Summer Travels…or Mainely Lobsters and Rhubarb

I fell in love with Maine on my first trip to Portland three summers ago.  A very good friend and former pastry assistant of mine, Renee, moved back home with her boyfriend Jesse (now husband) after a wild, eventful ride through the rough and tumble culinary world of San Francisco and had finally, after about seven years, lured me up to Maine for a visit.  It was one of the most enjoyable, relaxing, fun vacations I’d had in years–full of great company, sensational regional cuisine, gorgeous scenery and kayaking.

Needless to say, I was hooked.  And so began my yearly summer sojourn to Maine, where for a week my friends, the Lohreys and Landrys, indulge me with the best food and drink the state has to offer–which invariable involves copious amounts of craft beer, seafood, ice cream, and this year in particular, rhubarb picked fresh from the garden.

I admit, prior to visiting Maine, I never really cared much for lobster.  In culinary school I learned how to dispatch a live one by plunging the tip of a chef’s knife between its head and body and turn it into Lobster Americain.  Occasionally, I’d have it wok-fried in garlic and fermented black sauce at a Chinese banquet.  But it was never my crustacean of choice.   Of course, now I know why.  I’d never had a Maine lobster, which is arguably the finest lobster one can pluck from the ocean. The meat is sweet and favorable, the texture divine.

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I credit the Landrys for turning me into a lobster snob–I won’t even bother eating anything other than the Maine variety now.   But when you have something this perfect, it would be criminal to not just to let it shine.  The most traditional (and many would insist the best) way to have Maine lobster is steamed whole, served with drawn butter, which is how it’s done at the Landry home near Farmington.  It’s a roll-up-your-sleeves, messy shell-cracking endeavor (I’m still getting the hang of the technique), but well worth the effort.

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Now no Lobsterpalooza (it’s what I’ve called this latest trip) is complete, however, without a few lobster rolls.  I eat at least three on every visit, so after three trips to Maine, it’s safe to say I’ve become somewhat of a  connoisseur.  I’ve gone to the recommended places like Red’s Eats in Wiscasset and The Lobster Shack at Two Lights, but my favorites so far are the lobster rolls at Eventide and High Roller in Portland–both of which take creative spins on the classic.   At Eventide, the lobster rolls are bathed in browned butter and served on a pillowy soft Chinese-style steamed bun.

Lobster Roll at Eventide
Lobster Roll at Eventide

At the High Roller food cart,  I had mine fully-loaded with crisp smokey bacon, fresh avocado and a drizzle of lime mayo.  Renee had hers drizzled with jalapeño mayo.

High Roller
High Roller

The thing I’ve discovered about eating a lot of lobster in a short period of time is that you won’t get bored or “lobstered out” if you change it up a bit and have it in different forms–whole steamed one day, truffled lobster mac ‘n cheese the next– so you hopefully won’t end up feeling like Julia Roberts (Daisy) in Mystic Pizza (1988).

Summer is not only the best time to indulge in Maine lobster, but it’s also the perfect time (since the season is short) to savor fresh field-grown rhubarb in all its glory.  Rhubarb is featured on practically every menu this time of year, from fine dining establishments to truck stop diners.  On this trip, I’ve enjoyed an expertly crafted rhubarb cocktail at Back Bay Grill, a deliriously melt-in-your-mouth flaky, buttery rhubarb galette at The Standard Baking Company, a delightful rhubarb pie ice cream at Catbird Creamery, and an impossibly light and airy donut with tangy rhubarb compote at The Well at Jordan’s Farm.

And if this wasn’t enough, Renee had rhubarb growing in her backyard, just begging to be harvested and turned into something delicious.  After a couple minutes of brainstorming, and perusal of her refrigerator, we came up with Lemon Ginger Rhubarb Swirl Ice Cream–a rich vanilla bean custard base infused with fresh lemon zest and ginger root, swirled with a sweet, tangy rhubarb compote. While Renee cooked down the diced rhubarb with a little sugar and tapioca starch, I steeped lots of freshly grated ginger root and lemon zest in a mixture of hot milk and heavy cream, then used the infused liquid to make a custard ice cream base.  Everything was chilled overnight.  The next morning we spun the ice cream base and folded the rhubarb compote into the soft frozen custard.

