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Friday, September 30, 2011

Mainely Food (Part 2)

Let's see, where were we?  Hiking up the South Bubble.

The Bubbles are 2 distinctive small mountains at the end of Jordan Pond in Acadia.  If you've seen a picture from Acadia, it's possible that it includes them:

The Bubbles (on left) as seen from the shores of Jordan Pond.
The Jordan Pond House houses a gift shop and restaurant where you can eat on the lawn looking at this incredible scene.  The food is very good--they're known for their lobster stew and popovers, but incredibly expensive.  We used to eat there for lunch after hiking in the morning, but it just got too pricey.  Now we pack our lunch or snacks, bring a blanket and sit on the grass to wind down from our hike.

The hike we were winding down from was the South Bubble (the one on the right above).  It was a beautiful day and the views were incredible.  South Bubble features "Balance Rock"--a boulder that, from the Loop Road below, looks like it's teetering on the edge of the mountain.  Obviously, it's not.  But as boys do, Jake wanted to see if he could move it. 
We brought our lunch up there and ate it looking down over Jordan Pond to the lawn of Jordan Pond House.  Doesn't get much more picturesque than that.
We took a lot of nice hikes through the woods, up and down mountains, by the ocean and lakeside.  All of them beautiful in their own way.  At low tide, we walked out over a sand bar in Bar Harbor to Bar Island (should have stopped at a bar afterward!).  We hiked the first trail MB & I ever did in Acadia back in '99.  And Jake spent much time frolicking in the 57 degree water on Sand Beach.  (Made my feet hurt just walking in it.)

But back to food...

When President Obama visited Bar Harbor with his family last summer, he got ice cream at Mount Desert Island Ice Cream.  And for good reason.  Gourmet magazine named MDI Ice Cream one of the top 25 ice cream places in the US earlier this year.  Being big fans of Owowcow Creamery, we had to check it out.

Like Owowcow, everything at MDI is made in small batches with fresh (sometimes local) ingredients.  As for flavors, creativity runs rampant.  Mary Beth got a cone of Mexican Chocolate and Jake, Nutella.  I couldn't decide and got a "flight" of 4 flavors.  I chose to go with the most interesting ones I could find (it was a tough choice): Chocolate Orange--deep dark chocolate with real orange flavor; Salt Caramel--really tasty and the saltiness was great when tasted with the Chocolate Orange; Blackstrap Banana--molasses and bananas together was very good; and, the one that grossed MB & Jake out, Blueberry/Blue Cheese/Fig/Walnut.  OK, it was very weird with a very prominent blue cheese flavor, but it was really good.  Not something I'd like all the time, but was worth the try.

Maine Crab Cakes

Actually, that ice cream was our lunch for the day because we were going to Cafe This Way for dinner!  As I've said before, this is one of our favorite restaurants anywhere.  The ultimate in casual fine dining, you can schlep in there with your hiking boots, t-shirt and shorts and sit down for a perfect meal.  Their food is always great--sauces perfectly balanced, seafood perfectly cooked.

Cashew-Crusted Halibut
Here's the run-down:  As an appetizer, I got Blackened Scallops with corn cream sauce, tomatillo salsa and tortilla strips.  Mmmm....  MB got Maine Crab Cakes.  Mmmm....  Linda got my favorite app there, The Littlebit, which is melted Asiago cheese, fresh bread, roasted garlic, roasted red peppers and olive tapenade.  I forget what Pete got. 

Lobster Rolls Three Ways
For dinner, I went with the Brazilian-Flavored Shrimp, Scallops and Mussels in a tomato-coconut sauce.  Incredible.  MB: Lobster Rolls Three Ways--traditional, Asian and Southwestern (the latter was her favorite).  Pete and Linda got the same: a huge piece of Cashew-Crusted Halibut with Cajun tartar sauce, garlicky spinach and mashed potatoes.  One of the great things about Cafe This Way is their kids' menu.  It's not Mac & Cheese, burger, hot dog, etc like most places.  They actually offer grilled chicken (which Jake got), pasta, shrimp, fish and more. 

We shouldn't have, but some of us got dessert.  I had Key Lime Cheesecake--very light and tasty.  Pete got their amazingly chocolaty Chocolate Mousse.  And Jake had a really great brownie as part of his dinner. 

If you are ever in Bar Harbor, go to Cafe This Way.  I mean it!

Next time, we'll finish up the trip with a beautiful hike, a newly found dinner spot in Bar Harbor and Breakfast at Grumpy's.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mainely Food

Well, it's back to reality here in PA now that we've returned from a week and a half in the great state of Maine.  It was supposed to have been a couple of days less, but as we started our trip home on Saturday, we noticed some smoke coming from under the hood of the car--bad radiator.  No one was open to fix it until Monday, so we were "stranded" in Bar Harbor for a couple of extra days. 

We didn't need the extra expense of the repair, a rental car and a motel stay, but if we were going to be stranded, better there than on some highway in the middle of Connecticut or something like that.  So we got some more good food, more time in Acadia and a long overnight drive home from 4PM on Monday to about 3AM on Tuesday.

But enough about that...here are some highlights (both food and otherwise).

We made our usual stop in Freeport to visit L.L. Bean and got some lunch at Johnny Rocket's Original Hamburgers.  It's a chain, but I must say that the burgers were delicious.  Juicy and a really good crust on the outside.  We were pleasantly surprised. 

The weather was nice--sunny and in the mid-60's as we drove north for a stay in Boothbay Harbor.  We found a nice kid-friendly B&B there a few years ago, the Bayside B&B, and have stayed there for the last few years as a stopover on our way.  Very nice people and good breakfasts. 

Tasty treats at The Lobster Dock.
Boothbay Harbor is also home to The Lobster Dock, a great waterfront seafood place where Bobby Flay had a crabcake throwdown with the owner a number of years ago and where last year, Jake learned that he loves fried Maine shrimp.  It was getting cooler, but we still ate by the water.  Jake had shrimp and MB and I shared a seafood platter.  Haddock, shrimp, scallops and clams fried to perfection, not greasy at all, tender--so good.  We usually get ice cream in Boothbay Harbor, but it was pretty cold after the sun went down (an overnight low of 36!), so we skipped it until another time.

We visited one of our favorite finds of the last few years, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.  I'm usually not really into that kind of thing, but I really love this place.  A must-see if you are ever in the area.  Beautifully landscaped and cared for--a children's garden based on kid's books (many from Maine authors), a Garden of the Five Senses, Rose Garden, Kitchen Garden, scenic walking paths, etc.  A really cool place.  (Yummy food in the cafeteria, too!)

What a goofball.  Wonder where he gets that.
After spending much of the day there, we headed to the cottage we rented in West Tremont--on the "Quiet Side" of Mount Desert Island, which houses Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.  MB's brother Pete and his girlfriend, Linda, joined us.  A nice comfortable house, literally just a stone's throw to the beach of Duck Cove--it gave Jake plenty of room to search for "treasures" on the beach.   

The back of the house faces West, so it's no wonder why the place is called Acadia Sunset.  This is the view from the back porch.

Ready for the table.
Of course, we were in Maine, so we couldn't go too long without eating lobster.  Very close to the cottage is a great lobster pound, Thurston's.  We've eaten on their dockside deck in the past, but this time, we bought live critters to cook at home.  They were something like $4.65/lb for medium soft-shelled lobsters.  You can't buy a fast food dinner for that! 

And they were delicious.  I steamed them with water from the cove--perfectly seasoning them.  Tender and sweet, dipped in butter and lemon.  There's not much better.  Jake was very proud that he ate his first whole lobster.  He did a good job, too!
Stop playing with your food!
Hungry yet?  Next time: working up an appetite hiking, some presidential ice cream and our favorite restaurant.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pump Up the Flavor! (Part 3)

Our final stop on the way to Flavortown (to steal Guy Fieri's line) is how to bring out more flavor through seasoning.
  • We all know that the reason we use salt is to bring out the flavor in any food.  But sometimes, whether you're trying to cut down on salt or just want to try something different, it's good to reach for something acidic to bring out the flavor.  Citrus or vinegar help to brighten flavors and combat bitter flavors.  As little as 1/8 of a teaspoon can make a difference.
  • Another great way to cut down on salt is to add fresh herbs.  By adding these flavorful ingredients, you won't even miss the salt.  Be sure to add them at the right time, though.  Hearty herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, etc, can be added early in the cooking process.  They'll release their flavors and get more tender during cooking.  More delicate herbs--parsley, basil, tarragon, etc--should be added at the last minute so their fresh and bright flavors aren't killed by the heat of cooking.
  • If you've seen Alton Brown on TV, you know that he pretty much always uses kosher salt.  I don't use it all the time, but to season meats, it's the way to go.  The larger pieces of kosher salt, can be spread out more evenly than table salt and, as they melt, the flavor is evenly distributed on the meat.
  • You can control the taste of the black pepper on a seared piece of meat by when you choose to add the pepper.  Add it before searing and you'll get a milder pepper flavor--the high heat tones down the flavor.  If you want a more strong pepper flavor, add it after searing.
  • Cold isn't usually good for flavor.  It can dull the flavors of food--so you have to season them more than foods that aren't chilled.  Probably the best way to do this is to season more on the lighter side before chilling and taste and re-season before serving.
  • Have you heard of umami?  It's commonly now known--along with sour, sweet, bitter and salty--as one of our "tastes".  Umami comes from the savory flavors of things like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and anchovies.  Adding a small amount of one of these kinds of ingredients boosts flavor in an amazing way.
  • Now and then, we mess up.  We put too much salt "to taste" or dump a little too much cayenne in our chili.  Don't fear.  There are ways to overcome these mishaps.  If your food is too salty, add acid or sweetener like vinegar, lemon or lime juice, tomatoes, sugar, honey or maple syrup.  If the food is too sweet, add an acid like vinegar or citrus juice or seasonings like fresh herbs or cayenne.  And if your food is too spicy or acidic, add a fat such as butter, cream, sour cream, cheese or olive oil; or a sweetener like sugar, honey or maple syrup.
So that's our little flavor tutorial.  I hope you found it helpful and put some of these tips to use in your own kitchen!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pump Up the Flavor! (Part 2)

