***This week’s post is from an old friend, Jessica, who currently lives in Maine. I know fiddlehead season is long past in most of the country, but do make a note to try them next spring. They are still coming up around here in spots where the snow was banked and has just melted off. I introduced them to the kids as “curlycues” and so far they have gobbled them down. I want to point out that although Middle Eastern chermoula sounds exotic and fancy, it is super easy. We are talking weeknight dinner material if you have a food processor. Thanks for the post Jessica!***
CJ and I are high school friends from Alaska. For my guest blog, I originally planned to delve deep into my psyche and tackle an analysis of how CJ and I have grown up through the years – choosing life paths that are both dramatically different yet remarkably similar.
Then I chickened out.
It’s not really until you sit down to write a blog entry that you realize how scary it is. CJ really puts herself out there. I have a whole new appreciation for the vulnerability involved, as I write this. So, yeah, I’m going to take the safe route (this won’t surprise CJ, and probably would have been one of my talking points on that other blog – smile)…
Let’s talk about food! Food is safe! In particular, let’s talk about cooking with local foods in Maine. Last night, I whipped up a bunch of middle eastern food with Maine ingredients.
First off, you probably think of moose and lobsters when you think of Maine. And that’s not that far off from the truth. It is a wonderfully wild state in which to live. Last weekend, my whitewater paddling friends were driving down a logging road during our canoe shuttle, and saw a moose AND a bear crossing the road AT THE SAME TIME (although separated by a few hundred yards). If you can’t live in Alaska, then Maine is clearly next runner up.
Middle Eastern Cooking
I’m basically a novice chef and rely on cookbooks. I enjoy following recipes, especially the first time through. If you want to get into middle eastern cooking, I’d recommend Claudia Roden’s book, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. My top three favorite recipes out of this book are the lentil soup (not your college student days lentil soup), chicken in plum sauce, and the sholezard (saffron rice pudding dessert). The recipes are very straightforward, and the only hurdle to middle eastern cooking in Maine is finding the middle eastern spices for a reasonable price in such a rural area.
Side Dish – Fiddleheads
Mainers love their fiddleheads. Technically, these are ostrich ferns. They are found in the early spring (which means late April or early May here in Maine). Fiddleheaders canvass river banks that were recently flooded and harvest the fronds. Classically, people sell fiddleheads from their vehicles along the side of the road. Picture a guy sitting in a lawnchair with a cooler and a cardboard sign. People are very protective of their fiddleheading spots; you’d never ask someone where they fiddlehead – just like you’d never ask an angler where their special fishing hole is or a wild blueberry picker where their field is located. Collecting fiddleheads in Maine is a tradition that goes back millennia with the Wabanki Indians, including the nearby Penobscots.
Currently, fiddleheads are running $2.50-3.50/pound. I first had them while visiting Maine, and then looked for them when I returned to Minneapolis where I was living at the time. I could only find them at Whole Foods and they were $17.00/pound! Here’s what they look like:
They’re not that hard to cook, but they do need to be cooked thoroughly due to the acid in them. If you don’t cook them enough, you’ll get a wicked stomach ache.
Some of the easy preparations are to boil them and then add butter and salt. They get mushy but I was always afraid of the stomach ache. And, to be honest, I didn’t like them that much but ate them anyway because that’s what Mainers eat. Then I got brave. Now I sometimes half-cook them and put them on pizzas. I love ricotta, sausage, fiddleheads, and garlic pizza. I hear they’re amazing in omelets.
Another local delicacy is Maine shrimp. These are also sold roadside, although also in the grocery stores and fish markets. They are incredibly tiny, like popcorn shrimp. I have a recipe for a sweet and sour shimp fiddlehead soup. Basically, you use chicken broth and white vinegar to taste for the broth, then put the itty bitty Maine shrimp and whatever seasonings you want (hot pepper, garlic, black pepper, cumin, etc.) into a food processor. This makes a stinky shrimp paste. With the broth heated up, drop the shrimp paste in spoonful by spoonful. It cooks nearly on contact into little flavorful shrimp balls. Then add the fiddleheads at the end and boil them for just enough time to cook them. This probably sounds very strange, but it is super tasty, healthy, and full of flavor. If you don’t have fiddleheads, you could substitute in any sort of strong vegetable (e.g, brussel sprouts).
Last night, I just went with a simple olive oil and garlic sauté to the al dente point and then put a lid on it to finish the cooking process. They maintained great texture that way.
Main Dish – Haddock in Chermoula Sauce
One thing I really miss about Alaska is the salmon and halibut. Not only do I miss eating these fish, I miss being able to catch them with my own pole or net. Growing up we would eat salmon at least once a week. Now, my local salmon is the Atlantic salmon and the native variety is threatened on the Penobscot River. So, it is not possible to go catch them yourself. Besides, they’re also really small compared to Alaska’s five types of salmon. This creates one of those sustainability crises (first world problem, I know). If I want the local fish, I would have to get farm-raised Atlantic salmon. If I want my usual wild fish, I would have to deal with the carbon footprint of flying it from Alaska to Maine. And, I can’t find halibut at all up here. So what’s a gal to do? People recommended haddock to me, but it is often compared to cod. I’ve never been a cod fan. Cod is oily; cod is translucent. Blah. But, in a desperate moment of wanting white fish, I got some haddock. It turns out that haddock is great! A fish that can be found just offshore of both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, including offshore of Maine, it appears that populations are currently doing “okay.” Greenpeace has alert out that they could come from unsustainable sources, so it’s important to get them from U.S. regulated fisheries, if that’s of concern to you. They feed on small invertebrate critters, and only occasionally on other fish, so don’t need to fret too much about bioaccumulation or mercury issues. It’s not as thick as halibut, but it is much more like halibut than it is like cod. It’s solid white meat that holds together well. It has a very light flavor (not “fishy). And it goes great with chermoula sauce!
For the chermoula sauce, Claudia Roden recommends:
- 2/3 cup fresh cilantro (I used the whole friggin’ bunch)
- 4 cloves of garlic (I used 6 big ones)
- 1 tsp cumin (I used 1.5 tsp)
- 1 tsp paprika (I used 1.5 tsp)
- ¼- ½ tsp ground chili power (optional) (I used ½ tsp of Penzy’s Chili 9000)
- 6 Tbl olive oil
- Juice from 1 lemon
Put all this in a food processor and make a paste. Then, use a casserole dish and lay the haddock or other white fish on top of a bed of FINELY sliced onions. I forgot to take a picture of the naked haddock, so my apologies. Bake at 350-400 degrees until it’s done.
At this point, you’ve made a VERY green meal, so a little contrasting color is necessary. Carrots are easy.
It was tasty!
I appreciate the opportunity to guest blog!