Our Catbird Creamery-inspired creation provided the perfect sweet ending to yet another spectacular culinary adventure through Maine.

Lemon Ginger Rhubarb Ice Cream

Yield: about 2 1/2 qts.

  • 6-8 stalks of rhubarb, washed and diced
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. tapioca starch
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger (peeled)
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon zest
  • 2 tsp. vanilla paste or 1/2 vanilla bean, split & scraped
  • 10 yolks
  • 1 cup + 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. sea or kosher salt

Combine the rhubarb, sugar and tapioca starch in a medium saucepan with a splash of water.  Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally for about 8-10 mins., until the rhubarb is soft but still chunky.  Cool the mixture to room temperature then transfer it into an airtight container and chill in the refrigerator.

For the custard base, heat the milk and cream in a heavy bottom pot to scalding.  Stir in the ginger and lemon zest and let it steep in the hot mixture for about 10-15 mins. covered.  *If you’re using vanilla bean instead of vanilla paste add it to the pot now.  Meanwhile, whisk the yolks, sugar, vanilla paste, and salt together until pale yellow.  Temper some of the hot liquid into the yolks, then whisk all of the tempered egg mixture into the rest of the hot liquid.  Cook the custard base on medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.  Immediately remove the custard from the heat and strain into a bowl set over ice, stirring occasionally to cool down the mixture.  Chill the custard for several hours or overnight.

Freeze the custard base according to your ice cream machine instructions.  Swirl and fold the chilled rhubarb compote into the soft frozen ice cream, then freeze to set.

Rites of Spring

Although I wasn’t particularly thrilled about “springing ahead” and losing an hour of precious sleep (yeah, who’s lame idea was it anyways and why are we still doing it when it’s universally acknowledged to being rather pointless in the modern world?!), I was, nevertheless, done with Winter.  And you know what really puts me in that “springtime” mode?  It’s the sight of gorgeous, vibrant stalks of crisp rhubarb.

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The first wave of rhubarb at the produce markets tend to be the hot-house variety and a little pricey.  But if you’re like me, you won’t mind splurging on these jewel-like beauties…especially if you’ve got some yummy things in mind–like strawberry rhubarb pop tarts, or tender, melt in your mouth rhubarb crumb coffeecake or rhubarb creme filled lemon cookie sandwiches…

What I love to do with the rhubarb is to cut it up into chunks then quickly poach it in simple syrup, just until the pieces have a little “give” when pinched.  I then shock the rhubarb in ice water to stop the cooking and allow the poaching syrup (which has turned a lovely shade of pink) to cool to room temperature before adding the poached rhubarb back into it.  The poached rhubarb in syrup will keep quite well refrigerated in an airtight container or mason jar for up to two weeks.  You can spoon the poached rhubarb over vanilla ice cream, add it to coffeecake or muffin batter, toss it with strawberries or raspberries and top with streusel for an easy pie.  Best of all, you can use the flavorful rhubarb syrup to make all kinds of drinks…alcoholic or otherwise.

I’ve come up with two…call it my salute to spring.  Both feature my homemade rhubarb syrup and my latest obsession–“make it yourself” fizzy water.  I love sparkling water and fizzy drinks…just don’t like the cost and the ridiculous amount of sugar in most store-bought sodas, so I got myself an inexpensive handy-dandy compact soda maker on Amazon. And, voila…homemade craft sodas!   But getting back to the drinks, the first one is a refreshing non-alcoholic spritzer (yeah, weird I know, me making something without booze!) I’m calling it Rhubarb Spring–basically 2 oz. rhubarb syrup topped off with chilled sparkling water, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, garnished with frozen raspberries and a slice of lime.

