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Early in the morning on Wednesday, January 29 we welcomed our beautiful, sweet daughter, Nellie Blanche, into our family with great joy and relief. She came to us a day early, but slowly, and the long labor, particularly the extended pushing phase, left me rather immobile with an injured pelvis. After an extra day at the hospital we were more than ready to get back to our house, our own bed, and especially our own food.

However, the cooking (along with everything else that couldn’t be categorized as “nursing the baby”) fell on Justin’s plate. Although I’d made a lot of progress over the days since Nellie’s birth, I was still spending most of my time healing in bed. While I could highlight any of the meals he thoughtfully prepared, from a rich, fortifying beef stew to the homemade pizza we’d both been craving, what I was most reminded of this past Valentine’s Day were the iron rich smoothies that appeared at my bedside each day.

Because I had lost a lot of blood (again, thanks to the five hours of pushing), I needed to replenish my stocks with as much iron rich food as possible. I also felt a nearly constant need for replacement calories, which didn’t give my personal chef many breaks in the kitchen! One of our first days at home, I awoke from a nap to discover a pint glass of smoothie that Justin had prepared to meet both my iron and snacking needs. A perfect picture of true love.

His iron rich iteration was far from the electric tree-frog green and candy heart pink appearance of smoothies one finds in cookbooks and magazines, a natural consequence of blending dark green leafy kale with red strawberries, molasses, nuts, banana, yogurt, and juice. Anyone who’s taken an elementary school art class knows that such a palate of colors can only yield brown. However, unlike the mixing of tempera paints, the smoothie retains all the characteristics of the colors that went into it, making it surprisingly tangy, bright, and unbelievably nourishing.

It occurred to me that this smoothie looked a lot like true love. Perhaps it was because I was feeling a bit beat up and unattractive myself, but I was thinking that, as we wade for the first time into the waters of parenthood, our gestures of love won’t always look pretty, elegant, and orchestrated. Real life love does not track like a Hollywood romcom with dramatic “stop the airplane!” moments or ironic romantic dialogue recited by well-coifed lovers. Rather, it makes itself known through more common but extraordinary gestures that communicate a continuous and loyal partnership, deep caring, and consideration.

Needless to say, Justin and I did not exchange valentines, boxes of chocolates, or flowers this year. Those things would not have communicated our love for one another nearly so well as the gifts we did exchange – small actions that each allowed the other to get the things we needed (sleep, food, exercise, support). Valentine’s Day or otherwise, as I look forward to this new stage in our shared life and relationship, I’ll always trade the metaphorical truffle for a full cup of iron rich smoothie.

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DSC_4908It’s less than two weeks until baby’s due date, and last night I awoke with what was perhaps my only, or at least my most intense and bizarre food craving. Admittedly, I have been a hound for sour cream, yogurt – okay, dairy products of all kinds. That, and Barbara’s Multigrain Spoonfuls cereal. So it’s not like I’ve been totally without… needs. But all along I’ve figured that these “cravings” have been little morse-coded messages from my body, alerting me to actual need for calcium, fat, fiber, etc. And I’m pretty confident the baby-factory didn’t require the nutrients found within a giant bowl of graham cracker crumbs mixed with melted butter.

Because that is what I desired at 3 o’clock in the morning. A delicious, buttery slurry of busted-up graham crackers. Which, of course, we didn’t have; in fact, I can’t even think of the last time I bought a box of graham crackers. And while we’ve all heard the schtick of a wife sending her husband out to the grocery store for a midnight container of Ben & Jerry’s and a jar of pickles, I tossed and turned, trying to turn my mind away from my sinful craving. I didn’t figure Justin would go for such a demand, and anyway, we live in Maine, not New York City. The local Hannaford isn’t exactly 24-7.

Although the intensity of my obsession had cooled by morning, I was still keen on picking up a box of grahams. I started thinking about a more civilized option for my salad bowl of buttered crumbs. Perhaps a nice graham cracker crust pie. Filled with a dairy-rich custard. At first I thought about a fruit-topped pie, but then my mind wandered to coconut. I had a bag in our pantry, and upon a quick internet search I found an easy recipe for coconut cream pie, compliments of Emeril Lagasse. Bam.

The big man’s recipe called for a regular old pie crust, which I edited out in place of my desired graham cracker crust. The whole shebang took about 45 minutes, and I must say I was pleased with the results. Topped with fluffy meringue and served with a few slices of fresh mango and kiwi, it was a perfect treat for a snowy, Saturday evening.

