Everyone thinks of summer as the best and busiest time of year for indulging in local foods and visiting Maine restaurants.

But spring has its own culinary pleasures.

It’s the time when seasonal restaurants are opening up again, doing renovations or changing menus as they gear up for big summer crowds.

There are no strawberries, peppers or sweet corn available for your table yet, but spring greens are nothing to sneeze at. And it seems as if every Wednesday there’s one or two more farmers setting up in Monument Square selling milk, eggs, yogurt, root vegetables and other products as they build up to a full-swing farmers market later this month. (The Saturday Deering Oaks farmers market begins April 28.) If you grow your own food, you’re poring over seed catalogs right about now.

In honor of spring, I’ve gathered together a selection of food-related items that will help tide your tastebuds over until summer. I’ve included, among other things, an update on fiddlehead season, a look at the big changes happening at the classic Maine restaurant Arrows, and details on a brand-new “Sweet Weekend” in the Old Port that will have folks with sweet tooths salivating.

And if that’s not enough, I’ve thrown in some events happening in April and May that will help keep you busy – and your stomach full – until berry-picking time.

Have a delicious spring!

 

SWEET WEEKEND IN THE OLD PORT

If you’ve got a sweet tooth, boy, are you in luck.

Seven sellers of sweets in the Old Port are banding together May 4-6 to host the first ever “Sweet Weekend,” which will reward customers with free treats for months to come.

Seven establishments are expected to participate, including Bam Bam Bakery, Dean’s Sweets, Gelato Fiasco, Mount Desert Island Ice Cream, Two Fat Cats, East End Cupcakes and Old Port Candy Co.

“It seems like the Old Port has become kind of a destination for sweet tooths, and far from fighting that trend – seeing that as increased competition – the Gelato Fiasco and other businesses thought that this was a good chance to cooperate and be cohesive and actually celebrate the fact that this area is getting recognized for this particular culinary niche,” said Max Mogensen, coordinator of the event and a spokesman for Gelato Fiasco.

Here’s how it will work:

Visit one of the sweet shops on May 4, 5 or 6, and get a “Sweet Passport.” Then take your passport to five participating locations and get a stamp at each.

In order to get a stamp, you’ll have to perform a simple task such as telling a joke. You won’t know what that task is until you walk through the door.

“We kind of want it to be a little mysterious,” Mogensen said. “We don’t want to say what the tasks are that you’ll have to perform. They’re all going to be very simple, they’ll be very easy, but we kind of want it to be a little bit of a surprise. We’re going to kind of make it like a scavenger hunt.”

You must gather five passport stamps by the end of business on May 6. Once you have five stamps, you can trade in your Sweet Passport for a Summer Rewards card that entitles you to 10 free treats.

The treats may include a free chocolate truffle, or perhaps a free piece of fudge. The reward will be different at each location, but all rewards will be listed on the rewards card.

“It will vary location to location just because we all do diverse things,” Mogensen said. “What the Gelato Fiasco is going to do is, they’re going to offer a free size upgrade. You could come in and you could use all 10 here and you can get 10 free size upgrades. Alternatively, you could use three here and you could take the seven and go somewhere else and use them in other places.”

The Summer Rewards card can be used until Oct. 15.

“What we’d love to see is for people all over the country, all over the world, to recognize the Old Port as a dessert destination,” Mogensen said. “We thought this was a fun way to kick that off, and also it’s timely, because as the weather gets warmer and spring kind of sets, the Old Port is just such a beautiful area to be out in and to be exploring. This is another good reason to get out there.”

FIDDLEHEAD FEVER

In Maine, the appearance of fiddleheads in local markets and on restaurant menus is one of the surest signs of spring.

“Everybody feels it’s going to be an early season because of the mild winter, but of course, mother nature takes its own course,” says Angelo D’Ambrosio of Elliottsville Township, founder of a popular Facebook fan page for fiddleheads.

D’Ambrosio said that as of last week, the only places where people were actually picking fiddleheads were Connecticut and Pennsylvania. He expects the delicate ferns to start peeking up in southern Maine by the end of this week.

Where the season goes from there will depend a lot on how much rain we get, because fiddleheads are usually found in wet areas.

“A lot of Mainers consider Mothers Day is the time to go and pick fiddleheads,” D’Ambrosio said.

D’Ambrosio’s Facebook page, “Fiddleheads (A Wild Delicacy of Maine and the Northeast),” has double the number of followers it had when we last spoke two years ago. The page now has more than 8,500 fans who share information about when fiddleheads come up in their area and where they are being sold. The page can be viewed at bit.ly/acGMyp.

Because of changes on Facebook, D’Ambrosio has moved his fiddlehead recipe site to wildlifelodge.com. Just scroll to the bottom of the page, and you’ll find links to information on fiddleheads and to the recipe site, which is limited to original recipes. Some of the dishes posted there now include Beer Batter Fiddleheads, Italian Fiddlehead Soup, Ginger Fiddleheads and a recipe for Fiddleheads & Scallops.

The season will last until June, depending on where you live, so indulge while you can. D’Ambrosio said more people are freezing fiddleheads now so they can have them at, say, Thanksgiving dinner.

But somehow that just seems wrong, doesn’t it?

ARROWS REVOLUTION

Chefs get bored too.

So occasionally, just like everyone else, they have to mix things up a little.

That’s what James Beard award winners Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier have done this spring at Arrows, their fine-dining restaurant in Ogunquit. The chefs have completely revamped their menu, turning it into a set of “collections” that customers can order from in a variety of ways.

They can order a collection on its own, close the menu and be done. Or they can create their own tasting menu, choosing items here and there from among the various collections.

