Gastronomically speaking, 1997 will be recalled with fondness

December 28, 1997|By Rob Kasper

IT WAS THE YEAR THAT mashed potatoes showed up in oyster stew, I discovered the secret to making the greatest tomato sandwich in the world, and the rockfish were tasty and notorious.

These were among the events that came to mind when I looked back over the past 12 months of eating. This year in review is not a broad, objective overview. Instead, it is a narrow, subjective under-view, a report from one fork carrier in the legion of Maryland eaters.

For instance, one Saturday afternoon in October, while judging dishes entered in the National Oyster Cook-Off in Leonardtown, I came across a bowl of oyster stew that had mashed potatoes in it. I got nervous. I wasn't used to oysters keeping company with mashed potatoes. I wasn't sure I approved. The mashed potatoes-oyster stew union, arranged by Sally Brassfield of California, Md., turned out to be delightful. It ended up winning the contest, and teaching me a lesson. Namely, it is OK to let oysters make new friends, to go where no mollusk has gone before.

Early in the summer I learned that massaging a slice of bread with a tomato slice was the secret to making the world's greatest tomato sandwich. The slice of bread -- a substantial, homemade bread -- was rubbed with a slice of tomato until all the tomato juice soaked into the bread. The spent tomato slice was then replaced with fresh ones, a little olive oil and a lot of pepper, and you had a superior tomato sandwich. Throughout the summer I practiced this sandwich-making technique, taught to me by a family friend, Luigi Ferrucci, who was visiting from Italy. By August, when the Maryland beefsteak tomatoes had rolled in, I had achieved tomato-sandwich nirvana.

It was a mixed year for Chesapeake Bay rockfish, or striped bass. On the flavor front, the fish were outstanding. The rockfish I caught during an April outing from Tilghman Island was sweet, moist, almost succulent. Another crowd pleaser was herb-crusted rockfish, which I ate at the dinner St. Michael's chef Michael Rork fixed in August at New York's James Beard House.

But rockfish and most of the fish in the Chesapeake Bay took a dive in popularity late in the summer when an outbreak of the microorganism Pfiesteria hit. There was no evidence that people could get sick from eating fish attacked by Pfiesteria-like organisms, yet the sales of local fish dropped by almost 80 percent. Now that cold weather seems to have thrown cold water on the "Pfiesteria-hysteria," fish sales are creeping back up.

It seemed to me, however, that even when some folks were reluctant to eat Chesapeake Bay fish, everyone still seemed willing to chow down on Chesapeake Bay crabs. When some stores were refusing to sell local fish, the demand and price of steamed crabs remained high.

Moreover, this fall at a soup contest in the Inner Harbor -- won by soup makers at Peerce's Plantation, Wayne's Bar-B-Que, Windows at the Renaissance Hotel and Bistro 300 at the Hyatt Hotel -- folks couldn't wait to sample the soups. Which proves, I guess, that while Maryland eaters may be scared off from buying Chesapeake Bay fish, it takes more than a little hysteria to keep us away from our crabs.

On the meat front, the outlook was primal. New steak cookbooks popped up almost as fast as new steakhouses. The idea of using meat as a condiment -- a notion that made some noise a few years ago -- lost volume. Meat remains a main dish in many homes. Its new frequent companion is salsa and other Mexican-style seasonings.

The winning dish in this year's Maryland Beef Cook-Off held in Hagerstown was a beef pita pocket. It was made with grilled strips of sirloin, stuffed in pita bread and topped with salsa, the real condiment to watch.

I made some new dessert friends over the past year. One was a chocolate sheet cake, a dish whipped up by Grace Holmes, a homemaker in Eastern Baltimore County. This cake won a city-sponsored contest and was officially declared the Bicentennial Birthday Cake of Baltimore. The baker's husband, Ed, declared that the cake "tasted like Tastykake," a reference to a snack dear to generations of Baltimore eaters.

On the beverage front, coffee continued to clobber tea as the hot beverage of choice, even though coffee prices kept climbing. Every year I hear rumblings of a coming tea revolution, in which micro-brewed teas and a tea mixture called chai will knock coffee from its dominant position. But so far, signs of the revolution seem confined to the dens of tea-drinking zealots on the West Coast.

Local beers got better and more accessible as several craft brewers, such as Clipper City and Baltimore Brewing Co., put their brews in bottles. The tap trade grew as well.

In Baltimore, Globe Brewing Co., Capitol City Brewing Co. and the Brewer's Art opened in-house breweries, as did Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. in Ellicott City, Duclaw Brewing Co. in Bel Air and Champion Billiards and Brewery in Towson. In my mind, the addition of locally made beers translates into an improvement in the quality of life.

At the end of the year the big beer news was a big consolidation. Frederick Brewing Co. of Frederick announced plans to buy Cambridge-based Wild Goose Brewery Inc. and Baltimore-based Brimstone Brewing Co. Such consolidation may become a trend among craft-beer brewers.

I confess that I did not taste the year's top news-making vegetable. That would be broccoli sprouts, a food that has been heralded by Johns Hopkins researchers as a weapon in the fight against cancer. I have seen them and they look, well, very sprouty. As for eating it -- maybe next year.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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