So now you have flavorful food all ready to cook.  But there are lots of ways to add even more flavor during the cooking process.  Let's take a look at some of them.
  • Probably if I could break one habit in the kitchen, it would be to be more patient when preheating a pan.  When searing meat or sauteing, it's so important to have a very hot pan.  Don't grow impatient and add the food before the pan's up to temp.  Oh, it'll cook, but you won't get that great crust on meats or the flavorful browning on veggies.  Same with frying.  It's just as important to make sure your oil is up to temperature--maybe even more so.  Underheated oil leads to soggy and greasy food.
  • Browning equals flavor.  For quicker browning, add a little bit of sugar to meats or veggies.  You'll get a better browning without overcooking.
  • That brown stuff that sticks to the bottom of the pan is called "fond" (French for "base" or "foundation").  And it's all flavor.  Deglaze the hot pan with wine, broth or even water and scrape with a wooden spoon to loosen the brown bits.  This will be the base of flavor in a soup or sauce.
  • Next to the nuts in our freezer is a zip-top bag with rinds from Parmesan cheese that we've used.  Why do we keep them?  Same reason Italians have been saving them for ages--to throw a rind in a soup or stew for great flavor (it helps to thicken, too).  You can take it right out of the freezer and put it into the simmering pot. 
  • While we're talking about flavoring soups and stews...Take a head of garlic and rub the papery outer layer off, then cut about a half-inch off the top of the head.  Toss the whole thing in your pot for great flavor.  When the soup's done, you can either throw the garlic out or squeeze the now-soft cloves into a small bowl, mash them up and add to the soup--more flavor (and thickening).
  •  If you have a recipe that calls for removing meat from a pan and resting, you'll notice that some juices come out of the meat as it sits.  Flavor!  Always put those juices back in the pan if making a sauce.
  • If using nuts, it's worth it flavor-wise to take the few extra minutes to toast them.  Toasting brings out the flavorful oils and creates a deeper flavor.  This is easily done by putting the nuts in a dry pan and stirring or tossing until they are lightly brown and aromatic.  For larger amounts, it's easier to put them on a sheet pan and toast them in the oven.  However you do it, be sure to watch them carefully.  They go from toasted to burned very quickly.
  • Just as with nuts, toasting brings out the complexity and deepness of spices.  Either cook the spices for a couple minutes in some butter or oil before adding to the recipe.  Or add to aromatics (garlic, onion, etc) while they are sauteing.  You can even toast spices in a dry pan, like you do with nuts, if you wish.  (If you grind your own spices, this isn't as critical because freshly grinding the spices brings out those oils.)
Next up, bringing the flavor when you season your food.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pump Up the Flavor!

What's the most important thing about a meal?  Some might say the ingredients need to be fresh and local.  Others may say you first see a meal with your eyes, so the appearance of the plating is key.  Others still might say that nutrition is first and foremost.

In my mind--even though all these things are very important--the bottom line is flavor.  A beautiful plate of fresh, nutritious, local ingredients doesn't mean anything unless it tastes good, right?

So I thought I'd write a few posts with some tips about how to help the flavor of your foods be the best that they can be.  As usual, thanks go to my old standby, Cook's Illustrated magazine for some of these tips. 

I hope it helps!

