Monday March 18, 2013 | 05:00 AM

This past weekend was capped by my usual food-centric forays that started at the Saturday farmers’ markets in Portland and Brunswick to varied culinary escapades around Portland.

After the markets I headed over to Pat’s Meat Market because a reader tip regarding my recent take on corned beef suggested that Pat’s had the best version--brined in their shop. What perplexed me about the market’s curing process is that it’s put into a bare-bones solution of salt and water, without sugar or pickling spices.  Would this turn out to be a grim or gray version for a New England boiled dinner?    I prepared it and It's actually an interesting take, but it's not "corned" beef as most of us know it.  The beef is very tasty from being salted but without the distinctive pickled corned taste. 

Pat's Market corned beef before it's cooked

"After," definitely the gray version of corned beef

At lunchtime we headed over to Saigon, the nondescript dining outpost on Forest Ave. purported to have the best pho in Portland and a varied menu of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes.

The modest dining room at Saigon

We ordered the pho (pho tai nam bo vien) with rare beef and meatballs but not without first being served a tiny crock of soup, a complimentary offering of velvety smooth cubed tofu with scallions and cilantro. Though I thought it had too much thickener, it  was delicious.

Tasty tofu soup to start

Leafy greens for the pho--cilantro and basil

Pho with beef and meatballs

As for the pho it’s all that I hoped for. The lemony cilantro broth was filled with  rice noodles, bean sprouts, and a side plate of large, leafy cilantro tops, Thai basil, lime and hoisin and chili sauce on the side.  The strips of beef were tender and the meatballs were billowy soft like dumplings.  Our waitress suggested that we share it instead of ordering two different pho. How correct she was because the portion for one is enormous.

Vietnamese version of the "pancake" with noodles and pork cracklings over lettuce

We then tried what I thought was going to be a typical pancake (there may have been a communication problem).  When it was served I asked where the pancake was and our waitress said there was none.  Instead it was homemade rice noodles on lettuce with bean sprouts, cilantro, basil and bits of pork cracklings with a dressing of coconut milk, sweet-sour chili sauce and hoisin. We loved it and felt lighter because we had no pancake!

The crispy fried chicken

As a main course (as if we hadn’t enough already) we shared one of the Chinese offerings-- the  Crunchy Fried Chicken, tenderly coated breast meat in a sweet-sour sauce that was just right, along with  baby corn, carrots, broccoli, onion and red pepper.  

Continuing what turned out to be an Asian-food weekend, I went searching for the ingredients I needed for Sunday dinner to make Mapo Tofu, the featured recipe in the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Edition lifestyle section called, “Off Duty.” There you find excellent food articles and recipes along with pointers on where to buy $5,000 raincoats, jewel-encrusted timepieces, fast, fancy cars, palatial homes and other necessities for the seriously aspiring sybarite.

Mapo tofu,  made withi local tofu, fermented black beans , pork, Chinese chili bean sauce and Sichuan peppercorns that I made Sunday evening for dinner with locally available ingredients

The only elusive ingredient in the recipe was the fermented black beans.  The Veranda Market never heard of them (I’m beginning to have my doubts about the market).  But leave it to the Sun Oriental Market to know and have just what I needed.  Another dish in the Journal was something called Dan Dan Noodles, a Sichuan dish that called for ya cai (preserved vegetables), the ingredients of which I found there too.  

The Sun Oriental Market is a reliable source for Asian ingredients

For starters on Sunday, brunch beckoned.  I’ve been to the usual haunts dozens of times but never to the Good Egg Café/The Pepperclub Restaurant

The Good Egg/Pepperclub still banks on its funky '70s charms

The Good Egg's excellent eggs Benedict over corned beef hash

The place, filled with regulars, is a bit like stepping back in time, a hodgepodge of 1970s literary  hippie swells (and a few younger faces) congregating for their morning meal.  We ordered two different eggs Benedict, one with crab meat and the other served over excellent corned beef hash—an apt toodle-loo to St. Patrick’s Day and a filling food weekend.

 

 

 

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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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