minutes.

More recently I tried Lundy’s recipe called Delicious Pork Chops.  I was wondering what would make these chops different from others since all it called for was salt and lemon pepper for seasoning and to be browned in a shmear of bacon fat in a cast-iron skillet.

victuals-book

I seasoned the chops early in the day and let them rest in the refrigerator as a kind of dry rub brine.  I don’t keep bacon grease on hand but I think I’m going to start doing that, using it in moderation (for health reasons) when necessary because it adds so much flavor to whatever you’re cooking. I rendered some bacon fat, however.

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Reuben style sandwich on homemade sour-dough bread

Milk and Honey is such an apt name for the café that Swallowtail Farm and Creamery opened in their space at 84 Cove St. in Easy Bayside.  The building and space is also where the winter farmer’s market takes place when it resumes later this fall. The neighborhood, in fact, is growing slowly beyond its gritty industrial past.  Tandem Coffee is up the block; distilleries are around the corner on Anderson Street; Youngs Furniture has opened an outpost nearby selling hipster furniture, ditching the Baby Boomer drab of yore and opening soon is 87 Anderson St., the rental building built by Redfern Properties who is quickly becoming the pied piper to house Portland’s growing roster of hipster millennials.

Milk and Honey Cafe

Milk and Honey Cafe

Shoppers who are there for the farmer’s market will walk through the café’s space before entering the rear and side rooms where vendors will set up shop.  But for now and throughout the year it’s the farm café that is so intriguing, an enterprise that epitomizes the delights of locally sourced home-style farm cooking.

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Hug's meatballs in red sauce

I suspect that Hug’s has a loyal, local following who like the comfy atmosphere of the dining room and the nicely prepared old-school Italian-American fare. That the decorous touches are a  tad kitschy with scenes in Italian murals depicting canals and byways, as such, it’s certainly the only restaurant of the genre in Falmouth.

Our little group of 5 wound up there by default on a recent Sunday night.  We were all in the mood for a cheesy Parm and pasta dinner with a comfort-food drenching of Sunday sauce.

A salad of crisp greens (not local) served family style

A salad of crisp greens (not local) served family style

Our first choice was Bruno’s, which is still the best of the lot for this kind of home-style cooking.  But, alas, they’re closed on Sundays.  Espo’s or Casa Novello were not options since no one wanted to go to either.  Anjon’s in Scarborough  was briefly considered but nixed for being too far.  And Rose’s along Route 302 in Windham, which I’ve been to and liked, was a distant choice, too.

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peach cobbler3

Continuing with the fruit cobblers of summer, the one I offer here is an old style one, often called crunchy fruit cobbler.  The method is perfect to use for peaches or apples.  It’s’ not really crunchy but the method includes strips of pastry dough over and under the fruit filling.  This creates a thickish texture, the buttery dough adding character to the filling, naturally thickened.

Glorious peaches are available at certain farmers markets

Glorious peaches are available at certain farmers markets

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fried chicken

New England style fried chicken?  Anyone who’s traveled in the deep south knows that chicken shacks, BBQ joints, home-style diners and cafeterias are renowned for their fried chicken, barbecue and other down-home southern staples.  Then there’s true southern biscuits made with soft-wheat flour.  These accompany this legendary grub as thickly as macaroni and cheese.  But pluck it all out of its home turf to the far reaches of New England mightn’t it get lost in translation?

That didn’t stop the indefatigable Jason Loring (Nosh, Rhum, Slab) from opening Big J’s Chicken Shack, the little storefront that’s located at Thompson’s Point squeezed into a retail space between all the distillers who’ve opened shop there. And let me tell you the chicken is slap yo mama good.

The promenade of shops at Thompson's Point

The promenade of shops at Thompson’s Point

Thompson’s Point is still a dusty enclave on the scrappy banks of the Fore River.  But the main building that holds the thriving distilleries and wine rooms are drawing big crowds.  At my visit, daytime mid-week, they were cramming into BJ’s.

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