Only The Lonely: J’s Valentine

Alone, again. Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and you’ve destroyed another fledgling relationship with your neediness, your jealousy, your poor judgement and lack of underpants during a night of drinking with his coworkers, or your unnerving penchant for dressing up your dog in period costumes. You suck. In another scenario, that childish bastard has cheated on you, dumped you via text or Twitter, or gone out for milk and never returned. You changed your status from “it’s complicated” to “single.”  Men suck. In a third hackneyed scenario, you are alone by choice, mostly feeling like a badass single lady and reveling in not shaving your legs, watching every episode of Downton Abbey without interruption, and getting ever bolder venturing to the basement by yourself. You go, girl.

You know Valentine’s Day is going to happen whether you like it or not. Mostly you’ve made your peace with the phony holiday. You consider its origins in sylvan Roman orgies and snicker at the teddy bears and paper hearts that oversaccharine what was once a most debauched occasion. In this spirit you decide you go out on the town alone in Portland. All your girlfriends are out with men who don’t deserve them.Your guy friends have flown to Las Vegas for a four day bender at the Spearmint Rhino. Even your dog has a date with the dachshund in 4A. What are you going to do and where are you going to go when every single soul is coupled up shooting stars into one another’s eyes with soppy love leaking through their sweaters like a wet, red stain? You, my friend, are going to J’s.

J’s Oyster is seedy, salty, grimy, noisy, and perfect. There is nothing romantic about it. It’s not a place to hold hands, make plans or declarations of boundless, heedless love. It’s Romantic with a capitol R, if you want to wear an oatmeal-colored Irish sweater and drink whiskey and look out to sea thinking of The Second Coming of Yeats. This is my prescription. Walk in and around the bar to the dark back corner. Order your liquor neat. Eat a dozen oysters without ceremony or decorum, ’cause let’s face it, oysters aren’t sexy. Order a cup of haddock chowder. It is always soul satisfying. Then, have the decades-deep waitress bring you a lobster. The reddest they’ve got. The one that was angry going into the pot. Twist off its claws and tail with abandon. Because you don’t care who sees you, because really, no one is looking. Slosh some of the liquid around. Get it on your sweater. Get up to your elbows in butter and the green goo from within. Demand mussels with lots of doughy rolls for dunking up the garlic broth. And finally, just to really grind down your solitude and fill your belly, ask for a big bucket of gritty steamers.

All of this will likely cost you half what it would anywhere else in the city. The preparation is basic, but seafood this fresh requires little more. You won’t be the drunkest person there. You won’t be the only one who is lonely, raw, and bitterly sad, whose heart aches and who has lost it all and expects to lose it all again. You go to J’s not because you have no hope, but because you have too much. Love hurts. Life hurts. J’s is there to help. It heals all, with its elixers of the cask and the sea. They do not take reservations. This Valentine’s Day, stay home if you are superficially bitter. If you are childish and annoyed, if you are going to heckle the happy lovers and invoke the phrase “Hallmark Holiday,” stay home and read your Nicholas Sparks novel. Stay home and eat your fro-yo. Stay home and stalk ex-boyfriends online, write vitriolic blog posts about how their loss is your gain and how they will never find another girl like you. But if you want to be a bit cooler than that and have a hell of a meal in the process, put on your boots and walk the plank to J’s. Tell them love sent you.

Today, Portland area food bloggers are collaborating on alternative ideas for Valentine’s Day celebrations that don’t involve the usual prix fixe dinners, champagne toasts, or chocolate dipped strawberries. You can see what our fellow bloggers suggest here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Photo: Flickr/Openg

Superbowl XLVI Snack Roundup

This weekend, let’s honor Sunday for what many of us know it really is: A day to wear sheepskin slippers all day, to drink beer out of a plastic helmet beginning at 10 A.M., to place inappropriately large wagers on the always hotly-contested outcome of Puppy Bowl VIII, to watch just a token amount of the actual football game so that we’ll have something to say when strangers try to make polite conversation about it, to have some of our last happy childhood memories be sold to Honda in that dreadful Matthew Broderick CR-V commercial, to pray that Madonna doesn’t suffer a permanently psychologically-damaging wardrobe malfunction at halftime, and then to head straight to the warm embrace of our beds for a nap with the dog when the food runs out.

