Chef offers meal that is Maine-ly impressive

April 27, 2005|By ROB KASPER

THEY LIKE THEIR cod "slacked," their beans flavored with maple syrup and their blueberries served with ice cream.

That is how Mainers like to eat, according to Sam Hayward. Hayward, the chef of Fore Street restaurant in Portland, Maine, was named Best Chef in the Northeast in 2004 by the James Beard Foundation.

Hayward, who is known for cooking New England fare, whipped up several dishes last week for the Great Chefs' Dinner, an annual event benefiting the Family Tree, a Baltimore charity that fights child abuse and neglect.

"Slacked" cod, he said, refers to a treatment of coarse sea salt that is applied to fish, which is then left to sit overnight in a cool spot. Historically, he said, fishermen "slacked" cod as well as other fish to give them extra shelf life. Hayward said he does it to enhance the cod's flavor and texture.

"It tightens up the flesh, makes it quite firm," Hayward told me during an interview before the dinner. The cod, which had been caught on tub trawlers working in Maine's Casco Bay then shipped to Baltimore to feed the crowd of 360 at the Grand Lodge in Hunt Valley, was exceptionally moist.

It followed a first course of oysters poached in a soup. The soup was made of the root of roasted girasole, a plant widely known as Jerusalem artichoke, Hayward said. This relative of the sunflower was a staple of the American Indians who lived in what later became Maine, Hayward said.

He gave the old plant a modern treatment, sweating it with other vegetables, pureeing, mixing in some hard cider, making it into a rich, warm broth that cooked two raw oysters that were plopped into each soup bowl.

Unlike Marylanders who are reluctant to eat oysters in any month that does not have an R in its name, Mainers eat the mollusk year-round, he said. "We don't worry about that R month; our water stays cold all year," Hayward said. And dipping oysters in warm girasole broth struck me as a great way to cook them.

This time of year is too early to lobster in Maine, Hayward said. But he put lobster on the menu here, he said, because Marylanders clamored for it.

Instead of your ordinary, eat-at-the dockside lobster, his was white-tablecloth lobster. It was steamed in the shell. The meat then was picked, bathed in butter, covered with parchment and heated quickly before serving.

It arrived on the plate perched atop a mound of "hasty pudding." This pudding was an upscale cornmeal polenta made from upstate corn, the prized yellow corn grown by Jim Geritson, whose farm is not far from the Canadian border, Hayward told me. The North country polenta was exceptional.

Maine, he said, can be pretty feral, a place where there is a lot of fin and fur. Accordingly, Hayward likes to serve game. At his Portland restaurant, he cooks rabbit on a rotisserie.

For the Maryland diners, he served venison with ramp. As is true with all the game he serves, the venison was from farm-raised animals. The ramp is a wild onion with a flavor and aroma that usually borders on bodacious. It, too, was also tame. The slender ramps, sauteed in olive oil and water, were well-behaved and delicious.

The stars of this course, however, were the beans. They accompanied the venison. Beans are serious stuff in Maine, Hayward said. Although he was born in Ohio, Hayward has lived in Maine for the past 27 years and is devoted to cooking its food.

There was fervor in his voice as he spoke about the beans he had ferried down from Maine to put in this dish. "They are Marafax, brown, a fabulous bean," he said. He added some Maine maple syrup and some caramelized onions to the beans, producing a unique, tangy dish.

The Maine blueberries served as a dessert course also had been shuttled down to Baltimore for the occasion. Folks who live outside of Maine, a group Hayward referred to as "people from away," sometimes get their low-bush and high-bush blueberry lore confused, he said.

Maine, he said, produces both types of blueberries, and they are both very good. Those that appeared the other night were low-bush blueberries from last year's harvest, he said.

Also on the dessert plate was a small serving of stewed rhubarb, another Maine favorite, he said. But the darling dessert for most New Englanders, he said, is ice cream, and a scoop of caramel ice cream completed the trio of offerings on the plate.

"In New England we eat more ice cream than anywhere else in the country," Hayward said, with a note of pride in his voice. Moreover, he said, New Englanders eat ice cream year-round, despite their climate, which he described as "11 months of winter and four weeks of hard-sledding."

After eating Hayward's fare, I came to a few conclusions. Mainers are hardy folks. They eat oysters and ice cream year-round, they slack their fish and they don't shy away from game or ramp.

In short, Maine seemed like a nice place to visit, and an even better place to eat.

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