In the north country, spring foraging is one of life’s little pleasures.
The earliest greens that can be enjoyed come right out of the meadows, like early dandelion greens or from along Maine’s riverbanks. Now, per riverbanks,I’m talking about fiddleheads. Just after the dandelions go to bloom come fiddlehead ferns. Fiddleheads are the tightly furled shoot of the ostrich fern, reminiscent of the scroll on an instrument, are usually just right to harvest around Mother’s Day. At my restaurant, the Pine Cone Cafe, it was the most requested Mother’s Day treat and we always had it on our brunch menu in May as a rich quiche.
It’s important to be certain of a few things: One, make sure you have the right fern. The wrong one can make you sick. Two, be sure your harvest comes from a very clean area, waterside. There is no sense in eating wild food if it’s not from a clean area. Three, never take it all. We want to replenish the wild areas as the plants presence there serves many purposes, not just ours. Don’t trespass. Don’t eat this fern raw. All that said, fiddleheads have long been a part of a Maine spring and are good in stir fries, quiches, pickled, and so on.
This is a little story about when I was six. My mother was a PA farm girl, studying for her nursing degree in Philadelphia, my Dad a city boy from Philly. He was recently out of the Army and at Temple University on the GI bill. When their worlds collided, they married. Back then there was a huge push towards something new, Suburbia!
My father bought into a brand new development called Cherry Hill, a sweet little house on a decent sized lot with lots of unspoiled woods and meadow around back. Formerly, and remnants still remain, it was rich farmland and horse country. The Garden State, right? We lived there until I graduated high school.
My early days were spent helping my Mother and Grandmother hang out laundry, iron dad’s white shirts, make mud pies and top them with flowers. I should have had an inkling then that food would be my passion.
When Granddad visited with Grandma the focus changed to foraging over housekeeping or making pies. “Hunting” for dandelions was what he called it. One fine spring day, much like this day in May, with Mother’s permission we set out the back door, down the hill to the creek, forged it and up the hill we went into a meadow. I remember it well, although it wasn’t long for this world, as it was earmarked to become a row of upscale track housing. Sadly, it was the last time I recall my grandfather too, as he got sick and passed away fairly soon after.
But then he was hale, handsome and hearty and hell bent on a sack of greens to bring home for my Grandmother, Laura’s hot dandelion greens with bacon. And at that time, the meadow, ringed with old growth trees, was awash in daisies in bud and loads of dandelions before their flowers showed.
Grandpa George showed me how to identify the greens. With his sharp jack knife, he’d pop them out of the ground by the root, also being good to eat, clean them in the field so as not to bring dirt into the kitchen… and Grandma did the rest. I remember those greens done up Pennsylvania Dutch style, cooked until bright green, then dressed with a sharp hot bacon vinaigrette. Grandma called them a Spring tonic.
It was an acquired taste but we loved everything about cooking something we’d “hunted” for… and we still do.
Imagine yourself in Paris on an early spring day, it’s drizzling and the streets are slick with a warm rain…the kind of rain that gentles spring flowers to pop into view. The trees are just greening, small leaves unfurling. You’re on the street, looking at maps with a few student/friends. You’re all seeking a culinary adventure. It’s mid-day and everyone’s hungry.
I was a culinary student at La Varenne in the early 1990’s, one of just a few women in the class. The women in training together became fiercely close as a way of combatting the overwhelmingly male atmosphere. We were hell bent on our success and on wringing the most out of our time in an eternal city. Especially in the realm of culinary experience.
Imagine that one of you has “heard of a place” …it’s been so many years that I now can’t recall the name of it. We strike out to find it. We arrive, the restaurant is gilded in a Belle Epoque way, yet seems acessable and full of diners. There are cute older couples intent on their meals and each other. Fancy ladies with their little dogs….formidable looking waiters who have made a career of this. We’re seated, it’s a miracle. Whoa, looks like we’re going to spend some money but it’s going to be memorable.