IMG_4086The second one is a gin-based cocktail I’m calling Rosie Cheeks.  At first I wanted to name it “Think Pink” after that musical number from one of our favorite musicals Funny Face (1957).  But then Laura came up with “Rosie Cheeks” which better describes what happens after you’ve had a few of these cocktails.  Still, I can’t resist referencing Funny Face.  It’s springtime in Paris, stunning couture (by Hubert de Givenchy), and the s’wonderfully divine Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn.

Rosie Cheeks

  • 2 oz. Gin
  • .75 oz. St. Germaine Elderflower Liqueur
  • 1.5 oz. Homemade Rhubarb Syrup
  • 3-4 dashes Rhubarb Bitters
  • .5 oz Lemon Juice
  • 4 oz. Chilled Sparkling Water
  • slice of lemon for garnish

Combine gin, elderflower liqueur, rhubarb syrup, bitters and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker with 3-4 ice cubes, then shake to blend.  Strain liquor into a chilled glass and top with sparkling water and sliced lemon.

The start of Spring also heralds the coming of Easter.  Now having been subjected to one too many religious movies around this time of year during my Catholic high school days (and I’m not EVEN Catholic!), I tend favor more secular cinematic fare…like the classic Easter Parade (1948) starring Judy Garland and (once again everybody’s favorite) Fred Astaire, with music by the incomparable Irving Berlin.

In keeping with my secular tendencies, I opted to make Easter Loaves–sort of like hot cross (un)buns so to speak.  I used a simple brioche dough and layered in lots of fresh orange/tangerine zest mixed with sugar and dried currants.  I formed the dough into mini loaves (mainly because I was too lazy to form a bunch of little individual buns), proofed them until doubled in size, then brushed the tops with heavy cream before baking the loaves at 350°F for about 35 mins.  or until they were golden brown and tested done.  When the loaves had cooled to room temperature, I made a light glaze with fresh tangerine juice and powdered sugar and dipped the surface of the loaves into the glaze.

Another thing that makes me think of Spring, is the abundance of asparagus.  I love it in all forms–grilled, blanketed in hollandaise, in frittata, on pizza, tossed in pasta.  For those of you who’ve followed this blog, it should not come as a surprise that one of my favorite ways to cook is to deep-fry.  I’m not ashamed to admit that if it’s battered and deep-fried, I’ll probably eat it (okay, maybe not a Twinkie…I draw the line there!).  So, of course I felt compelled to make asparagus tempura…along with red bell pepper, shiitake mushroom and shrimp tempura (hey, I like a balanced meal!).  The process of making tempura is really pretty easy.  The batter is a simple ratio of 1 part all-purpose flour to 1 part cornstarch, whisk in just enough sparkling water or club soda to make a batter that is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, and season with salt and pepper.  I added a little bit of toasted sesame seeds to my batter.  Make sure that your vegetables and shrimp are patted dry before dipping into the batter.

IMG_4100For added crunch, I like to double-dip–that is dip the product into the batter, then dip it into panko bread crumbs.  Fry the tempura in batches (3-4 pieces at a time depending of the size of frying vessel) at about 365°F until golden.  Drain the excess oil off on paper towels.   Arrange on a plate and dust with furikake (seasoned seaweed topping).

Nothing says "Spring" like Vegetable and Shrimp Tempura
Nothing says “Spring” like Vegetable and Shrimp Tempura

To make myself feel slightly less guilty about the tempura, I served it with a side of cold soba noodle salad, which is just cold cooked soba noodles, julienned carrots, sliced cucumber, diced red bell peppers, and chopped scallions, tossed in a light dressing of soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, pickled ginger juice (aka the pickling liquid), sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.

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Spring is about renewal and optimism, and viewing the world from a fresh perspective…or at the very least from a different angle.  On that note, here are two funny, somewhat “unorthodox” takes on Spring.