Bold Comfort

In an excerpt from his new cookbook, chef Kerry Altiero shares some of his favorite recipes from Rockland’s beloved Cafe Miranda.

Two decades ago, I started Cafe Miranda in a Maine fishing village. We offer a huge menu that mixes traditional American fare with Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Thai, vegan . . . whatever strikes our fancy. Our motto is “Because We Can.” We serve wonderful, surprising, innovative food that defies expectations and wins over all kinds of eaters. The new cookbook will help you do the same at home, whether you are cooking for world-weary sophisticates or picky toddlers. Your kitchen may never be the same.

I’ve always had what you might call a contrary streak. In our little town of 7,000 residents, restaurants were traditionally built around deep fryers. We built ours around a wood-fired oven instead. It’s great for bread and pizza, of course, but almost everything else goes in there, too: vegetables, casseroles, and soups — they all benefit from a dose of high heat. Your home oven, cranked up, can create the same effect, while leaving your stovetop and your hands free for other things.

I admit to having some punkish tendencies. I like to do things my own way. I like speed. I like gears and metal. I’m addicted to the pace of restaurant cooking. But there are other, better reasons for seeking out adventures in food. Food can make the world bigger. It can change lives. For me, it started in the ’70s, touring around, racing my motorcycle. I was a vegetarian then. Eating pinto beans with melted cheese and tortilla chips in every town got boring, so I learned to look abroad: to India and China and Mexico. All of this exploring gave me some great recipe ideas.

When I was just a motorcycle-racing kid from a coal town in Pennsylvania, food opened up the world for me. I want to include everyone in that experience, from New York foodies to local fishermen. The food you’ll find in Adventures in Comfort Food is gutsy, but it isn’t strange for the sake of being strange. There’s a lot that’s familiar, comfortable enough to open the gate to new experiences.

Gnocchi in Sauce Rosa

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This is a big-time fave of anyone who has tried it. Soft, toothsome gnocchi in a pink, creamy sauce will bring comfort and warmth to any evening. I advise serving this in small portions as an appetizer; it is quite filling. My recipe is a variation of the traditional potato item. I add more flour to give these Italian dumplings a chewier and more interesting texture. To get a more consistent result, I also use potato flakes. Makes 4 servings.

Gnocchi

¾ pound boiled russet potatoes, peeled and well mashed, or prepared potato flakes (about 1 ⅔ cups), at room temperature
1 pound all-purpose flour
2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
salt
coarsely ground black pepper

SAUCE

3 cups Latex Marinara (recipe follows)
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup dry marsala wine
8 basil leaves

To make the gnocchi, mix all the ingredients to form a dough. If it’s too wet to handle, you can add more flour, but keep it as wet as you can. Turn onto a lightly floured board. Shape the mixture into a rope ¾ inch in diameter (remember your Play-Doh days?). Cut it into 1-inch sections. Push your thumb into each to make an indentation in the center. You want it to be about the same thickness all the way through, and you don’t want it too thick or you’ll end up with lead balloons instead of potato pillows.

Boil a pot of water and cook the gnocchi until they float and are consistently textured throughout. This can take from 5 to 15 minutes, so check on them a few times. Drain and toss in olive oil. You should have 2 cups of cooked gnocchi.

To make the sauce, place all but the basil in a 12-inch nonreactive sauté pan over medium heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally. The sauce should reduce to a coat-a-spoon thickness in about 8 minutes. When it is ready, the bubbles will be popping rather than rolling. Add the basil and cook for 1 minute more.

Add the gnocchi to the pan of sauce. Toss together, then spoon out onto a heated plate.

Chef’s Tip: I recommend making a big batch of gnocchi and freezing some of it parcooked. Remove the gnocchi from the boiling water when they are half-cooked and shock in cold running water, keeping the water running until the gnocchi are cool. Spread them out on a towel on a cookie sheet to get rid of some of the moisture. Then transfer to a dry cookie sheet to freeze. Once frozen, transfer to a plastic bag. When you are ready to use the gnocchi, put your sauce ingredients in the pan and add the gnocchi. They will heat through in the time it takes your sauce to come together.

Latex Marinara

6 tablespoons olive oil
4 whole cloves garlic
¾ cup onion, sliced thinly
pinch ground cloves
28 ounces canned tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)
salt
coarsely ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a heavy, nonreactive 3-quart pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and toast until golden, 3 or 4 minutes. Add the onion and let it sweat about 6 minutes, until translucent, sweet, and soft. Add the cloves. Simmer for 5 minutes. Dump in the can of tomatoes.

Simmer for an hour and a half, until the tomatoes break down. If necessary, mash with a potato masher (the wavy kind will work better than the grid kind). Taste. It will be highly acidic. Add salt to taste, which will neutralize the acid. There’s no need for sugar. If the texture is too loose or the flavor too thin, stir in the tomato paste. Add pepper to taste.

Leave it chunky if that’s what you like. Otherwise, put the sauce through a food mill. Don’t use a food processor; you need to get the seeds out or the sauce will be bitter.

This keeps for weeks and freezes well.

Seared Scallops in Asian Broth

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Scallops have to be one of the world’s great high-end proteins. Okay, yes, I say this about tuna, lobster, crab . . . but it’s all true. Searing a scallop on a cast-iron pan makes a sweet (like sugar, not like a figure of speech from a ski bum) caramelized coating that is, well, pretty sweet. Serving these in a broth spiced with Thai flavors is downright elegant. Serves 1.

Ingredients

3 ounces dry Maine sea scallops
olive oil
½ cup fish fumet, fish stock, or canned clam juice (choose a natural, low-salt clam juice)
2 tablespoons bamboo shoots marinated in chili oil (available at Asian markets)
4 Thai basil leaves
2 scallions, sliced on the bias
lemon wedge

Heat your 9-inch cast-iron pan on high heat.