Whether you’re entertaining a group or entertaining only yourself, whether you’re in it for the love of the game or for the love of the Danica Patrick GoDaddy.com commercials, here’s our roundup of our favorite gameday snack recipes:

  1. Classic Buffalo Wings with Bleu Cheese Dipping Sauce
  2. Homemade Fried Mozzarella Sticks
  3. Chipotle and Rosemary Roasted Nuts
  4. Welsh Rarebit Bites
  5. Smoky Lamb and Chorizo Chili
  6. Poutine Potato Skins
  7. Beer & Bison Burgers with Garlic Pub Cheese
  8. Brown Ale and Cheddar Soup

Sea Dog Brewing Company

First and foremost, the Topsham outpost of the Sea Dog Brewing Company may be one of the most beautiful pubs of its kind that I have ever set foot in. It’s certainly one of the most scenic chain restaurants. Located in the historic Pejepscot Mill building with a seasonal deck overhanging the rushing Androscoggin River, the Sea Dog is so beautiful that when you look up “Topsham” on Wikipedia, you don’t see pictures of the town’s municipal building or founding fathers, signing the fledgling village’s Articles of Incorporation. You see a picture of the Sea Dog. That’s right: the town itself is represented on Wikipedia by a photo of a bar. It’s a gorgeous spot, a “corporate brewpub” done really, really well, owing a great deal to its iconic scenery and the interior beauty of the old mill building.

Sea Dog Brewing Company
The exterior of the Sea Dog in Summertime, overlooking the scenic Androscoggin River. (Photo: Flickr/metimbers2000)

I’ve eaten at the Sea Dog at least a half dozen times so far this Winter, in part because it’s just so easy. The staff is always unbelievably courteous, friendly, and helpful. The dining room is huge, accommodating hundreds of diners. It’s kid-friendly. There’s a “Mug Club,” offering discount pours for regulars. Sometimes, I don’t want to be challenged by the restaurant I’m eating in; I just want a decent burger, or a fried haddock sandwich, or some mozzarella sticks, and at those times, the Sea Dog is always right there, with their fruit-flavored beers and their big industrial-cool wooden beams and their brick walls and their rainslicker-wearing dog mascot.

I’m not alone. Visit the Sea Dog in Topsham between 5:00 and 7:00 PM, and you might be surprised to find an honest-to-goodness dinner rush, with people waiting to be seated for a round of the Sea Dog’s classic pub fare. By 7:30, the room clears out, and an old-fashioned bar scene develops. There’s no doubt that it’s popular, and doing a brisk business. Why, then, do I end every meal there promising myself that it will be my last visit?

Sea Dog Brewing Company

The biggest problem facing the Sea Dog is an issue of consistency. I have had, in almost equal measure, some fantastic, comforting, stick-to-your-ribs meals there, as well as some items that have made me regret ever bringing guests. One night, with a heavy-hearted emptiness that can only be filled by meatloaf, the Sea Dog will deliver with their version of “Meatloaf and Gravy” ($10.99), two thick slabs of Gravy Master-drenched ground beef swimming in a sea of six pounds of mashed potatoes. The next week, I’ll try the same dish again, and it will seem hours old, the gravy too congealed, the meatloaf too salty. One day, Jillian and I will enjoy a superb plate of “Chicken Nachos” ($11.99), corn tortilla chips piled impossibly high with melted cheese, sour cream, salsa, guacamole, and jalapenos. Emboldened, I’ll return with an old friend from out of town a few nights later for an evening of carousing, and will be served a bar-only “Appetizer Sampler” so bad as to be nearly offensive, where the “Soft Pretzel” proved far more edible than the deep-fried seahorse-shaped wing tip we were served in place of an actual chicken wing. The whole plate was bathed in end-of-the-night despair, when the dishroom guys are the only ones left around to sulkily work the fryers.

