A Maine Foodie Brings a Recipe Back From T.O.P.
I just returned from a four-day trip to Portland, Oregon, where I attended the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) conference. There were close to 1,000 food writers, cookbook authors, editors, chefs, bloggers, caterers, and cooking school teachers there from Australia, Norway, Russia, Panama, Chile, Japan, Sweden, the U.K, and all over the U.S. (Many were kept away due to the volcanic ash that interrupted air travel last week.)
I knew Portland, Oregon, might share a few urban characteristics with our own Portland, but the commonalities were striking. Here are a few facts I learned about T.O.P (The Other Portland): T.O.P. is an intimate city where farmland comes right up to the city center — much like in our city. T.O.P. was home to the legendary cookbook author and food man James Beard. Maine was home to Julia Child’s husband, Paul, and a place where the Childs spent time during the summers. The population is pretty homogenous compared to the rest of the country. To be precise, T.O.P. is 85 percent white. According to city-data.com, in 2000 Portland, Maine, had 64,249 city residents of whom 58,638 were white. But the two Portlands intersect most directly when it comes to culinary-related life. They are, to be perfectly blunt, two cities obsessed with good food.
In my four days in T.O.P. I didn’t have a bad meal. (Well one so-so bowl of soup, but come on!) T.O.P., much like Maine, is at the forefront of the new food revolution. It’s a city consumed with what it eats, where the food was grown, how it was grown, and how it was brought to town. T.O.P. boasts several thriving farmers markets and small, intimate restaurants focused on serving (almost exclusively) locally grown food. One afternoon the rain stopped and the sun came out and I spent thirty minutes sitting in a city park just listening to the birds and relaxing. To my left were two twenty-something men (beards, tattoos, pierced noses) talking about the beer they were making and how to control the “hoppiness” of the final product. On my right, two middle-aged women compared notes about meals at a favorite restaurant using phrases like “brilliantly innovative,” “fava beans that melted like butter,” and “a waiter who really knew his nettles.” (I’m not making this up. These weren’t professional people attending the IACP conference — just regular Portlanders talking, talking, talking about food.)
Most of the restaurants I ate in were small and chef-owned. For instance, at Park Kitchen the spring dinner menu included local asparagus, nettles, beets, fava beans, arugula, salmon, pork, lamb, strawberries, and cheese. With its open kitchen and relaxed atmosphere (the waiter said “Hey!” instead of “Good Evening,” and wore a t- shirt, jeans, and Converse sneakers, which may or may not be the official outfit of T.O.P.). The spinach and leek soup, a brilliant emerald green puree, was served with paper-thin slices of spring radishes, feta cheese, and a drizzle of dark, aromatic sesame oil. Amazing. The place reminded me of a small, more intimate Fore Street. Which is to say I loved it. At Clyde Common, the restaurant attached to the lobby of the ultra-hip Ace Hotel, I found another open kitchen linked to a large room with communal tables. I ate amazing chickpeas with yogurt, popcorn flavored with the smoky Spanish paprika known as pimenton. There were dandelion greens with walnuts and local goat cheese, broccoli rabe with house-made coppa (an Italian salami), crispy fried egg and lemon dressing, and terrific local lamb braised with mint and orange oil. Inventive, fresh and local — three buzz words that could accurately define the food scene in both Portlands.
And then there was the coffee. What is it about the northwest that makes Seattle and Portland so coffee obsessed? We’re talking about really good coffee on virtually every other city block — dark, strong, and serious. Just the way I like it. Maine, though it has many good baristas and coffee shops, just doesn’t compare. Sorry. And another place where T.O.P. surpasses us is with the making of wine. Every wine I sampled – four days, at least eight meals with a glass of wine or two at every meal — was Oregon-produced and impressive. Um, California, you should be worried. Oregon wine is well worth seeking out. It is also, like Maine, a very serious beer town.
The other fabulous discovery about the food scene in T.O.P — food carts. The city hosts close to 400 food carts — small, self-contained “restaurants” housed in buses, Airstreams, and other types of small, mobile trailers that are parked in several empty parking lots across the city. These food carts offer the best of ethnic cuisine — from Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese to Indian and Korean BBQ. There was a smoothie cart, organic hot dogs and sausages, and crepes and ice cream. Almost everything I tried was fabulous and well under $10. How about Portland, Maine, giving over a parking lot to young entrepreneurial chefs and immigrant chefs so they can serve up their specialties in affordable food carts? The cart trend is growing all across the country. I know we don’t have the weather for it year-round, but how about a parking lot dedicated to seasonal food carts?
The lilacs were already blooming in mid-April, but otherwise T.O.P. felt a lot like home. A little cold, a little rainy, and then lots of sun. Portland and Portland have much in common, but good food may be their most important link.
Spring Asparagus Roasted with Orange and Olive Oil with Feta and Poached Eggs
This recipe was inspired by the gorgeous asparagus I tasted in T.O.P. Our asparagus season will be starting soon and this is dish works beautifully for breakfast, lunch, or dinner — a great way to welcome the season. If you’re cooking this for breakfast serve it with crusty bread and hash browned sweet and white potatoes. For lunch or dinner serve with a salad of mixed greens, crusty bread, and a good white wine.
1 pound fresh, local asparagus, ends trimmed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/4 cup minced fresh chives
4 slices crusty bread
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place the trimmed asparagus in a small roasting pan, ovenproof skillet, or shallow gratin dish and toss with 1 tablespoon of the oil, the orange zest, salt and pepper. Roast for about 12 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness, or until the asparagus are almost tender when tested with a small sharp knife in the thickest part of the stalk. Be sure to toss the asparagus once or twice during the roasting time so they brown evenly. Remove from the oven before they are completely tender, as they will continue to cook in the hot pan after they’ve been taken out of the oven.
Meanwhile bring a large skillet of water to boil over high heat. Crack the eggs, one at a time, into the boiling water, reduce the heat to moderate, and let the eggs poach in the simmering water for 3 minutes (for a really runny yolk) and 4 minutes for a firmer yolk. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon, being sure to let all water drain.
Divide the asparagus between 2 or 4 plates and pour any juices from the bottom of the pan on top. Sprinkle with the feta cheese and chives. Gently place 1 or 2 eggs on top of the asparagus and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place 1 or 2 slices of toast next to the asparagus and eggs and pour the remaining olive oil on the toast. Serves 2 to 4.