NOTES from a Maine Kitchen
Seasonally Inspired Recipes
By KATHY GUNST
Copyright © 2011 Kathy Gunst
All right reserved.
Chapter One January
A WINTER ADVENTURE ON THE CATHANCE RIVER
Truth be told: the idea of sitting in a shack on top of the ice with a hole cut in it, putting slimy bail on a hook, trying to catch smelts has always struck me as a little crazy.
But here I am, just before 8 a.m. on a cold January morning outside Jim McPherson's Smelt Camps in Bowdoinham, Maine. I'm with Sam Hayward, chef of Fore Street restaurant in Portland, and Sam's old friend and fishing buddy, Brett Zachau. It's prime season for smelting, and we're hoping the tide is right and the fish are biting. For me this is a first. I've caught a flounder or two, but I've never fished for smelts, and certainly never stepped inside a smelt camp. I've come hoping to be proven wrong about this whole winter ice fishing thing.
By the time we check in with McPherson and grab our gear from the car — a thermos of coffee, some pastry, a knife, cutting board, worms, and a few kitchen towels — there's a line forming outside the camp office. The Cathance River in Bowdoinham is known as a good fishing spot and a small group of men wait in the cold to sign up for one of McPherson's fishing shacks. I appear to be the only woman for miles around. Although dressed in my three layers of clothing, which makes me very closely resemble the Michelin (wo)man, it's hard to tell what gender I am.
Like the tiny silver fish they arc here to catch, these men arc drawn By the tide. The best smelt fishing takes place during the incoming tide, which lasts about five or sis hours, and on this icy blue morning begins around 8 a.m.
We walk down a plank to the frozen river. I spot water flowing in the center of the river, not more than one hundred feet from where we are standing. Jim McPherson has been running the camps for more than thirty winters, so I'm guessing that if it were unsafe he'd be the first to know. We spot a four-wheeler with a strange-looking building on wheels hitched to the back. Sam and Brent start laughing as McPherson describes the rig: "This is the trailer I used to haul my four-wheelers, but now I use my four-wheeler to haul it. I put a small building on it with a propane heater to keep people warm while I take them upriver. Hop in and we'll get started."
We settle onto little wooden benches built into the side of the shack. I stare out the one small, foggy window in the rear of the building and watch civilization disappear. First the bridge, then the car, the church steeple, and finally the town fades as we drive two miles upriver to a spot called Town Farm Turn, where locals have been fishing for more than a hundred years. It's dead quiet as we step out and set eves on our camp.
"This here's my deluxe camp. Come on in and I'll show you around," says McPherson, waving his arm at the tiny structure like a game show host displaying a new car we just won. The camp, green with a red door and yellow trim, measures ten feet by ten feet, the size of a large outhouse. Sam and Brent seem awfully impressed. "Wow!" they say in unison. "Look at this. Sixteen lines! Oh boy, we're gonna catch some fish!" I look at these two middle-aged men, one a famous chef and the other a carpenter, builder, and see them as the boys they must have been, gleeful children playing hooky from school on a cold January morning, out on the river, not a worry in the world.
Inside the camp is a small, old, black cast-iron woodstove. There's a pile of wood and McPherson, as part of the fee for renting the camp, has cranked the fire and gotten the place toasty warm, I look down at my hands wrapped inside expedition-style gloves, big, thick things with so much insulation 1 could probably stick my hand into the icy water and not feel the cold. My whole body starts to sweat.
There's a narrow wooden table and a few fold-Lip wooden chairs. On cither side of the camp McPherson has cut a long, thin rectangle in the ice (what he calls "the race holes") where under foot-thick ice we can see the black water swirl beneath us. At the beginning of the season, sometime near Christmas, he uses a chainsaw to cut out the holes. As long as the camp is in use the ice doesn't have a chance to refreeze completely, McPherson heads upriver every day around 6 a.m. and uses an ice chisel and a skimmer to break up the frozen water so it will be clear by the time the early-morning customers show up. Attached to opposite walls of the camp above the swirling water, are eight Lies dangling over the race holes. The fishing lines end with a hook and a two-ounce lead weight or "sinker" dangling from it.
Brent and Sam start cutting up sand worms, our bait. They're nasty looking and are said to bite. Even after they're cut into ¼-inch pieces the worms wiggle on the wooden cutting board. We place the bait on the hooks; it's not nearly as hard as it seems once I get the hang of it and forget about the slimy, warm blood coating my fingers.
We drop the lines until they hit the bottom of the river; it takes a while to feel the gentle thud on the muddy riverbed. Then I'm told to raise the line up off the bottom about six to eight inches, and wait.
The woodstove is cranking, and I sit down next to the lines I have baited, expecting to settle In for the long haul. Within seconds (I am prone to exaggeration, but I swear it was only seconds) one of my lines wiggles back and forth. Hate to admit it, but I make a sound like a squeal. "I GOT ONE!" Brent joins in: "Yup! I think you got somethin' there. Give it a quick jerk and pull it up." There, at the end of my line, is a gorgeous eight-inch silver smelt. Before I can pull the fish off the C-shaped hook and rebait it, lines two and five are squiggling. Suddenly things are out of control. We can't bait the lines fast enough.
