Cauliflower Gratin

We were desperately in need of real dinner. A proper, grown-up meal taken at the table and not in front of the TV. We’ve been faking it, eating leftovers my mother-in-law sent over, going out, and snacking at odd hours for weeks. I was ready to cook something. Nothing elaborate, but a satisfying, balanced meal. I sort of achieved my goal. I meant to have another vegetable on the plate, but between chasing Violet around the living room, walking the dog, decorating for Christmas, scrubbing the bathtub because somebody pooped in it (not naming names), and packing for a little trip later this week, I only managed this. Cauliflower gratin. And lamb chops. Really, really good lamb chops from Bleecker and Flamm. Which I always want to call Flourish and Blotts. We cooked the thick chops very quickly in a cast iron skillet over very high heat. Salted and peppered, rested and rare. This baked cheesy veg is a perfect side dish for the holidays, or any night of the week. You could add wine, mustard powder, or other spices, or even a squirt of Sriracha. I kept it simple. Because all we wanted was to sit down across from each other in the dining room with candles lit, with the baby fast asleep in her crib upstairs, have a glass of wine, and a lovely, quiet, delicious dinner at home. Sometimes that is all you need to restore your sanity and feel like you’re living the dream.

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“Maggi Blue” (Sweets & Meats Market)

Today’s sandwich is the “Maggi Blue” from Sweets & Meats Market in Rockland. It combines liver pate, brie cheese, whole grain mustard, and lettuce on a baguette.

Location: 218 Main Street, Rockland
Price: $7.00
Notes: It seems like there are two main types of people who get into the food business. There are the cynics, who coldly calculate that it will take 16 months to break even on adding a commercial French Fry cooker to their business, assuming they can sling at least ten orders of Sisco crinkle-cuts per day at a 600% markup, and if it doesn’t work out, well, they can always use it to deep fry the chicken tenders.

Then, there are the brilliant food weirdos, who wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night, all cropped hair and random tattoos, wondering what it would be like to bulk-prepare 50 pounds of duck confit at a time, and whether their regulars would be interested in seeing it made into a daily special.

It can be a lot of fun to eat at this second type of establishment.

It’s in this second category, then, that we find the “Sweets & Meats Market” in Rockland’s South End. It’s a deceptively large deli and specialty food store wedged into a corner space in a mostly residential part of town (a handwritten letter from a neighbor posted to the shop’s wall begs them to keep baking delicious smelling cakes at night, but please, no more bacon) that specializes in the kinds of foods the owners clearly hold dear, with little to tie the different items together thematically.

There should be sandwiches, owner Julia McClure must have decided. But there should also be freshly baked cinnamon rolls. And whoopie pies. Oh, and we’ll sell fine meats and cheeses from the deli. And a cooler full of Pellegrino and chilled wine. And a dining room for people to sit and have lunch. And what if we made a macaroni and cheese using the ends of the taleggio, Spanish manchego, and the Humboldt Fog that we have in the case? Oh! And we should have bulk spices for sale from huge Mason jars behind the cash register. Menus? No, no menus…we’ll just write everything in six inch letters on giant chalkboards.

This kind of specialty store is exactly the kind of place I cherish, the kind of place that seems to only have started popping up in the last couple of years. There’s not much in the way of structure, but an absolute passion for food and cooking permeates every aspect of the shop. You get the sense that McClure is cooking exactly what she feels like, when she feels like it, and if people happen to wander by and want to purchase some of it, well, that’s just a bonus.

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L & H Burgers

L & H Burgers: 313 Main Street, Rockland, ME 04841; (207) 593-7995; L & H Burgers on Facebook

After the five-and-dimes and the Greyhound bus station gave way to the smoky greasy spoons and the consignment clothing stores, which were in turn replaced by a seemingly endless string of art galleries and rosemary-scented cappuccino-and-focaccia joints, downtown Rockland was primed and ready for a high-end burger restaurant. It was time to improve upon the pub-grub standard found elsewhere in town, to elevate the humble burger from blue plate special to a place of respect, to cash in on the burger trend that swept the rest of the country a few years ago. We all wanted it to happen. L & H Burgers arrived just in the nick of time.

Occupying the ground floor of the Wadsworth Building on scenic Main Street, L & H Burgers is the brainchild of John Stowe, who also owns next door Italian mainstay Rustica. The dining room is modern and spare, with bright walls covered in abstract art, and widely-spaced tables scattered with primary blue plastic chairs that instantly called to mind images of a crowded Ikea on tax-free weekend. It’s a comfortable space, open and airy, with some of the echoes of the high ceilings dampened by a row of soundproofing panels at crown molding height. It’s casual, but at once clearly delivering a different experience than you’ll get dining in at a fast food restaurant.

Jillian: But this is a fast food restaurant. Not what we know now in our cynical time about factory farming, and food created by science to please the palate through chemical trickery. But simple food, reasonable prices, family-friendly, easygoing staff, a bright, happy space. And yes, our food was out within minutes, which is a relief because I was figuratively starving. I loved that the dining room is spare but still very warm with colorful canvases and framed photos of the owners’ daughters on a wooden bureau in the back. The approach to design is spot-on, in my opinion. They’ve created a place that feels fun and intimate at the same time.

The menu spends some time introducing you the restaurant’s commitment to 100% all natural Black Angus beef, which they promise is “the highest quality, humanely raised, hormone and antibiotic free.” It’s the standard pitch, but it’s nice to hear from the get-go that this is a place that is taking their burgers seriously, and it got me excited about what was to come. In addition to burgers, L & H Burgers offers an array of appetizers and salads (which can be served topped with a burger), as well as a few paninis, relegated to the back of the one-sheet menu. A basic burger comes in at $7.50, with customized combinations including goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, wasabi mayonnaise, jalapenos, or avocado adding to the cost per topping.

Rather than get creative, I trusted in the recommendations “From the Masters,” suggested topping combinations that, served with fries or coleslaw, round the price up to an even $11. I tried the “Ragun Cajun,” a beef burger topped with blackened smoked bacon, fried onion strings, cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, and buttermilk ranch. The burger arrived cooked perfectly to my requested medium rare, the beef and toppings piled proudly on a plump round, freshly baked bun that seemed to fall somewhere in between a white hamburger bun and a chewy brioche. The burger patty was large (I am guessing about 6-8 ounces), well seasoned and charred, with plenty of pink in the center. As the juices ran down my arm and into the plastic basket, I couldn’t help but think about how pronounced the flavors of all the toppings were. Usually, so-called “gourmet” burgers just end up a kind of runny mishmash of strong flavors. In the case of the “Ragun Cajun,” I had already chalked up the description of “blackened, smoked bacon” as mere menu-speak.

L & H Burgers

But here it all was, with smoky, peppery flavor from the bacon, sharp bite from the cheddar, creaminess from the ranch, and a satisfying crunch from the fried onions. Every taste was present and distinct, and served the burger well. The side of fries were outstanding as well, hand-cut thin shoestrings with bits of skin left intact, cooked until perfectly brown and crisp, only to be doused in malt vinegar and swabbed in ketchup. It was an outstanding performance from a side dish I don’t normally care much about; enough to make a believer out of even a casual fry-eater. Rounded out with a Brooklyn Lager tallboy from the restaurant’s beer and wine list, it made for a hearty, satisfying lunch.

L & H Burgers

Jillian had similar success with her “Shroominator” burger, topped with mushrooms, Havarti cheese, red onion, bacon, baby spinach, and finished with a garlic lemon mayo. Again, I was amazed by how distinct all of the ingredients were, and how they really did combine to make a special burger. A side of onion rings (for a $2 upcharge) were flaky, golden, and crunchy.

Jillian: The “Shroomintor” is simply an excellent cheeseburger. A juices-running-down-your-chin burger, cooked exactly to medium-rare, as requested. Each topping, as Malcolm already mentioned, was distinct and contributed something important, i.e., texture, flavor, meltiness, etc., to the whole. I loved this menu suggestion, and plan to use it as a sort of starting point and guide for further visits. Because, while I found it utterly delicious, and nearly perfect, for me, bacon is not exactly redundant, but kind of unnecessary when a burger is as good as this. A thin, bland, poorly cooked burger of low quality beef might require the quick and dirty, salty pork-fat-flavor injection bacon provides, but this one doesn’t need it. I did love how the heat wilted the baby spinach, how much gooey Havarti enrobed the meat, and the prominence of the mushrooms, always a perfect foil for beef.

We were less taken with the “L & H Grilled Cheese,” an $8 panini packed with mild Cheddar, bleu cheese, plum tomato, and roasted mushrooms. While certainly tasty (and perhaps a good option for the vegetarians in your party), it’s hard to imagine returning to L & H Burgers for panini when the restaurant’s focus on burgers is done so very, very well.

Overall, we left L & H Burgers completely satisfied. The service was fast and friendly, the burgers excellent, and the prices comfortable enough to serve both the tourist crowds in the Summer as well as the locals that will keep the place alive all Winter. An $11 burger and fries may seem steep compared to the bargain varieties available at a bar or at a drive through, but the dedication to quality, creativity, and uniqueness of ingredients, as well as the generous portions that carried us from lunchtime right through to breakfast, make L & H Burgers a welcome addition to Rockland’s food scene. It’s a relief to see hamburgers given the treatment they deserve, right here in Midcoast Maine, and it’s where we’ll head the next time the burger craving strikes.

Update! L+H Burgers has permanently closed its doors.

