Down East 2013 ©
Photography by Ted Axelrod
How do you define comfort food? Is it a bowl of your mother’s fish chowder Or a warm doughnut dusted with powdered sugar? Comfort food is as individual as every Mainer — and as specific as our state itself. Herewith, a comforting collection of Down East meals for all times of the day.
Whether you’re headed out on the water, into the woods, or just starting a day of leisure, a good Maine breakfast proves essential. Good thing some of our favorite ingredients like blueberries and lobster have found their way into our morning meals.
How can a breakfast favorite go wrong with the addition of sweet Maine lobster? At Amore Breakfast (309 Shore Rd., Ogunquit, 207-646-6661, www.amorebreakfast.com ) it can’t. This York County favorite (which reopens for the season next month) adds sweet Maine lobster meat to the traditional eggs Benedict for a delicious Down East twist on a treasured tradition.
For Franco-American families, crepes are a morning tradition. The Merry Table (43 Wharf St., Portland, 207-899-4494), a cute French bistro and creperie tucked into the cobblestoned Old Port, offers an array of sweet and savory crepes. I recommend anything with chocolate. Plus, you can brush up on your French at the twice-monthly French meet-ups.
The Porthole (20 Custom House Wharf, Portland, 207-780-6533, www.portholemaine.com ) is a no-frills, stevedore-friendly joint smack in the middle of Portland’s working waterfront. Where better than dockside to enjoy a Harbour’s Edge Omelet, which comes stuffed with sautéed lobster, baby spinach, and goat cheese.
Cooked on a griddle and packed with fresh Maine wild blueberries, blueberry pancakes are a prime comfort food in Maine. And I’m prepared to claim that the flapjacks on the menu at Boynton-McKay (30 Main St., Camden, 207-236-2465, www.boynton-mckay.com ) are the best in the state. Like all blueberry pancakes should be, these are served with an ample side of real maple syrup, included at no extra charge. Tack on a side of homefries and bacon, and you’ve got yourself an unmatchable Maine breakfast.
If you want to eat all your calories in one decadent and delicious breakfast, York’s Stolen Menu Cafe (127 Long Sands Rd., York, 207-363-0298, www.thestolenmenucafe.com ) has the meal for you: Sticky Bun French Toast. Two homemade sticky buns are split, dipped in batter, grilled to perfection, and served with a side of apple chicken sausage.
For many places in the world, seafood is a rare and exotic treat. In Maine, it’s the heart of our culinary identity. No wonder, then, that many of the foods Mainers consider comforting include these fruits of the sea. From chowder to fried shrimp, these seafood favorites are sure to conjure memories of good eats in a great place.
In Maine, macaroni and cheese often comes with a crustacean twist. Lobster mac and cheese appears on the menu at many restaurants, including the Royal River Grillhouse (106 Lafayette St., Yarmouth, 207-846-1226, www.royalrivergrillhouse.com ). The dish at this classy, harbor-front restaurant combines Maine lobster with local sharp cheddar cheese, pancetta, and pasta in a sherry and Dijon cream, baked with “buttery truffled bread crumbs.” It comes with a side of vegetables, to help appease your gourmand’s guilt.
As New Englanders, we believe that a good bowl of chowder is one of the most comforting foods on earth. The fish chowder at Anglers Restaurant (542 Elm St., Newport, 207-368-3374; 215 East Main St., Searsport, 207-548-2405; 91 Coldbrook Rd., Hampden, 207- 862-2121, www.anglersseafoodrestaurant.com ) is home-made with haddock, potatoes, onions, and lots of butter and cream. It’s a tad thinner than your standard clam chowder, but packed full of flavor. It makes a hearty meal with the requisite side of oyster crackers.
Fried Maine shrimp are little poppers of sweet meat flavored with a hint of the ocean. The Maine shrimp poor boy served at Portland’s comfort food haven Hot Suppa (703 Congress St., Portland, 207-871-5005, www.hotsuppa.com ) comes on local French bread with tomato, lettuce, mayo, and a heaping pile of the crisply fried small shrimp.