Here’s how to make it:

To prepare the graham cracker crust, crush or use a food processor/blender to make 1 1/2 cups of crumbs (about 10 full sized graham crackers).  Toss the crumbs with 1/2 cup sugar, a little bit of cinnamon, and a handful of toasted coconut. Melt 1 stick of butter and thoroughly stir into the crumb mixture. Pack the buttery crumbs into a standard pie plate, permitting yourself to eat at least one spoonful, and bake the crust for 8-10 minutes in an oven at 350 degrees.

Because I did not make any alterations to Mr. Lagasse’s coconut cream recipe, I’ll link to it here.

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I woke up early this morning, enjoying the full luxury of Sunday. For some time I pondered a short story I’ve been writing in my head for probably too long now, stretched comfortably across the length of my supportive pregnant-lady body pillow. When the sun rose high enough to begin scattering through the window my mind moved to more immediate things, primarily breakfast.

As Justin is out today hunting the elusive brown trout, I had planned on something simple. Scrambled eggs and toast, or a several-day old Scratch Bakery bagel. But lying there, luxuriously as I have said, the German Apple Pancake came to mind. Or, to be more accurate, bludgeoned my easily seduced palate to full-attention. After all, rationality kicked in, there were all those apples we had picked at Sewall’s Organic Orchard that weren’t getting any younger.

Growing up, German Apple Pancake was a family favorite on Sunday mornings, and one I typically helped my mother prepare. Much in the fashion of “Chicken Tahiti,” another of my childhood favorites, I doubt the pancake is actually German so much as a product of a 1950’s desire for food exoticism. In any case, the recipe was contained in a cookbook that we used for absolutely nothing else, which we finally rid ourselves of by transferring the instructions to a card.

It s a simple recipe, and perfect for a quick but special weekend breakfast. Essentially a batter of egg, milk, and flour is poured into an oven-hot and buttery baking dish, transforming itself after about 25 minutes into a delight that is puffy and risen on the edges, eggy and dense in the middle. (If you are an eater who revels in texture, this one is for you.) While it bakes, peeled, sliced apples are sautéed with butter, sugar, and cinnamon. Individual portions of “pancake” are topped with apples, and then a dusting of powdered sugar.

Everything seemed to be going well with my breakfast until I realized we didn’t have powdered sugar. This was a real blow. I have always felt that the powdered sugar is essential to pulling the thing off. I especially love the kind of glue it forms when bonded with the apple slurry. While my apples sizzled away, I tried to channel Justin, who has always forgone the powdered sugar, stating the argument that the “apples are sweet enough.” This could be true enough, but for me the dish works upon the logic of three – savory egg pancake, sweet and tart fruit, little touch of powdery, refined decadence. If not powdered sugar, it needed something.

As I dished up my serving, I remembered my old friend sour cream. Yes. I didn’t allow myself to think too long or hard about it before whacking a dab of sour cream on top, followed by a few quick slashes of Tom’s Honey.

I must say I rather enjoyed it. It called to mind one of the more influential dishes of my youth, berry and cheese blintzes from the old Camden restaurant, Mama & Leenie’s. While I remember the cheese blintz filling to have been a bit like cottage cheese in texture, it had a deliciously sour cream and fresh milk flavor. Wrapped in thin crepes, baked, and topped with what was probably lingenberry preserves, it was one of the most unique things I had tasted, and it often called me and a similarly affected friend downtown after school until the restaurant, sadly, closed.

But I digress (and by now my compromised, baby-squished stomach is ready for that second helping). Here is the recipe:

German Apple Pancake

Heat oven to 450 degrees; while it is coming to temperature, put about 2 tablespoons butter in a baking dish (9×9 is ideal for the quantities that follow; increase ingredients for a full-size rectangular baking dish) and heat in warming oven until butter is melted and pan is hot.

Whisk together until smooth: 3 large eggs, 3/4 cup milk, 3/4 cup flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pour batter into dish and bake for 15 minutes. If, during that time, the pancake puffs up in the middle, poke it several times with a fork. After the 15 minutes, reduce oven temp to 350 degrees and bake for another 10 minutes.

While the pancake is baking, peel and slice as many apples as you would like for topping (about 3-4 standard sized apples does the trick). I like a variation of thick and thin, so that some get a bit mushy while others stay whole. In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons butter and 1/4 cup sugar for a minute before adding apple slices and a healthy dose of cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook to as done as you like.

When everything is done, cut pancake into portions, top with apple mixture, and sprinkle with powdered sugar – or of course with sour cream and a drizzle of honey!

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This is a great time of year for cooking. The last vestiges of sweet summer harvest are still upon us, with the added appearance of fall squashes and a resurgence of cool weather greens. The hasty days of summer have given way to chilly, dark mornings and eves, perfect for cozying up in a kitchen warmed by bubbling pots of tomato sauce and baking zucchini bread. Yes, this is one of the best times to cook.

Since I am an over-eager purchaser of fresh Maine veggies, I’m looking forward to doing loads of cooking this coming weekend and sharing some of my kitchen curiosities with friends at the Portland Food Swap on Tuesday, October 8. Just like last time, the food swap will be held at the fabulous Rising Tide Brewery in Portland (103 Fox Street), and begin at 5:30 p.m.

Never been to a food swap, or have no idea what the heck I’m talking about? Check out my blog for the Live Work Portland website, which gives a quick food swap 101, and recap of the Portland gathering held back in July. If it strikes your fancy you can optionally RSVP here, and for those of you in further reaches of the state, country, and globe, keep your eyes peeled for an update from my kitchen soon!

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So, some of you have noticed that I haven’t been exactly diligent about posting over the last few months. In fact, back in May I was plotting out quite the summer for megansmark: I would get creative with the boatloads of veggies from our first real garden, share some of my favorite Italian seafood recipes that are just right during our hottest months, and explore local creameries and farms here in Maine. It was going to be a summer of eating, and it was going to be great.

Indeed it has been a memorable summer, and a good one, though I cannot characterize it as one of eating. More like the summer of not eating. The summer of revulsion by Swiss chard and lettuce. The summer of if-I-eat-another-bite-of-this-delicious-grass-fed-beef-I’m-going-to-hurl. The summer of my first pregnancy.

Yes, I am hosting a small and increasingly endearing little human, not too far from where I’m pretty sure my stomach used to be (I believe it is subletting some space from one of my lungs or pancreas). Thus, the months of June-August presented me with a bit of a challenge – how could I stand to write about food when I didn’t even want to eat it?

While I eked out a few stories, like the one on a rhubarb custard pie that I couldn’t eat, and some delicious grilled lamb and tzatziki that took me nearly a week to recover from, my preferred menu looked a little more like this: scrambled eggs, almonds, yogurt, water, yogurt, a muffin, toast, cheese, and almonds. There were a lot of almonds and yogurt. It didn’t make for very exciting writing.

Happily into my second trimester, I am back to enjoying most foods, once again excited to be eating, and to be writing about food. The little munchkin is kicking, which I take to mean that s/he is going to be an eater, as well. Yesterday I celebrated this recent chapter by eating half of a homemade coffee cake. I happened to have a sunny Maine morning to myself at home, a few handfuls of backyard blueberries from my friends, and a container of sour cream in the fridge. The night before I had demolished a giant quesadilla which I had frosted an inch thick with sour cream, and I was feeling some real admiration for the dairy product. It has calcium, after all, which the kicker and I need a lot of.

I pawed through my old Fanny Farmer Baking Book for a recipe, and ended up retrofitting the their Sour-Cream Coffee Cake. I could not have been more pleased with the outcome – it was like feasting upon an overly generous muffin. Excuse me for a moment while I sound like the Duncan Hines commercials of my childhood, but this cake was moist, airy, and buttery. The big high-bush blueberries provided a good bite of freshness to the otherwise decadent cake, the pecans much needed crunch.

This has to be the best part of pregnancy, I thought, bringing two large helpings out to my Adirondack chair. Sweet justice for three months of nausea: cake for breakfast and a glass of whole milk to wash it down. Pregnant or not, in the spirit of hard work (it is Labor Day weekend, after all) I think everyone deserves, and should enjoy, some breakfast cake before summer packs its bags. The quick and easy recipe follows.

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Maine Blueberry Pecan Coffee Cake

Grease and lightly flour an 8-inch square baking dish. In a large mixing bowl, cream together 1 stick softened butter and 1/2 cup sugar. Whisk 2 eggs and 1/2 cup sour cream into the butter-sugar mixture until well blended.

In a separate bowl combine 1 1/4 cups cake flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Using a spatula, gently incorporate the dry mix into the wet ingredients until the batter is smooth.

In another bowl mix together 1/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 cup chopped pecans. Then add about 1 cup blueberries, tossing to coat the berries well.

Spread a little more than half of the batter in the prepared dish. Sprinkle most of the blueberry-pecan mix over the batter, reserving about a third of it. Spread the remaining batter, and then top with the remaining berry-nut mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until the surface is just beginning to turn golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. This treat is most delicious when served warm!