There’s a “Chef’s Collection” that is basically made up of whatever is inspiring the chefs, and a “Luxury Collection” that includes classics such as Dover sole and a 16-ounce bone-in, dry-aged New York sirloin with roasted bone marrow, herb and shallot glaze and shoestring fries.

The “Collections of Three” include a collection of “Oysters in Green.” You’ll get oysters fried in Green Goddess sauce, oysters poached in cream with spinach and shallots, and chilled oysters with green garlic and chive vinaigrette.

A lamb collection features fried belly with tarragon vinegar, braised shank with fennel puree and fennel salad, and a butter-poached loin with huckleberry gastrique.

There are also collections of sweets and a grouping called simply “The Collection” that features dishes such as smoked squab breast, barbecued cuttlefish, crispy brook trout and wood-fired goat.

“We’re just essentially wanting as chefs to do something really different,” Frasier explained. “So last year we decided we really wanted to move toward all tasting menus, which we did. It was well received. It was good for the kitchen, and we enjoyed it, but we also felt like it became routine for us, and although we had three different menus and there were options and so on, we didn’t feel it was as adventurous for ourselves as chefs or for our guests.”

Frasier said there are two hot dining trends right now. One is the ultra-casual place with the cool vibe where great food is thrown at you every which way. The other is the very controlled, formal setting, “lovely but extremely rigid,” Frasier said.

The chefs were tired of rigid. Yet, they didn’t want to turn their gorgeous restaurant into a gastro pub either (thank goodness).

“To us, we really wanted to come up with something revolutionary that bridged the gap between the two and was expressive of what we felt was the best of both worlds,” Frasier said.

Others changes at Arrows include a greatly expanded Asian vegetable garden in which things like Tohya butterbeans and Ichiban eggplant will be grown. The garden will feature an authentic moon gate, a traditional teak spirit house from Thailand, winding paths, a Buddha sculpture and a bamboo fence. Frasier said they hope to carve out a section of the garden each year to highlight a different part of the world.

You can check out the progress on the garden at two events at Arrows this spring. On Earth Day (Sunday), the restaurant will host a number of Maine farmers, cheese mongers, bread bakers and other artisanal food producers, including Breezy Hill Farm, Finestkind and Beach Pea Baking. The event will consist of a buffet-style walk through the open kitchen, with different stations inspired by each producer. The event costs $58 ($89 with wine).

On May 6, cookbook author Nina Simonds will offer a cooking class and sign her new book, “Simply Asian Meals.” The class and five courses cost $58 ($89 with wine).

Both events begin at 6 p.m.

 

GROW YOUR OWN

If you’re interested in growing your own food, there’s lots of expert advice available this spring.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, there will be a “Grow Fair” that’s part of the annual Food + Farm program at Space Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland.

This is the first year for the fair, where you’ll be able to get a free 20-minute consulation from a Maine Master Gardener and learn how to make a seed bomb.

Urban Farm Fermentory will be offering workshops in organic gardening, where you’ll learn about soil building, plant selection, garden design and so on. There will also be a workshop on kombucha making. Go to space538.org/events.php to reserve a spot in either workshop.

Admission is free, but the UFF workshops carry a fee of $10 per person.

At 4 p.m. May 1, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International will be speaking in the downstairs Great Room at Grace restaurant, 15 Chestnut St., Portland. A suggested donation of $10 will benefit the non-profit group’s work spreading the word about the benefits of growing food at home.

Stay for dinner after Doiron’s talk – the restaurant will be preparing specials centered around what will be available in Maine in May.

 

DROOL OVER THESE KITCHENS

Maine’s kitchen tour season usually doesn’t get underway until summer, but every spring, there’s a tour to the south of us that will whet your appetite for more.

This Seacoast-area kitchen tour is now in its 21st year and benefits The Music Hall in Portsmouth. This year, it’s being held from 10 a.m to 3 p.m. May 5 in the coastal town of New Castle, a fishing village founded in 1623 and the only town in New Hampshire composed entirely of islands.

The tour attracts more than 1,200 visitors annually, and this year, there’s a new way to handle the crowds. A trolley will transport people from parking lots to various drop-off points along the tour route.

Tickets are $25 in advance and $27 the day of the event, and are available at The Music Hall box office, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth; by phone at (603) 436-2400; or online at themusichall.org.

 

MANGIA ON THE MIDCOAST

Have your cake and eat it too at the annual Camden Cake Walk, 1 to 4 p.m. May 12.

The event is a fundraiser for the Camden Rockport Historical Society and features 15 different establishments in the area, including a number of local inns. You’ll get a tour of each place, along with your slice of cake.

Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for ages 12 and under. For more information, call the historical society at 236-2257.

If you’ve had enough of sweets, how about a vicarious trip to the Mediterranean?

Learn about olive oil and try your hand at making pasta in a two-evening class taught by chef Cinzia Rascazzo, director of Stile Mediterraneo in Puglia, Italy.

The classes will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. May 23-24 at Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville, and you can choose just one class if you like.

The Puglia region of Italy is the country’s largest producer of olive oil, and Rascazzo is a certified extra virgin olive oil taster. On the first evening, she will conduct a guided tasting of olive oils from the region.

Rascazzo will also talk about life in Puglia, and prepare dishes such as fava bean puree and sea bass in a salt crust.

The second evening will focus on handmade pastas such as oricchiette and tagliatelle. Students will learn how to make a tomato sauce as well as a farro and lentil soup.

Rascazzo will be joined in the kitchen by chef Michelle Goldman of the Sea Change Cooking School in Portland. Goldman will talk about how you can replicate the food using local ingredients.

A four-course meal, paired with Cellardoor wines, will follow each session.

The cost is $85 for one session, or $150 for both. To reserve a spot, call 763-4478.

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad