“Maine…the Way Life Should be,” reads the sign as you drive into the state, and so it was in late September when we traveled there.
“The way life should be” includes the largest number of small farms of any state, and their contribution to vibrant farmers’ markets, country stores, and local eateries is easily apparent. Drew ate “the best pastrami sandwich ever” made with locally raised and cured meat and bread baked in a wood-fired oven from Maine-grown wheat at a tiny store on our way to nowhere. Maine also is the home of the renowned Common Ground Fair, held on fields owned by MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners) outside the town of Unity. The fair is overflowing with beautiful produce, cheeses and preserves, wool and yarn, crafts, Maine-grown food vendors, bread and pizza bakers, sheep and sheepdogs, oxen and draft horses, goats and llamas, and whole tent full of above-average chickens. As one native Mainer told me, “You can find a lot of organic people there.”
I couldn’t help myself. I bought gorgeous red and yellow sweet peppers, shiny eggplants, voluptuous red and yellow onions, and fresh-from-the-ground potatoes. And lots of garlic. From more than a dozen varieties, I chose “Georgian Crystal” (rich slightly smoky flavor), “Music”(“very big, hot”), “Rosewood”(soft colors on large, fat cloves), “Bogatyr”(marbled purple stripe…on the hot side), and Hampshire Porcelain”(good strong flavor, long storing). If you want to order some garlic, email her at email@example.com.
Our friend Kenneth was our guide at the fair, and while I was ogling vegetables he attended a presentation on super-efficient woodstoves. When we reunited, I had bags of produce, and he had a newly purchased copy of “Cooking With Fire” by Paula Marcoux. Such serendipity! We headed back to the Pemaquid peninsula– a rocky spine of land sliding into the Atlantic Ocean, where Kenneth lives with his wife Angela and their son Conrad. They live in a clearing in the woods just big enough for their small hand-made house, a tiny garden, and an awesome fire pit made from an old cast iron cauldron.
For our first night of cooking with fire, Angela fried potatoes in a pan over the hot coals, we roasted hotdogs and sausages using green sticks whittled sharp by Conrad, and toasted buns on the grate. Then we slathered on kimchi, sauerkraut, and balsamic-onion jam from the Common Ground Fair. The feast was well seasoned with wood smoke and friendship.
Balsamic-Sweet Onion Marmalade
Inspired by a recipe for Balsamic-Cipollini Jam by True North Farms in Maine, this marmalade has a sweet-tart flavor and is great with anything cooked on a grill, in sandwiches or omelettes, or with cheese and crackers. Or, just eat it by the spoonful.
Ingredients: 2 large sweet onions (almost 2 #), 1 1/2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary, 2 tsp chopped fresh sage, pinch red chile flakes, 1/2 tsp sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, 2 Tbs raw sugar, 6 Tbs balsamic vinegar
Cut the onions in quarters and slice them as thinly as possible. Warm the oil in a 10-inch skillet or sauté pan over medium heat and stir in the chopped herbs and chile (optional). Add the onions and sprinkle lightly with sea salt and black pepper. Toss well and reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally, 15 to 20 minutes. When the onions are quite soft and beginning to color, add the sugar. Continue to cook another 15 to 20 minutes, stirring often, until the onions are golden brown and caramelized. Stir in the vinegar and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the onions are soft and jammy.
Ember-Roasted Onions — with thanks to Richard Miscovich and his tips for cooking with fire.
You can make this delicious jam with ember-roasted onions, if you are so lucky to have them. They are easily made in a woodstove. Let your fire burn down to coals covered with gray ash, then arrange the coals in an even layer. Place unpeeled, whole medium-size onions on top of the coals. Turn the onions over several times as they roast, and adjust their positions in the coals so that they cook to the center without incinerating the outside. They are done when easily pierced with a kebab skewer.
Make the jam: Allow the onions to cool in their skins. Peel off the skins, saving all the juice and any bits of charred skin that may be stuck. Chop the roasted onion and put them and their juices into a saucepan with the other ingredients for the jam. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is the consistency of marmalade.
Ember-roasted onions are a great addition to salsas, Harissa, or Romesco sauce.
Pine Needle Mussels
The next night we decided to get more adventurous and try a recipe from Paula Marcoux—Pine Needle Mussels. This required an excursion to Pemaquid Point at low tide, where the ancient rocks cradle tide pools that are home to colonies of mussels hiding in the seaweed. We scrambled down the ledges and fissures—the legacy of a long-ago time when the North American and European continents were torn apart and the rocks were up-ended in their struggle to stay with Maine. We eased our way along the slippery edges and reached into the cold water to pry the mussels from the rocks. They hold on tightly against the pounding of the Atlantic waves, but we managed to fill a bucket and headed for home.
The next ingredient (actually, the only other ingredient) is a bushel of dry pine needles. Drew and Kenneth headed into the woods to procure them while Angela and I lit a fire and tossed the Common Ground Fair vegetables in olive oil to make a roasted ratatouille over the coals.
The instructions for Pine Needle Mussels are to prepare a fire pit or cooking surface—a 3×3-foot board or large flat rock for the cooking surface (we used the cauldron). Place a potato with a slice cut off the end so that it stands up in the center of the cooking surface. Arrange the scrubbed mussels, pointy end up, so that they lean against the potato in concentric circles—a mussel mandala.
Cover the assembled mussels evenly with pine needles, as deeply as possible. Put a glowing coal or lit match in the center of the pile, on top of the potato, to light the fire. Stand back and let the fire burn; when it dies down, the mussels are ready!
That’s the theory, anyway. Our pine needles were wet from recent torrential rains, and refused to burn. After much smoldering, we piled dry twigs on top of the needles and succeeded in making a hot fire. Voila! The pine-scented, smoky mussels were the most delicious seafood we had ever tasted…even with bits of charred pine needle and assorted sea grit clinging to the shells.
After we had devoured the mussels, we ate ratatouille and bruschetta with spinach pesto. I think Conrad had a few more hot dogs.
Ingredients: 4 plump garlic cloves, 1 cup Italian parsley, 1 cup spinach or sorrel leaves, 2 Tbs fresh dill, 2 Tbs fresh chives, 1 Tbs fresh mint leaves, 2 tsp lemon zest, 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, 4 Tbs walnut oil, 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Using a food processor, pulse the ingredients in stages to make a puree. Process the garlic and herbs, then zest and walnuts, then oils, and finally the Parmesan to make a rough paste.