Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Kathy Gunst Dishes from her Maine Kitchen
HALLIE EPHRON: We are so excited to have the wonderful food writer and public radio commentator Kathy Gunst visiting today on Jungle Red. Kathy's new book, "Notes from a Maine Kitchen," came out in the fall. It's a literary cookbook with scads of new recipes. Since the year 2000, Kathy has been the "Resident Chef" on WBUR radio's "Here and Now." Listen to her recent shows at http://hereandnow.wbur.org/tag/kathy-gunst
Kathy, where are you living in Maine and what is it that makes Maine cooking special?
KATHY GUNST: I live in southern Maine, not all that far from Boston. It's a part of Maine that some Mainers don't call Maine, but you know what? It is Maine through and through.
What makes Maine cooking special is a question with a long answer, but let me keep it brief. I guess the answer, in a word, is authenticity. This is a state with a strong sense of place. If a state were a person, I would say that Maine is like a really grounded middle-aged woman who really knows her place in the world and isn't interested in trying to be like New York or California or even Chicago. It's proud to be who it is.
Maine food is, first and foremost, about the jewels that come from the sea, but also so much more. Obviously lobster, but also clams and mussels and the best, most buttery sweet filet of sole. The number of people farming here has grown enormously in the past decade, and don't get me even started on the amazing bakeries, breweries, jellies and jams, locally raised meats.....and so much more.
HALLIE: When I think MAINE, I think soups, stews, and of course lobster. And my favorite combination of the three: lobster bisque. Do you have a philosophy about lobster bisque? Sherry or not? Pink or white? Thicken with flour, rice, or not at all? Add corn or heaven forbid?
KATHY: Lobster bisque is a rich, gorgeous stew that benefits from a splash of sherry (sure, why not?). Pink or white? Well, if you use enough lobster it will have a pink blush like a gorgeous wine and the sweet, natural, briny flavor of lobster.
That's what its all about. Rice? Excuse me! Flour? Well, as little as possible. Corn? Might be delicious, but as a purist I have to say NO! When you're cooking with lobster (or any excellent food, be it garden lettuce, a just-picked blueberry, or an organic chicken) the goal is to keep it simple and honor the beauty of the ingredient. In my new book, Notes from a Maine Kitchen, I have an entire chapter on lobster offering up everything from the best lobster roll to lobster and corn chowder to lobster salads and grilled lobster with garlic-lemon-herb butter
HALLIE: I don't keep a lot of cookbooks because I don't have the room, but this one sounds like a keeper.
It's spring in New England, and I've already cooked our first soft shell crab of the season. After hearing you talk about ramps on the radio, I'll be looking for them at my local farmer's market. What other special spring-only ingredients should we all be looking for?
KATHY: Spring (and, in particular this year) is a season of gifts. I adore soft shell crabs, but they are hard to find in northern New England (they thrive in the South). I have been eating the first spinach from the garden (sautéed in olive oil with garlic), fiddleheads (a true New England specialty that grows wild by the side of rivers and streams and tastes like asparagus and earth and a hint of artichoke) and soon we will have local strawberries (locally raised berries being the only berry worth eating, the kind of berry that stains your shirt because it is so juicy and sweet).
Fava beans, another spring specialty, are buttery and pea-like but so much more unique. They require double shelling which can be a pain, but the flavor reward is huge. Use them in pasta sauce, sauteed with garlic and olive oil, pureed with olive oil as a dip for pita, and added to soups and stews
Also look for garlic scapes, the scrolled top of a new garlic plant that has a subtle garlic flavor and is fabulous chopped into salads, vinaigrettes, sautéed meats or fish, soups, stews....Oh ,and a garlic scape pesto is something to talk about.
HALLIE: Love your philosophy: "Fresh simple food is best." Do you have a kitchen garden and what are you growing?
KATHY: Yes we have a vegetable garden where we grow all kinds of food. I always grow dozens of varieties of tomatoes (that I eat fresh all season and then use all the ones I haven't devoured for my annual roasted tomato sauce and canning party each fall), garlic, eggplant, arugula, lettuces, baby bok choy, leeks, onions, herbs. I always tell people to grow fresh herbs, even if they live in a tiny city apartment, because fresh herbs wake up any type of cooking with a fresh blast of flavor.