We ordered Cremant and a seafood tower, way before they were hip. One friend had a Salad Riche with foil gras and spring greens, heaven on a plate! Another, a lamb stew with spring onions, while a potted canard was another excellent choice. I had Lapin, or the rabbit, presented stewed in the style of a recipe I’ve shared, (See Seasonal Recipes – Lapin a la Moutarde) with turned vegetables (French kitchen “busy work”), young carrots and green chives. A perfect blend of warming and spring thinking.
Ah, April in Paris… a student then, and really, still a student of life.
Many people in my midcoast town don ’t realize that many of their forebearers were of Finnish decent. There is a road in town called Finntown Road, so it seems pretty clear to me! Then consider the legacy of Wyeth paintings with interesting Finnish models, which are known and treasured worldwide!
It was pointed out to me by an elderly but still vibrant Finnish gentleman that, if you know what you’re looking for, you can see many old and sometimes repurposed saunas on farmsteads up and down Finntown Road. Thinking back, some of my first Waldoboro memories are of being offered Pulla, a Finnish egg and cardamon rich braided Christmas bread by my restaurant baker, who was born here.
In the past several years I have gotten to be friends with a wonderful Finnish couple, Leo and Erja. Leo was born in NYC and Erja was born in Finland. But they live and love life as if in the old country. Traditional cooking, building, decor language and lifestyle all inherent in the way they live life. Daily winter sauna, dips in an icy hole in the lake afterwards, fish for breakfast and love of a hearty lifestyle,camping and wood heat. Their home is bright, clean and simple. Also build by Leo, as is their camp and sauna, road….you name it!
Hearty Finnish Breakfast Fare
If you’re fortunate enough to have Finnish friends, you’ll experience real hospitality. And good, clean fun! To take a Finnish style sauna, you begin in the morning, after a hearty breakfast of soft cooked duck eggs, sautéed greens and smoked salmon…. and build a wood fire, which must be looked after all day. When you’ve brought plenty off water to the sauna and all your bathing/scrubbing accouterments, you strip down and relax. When the heat and scrubbing become too much,the icy lake beckons. Erja once achieved her 15 minutes of fame in Yankee magazine, photographed smiling while sitting on the side of a hole in the ice, legs dangling into the frigid water. There’s nothing like it for a good night’s sleep.
Researching the Finnish food faves, I realized that their native Bilberry is very similar to Maine’s wild blueberry and is used interchangeably. Blue through and through unlike our Blueberry, the Bilberry has double the antioxidants. It’s wonderful for eyesight, they say. Also similar to Maine’s woods culture is their Reindeer stew, called Karelian Stew, similar to Leo’s favorite venison stew which Erja makes so well and is popular in Maine with anyone who hunts. Leo is well into his 90’s and presents as a 70 year old man.
Happy, healthy, traditional. It’s a great way to go!
China is a place I’d always wanted to go. I am glad I visited, but would I want to return? Likely not, due in part to the level of pulmonary distress I experienced by the end of a month of travel there. And this was almost ten years ago. In places the coal soot covered everything and the day never really dawned. Not the best atmosphere to practice deep breathing and Qi Gong, which was part of my reason for being there.
I feel that I had the rare opportunity to view perhaps the last of the real remaining China, which required an entire two days train ride into the interior. Let me tell you, you don’t know “nasty” until you finally have to pee on a Chinese train, 17 hours in….
Traveling in the Chinese countryside was a gift and a conundrum at every turn. For instance, finally making it to the Great Wall at Badaling in the Yanqing District….and finding a brand new Starbucks right there. Then the further humiliation of making a beeline to it for a double Cappuccino because we were oh so tired of green tea. Finding out your Chinese Chi Gong master was a former Communist general and liked plum wine just a little too much! Or driving to see a Beijing Hutong district just as it was being torn down to make way for progress. The classic Peking duck dinner that followed, however, did not disappoint. Served on the traditional lazy Susan round table, it was everything I’d hoped it would be, with a million condiments and super crispy duck skin.
