March 9, 2011

These are a few of Maine chefs' . . . favorite things

We consulted with 20 Restaurant Week chefs and asked them to share tricks, tips, tools, recipes -- anything, really -- that they've grown to love in the past year.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Saveur magazine has its Saveur 100: Chefs' Edition. Here, in honor of Maine Restaurant Week, we present the "Maine 20."

click image to enlarge

Staff art by Michael Fisher

We asked 20 southern and midcoast Maine chefs who are participating in Restaurant Week to write a little about their favorite new ingredient, food product, book, kitchen tool or trick, restaurant dish -- anything they have discovered during the past year and now can't live without.

Some chefs wrote about things they've discovered in their kitchens, while others wrote about things they've discovered about themselves. Here's what they had to say:

My favorite new trick came to me last fall when one of my industrious cooks stormed into my office and threw Michel Richard's book, "Happy in the Kitchen: The Craft of Cooking, the Art of Eating," on my desk and insisted it was the coolest thing he'd seen since Shaun White took over the half-pipe. So I read it, and I'm hot for it. The Potato Risotto concept is killer. I have made the dish using sweet potatoes, and it blew my mind. His idea is creative and innovative, yet simple and elegant, just the way I like it.

-- Christopher Bassett, executive chef, Azure Cafe, Freeport

The ancient grain of farro is the newest ingredient that we try to find a home for at Ribollita. Sometimes blended with pesto for a taste component in our antipasti, or flecked into a spinach salad for added nuttiness and texture. My favorite addition has been a Farro and Black Olive Tapenade Salad.

-- Kevin Quiet, chef/owner, Ribollita, Portland

This past summer, we raised four pigs at our farm in Windham. I have always known that I loved pigs and everything that they are, but until I went through the experience of raising them, feeding them beer and cheese and watching them grow fat and happy, I don't think I ever truly understood what noble beasts they are. They love people, they love to eat, and when they are raised properly, they are the perfect food.

Our chefs and cooks have crafted them into so many delicious things. We made fantastic pancetta, bacon, lardo and country ham. We confitted the heart, smoked the liver and jowls, and fried the skin for chicharones. We have several other cuts hanging for prosciutto and speck. The sweetness and almost floral flavor of the fat absolutely blows my mind. Without a doubt one of the highlights of my career. I think we'll raise 10 this year. Oh, and read the book "Pig Perfect" by Peter Kaminsky. He proves that pigs are good for you!

-- Harding Smith, chef/owner, The Front Room, The Corner Room and The Grill Room, all in Portland

Lately, I've become obsessed with American-made knives. For most of my culinary career there have been three basic categories of cutlery from which to choose: clunky, diehard and affordable German and French knives; elegant, precise, and costly Japanese knives; and good old, cheap, plastic-handled American knives. After so many hours and dollars spent, I've become an object of ridicule (in my own home!) for my loyalty to my $10 Dexter -- not the "Dark Passenger" Dexter, but the keep-grinding-that-blade-down-until-it-eventually-becomes-a-roast-beef-slicer Dexter. Those Euro knives are just impossible to keep sharp, and those Japanese knives are just too precious.

Imagine my delight when I discovered the emergence of a whole new category: Bad--- American Knives. Guys like Adam Simha of MKS design, Joel Bukiewicz of Cut Brooklyn, and Quintin Middleton of Middleton Made Knives are making beautiful, unique, expertly crafted cutlery here on the East Coast. My MKS chef knife feels less like a tool and more like an extension of my mind. And I definitely feel good about giving my hard-earned money to dedicated and talented craftsmen.

-- Eric Simeon, chef, Grace, Portland

One of my favorite books having to do with food is "Culinary Artistry." It's almost like a Bible in a hotel room; there's a copy in every kitchen. It contains recipes simple to read and easy to follow, also ingredient pairings that anyone from novice to professional cook can use.

-- Joe Boudreau, chef, Havana South, Portland

If there's something that I particularly enjoyed in Maine recently, it's my meeting with Lisa Webster at North Star Sheep Farm and the tasting of her lamb on a wintry morning in Windham. (I was looking for lamb cuts for a James Beard dinner presenting Maine products). It was a perfect day, the drive from Camden to Windham was beautiful, and it was the first time I explored that area of Maine. The farm, the lambs and the countryside was inspiring, and my high expectations were followed by a wonderful tasting.

