Down East

We are up north, but apparently we’re also down east. The coast of Maine is called “down east” because ships back in the day sailing from Boston to ports in Maine—which are actually to the east of Boston–generally found prevailing winds at their backs. We drove up here for vacation a few days ago, so we didn’t really notice the wind.

Souzz has spent a lot of time down east. Me, not so much, so I’m learning as I go– including the local lingo. For starters, lobsters are often called “bugs,” and awesome things are almost always called “wicked.” In Portland, Souzz’s friend Kim showed us around as only a local can do, with stops at Eve’s at the Garden and Liquid Riot Bottling Company followed by dinner at Street and Company and dessert at Grace, an old church converted to a restaurant/bar. Portland is the liveliest city of 66,000 I’ve ever visited, that’s for sure.

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Eve’s at the Garden
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The distillery at Liquid Riot
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The open kitchen at Street and Company
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Is this a church, or a restaurant?
Grace restaurant
It’s definitely a restaurant

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Then we moved onto Bar Harbor, where our good friends Brian and Catherine run a lovely B&B called Hearthside Inn. After lunch down on the water, we took a nice bike ride on one of the carriage roads in Acadia National Park (that were built by John Rockefeller) and then had popovers and tea at the historic Jordan Pond House.

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We followed Acadia with dinner at Thurston’s Lobster Pound in nearby Bernard. Thurston’s has been around since 1946, and it’s worth the 20 minute drive around Mount Desert Island. No way would we have found this place without help from our local friends…but it was well worth it. We enjoyed a lovely moonrise on the back deck while being schooled on the art of lobster eating from folks that have done that a few times over the years.

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Only two days into our trip, we’ve had the good fortune of great friends, great food, and great adventure. As the sign says, Maine is the way life should be. And yes, the bugs are wicked up here.

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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fish

As with all things around outdoor cooking, there are several different ways–and even a few different reasons–to smoke fish. And the number of techniques and recipes is simply overwhelming, sort of like choosing which Kardashian to take to a cook-out. Anyway, I digress.

While smoked fish is quite flavorful, it has another benefit in that it can extend storage time without refrigeration. In rural Alaska, for example, slow smoking is used to prepare fish for canning–with the canned fish then “put up” for the winter. Canning is often a late summer activity that is done with large quantities of salmon harvested with a fish wheel.

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Closer to home, we are headed to northern Maine next week–to the rocky coast, where we are more likely to tie into mackerel than salmon (besides, fish wheels are hard to pack). We’ll be on a sea kayaking trip, so there won’t be room for a bulky smoker…but we thought we might be able to effectively turn our lightweight dutch oven fry-bake into a smoker.

We decided to test it out at home, and it ended up being pretty simple. All we had to do was put some mesquite flavoring chips into the bottom of the fry-bake and then cover the fry-bake with a tin foil “platform” for the fish.

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We salted the filets (we used tilapia for our test run) and let them sit for 5-10 minutes, then rinsed off the salt, put the fish on the tin foil platform (with a few holes poked in it), covered it, and put the fry-bake in charcoal (a low fire will work, too). It didn’t take long for the chips to start pouring out thick white smoke. Ten billowing minutes later, we had some very tender smoked fish (and a concerned neighbor with a fire extinguisher).

For our Maine trip, we’ll just need to pack along a few mesquite chips, and then hope that the mackerel cooperate. Alternatively, maybe we can make a fish wheel out of a fry-bake?

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Roaming Buffalo

It’s been a busy few months of travel, with long road trips book-ended by visits with family. Souzz’s roots are in western New York, where Buffalo summers are pure magic—temps in the 70s, lots of family fun, picnics everywhere, and cool breezes coming off of Lake Erie. The town is booming again, with a lively waterfront and a lot of new businesses popping up. Oh, and there’s also some pretty good food.

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Main Street at the turn of the century

During Buffalo’s early days as a mill town, a lot of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Poland settled here–so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are tons of ethnic dishes around. That said, the abundance of enduring family-owned restaurants is somewhat surprising–perhaps rivaled only by the amount of snow in a typical winter (94 inches…but who’s counting?).

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Beef on ‘weck

People seem to have refreshingly unfiltered opinions up here, and the passion goes right through the sports teams and onto the dinner table. Folks are generally agreeable…right up until you start to talk about which restaurant has the best beef on ‘weck. Different suburbs each have their own favorites, and they are all proud of their neighborhood place. Food matters here, a lot, and subtle differences in classic dishes are a point of pride.

Another thing that matters a lot are personal connections, of which there are many. Buffalo’s metro area is 1.1 million people–roughly the same size as New Orleans or Salt Lake City—and yet most of the natives have a connection to just about everyone they meet (“so it turns out that her aunt taught my sister to play piano.”). Western New York is a big place, but it’s also a small place. Perhaps that’s why there are so many thriving family-owned businesses.

With that in mind, here are six landmark spots that we visited on our trip:

Duff’s: This classic restaurant opened in 1946, and the low ceilings, dark interior, and mahogany bar suggest that it hasn’t changed much since–save for a few new coats of paint on the stucco exterior. My in-laws say that the crispy wings at Duff’s are the best around…and considering that the chicken wing was invented at the nearby Anchor Bar in 1964, the locals should know (well, chickens did actually have wings prior to 1964, but you get the idea).

Watson’s Chocolates: The Watson’s storefront on Delaware Avenue dates to the 1950s, and its signature offering is sponge candy, a very popular regional treat. Each piece is a chocolate coating over an airy but firm center, sort of like a malted milk ball (but with much better chocolate). If you are from the suburb of Kenmore, Watson’s is the favored place for sponge candy–but expect arguments from other neighborhoods that Parkside or Condrells or Fowlers or Alethias are the best. Your favorite place likely comes down to where you grew up; eat a piece of sponge candy from any of these shops and you’ll quickly realize that everybody’s right.

Federal Meats: The meatpacking industry was a booming business here in the early 1900s, and, while much of that has moved on, the city has retained its appetite. Every neighborhood has its own butcher shop with a friendly and helpful staff…and with prices that are about 30% cheaper than I expected. In addition to Federal, there’s the classic Broadway Market downtown, as well as Scimes, Hoelschers, Redlinskis, Battistonis, Zarcones, and probably a dozen more that I’ve never heard of. If I were an aspiring chef or a budding cardiologist, I’d move to Buffalo.

Anderson’s Frozen Custard: This modest little stand started in 1953 as a summer-only ice cream place. It’s now is open year round across several locations and with a greatly  IMG_4611expanded menu. The Sheridan Boulevard storefront is cleverly designed, with a window to take orders in good weather but with garage-style doors that can enclose the lobby for the colder times of year. Be forewarned that ice cream is generally called frozen custard in Buffalo, something my in-laws have never let me forget (I got a blank stare when I ordered “soft serve” on my first visit). Buffalo folks enjoy frozen custard year round, and it’s not uncommon to see big lines at Anderson’s in the middle of January.

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Ted’s Hot Dogs: OK, so how novel can a hot dog place really be? But Ted’s uses real charcoal, so things taste different here—quite a contrast to those poor dogs rolling around on metal bars at the local mini-mart. Ted’s was started in 1927, and even foodies like Souzz stop in for a regular fix. Yes, a hot dog can be (and is) a delicacy.

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Mighty Taco: This could be the outlier on the list, as it’s relative newcomer (it’s only been IMG_4635open for 42 years) and western New York isn’t exactly synonymous with Mexican cuisine. I figured someone must have IMG_4644moved here from south of the border to start this place, but the owner’s name is Dan Scepkowski—and there can’t be very many Scepkowskis in Guadalahara. Regardless, it’s busy any time of day or night. And it is a pretty good taco.

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By the end of our visit, my stomach was full and my nieces were tired of hearing the word “iconic.” But there is something different about the scene up here–even beyond the friendly people and the over-rated winters. In some towns, food is about the latest trends, while in Buffalo it is a connector of generations.

Amazingly, and despite the twists and turns of the local economy, these six family-run businesses have been operating a combined total of nearly 400 years (an average of 66 years each). Show me a town with that kind of loyalty, and I’ll show you Buffalo.

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The harbor downtown, teeming with action

Fleisch in the Pan

On a recent road trip that included a pass through North Dakota, we spent all of our time on the lookout for a local German dish called fleischkuekle (pronounced flesh-keek-luh). Ok, so maybe we didn’t spend all of our time on that; some of our time was spent debating the right pronunciation of Roosevelt (National Park), and another chunk was reserved for arguing with our on-board GPS.

Anyway, since we never did find fleischkuekle, we decided to make it at home. A few clicks led us to a recipe from North Dakota State University (for graduate-level home economics, perhaps?). The dish originated in Mercer County in the west-central part of the state, in small German communities like Stanton–the county seat with a population of 366. “Fleisch” means meat in German, and nearly 9,000 people in the state of North Dakota speak only German (!).

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While fleischkuekle is clearly a regional dish, the ingredients are pretty straightforward–meat filling and a flour/buttermilk/sour cream crust. We used ground beef, but any ground meat would work well. We also substituted fresh sauteed onions instead of using minced onion seasoning.

For the crust, I had to hunt for the buttermilk at the store, and I wondered how easy it was to find back in the day on the prairie. But traditional buttermilk is what’s left behind after churning butter out of cream—something that probably happened a lot on farms across the northern plains. Buttermilk is low in fat and a bit tart, perfect for a crust. I did add a bit more than the recipe suggested.

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One thing that is different about this recipe is that you don’t brown the meat first. The raw meat mixture is wrapped in the dough and then deep fried (we used canola oil) at around 350 degrees (a thermometer helps). Each one came out golden brown and crisp, and the meat is quite tender. According to the internet (so you know it’s true), North Dakota diners serve it with pickles and ketchup on the side.

This dish was surprisingly easy to make, and it’s the best recipe that I’ve made that I can’t pronounce…and that’s saying a lot considering that my knowledge of German is limited to “ein biere, bitte.”

Guten Appetit!