Sunday morning Dim Sum? Amazing. Chrysanthemums blooming in your teapot, of course! Seeing an enormous snake sunning on a rock way up in the mountains? I’ll never forget it’s majesty understanding what a rarity this was. Being in a truly remote place to forest bathe and meditate, by a waterfall? Picture perfect, unforgettable. How can I forget our stay at a Communist “Luxury” Hotel with a very funny buffet. The food in its chafing dishes had labels like, FRIES THE BEAN GREEN right next to the CHICKEN STOMACHS and STINKY TOFU.
Then there was the pearl market, where I got conned into believing river pearls were deep sea pearls (Oh, you have such good taste Mrs. Cabot!) and the apothecaries that were truly varied and impressive. Ditto the spice markets. We took tea and had lessons in tea ceremony with Monks. Viewed ancient prayer trees covered in red ribbons and tree peonies the likes which I’d never imagined. We climbed a million steps to temples in the sky. And unforgettably were allowed access to a very rare, ancient monastery where I sat in meditation. No Westerner had ever been there. I made an offering, asked for illumination and heard all the sorrows of the world. This was an experience so moving, so real and so unexpected that I sat cross-legged in that cave in silence and cried for a long, long time. I emerged a wiser and more compassionate person. China was good to me.
I had a rare opportunity to travel with a group of plant enthusiasts, botanists and herbalists about ten years ago. The destination was the Chilean Patagonia and our group was an active one. We trekked and foraged in the wilderness, sat in divine hot springs, forged fiords, fished and caught enormous brown trout, learning how to cook them in a pit fire the ground…and hugged ancient Alerces.
Alerces, or Fitzroya cupressoides, are a member of the Cypress family, and are phenomenally long lived and splendorous conifer trees, native to Chile. They grow in the cool rainforests, just west of the Andes mountains. On this tour, we expected to experience the oldest trees on the planet, one over 2600 years old. We were not disappointed.
We visited scientific research stations and compared types of tropical flowers seen on hikes. I was surprised by some of the advanced and modern facilities we came upon in the relative wilderness.
After a particularly grueling spell of “roughing it” about mid-adventure, we closed in on our accommodations for the next few days, an Eco Village that we knew nothing about. The tiny houses we stayed in and, in fact, the entire village was self sustaining and off the grid. The first thing this weary traveller noticed was that the coffee there was phenomenal. It was beyond the real deal, rare in the countryside of Chile, as was all the food we were served, complete with high end and delightful garnishes.
I’d noticed a fine looking potager style garden on our way into the great room where we dined.Clearly all the vegetables we were served came right from this source. Furthermore, I came to learn that the owner of this place and hundreds of thousands of acres in conservation surrounding us were owned by a man named Douglas Tompkins, owner of Patagonia and Esprit clothing brands. AND one of his best friends was ( my hero) Alice Waters. It was she who was responsible for the direction required to create and maintain the garden and train staff on her cooking techniques.
This was a place of hope, respite and renewal. And completely unexpected in the wilds of Chile.
I remember being enamored, at the age of 20, of the epic road trip…from the very top of Maine to the southernmost point of Key West. This is what I had in the crosshairs.
When you’re 20, you can find a carful of crazy friends eager to do the same. They were game, and so we decided to go. It was on!
Our adventure chariot It was one of those American land yachts, circa 1975, that seat five very comfortably. Six if need be. We took off from Central Maine, and wound our way down Atlantic Rt. 1, all the way to the Florida Keys, stopping to marvel at the warm weather in Georgia, then pressing on to Key Largo where a crash pad and a meal awaited.
Waking up to palm trees, Cuban coffee and warm Jasmine scented breezes possibly changed my life.
The warm, shallow aqua blue shoals, mangrove wilds and fish life charmed and amazed me. I was basically a suburban kid from New Jersey, newly established in Maine (the Appalachian Trail being the initial draw to Maine) and although I had tasted the Caribbean, this place was exotic. Sadly, when you’re young and footloose, there never seems to be any money to enjoy the finer things. Honestly, looking good in a bikini probably outweighed any drawbacks, we had the kind of fun that money can’t buy.
After a few days, onward we went to the promised land…Key West. Duval Street and its debauchery and tea parties, that’s where I learned to drink, a White Russian, a drink I could order with confidence. Kinda girly, but I am not even sure I was “of age” at that point, still much to learn.
