Boiled dinners, chowders, fresh from the source. Maine cuisine. American cooking is still regional cooking, full of the flavors and aromas of a certain place. Differences spring from history, climate, availability of ingredients, and patterns of settlement. Today, we conclude a series of monthly articles on regional food in the US. It started back in June with a visit to the Northwest, followed by the Southwest, the mid-South, the Great Lakes region, and the South Atlantic region. Our journey ends with New England.
Union, Maine — Years ago, Maine cooking was often a triumph over adversity. Wives of the old Yankee farmers and fishermen knew the land and the sea well. They made good use of the available foods, which were abundant and of good quality. Today, fresh foods are still plentiful, and although many homespun, heavy dishes have been replaced with lighter variations, the best cooking still comes from those who have a kinship with the land.
Arley Clark, who lives on her 107-year-old farm in Knox County, appreciates the heritage of plentiful crops and the traditional fare of our ancestors. ``This time of year I suffer from a problem of plenty,'' she says.
``There's so much in the garden to be picked or frozen at one time. These beautiful vegetables are at their peak - just right for a New England boiled dinner. It's time for a large platter mounded with colorful carrots, fragrant cabbages and onions, bright red beets, all with the flavor of the corned beef.
``It's true I can make the same dishes in winter with the garden vegetables I've frozen, but right now is the perfect time to enjoy my sweet, fresh, Gilfeather turnips, the yellow beets as well as the red ones, and my wonderful Maine potatoes - everything freshly dug from the garden.''
On the Sennebec Hill farm where she brought up her three children, Mrs. Clark looks forward to having them bring their families home on holidays. This Thanksgiving she'll add enough leaves to her dining room table to accommodate 16 people, including all the grandchildren.
Washing off the newly dug Kennebec potatoes and other vegetables filling her counters, Clark talks of the pleasures of Maine country living. Through corner windows over the kitchen sink she can see her vegetable and herb gardens and the wide pastures spreading down into Katy Cove, to the ``eye of the pond where the river flows in.''
This Mainer has a passion for gardening and knows how many pepper plants she must plant to make 12 quarts of relishes for the freezer and for winter pickles. She keeps notes on the amount of space each cabbage or tomato fills in her garden, rotates her crops to keep the soil healthy, and follows the migrations of birds and animals in her backyard.
Peeling vegetables for her boiled dinner, Clark explains how it's cooked.
``I take the broth from the corned beef and I like to cook all the vegetables in the broth except beets. I usually bake the beets first, then heat them up in the broth. I like the meat to be cooked, so it slices evenly but isn't overcooked. If there's any left over it can be thinly sliced for sandwiches.
``We like Red Flannel Hash made with the vegetables and the corned beef after a boiled dinner - but often there's not much left. I like the hash with an egg for breakfast. And with the boiled beef I like hot mustard and horseradish from my garden. A favorite relish of mine is raw beets grated with horseradish and sugar.''
``One of the local foods I really get excited about is venison,'' Clark says. ``It's a real treat for me. When the kids were small and we were economizing, I always felt with venison, well, this was the time for largess.
``We'd have venison roast and venison stew and steaks and chops. There are always neighbors who hunt in the fall and are generous. This year a friend uses my freezer for his and shares his meat in exchange.
Clark's menus are based on what's in season, and she likes most of the food at hand as it comes from soil, bush, or tree. But not all her cooking is straight down-home Maine food. She's not one to always stick to the traditional when it comes to techniques and combinations - evidenced by her chili, which she makes with rabbit that her son brings from hunting trips.
Baking bread is a habit, and here she has a tremendous variety in flavors.
``I don't buy bread, I make all my own,'' she says. ``The kneading is a good way to think things through with its repeating motions, and those who don't bake are very impressed with a homemade loaf.
``I make lots of winter squash bread, and a favorite is my carrot and bran yeast loaf, which is delicious, and so is my baked bean bread. All the family likes my different kinds of onion bread like onion and cottage cheese, onion and bacon, and onion and walnut bread - great for toast with cream cheese. And pot roast sandwiches are just super with onion bread.''
