Mains

No dish typifies New England cooking better than baked haddock fillets topped with a white sauce and buttered crumbs.  The flavors are so inimitable and pure.  I like haddock best for this dish but cusk or pollock, though not as flaky, are fine alternatives.  What’s more, these fish, from local waters,  are so economical, running anywhere from $3.99 to 6.99 per pound. In New York at specialty fishmonger, Citarella, they’re priced at $15.99 per pound, termed  “wild caught” in New England waters (most likely Maine).

Season the haddock fillets on both sides before topping with sauce to bake

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On the bone –or not–is a choice to make when you buy any of the big cuts of beef, lamb or pork. Generally, I prefer roasts that are on the bone.  They have more flavor and produce richer juices than their de-boned counterparts. The recipe I offer here is for a beef chuck roast on the bone.

Certainly, there are those who, for example, prefer a standing rib roast on the bone (without it how can it stand?).  Conversely, the boneless cut is easier to carve, cooks in less time and is just neater.  If the flavor difference is not crucial, boneless is a doable alternative.

Chuck roast on the bone

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If there is one essential pair of late-spring early-summer vegetables to pair now it’s new potatoes and summer shelling peas.  I haven’t seen this duo in Portland’s farmers’ markets yet, but I encountered them at Beth’s Farm Market in Warren, the midcoast farm-store behemoth that always seems to be the first with the gems of summer produce.

Beth’s market in Warren–early strawberries, shell peas and new potatoes are plentiful now

At a recent trip there, the peas were just out, still somewhat small but bulging pods with sweet green peas.  Nearby were the basket of new red potatoes and those precious baby carrots that are just being pulled from the ground.

Baby carrots, peas and new potatoes

At the Portland Farmers’ Market today, English peas from Goranson Farm

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As a child at the family table, rice was anathema to my foodpreferences.  Yet my mother served it often as the side dish to a main course.  That box of Uncle Ben’s held a prominent place in the cupboard.  But the best I could do was grit my teeth and roll it around my fork soaking up its starchy blandness.  In fact, the only way I would eat it was with a good pour of maple syrup over it, presaging my sweet-tooth proclivities.

Rice grits (photos courtesy of Anson Mills)

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At the  fabled Bisson’s butcher shop on Meadow Road in Topsham, where the beef or dairy you  buy there comes from the cows grazing across the road, the least likely treat from their freezer case is Bisson’s  salmon pie. It’s an old family recipe that’s highly regarded by regulars and staff.   As with the other pies that the shop makes–beef and chicken–salmon seems an unlikely choice where meat otherwise reigns.

Bisson’s salmon pie

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All those holiday roasts that we painstakingly prepare and from which we covet each luscious bite sometimes seem destined to be the prize at the end of the road: the leftovers.

The Christmas menu was roast prime rib, thrice baked potatoes and carrot souffle

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Franks and beans are as much of a tradition in New England as attending the Magic of Christmas celebration at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium. I’ve only gone once to that wonderful extravaganza, but baked beans have a much larger meaning for me.  For one I’ve not been a great baked-beans cook.  I usually add too much liquid and over- or under-cook the beans—basically it’s not my culinary métier.  Though I’ve found that the recipe on the back of the State of Maine beans package sold in local supermarkets is a classic, standard recipe that works well.    But this go round last Saturday night, I used a recipe that was one of those wonderful hand-me-down formulas–often the hallmark of great home cooking.  I found it in Linda Greenlaw’s wonderful book, Cooking on a Very Small Island–chockful of regional recipes that are so good.

Baked Bean Supper

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Perhaps the enjoyment of comfort food—seeking out solace with knife, fork and spoon—is more warranted than ever.  We have the growing morass of Washington politics within The New Disarray as pathological as urinary incontinence as some Americans grapple with the likes of  the threats to put an end to climate control policies, the EPA agency and the standards it protects, cannulating immigrants to what amounts to exile  and even the department of Education is under the gun as the new leader-to-be of the free world takes an ax to all that we’ve been used to for decades in the name of shaking up the establishment like a deadly virus. Or was it all a fatal scam to get elected?

That’s why I may turn to my favorite palliatives–butter, cream, sugar, flour, beef, poultry, anything sweet, pastry–loading up on carbs and the like, at least for a while as classic comfort food fills my fantasies.  I’m even renewing my penchant for Dunkin Donuts.

The basic beef pot roast

The basic beef pot roast

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I don’t know how I developed my passion for the cooking of the south.  In fact I haven’t traveled to the south much at all.  I went to Savannah once and recall a wonderful meal at The Olde Pink House.  I’ve been to Williamsburg and dined at the Williamsburg Inn that evokes the old south with black waiters in livery.  I’ve been to Atlanta and Florida but didn’t seek out regional cooking. I wish I had also spent more time in Charleston, South Carolina where it has the biggest concentration of southern chefs doing great things.  I subscribe to the southern lifestyle magazine Garden and Gun and import soft wheat southern flour milled in small granaries in the South.  What more can I do from my perch up north?

Clockwise: fried chicken at the old Caiola's; a generic portrayal of fried chicken ; fried chicken at BJ's

Clockwise: fried chicken at the old Caiola’s; a generic portrayal of fried chicken ; fried chicken at BJ’s

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Based on the French classic gratin dauphinois, creamed–aka scalloped–potatoes are a classic dish to serve alongside roasts of any stripe. My favorite is with lamb.  The French method is basically to cook the potatoes in milk and/or cream and layered into a buttered gratin dish that’s rubbed with a cut clove of garlic.  The potatoes and most of the milk mixture are spooned into the gratin with a generous amount of salt, pepper and a trace of nutmeg.  It’s then coated with  Gruyere or Emmenthaler and baked until the potatoes are soft and the top has browned nicely. For this method I cut the potatoes 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick.

Scalloped potatoes

Scalloped potatoes

The American version is simply scalloped potatoes.  Here they’re sliced fairly thin and layered into an enameled cast-iron gratin dish or better yet into a cast-iron pan—or any other vehicle that can be put on the stove top before baking.  When the dish is done it tastes as if it’s loaded with cheese but it’s not.   The milk and cream absorb the starch from the potatoes and the whole thickens up beautifully.  The potatoes should be cut fairly thin, though not paper thin as a mandolin would cut.  I use the food processor slicing blade, preferably one that can be adjusted to cut the potatoes somewhat thinner than the standard slicing blade, or a bit less than 1/4-inch thick.

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