"We have hit pay dirt," Brent says, slapping his knee. He and Sam are marveling at the situation. "This is the best spot on the river." they say. "Can you even imagine a more perfect spot?" they ask each other, huge grins on their faces. "This is just unreal. Unbelievable."
Within an hour we have almost filled half of a large plastic bucket with more than one hundred smelts. They range in size from tiny ones — about five inches — to really impressive-looking larger ones measuring around nine inches. The smelts have a silvery sheen and when you look at them closely they have a series of bright colors flashing just beneath their skin. "We don't call them rainbow smelts for nothing," says Brent. He explains that smelts are anadromous, a new word for me. It means that smelts, like salmon, live primarily in the ocean, but breed in fresh water.
We drink coffee, stoke the woodstove, and rebait the lines as last as we can. And then, after about an hour, all activity slows down and the bites stop cold. It's as if we've caught every smelt in the river.
Brent Zachau grew up in Bowdoinham, with Jimmy McPherson. And spent much of his childhood right here on the Cathance River, fishing for smelts during the wintertime. He's got a white-gray beard, a baseball cap on his head, and a thick flannel shi it and jeans. He looks straight out of central casting (We need a Mainer!) and he's got the accent to go with the look. "You gotta watch your lines here," he teaches me, playing with the depth of my hooks. "As the tide comes in, the ice lifts so you have to keep dropping your lines to keep the right depth ... that's pretty much the only trick. That and just hope for the best."
It's quiet for about fifteen minutes, which gives Brent and Sam time to start talking. They pour more black coffee and tell stories about smelt fishing in the "old days," share rumors about locals coming out here with bottles of strong stuff and women ("some kids around here shouldda been named 'Smeltah!'"). And then there are the tales of local teenagers and the trouble/fun they managed to get into spending a few hours in an ice camp in the dead of winter. Sam says, "Ice shacks and smelt fishing are a rite of passage in Maine." As they talk, we pull up the lines, rebait them with fresh worm goo, and reset them at the proper depth. And suddenly, as if nap time is officially over, the lines start dancing, moving slowly, and then with more momentum until we can barely keep up with them again.
As I look Into the almost-full bucket of smelts, I think about the pleasure of eating something fresh, even in January In frozen, snowy Maine.
Sam seems to read my mind. "We should think about quitting time and maybe head back to my house to cook some of these up. There's nothing like a fresh smelt that's only been out of the water an hour or so."
As we drive back to town, Sam remembers glorious moonlit nights skating on this river with his wife. These memories lead to a tale of tragedy, about a dear friend who went under one day when the ice just wasn't thick enough. Brent is quiet. "That was my best friend who went down." he says sadly. "I didn't think I would ever go back out on the ice, but here I am. I'm sure glad we did this."
At Sam's house, just a few miles down the mad. I learn how to clean smelts. We start with a good pair of kitchen scissors and a quick snip along the belly, or vent, of the smelt and then work our way up toward the head, revealing the roe in the females and the milt in the males. Most of [he smelts are females and their daffodil-yellow roe is put aside so we can fry it up for an extra treat. Once [he roe and milt are removed, we snip out the digestive track and the gills. At first it seems like a tricky technique, but within a few minutes I'm working my way through the pile.
Sam mixes flour and Coarsely ground cornmeal in a large bowl and seasons it with fresh black pepper and Maine sea salt. He lightly coats the cleaned smelts and their roc in the mixture. A well worn, black cast-iron skillet is placed over high heat with just a coating of canola oil until it's just short of smoking. The smelts fry up in about a minute on each side. We taste them hot, with a squirt Of lemon juice, and I'm wondering if any winter food has ever tasted quite this good.
Raw smelts actually smell a lot like cucumbers and their taste is slightly reminiscent of them as well — fresh and subtle. The flesh is delicate, not at all strong and fatly like a fresh sardine or anchovy (which are not, it turns out, related to the smell). We eat quite a few smelts and try the roe, and then we eat some more.
I ask Sam if he thinks smelts will catch on more due to the recession and tough economic times. "I'm not sure people go after smelts because they're cheap and plentiful," he answers. Sam Hayward is a thinking-man's chef. He knows more about Maine food and its culinary traditions than just about anyone else. "They go after them for their cultural context Getting outdoors in a smelt camp is a great winter activity when there's nothing else to do. Smelts have a certain panache because of where they are from and how we catch them. They are one of the few fish that have a short season. They are really a delicacy."
As I drive home with a large bag of smelts (we divide up what we haven't eaten between the three of us and there are more than enough for everyone), I have to laugh. Standing on the ice with slimy bait turns out to be a whole lot of fun. Bringing home fresh food in January is even better. You can buy smelts in most fish stores for under four dollars a pound, but getting outside, standing over a hole in the ice, and hanging out with friends makes winter so much sweeter.
