Thursday, December 29, 2011

Episode 8: In Which He Encounters a Purveyor of Meats, and Discovers a New Use for Butternut Squash

First things first: If you live in or near Portland, go to Pat's Meat Market. What brought me there was a search for ground lamb. Well, they had it, but it was pre-seasoned. At first, the young man behind the counter tried to sell me on it. Ultimately, I had enough sense to ask if they had any lamb trimmings they'd be willing to run through the grinder. And the answer was perfect. No, "Let me ask my manager" or "Corporate won't allow that" or "All our lamb is pre-packaged and most of it is frozen" or "I have no idea what we'd charge for that." Just, "Sure, let me check in the back."

Not only did I leave with the lamb I needed, but some red wine vinegar, canned San Marzano tomatoes, and Romano cheese--sparing the need to make another stop at Micucci's.

(Many thanks to Lisa at SPPL for making that recommendation!)

Why did I need those things? I had checked out My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino from the library. I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was the cover photograph of all those multicolored hot peppers. Reading the book during a Maine winter is a bit painful. For too many of the recipes, the necessary ingredients are long since out of season, available only via truck from California or Florida, or perhaps shipped in from Chile, and already on the verge of being either rotten or tasteless. But I was able to find several tempting recipes that can be made with readily available produce, the most immediately intriguing of which was Zucca Gialla con la Menta--butternut squash marinated with garlic and mint. So simple, and perhaps now my favorite winter squash preparation. You just fry the squash in olive oil:

In retrospect, this would have been a perfect Hanukkah recipe.

Then season it coarse salt, pepper, red wine vinegar, shredded mint and thinly sliced garlic. Here's the first layer:

Here's the first layer.

Repeat with two more layers of squash:

The final product.

Then just let it marinate the rest of the day at room temperature.

I reserved the cooking oil for making the meatballs. I wanted lamb--I figured it would go with the mint. But I didn't want to make my keftedhes (Greek meatballs)--I didn't want to shlep down to Saco for trahana (a small, yogurt-based pasta I love to put into by keftedhes), or hunt all over for kefalograviera. Costantino doesn't have a lamb meatball recipe, but refers in several places to the Calabrian propensity for making fried balls out of just about anything, and mentions lamb specifically. The following recipe is adapted from the recipe for her grandmother's pork meatballs.

"Calabrian" Lamb Meatballs

Start with the sauce:

  1. Heat 3 Tbsp oil over moderate heat.
  2. Add 2 large cloves of garlic, cut in half lengthwise, and saute for a minute.
  3. Add a can of San Marzano tomatoes, hand-crushed, with their juices.
  4. Add 10 mint leaves, shredded, a dried hot red pepper, cut in half and mostly de-seeded, and salt to taste.
  5. Simmer vigorously until sauce is thick. Set aside.

Now, time for the meatballs themselves:

  1. Mix--with your bare hands--1.5 lbs of ground lamb, 1 egg, 3/4 cup of bread crumbs, 1/4 cup of finely chopped mint, 1/4 cup of grated romano, 1 teaspoon of coarse salt, 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper and 1/3 cup of water.
  2. Form the mixture into 1.5 inch balls (recipe for the pork says it makes 36 meatballs--I only got 15 with the lamb!).
  3. Make sure your frying oil is half an inch deep. Heat large pan on medium high. When oil is ready, add the meatballs, making sure not to crowd the pan. (Fry in batches if necessary.) Turn the meatballs (gently!) to make sure they are browned on all sides.
  4. Bring the sauce back to a vigorous simmer and add the meatballs to it. Simmer for about 10 minutes, turning once, to make sure the meatballs cook through.

The sauce would be great on pasta, but I enjoyed just eating the meatballs as a main dish with the squash on the side, sopping up sauce with a nice piece of bread.

Again, I'm making an exception to the "ethnic" ambit of this blog to talk about regional Italian cooking.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Episode 7 (part 2): Greek-American Chop Suey

One of the things that took us a few weeks to figure out when we moved to Maine: What the heck is American Chop Suey? We kept seeing it in the listings for Lions Club and church dinners, on the specials placards outside local taverns and eateries around South Portland. Lacking the will or the funds to go, we did not find out from those venues.