The idea behind "fresh simple food is best" is this: if you have really good, fresh ingredients you will have good food. You don't need to add fancy sauces or techniques because really fresh food means you will eat well no matter how good--or bad--- a cook you may be.
HALLIE: When you shop for produce, are you looking for organic only?
KATHY: Yes, when there's a choice I always opt for organic. But, more importantly, I buy local. I like to know where my food was grown and how it was grown. I have learned too much about the dangers of pesticides and genetically altered food to "pretend" that eating just any food is O.K. When I buy locally I can talk to the farmer about how my food was grown.
Some might call this "elitist," but I truly believe that spending a bit extra on local or responsibly raised food is worth it in the end. Lets face it: it’s expensive to get sick. Sorry, I just got kind of heavy there. Yes...those crazy buzzwords that are so overused --"local" and "organic" -- mean a whole lot to me.
Recently Thomas Keller, the great master chef of The French Laundry in California and Per Se in NYC, told a New York Times reporter: "With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?" Between his many restaurants and bakeries, Mr. Keller actually feeds many lucky diners every year. He is a major trendsetter and, as far as I'm concerned, he does indeed have a responsibility to support local and organic agriculture. In fact, I would say we all have a responsibility.
HALLIE: Kathy, You've appeared on lots of TV shows. Is it nerve wracking, cooking in front of a camera? And has anything unexpected ever happened while you were cooking on TV.
KATHY: HA! How much time do you have? For some inexplicable reason I don't get nervous in front of a camera. But it's a lot to think about: how's my hair, how's my nails, how’s my outfit, how’s my food look?
HALLIE: Nails?! Of course, never occurred to me you'd need to worry about that on TV but of course your hands are front and center.
KATHY: I guess my best story goes back about 20 years when I was on the Regis and Kathie Lee show and I had just written a book on creative ways to use leftovers. I got to the studio and there was a portable burner on a makeshift plywood table and they said, "We want you to cook 6 dishes live and you have 4 1/2 minutes!"
HALLIE: I hope you still have the tape! Are there cookbooks that you come back to over and over?
KATHY: Yes, I have a gigantic stack of cookbooks (in almost every room of my house) but there are only a few I really refer to over and over. Julia, of course. I turn to "Mastering the Art" for techniques and non-nonsense fundamentals, but also several baking books like Dorie Greenspan's "Baking" and Nick Malgieri's "Perfect Cakes" and Boston bakery chef Joanne Chang's "Flour." Baking is a science and I am more of a "lets-see-what-happens-if-we-add-a-pinch-of-this" kind of cook, so I need some guidance when I want to tackle a cake or a tart or a soufflé. But I always add my own riff.
HALLIE: I've got to ask: years ago you wrote recipes for a book about Lundy's, the legendary seafood restaurant in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay where I went with my Brooklyn-born husband-to-be and his parents WAY back. Did you ever eat at Lundy's, and how did you research those recipes?
KATHY: Wow, I am so happy you brought up Lundy’s. I went to Lundy's many times and it WAS a wonderful place. I was lucky enough to work with (then) Chef Neil Kleinberg and go through some huge stacks of Lundy recipes.
The original Lundy family didn't give me any of their original recipes, so much of it was recreating some of the favorites. I was given a recipe for, lets say, biscuits, and at the top of the page it would say: "Feeds 850." There was lots and lots of testing and retesting, but I love the biscuit recipe, and all the seafood recipes. The crab cakes, the Oysters Rockefeller, the linguine with clam sauce.
But one of my favorite recipes from that book is Angry Lobster, where you cut a live lobster into pieces (much less cruel than it sounds, trust me) and roast it at 450 degrees with olive oil, garlic, red chile pepper flakes, and fresh rosemary and serve it over linguine. Just thinking about this dish makes me VERY hungry.
HALLIE: "Angry lobster!" That sounds FABULOUS! Thanks, Kathy!
Kathy will be checking back today so please join the discussion. Spring vegetables? Favorite recipes and cookbooks? Legendary restaurant recipes you wish you had. Dish!