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When I was young and stupid, I had a lamb incident. Not unlike a moon-eyed freshman at her first college keg party, I did not yet know my limits with lamb, and as an enthusiastic eater I was an easy target. It was the summer of 2003, and I was the “and-one” guest at a lovely rural wedding. There were many culinary highlights to the evening, but the one that seemed to capture my fancy at the midnight hour was a caterer-sized aluminum pan of leftover grilled lamb. I’ll leave the story at this climactic precipice and present a moral: a lamb is a small creature, and thus should be eaten in moderation.

The result of this little affair was that I didn’t eat a whole lot of lamb in the years that followed. Nor did I figure out how to cook it. However, this being the 10 year anniversary of the lamb incident, I felt it was finally time to dust off the relationship. My opportunity presented itself in the form of Evan Mills, head butcher at the Rosemont Market on Brighton Street. He offered to walk me through the steps of butterflying a leg of lamb, which we would marinate and grill. Our plan was to package up the finished product into reasonable sized portions, and bring it to the Portland Food Swap along with some tzatziki, which I would make at home.

Behind the butcher’s counter

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It was an exciting moment for me, stepping behind the butcher’s counter. While this might be commensurate for some with getting to walk the set of their favorite T.V. show, for me it was right up there with a visit to the It’s It ice cream factory, or a week touring Cognac cellars in France. Okay, so maybe not quite up there with the Cognac cellars, but I did honestly enjoy checking out such a familiar scene from a new perspective.

While other butchers doled out pork chops and marinated chickens to wanting customers, Evan demonstrated how to butterfly a leg of lamb. Our cut, a Katahdin Breed, came from Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick, and was entirely pastured on pesticide and herbicide free grounds. My question as to whether or not the Katahdin was a local breed was answered by the Crystal Spring website, where I learned that it is a “composite that was developed in Maine in the 1950′s from African hairsheep crossed with several Down (large framed English) varieties.” The breed is favored for its fertility, among other traits that make it ideal for lamb production.

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As Evan got to work removing a flap that would be saved for sausage trim, I asked him about lamb fat. I never fully understood how to determine which fat should be removed, and which should be saved when cooking lamb. He pointed out an small section of fat sitting near the aitch bone (sounds like “H” bone, this is the lamb’s pelvis). It had a slightly tougher, more globule-like appearance than the fat that striated the meat. While there wasn’t much of this kind of fat on our pastured lamb, this was the unctuous fat that, similar to the leaf lard from a pig or suet from a cow, Evan would remove.

Evan expertly made his way around the cut, removing the aitch bone and femur. In the picture below, you can see all the pieces: moving clockwise and starting at 12 o’clock, is a full, bone-in leg, then the aitch bone around 3 o’clock, followed by the our butterfly-cut lamb leg, the femur, and finally trim for sausage at 10 and 11 o’clock.

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At this point the lamb was ready to marinate. Evan whipped up a marinade with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme, rosemary, and garlic, in which it would rest overnight. We planned to grill and package it up for the Food Swap the next day, so I headed home to make some tzatziki.

Making the tzatziki

If you think the most challenging thing to capture in a photo is a moonlit beach, group of speeding racehorse, or an ugly baby, you’d be wrong. It is tzatziki. If you doubt me, just go on a quick Google search, and be amazed at the blandness. It turns out that lumpy white yogurt does not make for flattering photography. As I researched recipes, I became fascinated by people’s attempts to make this product visually appealing. Many took the approach of a tilted close-up, an kind of action-shot theory that makes the yogurt spread appear all the more sedentary. One blogger painstakingly photo documented each step of the process, in case one needed visual cues for what blended cucumber looks like in a Chop Master. All boring, but only one was repulsive: Ina Garten’s version, featured in a gelatinous, yellowy extreme close-up.

But do not be fooled by tzatziki’s blase appearance and simple ingredient list. It is a great way to brighten a dish, and was a natural partner to our grilled lamb. I chose to use full-fat (10%) plain Greek yogurt for mine, both because I think full fat tastes better, and also to stand up to the richness of the meat. I noticed that many recipes called for a wine vinegar, while others called for lemon, so I used a bit of both for mine.

I also found discrepancies in herbal contributions, and while I think that most any fresh herb would taste good in the spread, I decided that a combination of dill and mint would be best suited for the lamb. While any cucumbers can be used, I always favor fresh little ones, which I can find locally year-round (Olivia’s Garden typically has baby European cukes at farmer’s markets and shops around town even in the coldest winter months). For this batch I got pickling cukes from Farmer Ben at Meservey Farms which worked quite nicely. I have included a detailed recipe for the tzatziki at the end of this article.

