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.

"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!


  1. I am drooling!!!, and it is before breakfast. I have already requested this book from my library. We have been getting fresh asparagus from thfarm stand for weeks now and I hate to see him run out as that will be the end of eating that veggie until next year. We do go to the local farmers' markets when they are open. Here in New England that is not a long time. Thank you Jungle Reds for introducing us to another winning writer. Dee

  2. Oh Kathy, what a wonderful interview--we love food on this blog and you are the perfect guest! Only too bad it's not TV so you could serve us all a sample of the angry lobster pasta dish!

    I'm writing my third food critic mystery as we speak, and the plot centers on a reality cooking show. Have you ever participated in one of those as a judge or participant?

  3. I'm thinking I must give this book to my husband (who's the family cook). We listen to Kathy all the time on NPR. It's odd when you hear a person's name and it evokes a voice instead of a face.

    Just had the best fiddleheads a couple of weeks ago at Craigie on Main in Cambridge.

  4. Hi Kathy,

    I love your books, which are about cooking and so much more. Also love the comment here about Maine being a grounded middle-aged woman who knows what she is about. Perfect characterization!

    Brenda B.

  5. I want to know what happened on Regis & Kathie and the 6 dishes in 4 1/2 minutes - and that show was LIVE, wasn't it??

  6. Holy cow...Lundy's??? I used to love that place. Clam chowder and those amazing little biscuit-y things. Went to Sheepshead bay recently - to Randazzo's for shrimp with hot sauce. Any chance you have that recipe. ;-)

  7. Drooling here, too. Garlic scapes are at our local farm markets right now; I saw the first ones on Saturday. I chop them and use them sauteed, like any other kind of garlic. They're also really good sliced into salads. The taste is like a very bright, fresher and milder garlic flavor. And you get a lot for your money. Here in Cincinnati they are generally a dime apiece.

    We have been getting fresh asparagus and strawberries, too. The local asparagus spoiled me for any other kind, it's so sweet.

    Yes! Please fill in some details on the six dishes.

  8. Thanks for all the great comments. What a wonderful way to start a rainy Maine Tuesday. Unfortunately I don't have any of those Lundy's recipes. Shrimp and hot sauce sounds so delicious right now.

    OK, Hallie here's some more on the Regis show: They told me to make 6 leftover dishes in 4 1/2 minutes and I laughed and they didn't and then I prepped and prepped and they said "OK, you're live" and I just started cooking like someone on fire, and then Regis starting talking and yakking and I said (I actually did this) "Regis, I can't get this done if you keep talking!" Unreal. And he said "Ooo, leftover lady is getting pissy."

  9. Ha ha ha ha ha!!! And did they have you back again after that? I'll bet they ate what you whipped up.

  10. Not being a New Englander, I have a real problem with killing a live lobster. It's bad enough to have to drop it into boiling water, but chop it into pieces??
    I remember once at a seafood restaurant watching one of the lobsters trying so hard to get out of the tank that I wanted to buy it and drive to the nearest ocean to release it.
    I'm a softie, I guess. I'd never survive in Maine!

  11. Ok, I admit, not having an ocean nearby is a problem.

    But I've got lots of garlic scapes, and fresh greens, and the strawberries are flowering like mad -- so I'm a happy eater anyway!

  12. Kathy, the book sounds fabulous. And I'm having to remind myself after reading your interview that Texas has its good points in summer, too--East Texas tomatoes coming in soon, fresh corn, Texas peaches (the best), cantaloupe, okra, TEXAS blueberries! (We do grow them here for a short season.) And so much more. But I'm still drooling over your descriptions of Maine seafood. Guess I'll have to come for a visit. And buy your book!

  13. Debs, I'm coming to Texas. Peaches... really?? We won't have tomatoes until mid summer at least.

    Our short growing season makes what we do grow all the sweeter.

    Barb, I love Craigie on Main. We go there for special celebrations.

  14. Kathy,
    I am SO WITH you on the lobster. I'm even more of a purist (Hallie don't read this). I think lobster should only be eaten fresh off the boat, boiled in seawater when you can throw the shells back in the sea.

    Failing that.....just boiled, which is why I almost never order it in a restaurant. But I have to admit, Hallie's lobster bisque sounds delicious.

    Also with you on the strawberries. The ones you buy in winter don't even taste like berries.

    Your cookbook sounds terrific. And applicable to all of New England.

  15. Oh, Kathy, I so agree about the herb garden. I have this little tiny porch-deck outside my back door that's holds about a dozen large pots for herbs. I have parsley, sage, laural, tarragon, oregano, garlic and onion chives, lemon thyme, rosemary, and dill. Hubby grows garlic, radishes, spinach, and lettuces in pots but the tomatoes and mine are in the yard. I so miss my garden in winter.

  16. Oops. that mine should be mint. Love my mint iced tea.

  17. The lobster man we buy from we're on Peak's Island in Maine sells out of a little shack by the dock -- and he keeps his catch in the ocean in traps tethered to the pier. Just hauls up however may you want.

    You can boil the water when you leave home to walk to the dock, and toss them in when you get back.

    We do not toss the shells in the ocean, however.

  18. OH, yummy yummy yummy..Angry Lobster sounds fabulous! We love lobster in the summer--any hints on the cooking? Are you the "plunge into boiling water" school?

    I must say, I'm not timid about cooking lobster. (One of Jonathan's old girlfriends once decided she'd give her lobster one last chance in the water--so she let it out in the chlorinated swimming pool. AH...)

    What a terrific post...thanks, Kathy!

  19. This was a terrific post, Kathy! I love your description of Maine as a grounded middle-aged woman. Your description of the Regis show reminded me of the time I made a huge pot of carnitas en chile, 4 dozen tamales, 6 dozen enchiladas, and a big pot of sopa de arroz for my first husband's big college graduation party with only a two-burner hotplate and a toaster oven. (That husband had taken my stove money and bought himself a state-of-the-art stereo system. I cooked like that for three years.) But at least there was no camera or microphone to catch all my cussing and grumbling.

    I'm with Rhys, though. I can hardly toss a lobster into boiling water. To cut them up alive... No, I couldn't do that. I'm probably too soft to live in Maine, also.