The mystery was solved earlier this week when Hot Librarian was given a remaindered copy of Cooking Down East by Marjorie Standish. Based on the (rather unappetizing looking) recipe on page 74, it's pretty much what people in the other 49 states call "Hamburger Casserole".

There's another dish I want to tell you about. Kima, is a dish that is found, in various pronunciations and spellings and recipes, in Greece, India, and just about every country in between. There are a number of dishes that extend and vary over a similar geographical extent, from the Balkans to Northern India--and if some enterprising food scholar were to collect representative recipes from each country and publish them in a single volume, I would buy it in an instant. Unlike some such recipes (e.g. moussaka/musaqqa, which has meat and bechamel in Greece, but is vegetarian and dairy-free in the Levant), kima remains relatively constant. It is basically ground or minced meat, beef, lamb or a combination of the two, browned and simmered with spices.

Kima has also played a role in the food culture of a major American city, Cincinnati. Chili-mac, the beloved fast food concoction of chili served over spaghetti, is basically a traditional Balkan way of serving kima (called by Greeks makaronadhes me kima). The flavors of a decent Cincinnati chili, with spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice that are popular in the Balkans, bear a much closer resemblance to kima than to a Texan chili con carne. Until recently, I thought this could be attributed to a Greek restauranteur. But this article has convinced me that the first chili-mac purveyor was a Macedonian by the name of Karadjieff. (Note to any Greek nationalists who are tempted to rant that "Macedonia is Greek": There's an independent country called Macedonia where the majority of the people speak a Slavic language called Macedonian. Get over it, please.)

Perhaps it was the disappointment of not getting Chinese lunch today, or just a matter of making do with the ingredients ready to hand at home on a day when the supermarkets are closed, but I decided make my own rendition of American Chop Suey, not with the Standish recipe, but with kima. I'll call it, Greek-American Chop Suey: It's not Greek, it's definitely not Chinese, and I'm not sure it would be a hit at the Lions Club. But that may be what makes it American.

The following is less a recipe than a recounting of what I did. I would likely do it again completely differently, as I said, based on what's in the house and my whims.

Greek-American Chop Suey

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Chop an onion and mince a large clove of garlic (or two small=medium ones)
  3. Warm a pan over medium heat and add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
  4. Saute onions until just beginning to brown. Add garlic and saute another minute. Add ground beef and break into pieces.
  5. Season with salt to taste, 1/4-1/2 tsp of cracked black pepper, 1/2 tsp of cinnamon, 1/4 tsp allspice, 1/2 tsp cumin and a generous amount of crumbled Greek oregano. Stir to mix spices evenly into the mixture. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all the meat is browned.
  6. Add 1 cup of tomato puree. Bring to simmer, reduce heat to a gentle simmer.
  7. Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Boil 1.5 cups of dry elbow macaroni to al dente. Strain.
  8. Add cooked macaroni to simmering kima mixture and mix together thoroughly.
  9. Transfer mixture to casserole dish. Top generously with grated parmesan cheese and crumbled feta. Put in preheated oven.
  10. Bake until browned a bit on top (about 30 minutes).

I took pictures, but I'm not posting them. To be honest, it doesn't look very appetizing. But it's easy, tastes good and is filling and warming on a winter night.

Episode 7 (part 1): A New Christmas Tradition?

With promising-seeming Chinese restaurants either having disappointing menus, or being closed on Christmas (as a Jew from New York and a former resident of Flushing, Queens, a Chinese restaurant being closed on Christmas, or indeed on any day of the year at all, is the first case of culture-shock I've had since coming to Maine), for lunch we needed to deviate from tradition. (Well, we didn't need to, but life's too short for General Tso.) Being in downtown Portland, we stopped in the first open restaurant we saw on Congress Street, India Palace.