Sea Dog Brewing Company

Our last visit was similarly disappointing. Jillian’s “Volcano Burger,” ($10.99) a cheeseburger topped with cheddar cheese, tomato-habanero relish, bacon and a sunny-side-up egg, has been delicious in the past, a creative plateful of beef and runny egg yolk and crispy bacon, all served on a warm, buttery brioche bun. This version was an anemic shadow of its former self, featuring undercooked beef, unmelted cheese, some fatty, greasy, lazy bacon, and the only habanero salsa in the world that carried no spice.

Jillian: Why do we return again and again to the Sea Dog, when it’s never any better than inconsistent, and at its worst, overpriced and inedible? The latter is seldom the case, rest assured. Mostly it’s mediocre in a really honest fashion. Though the last time I was there, my Volcano Burger was so raw it would not hold its shape, and broke down under the weight of its yolk. Getting the burger is usually a safe bet. Stick to the pub stuff – burgers, nachos, fried fish and chips – and you won’t be disappointed more than five times out of ten. Drink more beer, as that invariably saves the situation. We’re there for a late lunch at least one Saturday a month. We tend to bring out of town friends, when we don’t have much time and everyone has arrived starving. And we always apologize in advance.

Sea Dog Brewing Company

I opted for the “Fried Clam Dinner” ($19.99/MP), a large portion of golden-fried clams, a mix of necks and bellies, served atop a pile of crispy french fries. They were okay; fried seafood is almost never bad, though both of our lunches felt like a forgotten order, slap-dashed together after our second round of beer, when the waitress must have reminded the harried kitchen that our order existed. My enthusiasm for my lunch waned when I received the bill, and learned that “Market Price” for my fried clams had clocked in at $19.99. That’s what real food costs, and the cobbled-together nature of my order began to seem a little more aggravating.

The Sea Dog doesn’t have to be great. It’s got a large menu that every single person on the planet will like. It’s set up in one of the most prominent locations in a town with little competition for this type of dining, in a historic building that oozes scenery, without trying too hard. A meal served even only capably, would be more than satisfying enough for any customer choosing to dine there. Why, then, does this seem like such a difficult trick to pull off? Why does the food meet this basic level of quality only about half the time?

Jillian: It is iconic, I think, at least regionally: The rushing Androscoggin under an oxidizing bridge, the painted yellow mill perched over the outcropping of rock. Sitting on the wraparound porch on a sunny day is invigorating. Inside during colder seasons the atmosphere is always bustling and warm under wooden beams. It’s a solid old place built on basic elements.

There is so, so much to love about the Sea Dog. I want to join the Mug Club. I want to be the locally-famous, legendary Trivia Night champion. I want to know the names of all the servers. I want to spend Sunday afternoons there, drinking pint after pint of blueberry-flavored beer. I want to be loyal to the Sea Dog, as loyal as I imagine that godforsaken cartoon rainslicker-wearing dog to be. I don’t want it to be the best food I’ve ever eaten; I just want it to be reliable, like the old trusted friend you’ve had since kindergarten, that will always be there to listen. Unfortunately, the inconsistencies coming out of the kitchen at the Sea Dog will probably prevent our relationship from ever getting that close.

Brown Ale and Cheddar Soup

Okay, so it’s possible that this isn’t the kind of meal you eat before you do anything too strenuous, like run headlong into a burning schoolhouse to save dozens of screaming orphans. It’s probably not the kind of thing you want to have for dinner the night before your first day in basic training for the Marines. It may not be the kind of meal you settle down to the night before you run the New York City Marathon. It’s probably not an ideal meal for anyone looking to tackle a pre-dawn jog. It’s definitely not for anyone with any aspirations to, let’s say, make it into work on time. It’s not the kind of meal you eat if you have any pressing need to put on pants the next day. You know, this is not a meal for anyone who plans on ever actually getting out of bed. Let’s just say this, and then not speak another word about it: Save this supper for a night where your only major obligation is to continue the basic intake of oxygen and the expulsion of carbon dioxide from your bloated lungs and maybe, just maybe, to make sure “Teen Mom 2” is set to be DVR’d. Anything more involved than that may be entirely too ambitious.