Pan-Fried, Cornmeal-Coated Maine Smelts
Find the freshest smelts possible and try them using this simple technique. They are delicious with a simple wedge of lemon, but the Better Than Tartar Sauce (page 19) makes for an exceptional meal.
1 pound fresh smelts ½ cup flour ½ cup stone-ground or coarse yellow or white cornmeal salt and freshly ground black pepper about 3 tablespoons canola or safflower oil 1 lemon, cut into wedges Better than Tartar Sauce, (page 19), optional
Lightly rinse the smelts and dry thoroughly.
To clean the smelts: using a small pair of kitchen scissors, hold the smelt belly up in one hand with its head pointing away from you. With the scissors, open the belly by cutting from the vent to the point of the lower jaw. With the back of the thumb of the other hand, push the entrails out of the abdominal cavity in a single motion. Grasp the gills and the entrails and pull them clear of the head. If necessary, use the scissors to cut the esophagus just inside the jaw. Alternately, ask your fish store to clean the smelts for you.
Place the flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper on a plate and lightly dredge the smelts in the mixture until coated on all sides.
In a large, heavy frying pan (cast iron is Ideal), heat the oil over moderately high heat. It's hot enough when you add a speck of the flour mixture and it begins to sizzle. Add the smelts, a few at a time, being careful not to crowd the pan, and cook about 2 to 3 minutes on each side (don't fiddle with the fish — let them cook undisturbed). When you flip the smelts over, they should be golden brown. The timing depends on the size of the fish — a smaller 5-inch smelt will only take about 2 minutes per side and a larger (around 8 or 9 inches long) fish will need to cook closer to 3 minutes per side.
Drain on paper towels and serve hot with lemon wedges and the Better Than Tartar Sauce, if desired.
Better Than Tartar Sauce
This tartar-like sauce is delicious served with any sautéed or fried fish — smelts, fried clams, sautéed sole or flounder, haddock, etc. You can make it several hours (but not a full day) ahead of time, and cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. The sauce is enough for one pound offish.
Makes about 1 cup
1 cup mayonnaise 1 small dill or half-sour pickle, finely chopped, plus 1 tablespoon of the liquid or juice from the pickle jar 1 scallion, finely chopped 1 tablespoon drained capers juice of ½ large lemon, about 'I tablespoons 1 or 2 dashes hot pepper sauce salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
In a small bowl, mix all rite ingredients until fully incorporated. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper, or hot sauce to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
A STEW FOR A LONG, SLOW MONTH
When it's two below zero, daylight ends around 4 in the afternoon, and the ground is a solid sheet of frozen, slippery ice, I often forget about all the things there are to love about winter. Once the holidays wind down and life resumes its normal beat. I generally dread the long, slow months ahead. But that's the beauty of winter — we get to slow down and focus inward, inside the house, inside our minds (or what's left of them after the holiday parties and all that rich food and napping). There's no garden to tend, no lawn to mow. And when the sun is shining, and there's a fresh blanket of powder on the fields, there is much to celebrate.
It's not just the slowing down. It's the eating, too. Winter was made for cooking. One night, after the daytime temperature reached a high of 7 degrees and a gray sheet seemed to be tucked into the daytime sky, I spent several hours preparing a chicken stew bathed in red wine, seasoned with bacon, fresh thyme (from my barely surviving kitchen window herb plant), mushrooms, and baby onions (that did survive in our cold, dark basement after being pulled from the garden last September). The stew filled the house with one of those "try to resist me" aromas, it was so intoxicating that when the FedEx guy walked into the mudroom and asked for my signature for a package, he blurted out, "Oh my God, what are you cooking?" And then, only half kidding, "Can 1 stay for dinner? "
There are few things in this world that smell as good as a slowly simmering stew. Flavors are gently coaxed out of I he Ingredients. Root vegetables like carrots and onions are asked to release their natural sweetness, while the chicken fills the pot With its meaty essence and huge flavors. It's as if the chicken in this stew is being absorbed by the red wine, taking on its color and flavor, and surrendering any toughness it might have ever had. The bacon provides a meaty backdrop for the stew, and the crimini mushrooms, tasting of bare earth before a snowfall, balance the stew. Local potatoes, peeled and then quartered, are cooked in boiling water and then gently tossed with a little butter and fresh parsley.
Let your food slow down. No quick sautés or throwing a salad together at this time of year. These cold, short days demand stews, soups, and braises.
This is a classic accompaniment to any stew.
1 ½ pounds Maine potatoes, white or yellow fleshed, peeled and quartered 2 tablespoons butter salt and freshly ground black pepper ¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
Bring a medium-size pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the potatoes, cover, and let cook about 12 to 14 minutes, depending on the variety, or until just tender when pierced in the center with a small, sharp knife. Drain.
Place the potatoes back in the pot and loss gently with the butter, salt, pepper, and parsley. Serve hot.
Excerpted from NOTES from a Maine Kitchen by KATHY GUNST Copyright © 2011 by Kathy Gunst. Excerpted by permission of Down East. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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