The sheep were right outside the door. It was amazing to have such a close relationship to the animal. I met the lambs, toured the farm -- that was a new experience for me, to see everything up close like that. I tasted the meat at 9 in the morning. It was extremely fresh, and the experience was very powerful.

I used the lamb belly and the lamb loin in the James Beard dish. This was the first Maine lamb I had ever tasted. The way Lisa cares for her lamb and the quality of her meat makes me happy to cook.

-- Geoffroy Deconinck, executive chef at Natalie's, Camden Harbour Inn

The go-to ingredient this year for me is blue agave nectar. This comes from the plant most associated with tequila, the blue agaves which thrive in the volcanic soils of southern Mexico. Also known as "honey water." The plant resembles the cactus, but is closer to the aloe vera.

The nectar is produced by processing the liquid from the core of the plant. This liquid is high in fructose, a natural sweetener, and actually sweeter than sugar. The nectar has grades of color similar to maple sugar. I love this for the fact it's similar to honey but more complex in flavor. It's great in many applications like cocktails, vinaigrettes, glazes, sauces, desserts, anything that needs a touch of sugar.

-- Jeff Beurhaus, chef/owner, Walter's, Portland

You know the saying "two kids are four times the work"? Well, the same pretty much goes for restaurants. I affectionately refer to my staff as "the kids," without whom I'd be nowhere. I am so lucky to be surrounded by such love and talented young people. I'm amazed every day.

-- Jay Villani, chef/owner, Local 188 and Sonny's, Portland

This past year has not been defined by a book, gadget or recipe, per se, but rather an inspiration that has taken me back to the reasons I started cooking in the first place. My wife Michelle is of direct French descent, her father having moved to this country as a young man. The combination of a French family reunion and the pending opening of our second restaurant Petite Jacqueline have provided me with the opportunity to revisit the traditions and basic elements of cooking that have always been the foundation of my philosophy in the kitchen.

Having the French family here, while a bit intimidating to cook for, was an unforgettable experience and an invaluable addition to my culinary education. So this past year for me, in a culinary sense, has been based on perfecting traditional French dishes stressing the importance of building flavors and using time-tested methodology.

-- Steve Corry, chef/owner, Five Fifty-Five, Portland

I was fortunate enough to have two very different things -- one a product, the other a concept -- affect my professional life this year. The product is prosciutto lovingly cured and cared for by Kathy Trodden at Second Chance Farm. I was so impressed by the texture and flavor, I committed two legs from pigs she had grown to be prepared and ready for this summer. The prosciutto undergoes a year-long curing and maturing process, so we should see these little gems around June or July.

Hand in hand with the prosciutto came a realization into myself. With all the current trends in the food industry to try and manipulate and re-fabricate food into something it is not, I took a moment to remember what got me here in the first place: SIMPLICITY. Trusting the ingredients you work with (regardless of price), honoring the hard-working people who brought the food to your table, and trying not to screw up what nature has already made perfect is the everlasting mantra we should live by.

-- Jeff Landry, chef/owner, The Farmers Table, Portland

The most interesting thing we have done is buy a Cryovac machine for multiple purposes. The first was the cooking processes that we could incorporate into the menu. The one item that we came up with was a turkey chop that we lightly brine for an hour and then slow cook for 30 minutes in a water bath. It makes the turkey tender like filet mignon. We also have been experimenting with vegetables in sous-vide.

-- Lee Skawinski, chef/co-owner, Cinque Terre and Vignola, Portland

Saturday's (farmers) market in Deering Oaks is more of a family outing for us. Wednesday (at Monument Square) is my working market. It's the start of our regular service week so it's nice to get there early, walk through and say hello to our friends at Freedom Farm, Green Spark, Thirty Acre and Fishbowl and make plans for all the great stuff grown so close to home. I know that I could get stuff delivered to the restaurant, but I really like loading up my shopping bags at the market.

-- Guy Hernandez, chef/owner, Bar Lola, Portland

My favorite kitchen tool is definitely my knife. It's the most versatile and the most necessary item in the kitchen. It's pounded Japanese steel. This particular knife is new. I'm always upgrading. I have up to 36 different things I use on any given day, but this is the one item I use the most. Once you have a really good knife, you can really see and feel the difference. It cuts really well, and it feels good when you use it. It makes everyday chores nice. I like it so much I even have it on my Facebook profile.

