To know me is to know about my parents’ farm up in Maine. I tend to gush…and for that, I apologize. But it really is a very special place, in the foothills of the White Mountains, on a lake, 80 acres for my kids to thump around and explore. And a front porch with breezes and sunsets that satisfy the soul.
And the food. My parents are essentially hobby farmers, earning a couple of bucks selling sunflowers and specialty varieties of vegetables at area farmstands, but predominantly growing for themselves and their friends. We earn our dinner picking raspberries, pulling weeds, building raised beds. Nothing tastes as good as food raised by your own hand. All comers leave the farm with a car full of farm-fresh produce, to nourish them with vitamins and memories for a couple days after their visit has ended.
My family went up for these last weeks of August, this year, for some cousin time, grandparent bonding, and all-you-can-eat veggie buffet. My, oh my, do we eat well at the farm.
Often we grill some of the grass-fed beef, raised on the hay from the front field, and serve it with minutes-from-the field corn and some tomatoes. Or stir fry my dad’s bok choy with still-sticky garlic for a simple supper after a day of shopping and lobster rolls in Freeport. But at least once every vacation, I put together a ridiculously decadent vegetable meal, in which I don’t leave well enough alone, and instead tweak and enrich everything, plying my dark arts of vegetable cookery. This year’s feast was, in the vernacular of the locals, wicked awesome.
Roasted Fennel with a wee touch o’ parm.
Trimmed a few fennel bulbs and cut out about 75% of the core, then sliced into wedges. Tossed with olive oil and salt, then roasted at 400 for about 45 minutes, turning occasionally, until caramelized at the edges. Grated some fresh parmesan cheese over the top just before serving.
Greens and goat cheese.
Mmmm. I stemmed a big pile of greens: chard, spinach, kale, beet tops. Then I blanched them for about 2 minutes in a big pot of boiling water. About 10 minutes before we ate, I sauteed some shallots and garlic in coconut oil, then added the greens and slowly heated though. Once they were piping hot, I crumbled 3 ounces of fresh goat cheese into the pan, seasoned with salt and pepper (taste! That’s how much…) and turned off the heat. The goat cheese softened into a creamy swirl, and was really delicious. Another time, I’d love to use a creamy blue cheese, because I have a weakness for greens and blue cheese.
Southern-style squash casserole.
This totally old-school dish is just so good…I ate the leftovers for breakfast and at least 2 other people took my name in vain for doing so, since they had their eye on those leftovers, too! Here’s the recipe. My only change was to add a few dashes of hot sauce to the egg mixture. The secret to squash casserole is to cook the squash to just-shy-of-mushy, then drain it really well. If you try to be all sophisticated and keep a bite to the squash, you will end up with a watery mess instead of an unctuous, rich casserole. Made of cheese and Ritz crackers. I stand by it.
Roasted beets and potatoes.
In Maine, the seasons are short and hot, and the produce comes almost all at once, unlike the more metered output in southern climates. Beets and potatoes are ready now, in late August, so we eat them tender and sweet out of the ground. Both become more starchy with storage, so try to find local, freshly dug roots for the full impact of this recipe. I promise it will be worth your time.
(Just an aside….as I type, an owl is hooting, and a loon is gurgling. No other place sounds like Maine.)
Peel a couple of pounds of fresh beets and cut into 1” cubes. Toss with olive oil and salt, and arrange on a baking sheet. Scrub some new potatoes, fingerlings if possible, and halve. Toss with more salt and olive oil, and arrange on another sheet. Don’t toss them together or the beets will stain the potatoes. Roast at 425 until crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, about 40 minutes. Cool slightly, then dress with a mustardy mustard vinaigrette: 2 tablespoons dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon coarse grain mustard, 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, ¼ cup olive oil, salt and pepper. I particularly like this salad at room temperature.
Roasted Cauliflower with Curry Vinaigrette.
Again with the roasting…it is my favorite thing to do with vegetables. Cut cauliflower into large florets, toss with olive oil and salt, and roast at 425 until tender and golden in spots, about 35 minutes. Whisk together the juice of 1 lemon, a teaspoon of good curry powder, ½ teaspoon of honey, a pinch of cayenne, and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Dress the hot cauliflower with the vinaigrette, then toss in a heaping 1/3 cup of finely chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley and mint. You could make this a meal by adding in some cooked chick peas and a few tablespoons golden raisins. Mmm.
Yes, we all toast our almonds to bring out the nuttiness, but I was inspired by Ottolenghi’s mind-blowing spinach salad to fry my almonds in the oil I would have used to dress the beans. I heated 2 tablespoons good olive oil in a small saute pan, then added a big handful of coarsely chopped almonds, and fried until deeply burnished and crispy. I poured the hot oil and almonds over a generous pound of blanched, shocked green beans, then drizzled with some killer sherry vinegar my brother brought back from Spain earlier this summer. A little shower of coarse salt, and this was the sleeper hit of the night.
I wish I snapped a picture of the groaning table–it looked like Thanksgiving. It tasted even better! We were stuffed and happy as we munched our way through this spread. I will not report the bottle count of cold white wine for our visit; suffice it to say that it was hot and we needed refreshing. But the food? No farms, no food, man. Even if you are working with grocery store produce (and I encourage you to think of your farmer’s market not just as a fun thing to do on the weekend, but as the main place you procure fruits and veg), farms add the color to our plates.