Why is that? Because it’s a soup made of cheese and beer and bacon, for goodness’ sake. Any soup that uses “bacon pan scrapings” as one of its major flavoring agents just isn’t going to be that great for you. Calling it “soup” may even be lipsticking the pig, a little bit. This is a bowl of rich hot cheese. It’s liquefied Welsh Rarebit. It’s a lightly-spicy, soul-warming coppa d’oro. It’s excessive and gross and hedonistic and awful and everything-that’s-wrong-with-this-country and wonderful and delicious and heavenly and I’m eating another bowl even as I type this.

Use the best cheddar you can buy, since it’s such a major player in this soup, along with a decent brown ale, like Newcastle, or a pale ale like Bass. If you don’t like a lot of heat, scrape as much of the inside of the jalapeno as you can with the edge of a spoon before dicing. Top each bowl of soup with more bacon, jalapeno, or diced fresh tomato, and serve with plenty of crusty bread. And call me when it’s Springtime.

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February Giveaway: “Good Maine Food”

This month, we’re doing things a little differently. On March 1st, one lucky winner from the ranks of our Pinterest page will be selected as the winner of Good Maine Food: Ancient and Modern New England Food & Drink. This book, featuring recipes originally published in the 1930s, is an ode to the history of cooking in Maine, with recipes that have been satisfying Mainers for generations. While the recipe for “Fried Porcupine Liver” may not appeal to today’s cooks, the classic recipes for fried scallops, fish chowder, and oatmeal macaroons will delight everyone in your household. The book is also packed with notes and anecdotes, making this a real love letter to the history of Maine cooking.

How do you enter to win? It’s easy! Just make sure you follow our “Pinterest” board, and you will be automatically entered. We’ll select a winner at random on the first day of next month. Good luck!

The winner of January’s giveaway, a copy of “Notes from a Maine Kitchen: Seasonally Inspired Recipes” was Rosemary M. of  Glenside, PA. Congratulations, Rosemary!

Via Los Angeles

In other news, we were delighted to be selected by West Coast-website “Via Los Angeles” as their “Featured Food Bloggers” for February. All month long, Via Los Angeles will be featuring posts and recipes from our website, as we tell a (much abridged!) version of the history of our relationship, using food to help tell the story. You’ll see some of our favorite culinary creations from New England, as well as dishes from Mexico and beyond. Be sure to check it out!

Cozy Chicken Pie

There’s no getting around it. It’s February in Maine. Cold, bleak, and slushy. We desperately need comfort foods like cozy chicken pie. This recipe is sort of a hybrid. It is neither a shepherd’s pie nor a pot pie – neither, or, is it both? I hope you like it. Definitely use chicken thighs and try this turnip-infused potato top – they add creaminess without weight. Not that this is a light dish, but what does it matter now. I’m tucking in, under a down comforter on the couch, snacking on butter and caramels, and hibernating until spring.

Cozy Chicken Pie

Ingredients

  • 4 turnips, peeled and cubed
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6 medium-size potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 5 tablespoons butter, cubed
  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1 sprig of rosemary, chopped
  • sage leaves, chiffonaded
  • 1/2 an onion, minced
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine

Method

Step 1: Boil turnips and potatoes together in salted, sugared water for twenty minutes, drain and mash with 4 tablespoons butter, season with black pepper to taste.

Step 2: In a hot skillet flavor oil with rosemary, then brown chicken, three thighs at a time, seasoned with salt, pepper, and sage. Let it rest then cut into small cubes. Deglaze the pan with wine. Return chicken to the pan over low heat.

Step 3:  Melt a tablespoon of butter in a small pot over medium heat and cook the onions until softened, about five minutes, stir in peas and broth, reduce heat and simmer for another five minutes. Combine with cubed chicken.

Step 4: Remove the chicken and vegetable mixture to a casserole dish and spread potatoes over the top. Bake at 400 for 30 minutes, finish under the broiler to brown, about ten minutes.