Clark is equally familiar with the many seafood dishes of Maine and says her family eats more fish than meat. She often serves chowder for supper parties.
``Many times I use three kinds of fish for a chowder, like hake, cusk, and cod together. If someone gives me a bit of crab meat, I'll add that. Many people say it's definitely not `down Maine,' but I often add grated carrot to my fish chowder. I like the color.''
Though her friends know her as Arley, Mrs. Clark's byline is A. Carman Clark for free-lance magazine writing and garden columns in the Camden Herald. She has also written a book, ``From the Orange Mailbox: Notes From A Few Country Acres'' (Harpswell Press, Gardiner, Maine, $15).
Here are some of her recipes: Nobby Apple Cake 1 cup sugar 3 tablespoons shortening 1 egg 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 cup flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 cups apples, chopped 1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped
Beat together sugar, shortening, egg, and seasonings until light and fluffy. Blend in flour and soda, then apples and nuts. Bake in an 8-by-8-inch brownie pan about 40 minutes at 350 degrees F. Serve warm with whipped cream or a dollop of vanilla ice cream. Sennebec Blueberry Pie 5 cups blueberries 1 scant cup sugar Dash of salt 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1/4 cup flour 2 tablespoons butter
For our family pie, I use 5 cups of berries, although most people use 4. I use 3/4 cup of sugar for myself, but the kids like a bit more.
Using berries I've frozen myself, I take them out of the freezer and spread them out on a sheet to thaw a bit before putting them in the pie.
When making piecrust, I add a tablespoon of cornstarch to every cup of flour, something my brother, who worked for a flour company, recommended. It makes the flour more like pastry flour, and it's worked well for me for many years. I also mix powdered milk with cold water to mix my pie pastry instead of plain water.
Bake in 450-degree-F. oven for 10 minutes. then reduce to 350 degrees F. and bake 35 minutes. Sennebec September Cake 1 cup sugar 1 tablespoon butter 1 egg 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 2/3 cup whole wheat flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 cups apples, chopped 1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped 1/2 cup dates, chopped
Blend sugar, butter, egg, and nutmeg. Mix in flour, salt, and baking powder. Fold in apples, nuts, and dates.
Bake in an 8-by-8-inch brownie pan about 40 minutes at 400 degrees F. Serve warm. Top with ice cream or whipped cream. Arley's Sweet Pepper Relish 9 sweet red peppers, chopped 9 sweet green peppers, chopped 9 small to medium onions, peeled, chopped 2 cups white vinegar 3/4 cup sugar 3 teaspoons salt 2 teaspoons celery seeds
Chop vegetables. A meat grinder or food processor works well for this. Pour boiling water over vegetables and leave 10 minutes. Drain well.
In an enamel or stainless steel kettle, boil together remaining ingredients. Add chopped peppers and onions and bring to boil again. Simmer 5 minutes.
Ladle into jars and seal. Process in boiling water bath 5 minutes after water comes to a rolling boil.
It may be true that this old recipe was served with bear steaks 100 years ago, but try it with roast beef. Arley's Beet Relish 1 2/3 cups sugar 2 cups white vinegar 1 tablespoon salt 2/3 cup grated horseradish 2 quarts cooked beets, ground or shredded 2 chopped onions
Dissolve sugar in vinegar. Combine with remaining ingredients and simmer 10 minutes.
Pack into jars, seal, and process in water bath 10 minutes. Turkey Rollups Fresh or frozen asparagus 2 slices turkey breast for each person 1 can condensed cream of onion soup 1/2 cup milk 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 1/4 cup shredded sharp cheese
Cook asparagus until just tender. Place 2 or 3 asparagus spears on each slice of turkey. Roll and place seam side down in buttered baking pan.
Combine and stir remaining ingredients and heat. Cover turkey rolls with sauce and bake until bubbly hot. Or cover turkey rolls with foil and heat in oven then spoon hot sauce over before serving.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.