Portland has been celebrated as a food destination for some time, a best kept secret that locals always knew, finally getting attention from the wider world. Chefs are here because they want to be, because they’re from here, did time with the big boys in far flung cosmopolitan capitals and wanted to come home to cook, or perhaps they, too, are from away, and chose Maine because of its beauty and bounty. Finally there’s a book that compiles favorite recipes from some of the most prominent, popular, accomplished cooks on the Peninsula. Portland, Maine Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from Casco Bay is perfectly packaged with glossy photos of the food, profiles of each restaurant, and insight from the chefs themselves. It is the cookbook that Portland deserves.
Margaret Hathaway was a manager of Magnolia Bakery, the West Village spot that kicked off the extant cupcake trend almost a decade ago. Now she lives and works on Ten Apple Farm with her partner (the book’s photographer, Karl Schatz), their girls, goats, cat, dog, and chickens. Her writing is witty, and she is obviously passionate about local cuisine and the farm-to-table movement. Chef’s Table is a well-curated collection of classics. With this book, the untrained home cook can recreate the most popular dishes from the best restaurants in Portland.
What’s most interesting to me about this transmission, is the ineffable thing that inevitably goes missing from a chef’s expert hand. We can read through the recipe, follow his or her instructions to the letter, and yet it’s never quite the same. And ultimately, we’ll return to the tables we love best, to try to ascertain what magic we may have missed.
Hathaway and Schatz have captured what is delicious and unique about Portland in a book of recipes for everyone who has visited and been enchanted by the Forest City’s thriving food scene. I tried my hand at the ratatouille created by Chef Jeff Landry of The Farmer’s Table. I wanted to choose a recipe I didn’t know, but thought that I ought to. I’ve seen the cartoon movie with the talking rat; I thought each component was supposed to be cooked separately. A little research confirms this is how Julia Child did it half a century ago.
I have eaten at The Farmer’s Table. It makes sense with what I’ve seen there and what the book tells us about the chef’s philosophy, that this would be simple, peasant stuff, not fussy or fancy, made with the best backyard garden/farm ingredients. I replaced the oregano with basil because I couldn’t find fresh oregano and also because it makes my teeth itch. Other than that minor change, I followed the directions, even leaving out salt and pepper, nowhere to be found in the recipe. It was delicious, though I did add salt when serving. Each vegetable retained its integrity yet yielded to the others in the casserole. The resulting ratatouille was a little oily, as the recipe told me to expect, but served with crusty bread or over quinoa, it is divine.
The Farmer’s Table Ratatouille
Reprinted from “Portland, Maine Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from Casco Bay“
by Margaret Hathaway & Karl Schatz
- 1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cups red onion, finely diced
- 3 tablespoons fresh garlic, minced
- 2 cups eggplant, finely diced
- 2 cups zucchini, finely diced
- 2 cups yellow squash, finely diced
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
In a large pot or Dutch oven heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Lightly saute the onions with the garlic and as the garlic turns golden add the eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash. Saute for 5 minutes, then stir in tomato paste. Reduce heat to low, stir in oregano and let simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. [A note in the recipe advises using excess oil as a sauce with meat or fish to accompany the dish, and that since it’s packed with flavor you should be using bread to soak it up. Point taken!]