But the shrimp, those perfect pink shrimp native to the Keys are what hooked me. Those and the Cafe Con Leche, making mornings right, the raucous bars, high rollers with cash to burn, the beautiful waters that washed it all away the following day. I decide to stay. Doug, Lorna and I were able to get an apartment, right on the edge of a huge open field bordering the Navy Base. We had a huge tree in that field that saw many gatherings. We were situated on the edge of the Cuban section. I made daily forays there for “bolos”, black eyed pea fritters, shaped into little balls. Those slightly greasy white bags held 20 minutes of bliss. I’ve never been able to replicate them, although I’ve tried. Unforgettable. Ditto the conch fritters and Key Lime pie.
Mind you, this was way before I became a chef. I guess I’ve always had a fascination with food and culture. This place was rich indeed.
I returned every winter for the longest time, enjoying the counterculture, the music, dancing and fantastic waters of the Florida Keys.
I agreed to meet some of the ol’ crowd 40 years after. The difference between 20 and 60 is, well, astounding. But we lodged, dined, drank and danced very well even after all those years!
Here’s a recipe for Cuban Style Bollos. I’m not sure if it was the initial novelty of “that first time” that made them so memorable, but DANG…I still think they’re delicious!
or black eyed pea fritters, makes 40 fritters
2 cups of black eyed peas
4 large garlic cloves
1/2 tsp hot sauce
1 tsp salt
Oil for frying
Soak the beans overnight, covered weight water.
Drain, reserve the water
Puree the beans until they are as fine as corn meal (food processor is fine).
Add, the seasonings and 1/2 cup of reserved liquid. Stir well.
Preheat oil to 350 degrees in a high edged pan.
Drop in teaspoon full for the bean mixture, a few at a time. Don’t crowd for best results.
Deep fry the bollos for 2 minutes, then drain when golden brown.
Eat right away, I dust mine with a finishing salt. Enjoy!
Many of us have had an unspeakably tragic year. The loss of friends or family, or a frightening brush with the Covid virus. Others of us have simply had to bear being homebound, or suffered domestic violence and still others suffered financial pain. Even the loss of a dream or career. It’s been a tough year, but not without it’s blessings.
To me, it’s been scary, because we’re just not sure if business will ever return to it’s former model, and cash flow is not what it was. This is inconvenient and uncomfortable because we have no choice but to take a hard look at ourselves and our addictions as well as to seek out new models, new solutions. Looking into the mirror isn’t easy.
Sitting at home in relative luxury, we rankle because we can’t dine out, go out for drinks, see our friends, go to the movies. I like to think of the world’s women, many who have the daily tasks of fetching water and firewood as well as childcare and the inevitable job of preparing food to nourish their families. We take for granted our potable water, fuel delivery, restaurant and grocery delivery and internet connections.
I realize that many of my problems, often born of excess, begin and end with me. It’s my job to turn around mental adversity and realize gratitude, choose happiness. My personal alchemy. Everyone has this super power. To stop daily, give thanks and to connect with the true source. This is where the recharge is born. Once we’re feeling our interconnectedness, perspective shifts. You can choose happiness, contentment, gratitude and have the energy to give back, whatever that means to you.
Granted, I don’t have a family to provide for, a dysfunctional home or kids learning at home, definitely stressors. One gift of this slowed down time, other than self-reflection, and the time to consider the future, has been the opportunity to help my community battle food insecurity, one meal at a time. It’s good to know that you’re not alone, even if you’re bearing the weight of any number of things.
Now is a time to take stock, say a prayer, help a neighbor …or ask for help, listen for guidance, take a breath, read a book, get outside, maybe learn something new…even about yourself and the world we live in.
Happy New Year and Bright Blessings for 2021…we’re ready for you!
Coming from Austrian Germanic roots, the Black Forest was always on my bucket list. When better to go that just before Christmas! At that time, one of my restaurant chefs who was German, still had family in Europe, so I went over to meet them near Berlin. From there Gudi and I travelled near and far…we saw every castle or “schloss” around, went to Heidelburg, as well as other towns with famous castles, and any number of charming mountain towns reminiscent of Hallmark Christmas cards with their well kept stores, jolly storekeepers, frosty firs and town squares…..and gourmet shops.