Today, I'll be writing about things that you can do to improve the flavor of your food before you start cooking. 
  • Try not to chop or mince onions and garlic until closer to the time that you're going to use them.  The odor and flavor of both these aromatics intensify as time goes on.  If you're going to use raw onions (in a salad, for example), soaking them in cold water helps to tame the strong flavor.  Cook's suggests soaking in a solution of 1 tablespoon baking soda for every cup of water.  Be sure to rise before using.
  • Speaking of garlic, always remove any green sprouts from a garlic clove before chopping or mincing.  It doesn't mean you can't use the rest of the clove, but the bitterness of the green part can really ruin a dish.
  • Many recipes call for the removal of the seeds and that jelly-like stuff in the middle of a tomato.  Sometimes it's for good reason--usually to cut down on moisture in the dish.  But most of the flavor can be found in the guts of the tomato, so if can, use the whole thing.
  • When marinating meat, poke the meat all over with a fork.  This allows the marinade to penetrate deeper into the meat--and gives flavor to the whole thing. 
  • Marinating in a zip-top bag is a great way to marinate.  Squeezing out the air not only allows you to get the marinade more in contact with the food, but also gets the food flavored up in less time.  If a bag doesn't quite work for the food you're making, marinate in a baking dish covered with plastic wrap.  Either way, flipping the bag or turning the food halfway through the marinating time will help make sure the everything has been in contact with the flavor.
  • You've probably heard that fat equals flavor.  That's especially true with meats.  When making stew, it's OK to trim hard fat and other tissue from stew beef.  There's plenty of fat in the meat to keep it flavorful and moist.  Pork is a different story.  Since pork doesn't have the marbling that beef does, keep a thin layer of fat on the pork.  It will melt during cooking, adding flavor and moisture.
  • Other fats--such as butter, oils and nuts--add flavor as well.  But these also go bad fairly quickly.  Be sure to store them so that they stay as fresh as possible.  Store sticks of butter in a zip-top bag in the BACK of the fridge (the coldest part).  They'll stay fresh for about 2 1/2 weeks that way.  Any longer than that, keep in the freezer.  Vegetable oils should be stored a dark part of your pantry.  Nut and seed oils (like sesame, walnut, etc) should be refrigerated.  You can store nuts in the pantry if they'll be used in a month or so.  I store all my nuts in the freezer in zip-top bags.  They stay fresh longer and can be used pretty much right out of the freezer. 
Next, we'll talk about how to add flavor during the cooking process.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Head in the Sand

Quite a few years ago, MB took me out to dinner for my birthday.  We went to the now-closed Roosevelt's Blue Star in Doylestown.  I thought I'd go for something a little different and ordered the ostrich steak.  I don't remember exactly how it was prepared--it had some sort of sauce made with cherries or raspberries or something like that--but I do remember that it was very tasty.

If you've never had ostrich, you have to remind yourself that you're eating a bird.  It has the color and consistency of beef.  Of course, those who sell ostrich tout that the meat, like poultry, is very low in cholesterol and calories, but has the taste like red meat. 

According to a Wall Street Journal article about the one New York-based ostrich farm, Roaming Acres, the local food movement--as well as some people's growing food-adventurousness (is that a word?)--is making ostrich a more popular ingredient in both home and restaurant kitchens.

In addition to the meat, ostrich eggs are growing in popularity.  These huge eggs--the equivalent to about 24 chicken eggs--are best prepared scrambled.  And best fed to a crowd.  They cost about $20 each and weigh about 4 pounds.

Interestingly, the farmer in the article tells how ostriches can be very temperamental when it comes to laying eggs.  They simply won't lay them unless there's plenty of sunshine.  And with the rainy spring, the normal laying time that usually begins in late March or early April, didn't start until about Memorial Day. 

The reluctance of these egg-layers cost the farm about $150,000, according to the article.  But things got back on track over the summer (until the last few weeks, I assume). 

So next time you're out and see ostrich on the menu (perhaps at the Spinnerstown Hotel), give it a try!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Miss Me?

Hi everyone.  No, I didn't skip the country or get thrown in prison.  Almost as bad, though...my computer died.

Turns out some little stinkin' plastic part inside the computer broke and, since it was holding down some sort of heat shield, the thing overheated and the mother board blew.  Or at least that's what I understand happened. 

So now we've gotten a new computer and I've been trying to get everything back to normal (thanks to my cousin, Nessa, it's been pretty easy--for me, at least).  Still have to figure out why the printer's not working.

As someone said, the only thing worse than a computer is no computer.

So trying to get all that squared away, catching up on things, cooking and getting ready to head to Maine, there's been a little lull in blog entries.  Don't be so distraught!  I'll get a new entry out soon.  Until then, pray for my printer.