Some thoughts inspired by the 12 days of Maine Restaurant Week this month.
The bread and butter is my favorite part of dining out. In Portland, many fine restaurants still buy, or bake, really good bread and rolls, and serve it with good butter. Free of charge.
But bread is becoming a luxury item. How did this happen? Bread used to be a staple food. I grew up on bread. It was cheap, delicious and plentiful, but now it’s common to pay six or seven bucks for a loaf from a bakery, and even cheap supermarket bread — which is mostly air — is three bucks.
Restaurants must be feeling the pinch. I made a fool of myself when a friend took me out to lunch on Peaks Island and I was unable to speak for a while because a cheap, spongy piece of bread had adhered to the roof of my mouth. I once went looking for a sandwich at a popular lunch place (since burned down), and was told, “We don’t serve sandwiches anymore, only wraps.”
The high cost of bread explains the growing popularity of wraps — an otherwise unpalatable raw taco. The spiking price of wheat has become a global problem. Bread, a more labor intensive and perishable product than whole grains, is poised to jump even higher.
In Balzac’s Père Goriot, during the bread famine, smart people “quietly bought Italian pasta,” and thus did not starve. I rarely buy bread anymore, and though I have enjoyed baking it (and sometimes eating what I baked), it’s still cheaper and easier to cook rice or pasta or heat up a corn tortilla on the electric coils of my stove.
Will people be willing to pay $10 or $15 for a loaf of bread someday? Will wheat prices ever fall back to what they were even a few years ago? Can we address this through activism and civic engagement, or will we just need to adapt? All I know is I will miss eating it.
If you can’t afford good bread, then the $20, $30, and $40 (plus tax, tip, drinks, and babysitter) prix fixe meals Maine Restaurant Week participants are offering will definitely be out of your budget. So thank goodness for cheap protein.
Browne Trading Company sells sushi salmon for about $12/pound, so you can stuff yourself on raw fish for less than the price of a large pizza. Try to get a piece from the wide end of the fish (the tail end is tougher and not as succulent), and ask them to remove the skin but to include it in your order.
Don’t bother with the hassle of making sushi. There are better preparations for raw fish. Here are two…
This is a very popular dish in Hawaii with endless variations. This is one of mine.
1 lb. sushi salmon
2-3 scallions (chopped) and a thumb of ginger (grated) or fresh garden herbs
Salmon skin (optional)
Furikake (Japanese shake seasoning of puffed rice, seaweed, salt and spices; also optional)
Cube the salmon and place in a bowl. Cover liberally with soy sauce. Stir in the ginger and scallions or fresh garden herbs (thyme and dill are nice). While the salmon is marinating, fry the salmon skin on a hot caste iron skillet until crisp (or until your smoke alarm goes off). Serve salmon on plates, topped with crumbled skin and a few shakes of the Japanese shaky stuff.
Mexican sushi should have a hot, crunchy outer crust and a cool sushi center.
4 six-inch strips of sushi salmon about the width of thumb
2 scallions, sliced in half lengthwise
Cayenne pepper (optional)
4 corn tortillas spread with wasabi paste
Peanut oil for frying
Soy sauce for dipping
Apply the scallion strips to the salmon and freeze overnight, keeping the strip of fish as straight as possible. Roll each salmon strip, with a dusting of cayenne, inside a wasabi tortilla and secure it with a toothpick (if the tortillas are not pliable, sprinkle some water on them and microwave for a few seconds). Add oil into a small, cast iron skillet to a depth that will cover approximately half of a salmon tortilla roll. Heat oil over medium heat. Fry until golden, using the toothpicks to turn them in the oil. Drain on paper towel or a rack. Serve immediately with soy sauce.
Wet Hessians and bacon fat
I went to a pretty good event at Maine Med recently, and while I was enjoying the food and wine at the reception I met a most curious gentleman. In this poem, I intersperse that anecdote with terms I found browsing through Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide.
“Don’t Say It Tastes Like Grapes”
Plum, raspberry, blackcurrant, jammy
The other day I was at a reception at the hospital.
Asparagus, black olive, tomato leaf, prune, roast lamb, menthol
Coming back from the water fountain, I saw my girlfriend talking to an older man.
Cucumber, celery, grapefruit, lemongrass, green apple, passion fruit, fig, dill, quince, tobacco, hay
He was an oncologist
Tar, fruitcake, salami, pencil shavings, bacon fat, seaweed, barnyard
in the midst of a divorce
Rhubarb, moss, coal, wet stones, melted stones, flint, gravel, tree bark, lanolin
with a self-described hoarding disorder
Rancid butter, fetid milk, wet dog, wet leather, sweat
and a serious collection of wine.
Cold tea, cherry stone, camphor, cat’s urine, bath salts, cold cream, broom
His basement, he said, is so jammed with bottles that he accidentally breaks one every time he goes down there.
Dank cellar, old books, musty, moldy, wet Hessian
Once he broke such an important bottle that he ran upstairs for a straw
Wet paper, rubber, band-aids, peanuts
and drank the wine off the floor.
Cabbage, boiled eggs, corn chips, dirty socks, bruised apple, mouse urine, beer towel.
— Zachary Barowitz