Can you say Wurst? The sausages were amazing and varied. Oh and the cheese…. stinky “hand cheese” for breakfast, Allgauer Berkkase, which is similar to the better known Emmentaler, Edelpilz, a bleu to remember, Hirtenkase, or Herder’s cheese, an aged Alpen cow’s milk cheese and the infamous Limburger. You’ve got to love a culture that enjoys cold cuts for breakfast with a good, smelly cheese! Chase that with schnitzel, chocolate and a beer and you have my diet while in Germany.
Back to that chocolate, we often received real European chocolates for Christmas along with other gifts from Austrian great Aunties. Gifts we couldn’t fathom at the age of seven…like Lederhosen and real artisan puppets, like Marionettes. How I wish we still had those beautiful Marionettes. We, as a family, had a formidable beer stein collection as well as Meersham pipes passed down from Grandpop Marad. And Grandmother that cooked sour cherry pies, Sauerbraten and pork with Sauerkraut, not to mention the best Christmas cookies around!
But I digress I wanted to get to the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest. I was after a cockoo clock as my souvenir of choice…something I couldn’t eat in a weak moment. Here’s an image of the one I picked out. It’s in my office now at Laura Cabot Catering. It will always remind my of the pristine mountain air, winding roads, and snow frosted forests, yes, deep and dark, that defined the Black Forest so beautifully.
And for those of you thinking about Holiday baking, consider these Pfeffernusse (the name means pepper nuts) Cookies one of my Grandmom Marad’s seasonal specialties. These cookies are so beloved in Germany there is a national Pfeffernusse Day! My recommendation is to buy your spices fresh for these cookies, it makes all the difference!
1/2 cup softened butter
3/4 cup brown sugar, I use light brown
1/4 cup molasses
2 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon soda, salt, black pepper, cinnamon and crushed anise seed
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg, allspice and cardamom
A dash of ground cloves
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
Cream butter, sugar and molasses in bowl or mixer until fluffy. Add the egg, beat to combine.
Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet until combined.
Cover and chill this dough in the fridge for at least one hour
‘Preheat oven to350 degrees. Scoop out a small amount and roll it into a ball. Place on parchment and bake until firm.
Let cool before rolling in powdered sugar. Store in an airtight container.
This recipe doubles and keeps well, good for gift giving for a real European experience!
Since there’s nowhere to go and “nothing to do”, I decided to do some good at home. It’s a Safari inward…to our local food pantry.
I got to know the work of our local food pantry these last few months and was bowled over by not only the occult need for food in our community but the number of volunteers who’s mission it was to make things better for our neighbors. It’s a lot of work keeping those shelves filled with canned goods and we’re lucky to have some tireless folks who are committed to doing so. Fresh vegetables and frozen meats are also offered.
One thing I noticed immediately was although many boutique growers of organic vegetables were happy to contribute, the general population was unable to make good use of this surplus of vegetables. Families already pushed to the brink with homeschooling and remote learning, and additionally working one or two jobs and housekeeping, often didn’t have time to create home cooked meals or learn how to use something new.
That’s where Laura Cabot Catering came in. I said, “Bring us your beautiful vegetables, before they become weary. Let us cook them up for your family and make it as nutritious as possible!” So, that’s what we’re doing until the catered events are rolling again. Soups, stews, chowders, salads, fermented foods….My personal commitment is to true nutrition in these beleaguered times. A tummy full of good food really helps with learning and mental health.
Let me just give a shout out to Atlantic Sea Farms in Saco, ME. I’ve long been a fan of their fermented sea vegetable and cabbage products and was delighted to learn that they’re happy to partner with us through donations of both their products and blanched seaweed, which I love to chop up and pop into my soup pot. Seaweed really bumps up the nutritional component and rather disappears in the process, so it’s a no brainer way to make something really good to eat!
Thank you Altantic Sea Farms and Waldoboro Food pantry volunteers! #atlanticseafarms. #waldoborofoodpantry #lauracabotcatering