Grilling the lamb

The next day I returned to Rosemont during my lunch break to grill up our sweet little lamb. I met Rosemont butcher Matt Saunders, in the back, where he and Evan had a charcoal grill going, nice and hot. Evan had invited Matt to take the reins since, after 16 years in the restaurant industry, he’s a man who seriously knows his way around a grill. Indeed, he handled the meat with expertise, flipping and moving it around to ensure that the heat was evenly distributed throughout the cut, which was far from uniform in thickness and width. Since he couldn’t move the coals around beneath the grate, he utilized all edges of the grill, particularly before the coals began to cool down, and for the thinner sections, as well.

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We ended up with a lovely golden-brown crust, distinguished with just the right amount of char. Once it had 7 or 8 minutes to rest (thus allowing the juices to take up residence in the meat rather than run all over the place), he sliced off an end for me to taste. Delicious. But as good as it was hot off the grill, I enjoyed a few midday slices, served up with tzatziki, even more. And just as the tzatziki was good on its own, or slathered over a chunk of bread, it really came into its own when partnered with the lamb. A perfect balance of rich flavor and freshness, I have to hand it to the Greeks – they knew what they were doing when they came up with this one.

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How to make it

Grilled Leg of Lamb (courtesy of Evan Mills at Rosemont Market)

Begin with a butterflied lamb leg. Your butcher should be able to do this for you, or if you want to attempt it at home, some description of how to do so proceeds this recipe in the first part of the article, or a quick YouTube search could give you all the info you need.

Prepare your favorite marinade. We used one of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme, rosemary, and garlic. We chose to marinate our lamb overnight; if you do not have the luxury of time, try to at least give it a few hours to marinate. Remove the meat from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before grilling to bring it up to temperature.

Get your grill going, ideally charcoal if you have it. When the coals are nice and hot, place the meat on the grill, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook to your liking. Moving the meat around, and flipping back and forth between sides will help you to get a golden crust on it with some charring, without burning it. When the meat is done, allow it to rest for about 7-8 minutes before cutting into it, so that it stays good and juicy. Serve it up with some tzatziki, and other accoutrements as you please (tomato, feta, red onion, fresh pita or bread) and enjoy!

Tzatziki

The following recipe yields about 5 cups of tzatziki; adjust ingredients to suit your needed portions as well as your taste!

Start by preparing your cucumber. I used about 5 pickling cukes (4-5 inches in length) which yielded around 1 1/2 cups. The amount does not need to be exact, and can be altered as you like. To prep, peel the cukes, and slice off the tips. Cut lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. Some recipes I found called for cubed or chopped cucumber, while others called for shredded or finely diced cukes, so I did a little of each – I shredded half with a large cheese grater, and cubed the other half into about 1/4 inch cubes. Next, lay the prepared cucumer out in a fine-mesh strainer, and sprinkle with about a teaspoon of salt (I did two different strainers for the two kinds of cucumbers). Let sit for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, finely dice 2 cloves of garlic. I happened to have fresh scapes, so I used one scape, and one clove. Then finely chop your fresh herbs. I chose to use dill and mint; you could also incorporate thyme, oregano, or any other herb you particularly love. I chopped up about 4 teaspoons of herbs in total, but again, you can alter the amount as you like. Toss your garlic and herbs into a large mixing bowl.

To the mixing bowl, add 4 cups of plain Greek yogurt (note: this is the size of one large yogurt container). I chose to use full fat Cabot yogurt, but non- or low-fat yogurt can be used, as well. Add the freshly squeezed juice from a 1/2 lemon, and about one teaspoon of vinegar (wine or cider both work). Mix together the ingredients in your bowl.

If it has been about 30 minutes, use a paper towel to press out any extruded water from you cucumbers. Before adding them into your mix, use a dry paper towel to swipe the bottom of the strainer, catching any extra liquid. Once you’ve added the cucumbers to the bowl and given everything a thorough mix, taste to see if you want to make any further alterations to your tzatziki. Note that the salt from the cucumbers will begin to integrate into the mixture after a short amount of time, so you may want to wait to increase the salt.

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FoodSwapJuly

Hey all you Portland-area readers: Been looking for a chance to show off your best home-cooked tomato sauce? Want to woo others with your fabulous strawberry cupcakes? Tempted to test out that recipe for dandelion jam? Now is your chance!

The next Portland Food Swap is on for this Thursday, July 18 at Rising Tide Brewery from 5:30 – 7:00 p.m. The swap is free, open to anyone, and first-time swappers are welcome. All you have to do is register for the swap, and hatch a plan for something swappable (homemade, homegrown, or locally foraged foods). You can find out more and get ideas on the Portland Food Swap Facebook page. Hope to see you there with your tastiest treats!

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