Haddock, by virtue of its wide availability and low cost, is classic comfort food. You can eat it in a number of ways:
The lunchtime fried haddock sandwich is basically Maine’s equivalent of a Philly cheesesteak sub. You can get it anywhere. At Gritty McDuff’s (396 Fore St., Portland, 207-772-2739; Lower Main St., Freeport, 207-865-4321; 68 Main St., Auburn, 207-376-2739, www.grittys.com ), this fish comes coated in crunchy barley and then deep-fried and served with the required lemon and tartar sauce. (You can also opt for ale-battered.)
For dinner, many of Maine’s top restaurants spruce up this mild fish, usually stuffing and baking it. You’ll find a particularly good rendition often on the menu at Café Miranda (15 Oak St., Rockland, 207-594-2034, www.cafemiranda.com ): roasted haddock stuffed with prosciutto and radicchio and served with local tomato, garlic, herbs, and pasta.
A Maine specialty, finnan haddie is simply smoked haddock. According to food historian Sandy Oliver: “It comes from Findon, Scotland. It’s named for the town because apparently this is where it was first developed in the early to mid 1800s. It’s smoked over a peat fire. (Peat makes a lot of things taste good, like scotch, for example.) The fishwives hung the fish near the fire that they cooked on after having salted it somewhat.”
Le Garage Restaurant (15 Water St., Wiscasset, 207-882-5409, www.legaragerestaurant.com ) serves a popular appetizer of creamed finnan haddie: custom-smoked fish flaked into a cream and chopped egg sauce served on toast points.
Meat & Potatoes
Maine is a meat-and-potatoes kind of state. We grow over one billion pounds of spuds every year, and our small farms provide top-quality meat, from island-grown lamb to grass-fed beef and even buffalo.
It’s no surprise that Maine restaurants make use of this hearty heritage with some delicious stick-to-your-ribs meals.
Meat pies have long been a Maine staple, from Franco toutieres to traditional chicken pot pies. For a sophisticated take on this favorite dish, try the Caldwell Farm Pie on the menu at the Newcastle Publick House (52 Main St., Newcastle, 207-563-3434). It features all natural Caldwell Farm beef from Turner and vegetable stew in a house-made cheddar cheese crust.
You will find the essence of Italian comfort food in the plumpness of a good, fat meatball paired with slow-cooked marinara sauce. Next time you’re in the Queen City, stop in for one (or several) at Tesoro (114 Harlow St., Bangor, 207-942-6699). This red-sauce, casual Italian joint makes a mean meatball (best accompanied by the cheesy baked ziti). Mangia!
Pub food is, by its nature, comfort food. Hearty, affordable, not too fussy — pubs offer the dishes you crave on a rainy day. The side dish of mashers at Shepherd’s Pie (18 Central St., Rockport, 207-236-8500) is simply to die for. Whatever you do, just don’t ask how much butter went into these potatoes. Believe me, you don’t want to know.
The B&M Bean factory on I-295 in Portland remains a symbol of Maine’s slow-cooked culinary heritage. Gardiner’s A1 Diner (3 Bridge St., Gardiner, 207-582-4804, www.a1diner.com ) serves the B&M beans accompanied by two grilled franks and a side of coleslaw. “Baked beans are a very New England thing,” says sous chef Aaron Harris. “If we didn’t have franks and beans, we couldn’t call ourselves a diner.” This is one of the more traditional items on its menu, which is full of stand-out, from-scratch cooking like the local burger made with grass-fed Oaklands Farm beef raised two miles away and served with caramelized onions and gruyère cheese.
Poutine, a Franco favorite, is a caloric bomb: Maine-grown spuds, deep-fried and smothered in warm gravy, then topped with fresh cheese curds. Outposts along the Maine-Canadian border often offer this traditional “snack,” but we can’t resist the new and improved poutine on the menu at one of Portland’s newest hot spots. Nosh Kitchen Bar (551 Congress St., Portland, 207-553-2227, www.noshkitchenbar.com ) offers a truly decadent version prepared with foie gras!