-- Jeff Hodgdon, executive chef, The Salt Exchange, Portland

Most recently, I have found "Boulevard: The Cookbook." This book is full of simple, delicious accompaniments, as well as some really nice ideas on how to elevate simple meats and fish: stuffed duck breasts, fried rabbit legs in a Parmesan crust and confit of sweetbreads. I haven't yet tried them all, but the book is so well-written and explained that you can just tell their methods will work well. Also, I've finally embraced the idea of cooking some things "sous-vide." It's really amazing how much this technique really changes the game. Pheasant breasts that I used to struggle to keep moist are no problem at all.

-- Larry Matthews Jr., chef/owner, Back Bay Grill, Portland

My favorite ingredient is pork, and the reason for this is come on, IT'S PORK, it is extremely versatile and anyone that knows me knows that BBQ is my passion! My favorite kitchen utensils are my plating spoons from Gray Kunz because they are 2½ tablespoons and they are the perfect tool for working with sauces, measuring and plating. My all-time favorite cookbook would have to be "The Craft of Cooking" by Tom Colicchio. This is just a "cook's" cookbook with a few key elements simplicity yet exquisite.

-- Charlie Cicero, chef, Anneke Jans, Kittery

My favorite kitchen tool: a wooden-handled fish spatula by TableCraft. We use them for everything from turning fish to stirring polenta. Truly a versatile tool. Also, any John Boos cutting board.

-- Troy Mains, chef, No. 10 Water, Captain Daniel Stone Inn, Brunswick

The creme de brie with our house-made grape relish is so delicious. We bake off a small portion until it's fondue-like and ready for dipping. Our grape relish that we make in-house is the perfect complement to the cheese-soaked bread. It is one of our newest additions and the star of our "hands-on" menu, a collection of half appetizer-sized starters to have while reading over the dinner menu.

The menu started from this talk we had about there being something very special about picking up food and eating it with your hands. Maybe it hits on being primal or animalistic; I think it's more fun too. This creme de brie with the grape relish is the best bite I've had all year.

-- Bo Byrne, chef, David's 388, South Portland

Pate a choux is this old-school technique that many learn in culinary school to make cream puffs, eclairs, etc. It is also used to lighten potatoes, and in the French tradition, it is used to make gnocchi. We use this pate choux base to make flavored gnocchis.

Traditionally, the first part of the mixture is made of equal parts of milk to water. We substitute the milk with a vegetable puree, carrot, pea, apple brown butter. We replace the water with the juice of the vegetable or fruit, then we cook it on the stove with flour until it comes together and whip in the Kitchen Aid with eggs. We load the mixture into a piping bag and drop into boiling water until they float. Cool on a sheet tray, coat with oil, then fry on the pick-up. It is light, and the flavor of the ingredient really comes through.

-- Lynette Mosher, chef/co-owner, Lily Bistro, Rockland

"Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy" by Diana Kennedy is our new favorite book. Not only is it a cookbook, it also sheds light on the various cooking styles, interpretations and unusual ingredients of one of the most culturally complex regions of Mexico. We're featuring picadillo-stuffed jalape?en escabeche from this book on our Restaurant Week menu.

Karl Okerholm (my right-hand at El Rayo) recently reunited me with a set of those handy empanada molds in various sizes. Saving crimping and forming time, they're great for forming the elegant Mexican hand pies, resulting in a professional look.

Ginger syrup for adding depth to our hand-crafted non-alcoholic drinks, and hibiscus leaves for adding vibrant color to cocktails and desserts. Both of these ingredients add a fun and intriguing element to our food and drink. Red dye No. 2 begone; hibiscus butter cream, anyone?

-- Cheryl Lewis, executive chef, El Rayo Taqueria, Portland

The newest technique that I have found to be very helpful in the kitchen is using my food processor in some of our charcuterie processes. Before I read about this technique, I relied solely on my meat grinder for processing meats, which works great for coarse, country-style sausages and pates. But when I want to make something a little more refined, with a smooth, delicate texture, I will grind the meat first and then use the food processor to finish the process. Doing this helps me to make beautiful mortadella, which has become a favorite on our daily charcuterie board.

-- Peter Sueltenfuss, chef, District, Portland

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

 

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