Oil the scallops just to coat and place on the skillet. Let the first side brown well. The aroma is intoxicating! The scallops’ interiors should stay cool to the touch. Do not flip them. Just get that brown caramelization thing happening and remove from the heat. It should take 4 minutes or so.

In a 3-quart nonreactive saucepan, warm the fumet to just short of boiling. Then remove the saucepan full of fumet from the heat and add the bamboo shoots and basil. Turn out this mixture into an Asian-style bowl (like the ones used for pho or donburi). Place the scallops seared side up on top of the mixture. Sprinkle with the scallions. Squeeze the lemon over and toss the wedge into the bowl.

Serve with a flat-bottomed Asian soupspoon and a pair of chopsticks.

Chef’s Tip: Look for “dry” scallops. The best are “diver” scallops, fetched from King Neptune’s locker by a person in scuba gear. These are great just as they come. Squeeze a lime, salt one, and eat it raw. Second choice is “day boat.” Just as it sounds: The fishermen come in every night to land the catch, so you can buy it fresh. After that comes “dragger” scallops, which are perfectly acceptable as long as they are “dry.” This has nothing to do with their wit or humor, more with processing. It means they haven’t been soaked in water, brine, or chemicals that plump them up and add to their weight. The liquid makes it difficult, if not impossible, to sear them. So check with your fishmonger, and call them on it if your “dry” scallops start bleeding water. And yes, those “individually quick frozen” ones fall into the “wet” category.

Brussels Sprouts: The Disregarded Vegetable

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“What? No brussels sprouts!?” say our customers every spring. As asparagus and fiddleheads appear, we dump from the menu all the winter foods we are tired of: brown stocks, sausages, braises, cabbages, and brussels sprouts. At least, we try. But for you? The mini cabbages are available any time!

Cooking brussels sprouts in cream makes an asset of the bitterness that is so often a turnoff. These are sweet and creamy, with just enough of that bitter edge to keep you gobbling them down. Are these better with bacon? Yes. Is bacon necessary? Not at all.
Serves 2.

Ingredients

1 pound brussels sprouts
¼ cup olive oil, plus a little more
½ cup sliced red onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely
7 medium button mushrooms, smashed
2 ounces uncooked thick-cut bacon, chopped into pinky-size pieces (optional)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
6 tablespoons heavy cream
pinch salt
coarsely ground black pepper
chopped fresh parsley, to finish

Preheat your oven to 450°F.

Cut off the bottom (the brown part) of each sprout. Quarter them and toss with a little olive oil to coat.

In a heavy 11-inch round (or equivalent in surface area) oven-safe casserole dish or skillet, place the sprouts, onion, garlic, mushrooms, bacon (if using), and the ¼ cup of olive oil. Put it in the oven and roast, stirring occasionally, until everything is browned well. Depending on your pan and your oven, this can take upwards of 25 minutes.

When the sprouts are just getting tender, carefully add the vinegar. Add the cream, then continue roasting.

Let the liquid reduce until it is thick enough to coat a spoon, about 8 minutes. Serve in the pan (careful of the Formica) or on a nice platter. Add salt, a grinding of pepper, and an Elvis Parsley sprinkle.

Roast Chops with Apples, Spuds, and Cider

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This is comfort food if there ever was some. This dish exists because of our friends at Sewall Orchard in Lincolnville. Mia and Bob run the oldest certified-organic orchard in the state. They produce the finest apples, heirloom and other varieties, and the season when we can get them is short. On a beautiful fall day, we put on our leather jackets and drove out in the Alfa Romeo Spider with the top down, windows up, heat on. Fall colors, great roads, great sports car. Maine. How lucky are we? I bought a boatload of apples, and came up with this way to use them. Apples are always great with pork, so I doubled down with cider and cider vinegar. Mashed potatoes and kale round out a perfect fall dish. Serves 2.

Ingredients

Two 8-ounce center-cut boneless pork chops
1 ½ cups mashed potatoes
2 apples, halved and core
olive oil on hand (as always)
6 leaves kale, coated in olive oil
¾ cup cider
drizzle cider vinegar (Sewall’s is great stuff)
salt
coarsely ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 375°F.

On the stovetop, heat a 9-inch heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. Place the chops fat side down. I hope you have an exhaust fan. Brown the fat until dark, almost black, about 5 minutes.

Turn to the flat side and brown. You do not want to cook it through at this point, so don’t turn to the other side.

In a 9-by-12-inch oven-safe casserole dish, place the mashers in a pile. Next to them place the apples, cut side up. Brush both with olive oil. Add the seared chops next to them. Into the forno! Bake for 10 to 20 minutes. The apples will puff up and eventually get to the consistency of applesauce. As you see the apples beginning to puff (it will be at least 10 minutes), top the entire dish with the kale leaves and roast away.

When the kale is dark green and beginning to crisp at the edges, pour in the cider. Bubble and boil it will. When everything is hot and the chops are medium or medium-rare (12 minutes or so), remove from the oven and plate. Drizzle some cider vinegar over. Finish the dish with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

Serve with beer, like a Sebago Frye’s Leap, a hoppy IPA. Friends, sunset (yes, at 4 p.m.). All is good in this world.

Text and photos excerpted from Adventures in Comfort Food: Incredible, Delicious and New Recipes from a Unique, Small-town Restaurant by Kerry Altiero with Katherine Gaudet. Photographs by Stacey Cramp. Page Street Publishing Co., Salem, MA. Softcover, 240 pages. $21.99.


Laura Serino

Laura Serino is a North Haven dweller, founder of the Fore Front Fashion blog, and former digital editor of Down East Magazine.