Cranberry Cardamom Monkey Bread with Clementine Glaze

Cranberry Cardamom Monkey Bread with Clementine GlazeMonkey bread is the perfect holiday treat. Make it for an open house, brunch, or dinner party, and you will have every guest standing around the kitchen pulling apart and munching on warm, sweet bread. I have happily made the easy version, wherein you open a can of Pillsbury biscuits, roll them and soak them in butter and cinnamon sugar. This somewhat more refined recipe is not that much harder to do. And the result is so cozy and pretty. I always have a big bowl of clementines in the house in winter. And the cardamom adds such a lovely aromatic richness. Look for it sold in bulk at the natural foods store – then you can get only the amount you need.

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Shredded Turkey Pozole Rojo

Here’s what I always assumed about pozole, the Mexican soup that predates even the arrival of the Spanish in that country: I knew that it was usually made with pork. I knew that it was studded with pozole, corn kernels that have had their hulls removed using lime (the mineral, not the fruit), which absorb the flavors of the lightly spicy broth. Its primary appeal had, for me, been in its thematic similarity to Vietnamese pho, where the basic broth is plenty tasty, but the real fun is in the crazy mix-ins, including shredded lettuce or cabbage, chopped onion, radish, avocado, tomato, jalapenos, or crispy strips of tortilla.

What I didn’t know, and what makes this dish the most intense meal you can possibly prepare for a simple chilly autumn evening at home in front of a Duck Dynasty marathon, is pozole’s significance in Aztec ritual. Ancient Mexicans believed that man was formed by the gods out of masa, the dough used for tortillas. So the notion of combining corn with meat in one dish was already pretty complicated. On special occasions, though, the Aztecs did the soup one better. They made a special version of the stew that combined hulled corn, or hominy, with meat cut from human beings. That’s right. Their pozole was made with people. Following a ritual sacrifice, when a person’s still-beating heart was ripped out of their chest, the rest of their body was then chopped up and added to the stew, and shared among members of the community as an act of communion.

Needless to say, this gave the conquering Spanish a rollicking case of the heebiejeebies, and they banned the practice as part of their sweeping, systematic devastation of prehispanic culture. Eventually, pork came to be used as a substitute in the soup because hey, next best thing. Our version uses leftover Thanksgiving turkey, which is the next best, next best thing. You can also use chicken or pork rinds, but once you know the origins of the dish, you can’t un-know them. Eating a simple bowl of proper pozole, chewing the stewed meat, feeling the broth-soaked hominey pop between your teeth, and letting a habanero-sweat run down your temple, nearly becomes a religious event. Buen provecho.

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Fried Oyster Po’ Boy Sandwiches with Spicy Remoulade

The first time I went to New Orleans, it was my birthday. My twenty-something birthday. I don’t remember which. Malcolm and I were living in New York and in the process of getting back together after an awful/awesome summer apart. He wanted to impress me. And so he surprised me with a trip. A weekend at a fancy hotel where we would fill the jetted tub with soap bubbles and drink champagne on the balcony. We strolled in the Garden District, making plans to live in a storied house, and drank hurricanes and French 75s in the Quarter, listened to jazz in the dark, danced in the streets, rode the trolley, visited the cemetery, looked at paintings of a dog that were popular at the time, and all the things you do on a first visit to that haunted, sinking city. We had celebratory bananas foster for dessert after etoufee, and got into a terrible fight for reasons I cannot disclose here. It was a marvelous, fabulous, dramatic, romantic adventure. We ate beignets at the airport with one last tipple before boarding our plane home. Oh, but we never got around to getting po’ boys. The first time I had one of those was a different trip altogether.

Fried Oyster Po' Boy with Spicy RemouladeWe were staying with his parents at their house in the panhandle of Florida. It was one of those great little Southern houses that’s always disappearing into the swampy earth. It was so charming and lovely and warm. Mostly, we sat by the pool and watched the dogs frolic on the lawn and sipped bloody marys and read and ate and ate. One afternoon, we picked up a Santa-sized sack of oysters from a roadhouse. His dad immediately used the knife on his hip to open one up, and dared me without saying a word. I swallowed the slimy bivalve and asked for another, quivering. We went on to have many dozens of Gulf oysters on that vacation. And by the time I was done, I think I actually enjoyed them. Mostly raw, with Saltines and lots of hot sauce.

But a fried oyster is a truly splendid thing. You use cornmeal and flour to achieve a crunchy exterior, and thus coated and cooked in very hot oil, the slippery shellfish turns creamy and rich. You need a roll that is soft but has a slight crunch to its crust. And this remoulade is awfully good. I love whizzing up a bunch of salty, spicy, strong condiments in mayo, and slathering it on everything. You could dip your shoes in this stuff. I bought these oysters from our local fish market, already shucked. Po’ boys are a perfect way to celebrate absolutely nothing.

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