There’s a competition brewing these days as to which Maine sweet — the whoopie pie or blueberry pie — should become the official state dessert. You be the judge and sample the delicious versions below.
Or try some of the other sweet treats Maine has to offer.
Pie: the quintessential American comfort food. Maine’s favorite version boasts blueberries. Lots of wild ones. Mae’s Café (160 Centre St., Bath, 207-442-8577, www.maescafeandbakery.com ) makes a great blueberry pie in season, and is a lovely spot to pick up some great cakes, cookies, and pies.
Last spring I had the honor of judging a competition at the Maine Whoopie Pie Festival in Dover-Foxcroft to choose the state’s best whoopie pie. Tasting close to sixty whoopie pies in less than two hours was quite an experience. But having one stand out that you’d actually be eager to eat again (which, believe me, is a big thing after consuming that many whoopies) is priceless. The from-scratch whoopie pie from Al’s Pizza (20 Waterville Rd., Skowhegan, 207-474-3100, www.alspizzaskowhegan.com ) is one such whoopie. Not only was it voted the People’s Choice, it also happened to be this judge’s favorite.
If you need proof that the brownie sundae isn’t just for kids, sample the rendition at the casual and comfortable Hatchet Mountain Publick House (42 Hatchet Mountain Rd., Hope, 207-763-4565, www.hatchetmountain.com ). The brownie comes baked in a round individual ramekin to maximize the chewy crust. After you’ve tried the pub’s signature fish and chips, which is also highly recommended, this is a great dessert for two to cap off a very satisfying evening.
Rice pudding is a New England tradition that dates back to the days of the Puritans. And the version at Boda (671 Congress St., Portland, 207-347-7557, www.bodamaine.com ) is a lovely Thai take on that centuries-old favorite. A rich, black Thai sticky rice is combined with sweetened coconut milk and topped with toasted, sliced almonds. To top it off, it comes served with a side of coconut cream to pour over the warm bowl of sticky goodness.
Whether you’re at one of the state’s numerous top-notch bakeries or at a bake sale, delicious baked goods are never hard to come by in Maine. Over the centuries local cooks have developed some genuine specialties:
Molasses Cookies. For a long time, molasses was a key ingredient in Maine cooking, popping up in everything from breads to baked beans. With the rise of sugar as a sweetener, the sticky substance lost popularity, but its legacy lives on in the many Maine baked goods that still use molasses as an essential flavor. Portlanders love the molasses spice cookies from Standard Baking Co. (75 Commercial St., Portland, 207-773-2112).
Doughnuts. Maine has long been rumored to be the birthplace of the doughnut. Every decent diner seems to fry its own. But the tastiest doughnut in our fair state can be found at arguably one of the best restaurants. Primo (2 S. Main St., Rockland, 207-596-0770, www.primorestaurant.com ) makes a bowl of hot zeppole [Italian-style doughnuts] tossed in cinnamon and sugar. These are round, fluffy, sugar-sprinkled bites of heaven.
Blueberry Cake. The best blueberry cake might be the one that comes from your own oven, thanks to Marjorie Standish’s famous recipe in Cooking Down East. The Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake does just what its name suggests.
2 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup shortening
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
⅓ cup milk
1½ cups fresh blueberries
Preheat oven to 350°F. Beat egg whites until stiff. Add about ¼ cup of the sugar to keep them stiff. Cream shortening; add salt and vanilla to this. Add remaining sugar gradually. Add unbeaten egg yolks and beat until light and creamy. Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with the milk. Fold in beaten whites. Fold in the fresh blueberries. (Take a bit of the flour called for in recipe and gently shake berries in it so they won’t settle.) Turn into a greased 8-by-8-inch pan. Sprinkle top of batter lightly with granulated sugar. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes.