There’s something very romantic about New England. It may be that taciturn Yankee stoicism, much reminiscent of a couple of past boyfriends. It could be the rocky beaches with windswept waves that bring to mind gothic romance novels. Or it could just be that, gosh darn it, I like cranberries.
I’ve never lived there, but I try to wander into little port towns whenever I have a long weekend to get away. I’m not a “P-town” kind of guy, it’s a little too commercial for my tastes, even if it is the hotspot for those of our clan to gather.
I have my favorites. Anytime I just want to get away and feel pampered, I head for Newport, Rhode Island. I can visit one of my favorite wineries (more about that later), and ensconce myself in lodge-style luxury at the Inn at Castle Rock. I can dine on some of the best northeastern fare at the Inn’s acclaimed restaurant.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire is like a first love. The very first time I headed to the northern shores was when I first became a chef. Somewhere during my training I’d heard rumors about some bizarre, wild, innovative chef who’d created a little restaurant called the Blue Strawbery (yes, with one r).
James Haller, who later became a cookbook and food & health author, put out some of the most unusual food this boy had ever seen. Not afraid to mix just about anything he could think of together, and see what happened, night after night he put out one of the country’s earliest, and best, “tasting menus” – before it became all the rage. In the sixteen years he ran the restaurant, he never once repeated a menu. That’s the kind of thing I could aspire to.
Like most of my travels, places become inexorably linked with local foods. While James may have been whipping up roasted lamb in a pumpkin, honey and soy sauce (up to that point, I’d only seen soy sauce in little plastic packets from the Chinese take-out, who knew you could cook with it?), it was local foods throughout the region that most attracted me to return.
Sometimes it’s the simplicity of baked beans, a classic of the Boston area. Johnnycake, a stone-ground cornmeal pancake, hails from Rhode Island. Fried, with plenty of butter, it may not fit the latest diet craze, but in its simplicity, it is simply delicious. What better source of fresh lobster than the coast of Maine. Friends of mine used to maintain a summer home there and ship lobsters down to New York. It’s more fun to drive up there and get them as they come out of the water.
Perhaps the most famous, yet most misunderstood, dish is the clambake. This is not, as one local friend thinks, a platter of clams topped with bacon and Parmesan cheese. Those are baked clams, and despite his insistence, violating multiple kosher laws does not cancel them all out…not that I’m spending my time worrying about them.
A clambake is near impossible for the average city-dweller to make. It doesn’t just involve a big pot with clams, corn, onions, fish and lobster all packed in and steamed over a flame. The steam needs to come from fresh-from-the-water seaweed heated over hot rocks in the bottom, and on top, of all those great ingredients. Preferably, it’s all done over an open fire on the beach.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a day with Craig Claiborne, the first food critic for the New York Times. He had recently come out in his memoirs and was willing to chat with a budding food writer from a gay magazine. As a still somewhat unseasoned chef, it was an amazing day for me. Craig recently passed on, and I offer the recipe he and I cooked for our lunch that day in tribute and in memory.
Crab & Corn Chowder
4 ears of fresh sweet corn
2 dozen or so new potatoes, washed and cut in half
3 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped fine
4 stalks celery, chopped fine
1 cup clam juice
1 cup water
1 cup half-and-half
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound fresh lump crabmeat
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander or parsley
Fill a large pot with enough cold water to cover the potatoes and leave room for the corn. Heat to a boil. Add the corn and let it return to a boil. When it is boiling, cover and turn off the heat. Let it sit for five minutes and remove the corn. Cut the kernels from the cob and set aside. Drain the potatoes and set aside.
Heat the butter in a large saucepan and cook the onions, celery and potatoes until the onions are translucent. Add the clam juice, water, half-and-half, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the corn and the crabmeat and bring to a simmer for about 8 minutes. The potatoes should be cooked through but not mushy.
Ladle into soup bowls and top with freshly chopped herbs. Serves 4 as a main course soup.
As I noted earlier, one of my favorite wineries is located in Rhode Island. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that one of my favorite wine people is located there. Susan Samson, affectionately known to many of us in the business as “the hat lady”, is a tireless promoter of things New England, especially local chefs and her own wines. With her husband Earl, who oversees the winemaking, the reputation for quality and affordability of Sakonnet Vineyards wines is widespread.
It is, perhaps, a bit surprising that New England produces such quality wines, but latitude and soil-wise, it is in many ways similar to the vineyards of Germany and northern France. Like Oregon, Washington and Idaho, who knew?
My favorite wine is probably their Gewurztraminer. Crisp, clean, and full of that vibrantly aromatic fruit that the grape is famous for, Sakonnet produces one of the better American examples. Susan and Earl are also fond of using local grapes, and their Vidal Blanc, in both oaked and un-oaked styles are delightful fruity wines, perfect for pairing with a lunch of crab and corn chowder.
The winery also produces a tasty Chardonnay, a wonderfully perfumed Cabernet Franc, and, when it suits them, an amazingly rich red “Claret” blend.
Though I’m always fond of pairing local wines with local foods, I think this soup would be a great match for other fruity, slightly off-dry wines. Some current prime choices from California would be Zaca Mesa Roussanne from Santa Barbara, Wild Horse Malvasia Bianca from Monterey, and the J. Fritz Melon “Shone Farm”. All worth seeking out at your local “bottle shop.”
Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.