I took a trip last week to two different locations. Not exactly locations, but eras, and I was not time traveling, I was in the present, and yet the past … and perhaps the future was part of the backdrop of this story, too.
I took my son on college visits last week and saw once again the genus and the continuation of my love of food, cooking and creation. We visited six colleges in the northeast, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont. These were three of my old stomping grounds 30 years ago — places where I lived worked and traveled in for almost a decade between high school and the beginning of my first stay in New York City.
I spent summers of my earlier youth in my father’s hometown of Skowhegan, Maine, and on the coast at Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. It is no coincidence that my son is interested in that area of the country, as it has been part of my conversation for the entirety of his 17 years.
What has also never left me are the images, allure and romance of the food and all the possibilities that cooking in this part of the country hold. As much as I prattle on about the wonders of Kentucky, I had almost forgotten I had another life once, and while my work here will definitely influence both of my sons’ sense memories, the trip back was a welcome opportunity for me to look outside the confines of the last two decades.
It isn’t that the Northeast is any better, or worse, it’s just that it’s different. Seasons, staples, cooking techniques are all intertwined as they are here, but the outcomes form from a different perspective. Local is the buzzword, as it is here, and the corporate world has still taken a big chunk out of the dining options up east (no surprise there either). People still cook from a sense of history, and I think that’s an equalizer in all parts of the country.
What I noticed, however, is an acute difference in available ingredients, and an even more acute self-reliance on the part of cooks and restaurateurs.
Seasons are short in Maine and Vermont, corn and beans are long gone, and we are into hard neck squash and wonderful potatoes. Seafood, of course, is abundant even in the rugged mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, and in most cases it hasn’t been out of the water more than a day. Bread, bread baking, artisanal bread, independent bakeries, need I go on?
We had great local bread at almost every meal, and what wasn’t a meal was a quick dash into a local place for warm sticky buns and house made granola. I was literally the kid in the candy store, wanting everything. Speaking of candy, no disrespect to the candymakers of this region, but Portland, Maine boasts several great candy stores within a few blocks of each other, so good it made my teeth hurt.
Now before I have my honorable Kentucky citizenship badge taken away, remember that of our own free will my wife and I have raised two upstanding Kentucky boys in this very city for the last 22 years. And also bear in mind that my temporary bias includes “trip fever,” which makes any place NOT where you live amazing and enticing.
We had our share of bad food, so many Dunkin Donuts that my son commented they were “the KFC of the Northeast”, and sticker shock after our meals. But what struck me the hardest was the smallest areas still had a vibrant food culture, something that we struggle with in this part of Kentucky. That a lot of these small communities supported each other was evident, that in all these college towns the locals mattered was apparent, and I wondered; why not us? Why after 22 years are we still struggling to cement a local food identity? Why are the small businesses plainly struggling? Where are the independents in a town bound by two universities and a vibrant horse culture?
Some are still here, others have morphed into a new version of the original, truthfully some probably want to fold up and go home but they still open their doors every day; they still matter. It is a question that I struggle with every season. I want to eat local, I want to be wowed by the harvests and the talents that these craftsman displays, it should rightfully be too hard to choose every night where to eat …
I have to tell you that the sight of my son tearing into his first lobster made me proud. There is no substitute for the real thing eaten on the coast on a warm fall afternoon. But what I found even more rewarding was the lobster stew I had at the same lunch. While this is not an exact duplication, I think you’ll find its pretty close;
2- lbs. of lobster meat, tail, claw and knuckle, or the meat of two 1 and ½ pounders; if you can get fresh lobster in the shell and cook it; you will get the benefit of the shell and the cooking liquid to build your flavor base.
2- ribs of celery diced
2- shallots minced
1-Small red bell pepper, roasted, skinned and diced
3- russet potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled and medium diced
Fresh thyme, fresh tarragon to taste
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Cream, half and half, or whole milk
White wine or the lobster liquor if you cook your lobster whole in the shell
If you are lucky enough to get fresh lobster in the shell then steam or boil the lobster for up to 8 minutes per pound, but remember that you will be cooking the lobster in the stew as well so cook just to finish. Remove the meat from the shell and chop uniformly. Reserve the bodies for your stock and start the stew by sweating the bodies, the onion and celery, and adding some white wine to deglaze.
Then add in the dairy; you may choose all cream for a very rich stew, half and half for a nice texture but less fat, or whole milk which will give you chowder like consistency and a little richness. Or you can mix them together and pour enough over the bodies to cover about two inches above. Reduce the liquid in the pot by ¼ and strain out the bodies. Add the diced potatoes and simmer until the potatoes are just done. If you need to add more dairy, just add enough to cover everything completely. Add in the lobster, the peppers and then chop small amounts of thyme and tarragon and add just enough to bloom the flavors.
The finished stew should be thick, but not pasty or sauce like. If the dairy has reduced too much, thin it out with some milk. Season with salt and pepper, add a shot of lemon if you like, and enjoy with some hot crusty artisanal bread.
The other dish that popped back onto my radar was Indian pudding, a dish that I remember not too fondly from my youth. It used to be mushy and over seasoned with clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. But this rendition was extraordinary and probably what it should have been all along.
4- cups of whole milk
½ cup of yellow corn meal
2 1/2 -Tbl. Molasses
1 -Tbl. Maple syrup
2 -Tbl. Butter
2 -tsp. cinnamon
1 -tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
½ -tsp. Jamaican allspice (my choice)
½- tsp. minced ginger
2 -large eggs whipped well
Treat the first part of this process like you were making grits; simmer the milk and stir in the cornmeal. Stir until the consistency is smooth and slightly thick, it could take 15 minutes. Off the stove add in the molasses, maple syrup, spices and one of the tablespoons of butter. Take the other tablespoon and butter the side of a casserole dish. Slowly add in both eggs to the cooled mixture and combine thoroughly. Place the mixture in the buttered dish and place in a 325 oven for approximately 1 and ½ hours or until a crust is formed and a toothpick comes out relatively dry. This is pudding not cake so leave it loose. Serve with good vanilla ice cream while still warm.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.