Home Cooking for the Holidays

In her new book, Sandra L. Oliver, food columnist for the Bangor Daily News, gathered recipes from readers across the state that are sure to inspire this holiday season.  

Photographed by Jennifer Smith-Mayo

Excerpted from Maine Home Cooking: 175 Recipes from Down East Kitchens. Down East Books, Camden, Maine; 288 pages; hardcover; $29.95.

Home cooking is alive and well in Maine. Like most of my Islesboro island neighbors, and many others in Down East and inland Maine, I am a home cook with no professional culinary training. Being a food writer has required me to pay attention to some aspects of professional food practices, but in my heart of hearts, cooking is how I take care of family and friends, use what I grow in my island garden, and live responsibly on the earth. Like you, I have the daily chore of figuring out what to make for dinner. I never think of myself as a chef: to be a chef means you are the boss in the kitchen, with someone to do what you say, and I don’t know about you, but there are only cats in my kitchen, and they don’t take orders.

I hear a lot about how no one cooks any more. Some of my friends even tell me they don’t cook, but I notice they are feeding their families and they look reasonably healthy to me. When I ask how they do it, they say, “Well, 
I just roast a chicken and boil some potatoes and make a salad.” Why they think they aren’t cooking baffled me until I realized that they thought cooking was assembling twenty-seven ingredients and spending half a day in the kitchen, plus probably getting a fry pan to flare up suddenly like TV chefs do.

Lots more people cook in a modest, daily, simple fashion than the professionals give us credit for. If you are reading this article, I’ll bet you are a home cook, too.

Pumpkin Butterscotch Cookies

Nancy-Linn Ellis, from Stockton Springs, proprietor of Maine Temptations, sent along this recipe that she learned from a Pennsylvania friend. The texture — softly chewy with the contrasting sweet nuggets of the chips — is really appealing. To my horror, I personally ate four in a row.

Makes 60 Cookies

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
1½ cups cooked pumpkin (approximately 1 can)

1 teaspoon vanilla
1 bag butterscotch bits (approximately 11 ounces)
½ cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease baking sheets. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Cream the butter and sugar together, beat in the pumpkin and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients. Mix well then fold in the butterscotch bits and the walnuts. The dough will be fairly stiff. Drop by teaspoonful onto cookie sheet. Bake approximately 15 minutes until they have risen and browned slightly.

Advice: These cookies do not spread very much on the pan, so place them fairly close together.

Tourtière and Christmas Eve Memories
Tourtière recipes seem to come along with good memories. Jeanine Brown Gay, in Belfast, wrote to say that her parents “were the first of a large family to marry and have children, so the dozen or more relatives would gather at my parents’ home after midnight mass for tourtière, wine, and coffee. My brother and I loved it, because the aunts and uncles would wake us up to open gifts that Santa had left for us under the tree.”

Peggy learned to make tourtière by watching her French-Canadian stepmother make it, and Charlene Randall, in Bangor, found two recipes for it in her mother’s recipe box. Charlene wrote that her mother, Jeanette “Odele” Lewis, was ninety-two when she passed away in 2002, and cooked for most of her life. Charlene reported, “Mother said these pork pies were a New Year’s tradition in her home.”

Sharon Goguen, in Belfast, sent along her family’s interesting variation on tourtière, writing “My father’s family was French-Canadian and we always had this on Christmas Eve. It is a little different from most recipes I have seen, as this one incorporates apples.” Alice Rollins sent along three variations on the tourtière theme.

Tourtière, traditionally served in Quebeçois families after Christmas Eve midnight mass, has to have pork, potato, onion, garlic, cinnamon, salt, and pepper and be baked between two crusts. “There are probably as many recipes for tourtière as there are Quebeçois,” wrote Peggy Gannon, of Palmyra. Most recipes call for cinnamon. Some call for cloves, and one for allspice. Sage, marjoram, parsley, thyme, and poultry seasoning all put in an appearance. Seasoning the pie is a matter of taste; just make sure you use cinnamon. Tourtière is good served warm or cold, and accompanied by cranberry sauce or applesauce. Cool the filling before putting it in the pie crust because it will keep the pastry from softening too much while baking.

Serves 8 to 10

4 medium to large potatoes
2 pounds ground pork
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic or less, to taste
½ to 1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cloves or allspice
1 teaspoon sage or poultry seasoning
thyme, marjoram, ground celery to taste (optional)
two (9-inch) pie crusts

Put the potatoes on to cook, and while they are boiling, put the pork, onion, and garlic into a large skillet and cook them all together very well. Then add spices, cover, and reduce the temperature to low. When the potatoes are done, drain and mash them, adding milk and butter if you wish, just as if you were making mashed potatoes for dinner. Mix the pork and potatoes together very well, and put in a cool place to chill.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll out the pastry, line your pie plate, and spoon the cooled pork mixture into the pie. Cover with the top crust. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and bake an additional 35 to 40 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

Shrimp pesto roll
This hot hors d’oeuvre showed up at a holiday party I attended. It would also make an elegant accompaniment to a soup or salad for supper or lunch. Use Maine shrimp in it or shrimp from away. If you buy fresh shrimp, dunk it in salted boiling water for only a minute and drain it quickly. Dry it a bit on a paper towel before putting it into the roll.
I buy the puff pastry. My life is too short to make puff pastry from scratch, but if you want to, more power, and a gold star to you.

Makes 2 dozen ¼ inch slices

1 package puff pastry, 2 sheets, thawed according to package directions
10 ounces shrimp, cleaned and boiled
4 to 6 tablespoons pesto
½ cup grated cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Open out the puff pastry sheets and spread the pesto over the surface. Arrange the shrimp across the middle of the pastry slices and sprinkle the cheese over all. Fold over to cover the shrimp, dampen the very edges, and pinch them shut. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, reducing the oven to 400 degrees after the first 15 minutes. Slice to serve.

Venison or Beef stroganoff

One of my favorite things to do with venison is to make a stroganoff. I use a basic beef stroganoff recipe and substitute venison. I have used a pot roast and stewing meat, even steaks. Like many dishes of this sort, it is better the second day.

Serves 8

2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ to 1¾ pounds venison cut into strips
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
3 cups mushrooms, sliced
1 cup beef broth or water
½ cup white wine
1 cup sour cream
salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy pot (a Dutch oven is ideal) over a high heat, and quickly brown the venison. Remove it, then put the onions in the pot, reduce the heat to medium high and cook them until they are soft. Remove the onion and reserve it. Melt the butter in the pot and add the mushrooms. As soon as they are soft, put the meat and onions back into the pot, and add the broth and wine. Simmer over a low heat for 1 hour, add the sour cream, taste, and add salt and pepper to taste.