Indian food is comfort food for Hot Librarian. How that came to be for a Jewish girl from Peekskill with a low tolerance for chili heat is one of those enduring mysteries that gives marriage its charm. So, to be honest, most of what I'm looking for in an Indian restaurant is that it pleases her.

It's not the first Indian food I've come across in Maine, albeit the first I've eaten. HL has been cooking batches of some of her favorite dishes--paneer makhani, rajma dal--over the weekends to pack for her lunches at work. Masala Mahal in South Portland has been indispensable to us, allowing us to replenish our spice collection since our move. Any cook who uses a lot of spices should make a habit of visiting the nearest Indian grocery store; the brands that cater to a South Asian market are usually packaged in larger, more economical containers than the supermarket brands, and if there's a large enough clientele they tend to move off the shelves faster. That's the key with spices: If left on the shelf too long, their more volatile (and tasty) flavor chemicals will tend to oxidize or evaporate.

Returning to India Palace and HL's verdict: "I'd rather cook my own." The naan was flat and greasy, as if it had been cooked on a griddle rather than in a tandoor oven. Her shahi paneer was too sweet, with very little paneer. My lamb vindaloo likewise had little lamb, and strangely, hadn't been padded out with much aloo (potato). At least mine had plenty of vinegar (vind), a weakness I've noticed at other Indian restaurants, but not much of the chili heat for which vindaloo is famous (though it did smell and taste richly of other spices). Also, the prices were high by Portland standards. It was fine in a Christmas pinch, but not a place I will be returning to quickly.

So will Indian supplant Chinese as our family tradition for Jewish Christmas? Perhaps. It will depend on the outcome of visits to other Indian restaurants, whether those stay open on December 25th--and on whether we can find some decent Chinese around here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Episode 6: Buckwheat Onion Latkes

Hot Librarian whipped these together in 30 minutes flat, while I was writing. The recipe is photocopied from a French-Jewish cookbook (whose title or other bibliographic info is not on the page, so I can't identify it), but the name, Gretchenes Latkes is Polish/Yiddish:
  • 1 cup buckwheat flour (surprisingly easy to find here in Maine, thanks perhaps to the French-Canadian influence; you can find it in any Hannaford)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups grated onions

Stir the dry ingredients together. Beat in the eggs, then stir in the onions. Heat a nonstick frying pan and add a film of oil. 2 tablespoons of batter per latke. Fry until golden, then flip and cook the other side. Drain on paper towels. Makes a lot more than the 8 the cookbook said it would.

They went well with the beet, farro and feta salad I had planned for tonight. But in retrospect, they would have been amazing topped with a bit of creme fraiche and smoked salmon.

Another thing that might be amazing: Cooking them in rendered duck or goose fat instead of oil.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Episode 5: In which jewgreek meets greekjew

The other half of my heritage is Eastern European Jewish. I didn't mention it in my introductory post, because while it plays a significant role in my every day life (not least because Hot Librarian is 100% Jewish), the Ashkenazi Jewish culture has not left much of an imprint either on world gastronomy or on my everyday eating habits. But tonight is an exception, the first night of Hanukkah, a holiday commemorating religious bigotry, fried foods and, in the U.S. at least, Jewish integration into the national festival of conspicuous consumption. I like one of those three things.

Tonight's menu was:

  • Grilled lamb rib chops (sprinkled with Greek oregano)
  • Braised cavolo nero with garlic, lemon and anchovy
  • Traditional potato latkes (topped with Greek yogurt)

In this house at least, the Hellenizers won after all.

(Sorry, no pictures tonight--it was too hectic. There may be some some more ambitious and camera-friendly fried items over the weekend.)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Episode 4: In Which He Braises a Rabbit

Having purchased a rabbit last week from Bubier Family Farm at the Portland Winter Market last week, I knew I had to make kouneli stifado.

Stifado is the Greek word for any braised dish. Of the various meats that can be put into a stifado, I have always found rabbit to be my favorite. And of the many ways that rabbit can be prepared, I have always found stifado to be the most appealing. A particularly good recipe can be found at Peter Minakis' blog, Kalofagas. My only modification is that I like to add a a heaping tablespoon of honey along with the diluted tomato paste and seasonings.

Mise en place

Browning the bunny


Ready for the oven

Another set of modifications is forced on me by the fact that the oven in my current place runs hot. To prevent burning, I had to leave the lid of my cast iron dutch oven on throughout, and take it out 20 minutes early. As it was, the sauce had reduced to a syrupy decoction, just this side of burning and as viscous as rubber cement. I salvaged it as a sauce by removing the rabbit and deglazing the pot with an additional cup of water. In retrospect, I should have added an additional cup of liquid at the beginning, wine or water or half of each, and set the oven at 325 instead of 350.

Braised bunny with sludge

Definitely accompany with good feta, lightly dressed with olive oil and crumbled Greek oregano, and some bread. Other traditional Greek accompaniments might be lemon potatoes or horta (braised bitter greens), or this time of year maybe even a beet salad. Instead of those, however, I sided it with some non-traditional but still delicious reheated leftover celeriac puree.

Ready to eat

Some notes on sourcing the ingredients for Portland-area readers:

  • I've already given credit to Bubier Farm for the rabbit, which was delicious. The unfortunate thing about buying meat at a farmer's market of course is that it all comes frozen, either uncut or not necessarily cut in the way you prefer. That left it to me to thaw the rabbit and cut it into pieces, which I did serviceably but not perfectly. In Queens I was spoiled by Ottomanelli Butchers--when they had fresh rabbit in stock, I could always count on Jerry, Joe or Josh to cut it up just the way I like, with the precision of a veterinary surgeon. I have yet to find a solid butcher shop around here. Local readers, please leave recommendations!
  • If you have a good quality Greek honey in stock, by all means use it. A good Greek honey will lend any dish to which it is added an ineffable sense of place, redolent of what my Yiayia's backyard smelled like thirty years ago, when the winds would catch the scent of wild herbs on the slopes of Mount Hymettus (before it became part of yet another overgrown suburb of Athens). But this is not necessary, as there is plenty of good local honey to be had in Maine. The dark wildflower honey from Tom's Honey & More, also available at the Portland Winter Market, leaves me just as speechless.
  • Dodonis Feta (one of the best Greek brands available in the U.S., made from a blend of sheep and goat milks), the Taygetos brand Greek oregano (packed in bunches) and Harlaftis Nemea 2009 were all purchased at Lakonia Greek Products in Saco. Because Hot Librarian doesn't drink, and I don't drink much, when buying wine to cook with I usually go for the cheapest one available that will not be so bad for me to have a glass of with dinner. The Harlaftis was the cheapest available at Lakonia, and it was good (though still tannic enough that it could have used another 6-12 months of bottle aging). Feel free to splurge on something better. Greek wine is not mandatory, but in general look for robust, hot-climate reds (e.g. an Australian Shiraz, a southern Italian nero d'avola, etc.)
  • What I did not get at Lakonia was the olive oil. At $80 a gallon, their house brand (made at the owner's own olive farm in Greece) is not within my budget. Not the way I go through olive oil. Unfortunately I was still making do with generic olive oil from Hannaford. However, I am looking forward to sampling the Lebanese olive oil I picked up today at Al-Ahram Halal Market (630 Forest Avenue, Portland), which generally seems to be the go-to place for any Middle Eastern specialty ingredients I may desire.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Episode 3: Cucina povere, in which He Brings Together the Food Cultures of an Italian Province and a New England State

Cucina povere is Italian for "cuisine of the poor," and it's going through a bit of a vogue. In Manhattan, there's a restaurant called Peasant, where entrees range from $22 to $39. No, I have never eaten there, and thus pass no judgment on its quality. Certainly, the menu looks delicious. (The word fegato--suckling pig--has been known to trigger involuntary moans.) But cognitive dissonance plays tricks with my digestion.

One of my favorite examples of cucina povere is the Tuscan dish called ribollita: A bean soup cooked up with cavolo nero (aka black kale, lacinato kale, or even Dinosaur kale--it does look like Godzilla skin), one of those hardy vegetables that tastes better after the first frost, and bulked up with chunks of stale bread. (Incidentally, Ribollita is also the name of an Italian restaurant in Portland with similarly improbable prices, though they are only pricey by Maine standards. In NYC, a restaurant with those prices might count as "cheap eats." I'd like to try it when finances allow, though it must be tough for a restaurant to be situated right next door to Duckfat.) Whenever I see cavolo nero in a farmer's market or a CSA box, I think ribollita.

Cucina povere has returned a bit to its etymological meaning for us. We are not poor by any reasonable definition of the term. But the move has resulted in some temporarily tightened cash flow. I need to think a bit more carefully about stretching the family food dollar. Pre-move, the sight of a nice bunch of cavolo nero would lead me immediately to think, "I need to buy some pancetta and some dry cannellini beans and get a nice ciabatta and set some of it aside to get stale."

Now I think, "I've got some Jacob's Cattle beans and some salt pork left behind after those Maine baked beans I made last week, and what's left of the Maine Grains loaf from Standard Baking Co. should be tasty in the soup." This is what cucina povere really means: Making the most of what you have before opening your wallet. I call the result:

Maine Ribollita

Note: This dish is easily adaptable for vegetarian and vegan kitchens. Vegetarians just leave out the salt pork. Vegans can also leave out the parmesan rind. Both are optional elements, and their absence would not detract much from the overall flavor or nutrition of the meal.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups of Jacob's Cattle beans
  • 1 head of garlic
  • Several sprigs of fresh sage
  • olive oil
  • 3 slices of salt pork, diced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, coarsely chopped
  • 1 bunch of cavolo nero, de-stemmed and coarsely chopped
  • 28 oz. can of peeled tomatoes, hand-crushed
  • a piece of parmesan rind (optional but much to be desired--I thought I had one but can't seem to find it--never throw out your rinds!)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • two slices of stale Maine Grains bread, or any old bread you have lying around, cut into thick cubes

Directions:

  1. Soak beans overnight.
  2. Drain beans. Put in pot with the whole head of garlic (top chopped off and placed in upside down), some sprigs of sage, and 2 quarts of water. Bring to boil.
  3. Simmer beans for an hour, or until tender.
  4. Reserve cooking liquid from the beans. Divide beans in half, leaving one half whole and pureeing the other half.
  5. Put a small amount of olive oil in another pot over medium heat. Add salt pork and fry until additional fat renders and pork is crisp.


    Look at that sizzling pork.

  6. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes, until soft and translucent.

    Yummy.

  7. Add carrots and kale, stir to coat.
  8. Add tomatoes, beans, bean puree and cooking liquid. Stir until smooth and bring to boil.


    Ready to simmer.

  9. Add rind and more sage. Simmer for up to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. (In practice, in our house, this actually means, cook until Little One says, "Daddy, I'm hungry! What's for dinner?")
  10. Taste the soup and season with salt and pepper to taste. (I used no salt--the salt from the pork was sufficient. If you find it a bit too salty, thin with a bit more water.) Add the bread, and simmer for another 10-15 minutes.

    In Genesis, Esau sells his birthright for a "mess of pottage." If it looked like this, I wouldn't blame him.

Ready to eat.

How did it taste? Delicious.

Now, I know this post may stray a bit from the ambit of this blog. Italian-Americans have been part of the country's social fabric for over a hundred years. Pizza is on every school lunch menu, and the cuisine has secured its place in some of the most prestigious, priciest restaurant kitchens around. In the Portland area, Micucci's is an institution, and "real Italians" can be found at any neighborhood sandwich shop. So is Italian food "ethnic" anymore? Maybe not. To mix some French into the Italian, if Cucina povere is now part of the langue of American cooking, and this meal an example of parole.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Episode 1: In Which He Finds a Hearty Vietnamese Broth on the Shores of South Portland

There came the moment, in the midst of Sunday food shopping, when we knew we had stop for lunch. Being southward of the bridge, we aimed to stay in South Portland. We wanted to try Taco Trio, but it turns out that they are closed on Sundays. Fortunately, just down the block (immediately next door to a popular local diner) is Pho Hanoi.

HL, being one of those unfortunate persons for whom cilantro tastes like soap, is always cautious with Vietnamese food, and usually ends up getting bun cha gio (rice vermicelli topped with spring rolls). Today, however, she ventured to try the rice plate with grilled sour meatballs (com bo nem nuong).

LO's appetite has grown to the point that she no longer wants to share off of parental plates. However, since she's just four years old and cannot read yet, her ordering process usually requires one of us to ask a series of diagnostic questions, like a triage nurse. Fortunately, the structure of Vietnamese menus lends itself to this. ("Do you want noodles, soup, rice, or soup with noodles?" "Rice." "Do you want chicken, pork, beef or shrimp?" "Beef." "Do you want grilled beef or shaken beef?" "Shaken beef.") So she ended up with the "shaken" (stir-fried) beef (com bo luc lac).

Meanwhile, I have a general rule of thumb: If the owners of a restaurant are proud enough of a particular food to put it into their name, that is what you should try first. And on a chilly winter's day, a steaming bowl of pho (aromatic beef broth with rice noodles), done properly, can hardly be beat. Since I wanted to sample as many parts of the cow as possible, I got the pho dac biet (pho with slices of rare eye round steak, slices of cooked eye round, flank steak, brisket, tendon and tripe).

Even before the meal came, I got several indications that it would be good. First, I ordered the hot coffee with condensed milk. It came, as it should, in a small drip brewer balanced atop a mug containing the sweetened condensed milk. Enjoying it requires patience, but if the timing of the kitchen is right, your coffee should be ready just as your meal comes out, and the coffee, with the condensed milk stirred in, should be strong yet sweet and satisfying. All was as it should be.

Then came the requisite platter of bean sprouts and herbs. Here was an ample sprig of basil and two long, sawtoothed leaves of Eryngium foetidum, aka ngo gai, culantro or shadon beni.

I was a bit more skeptical about the fact that I was only brought one slice of jalapeƱo pepper and a small, half-wedge of lime--usually I add more of each to my pho. But it soon became clear that this was not a matter of a stinginess, but a cook who knows what is needed to bring out the flavor of his or her creation. Just that squeeze of lime and the little bit of heat brought by steeping the pepper slice in the broth proved to offset the richness of the pho perfectly.

Then came the pho itself. A good pho must be the product of a lengthy cooking process that extracts the essence of beef along with a strong savor of star anise and other seasonings. I placed my nose directly into the steam and inhaled. There would be no need for extensive doctoring, no use of the hoisin or sriracha sauces on the table--just the full complement of herbs, and the bit of lime and hot pepper.

Another tricky part of pho, especially the dac biet, is getting the cook time right on all the different parts of the cow. The rare eye round must be carpaccio thin and yet must not lose its color at the top of the broth. The tripe, cooked eye round and flank must be tender, the tendon and brisket toothsome, all at the same time. My only--minor--complaint is that the tendon was cut a bit larger than I'm accustomed to.

All told, this was the best pho I have had in years. Now, in fairness to my former hometown, Vietnamese food is not its strong suit. The Vietnamese population of New York City is relatively small, compared to other East Asian nationalities, and relatively spread out. There are some small concentrations in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but not so much in Queens. (Anyone who has seen the traffic on any of the highways, or tried to navigate the subways to go from one "outer" borough to another, will have some sympathy for my tendency to stick to one the one borough.) In my former neighborhood of Flushing, the few Vietnamese restaurants were either Chinese- or Korean-owned. (Which stands to reason, as most of the population of Flushing is either Chinese or Korean.)

For whatever reason, none of them could get pho quite right. Now, certain similarities and connections between Korean and Vietnamese food cultures have been noted and remarked upon by others, but my best guess as to the differences is this: When you get a big bowl of beef soup in a Korean restaurant, say a Seolleongtang or Galbitang, the point is the beefiness. A good pho needs a strong savor of beef, but it also needs to serve as a good vehicle for the herbal accompaniments.

So the point of this excursus is that, as long as I had been living in New York my best Vietnamese food experiences were on trips out of town. So it is not entirely a surprise that I can say, "this was the best bowl of pho I've had in years." But more to the point, I cannot recall having had a better one. Maybe I have, maybe not. I've eaten a lot of pho in the last 16 years, ever since I discovered Vietnamese food one summer break in Nashville, Tennessee. But my first bowl of it in Maine is already a winner.

As for HL's and LO's meals: I didn't try LO's shaken beef, but she seemed to enjoy it (and especially enjoyed mixing her rice with the nuoc mam--fish sauce mixed with lime juice, sugar and other seasonings). HL let me sample one of her nem nuong, and it was also very good--highly recommended to anyone in the mood for a pork meatball.

Now I turn it over to you, readers: If you're from Maine, is there another local Vietnamese place I should make a point of trying? If you're reading this from elsewhere, do you have a favorite Vietnamese restaurant, in your hometown or some place else? And if you've never had Vietnamese food, and especially if you've never had pho, try it soon!

Pho Hanoi, 171A Ocean Street, South Portland.

Introduction: In Which He Ventures From His Home of Many Years to the North

Into the already crowded field of Maine-based food blogs comes a new entrant, The Orexiad: Adventures in Eating. With Portland and environs already teeming with articulate eaters, why another one?

I hope that I bring to the topic of local cuisine a somewhat different point of view. Like some other local food bloggers, I am a recent transplant to Maine, having just moved to South Portland from Queens, New York, where I lived for the last ten years. In my peripatetic life, Queens may be the closest I have to a hometown. By some measures, Queens is the most ethnically diverse county in the U.S., so I have developed the reflexive inclination, wherever I may be, to seek out the best representations of various international cuisines. Thus, the primary emphasis of this blog will be on what, for lack of a better word, is often called "ethnic food," i.e., the foods that reflect the most recent waves of immigration to this country, whether it comes from my own kitchen or those of local restauranteurs, bakers and shopkeepers.

What I will not be doing is comparing local offerings unfavorably to the place I left behind. That would be high foolishness. If anything, this blog may serve as a standing riposte to those friends back in New York who expect me to regret the move. Spite may not be the highest of motives, but I hope it makes for good reading and good eating.

Another relevant feature of my background is my (partial) Greek heritage. This is reflected in the title, a pun on the Greek word orexi and the oldest of epic poems, Homer's Iliad. (And the blog description on top is a loving parody of the opening lines of the Odyssey.) When a Greek host wishes his guests to enjoy a good meal, he says kali orexi. This can be translated into French as bon appetit, but orexi is more than simply appetite. One of the oldest of Greek words, it can mean desire or lust as well. When ancient philosophers urged their followers to moderate and control their desires, the word they used was orexi.

Being Greek means that I grew up with feta cheese, yogurt, olive oil, oregano and good bread as staples, and with lamb, grape leaves, spanakopita, horta and loukoumades as comfort foods. This is by no means how I eat all the time, but it shaped my palate, and it is what I tend to fall back on when at a loss or in need of consolation.

It also means that, like many other children of Greek immigrants, I spent a good deal of my early years in restaurants that my parents either worked in or owned. People who grow up like that either can never escape the restaurant business, or develop a lifelong immunity to it. For me it is the latter--I will never work in a restaurant again, full stop--but dining out remains one of recurrent pleasures. More importantly, it left me with a great respect for anyone who makes a serious effort at making a living from the preparation and service of good food. It is a hard life, which is even harder when one is new to this country, and especially when one goes the hard route of bringing the flavors of an old home to the palates of a new one.

A few final notes and disclaimers. Aside from being the author of this blog, I am also: Stay-at-home father to the wonderful child pictured above, husband of the newest librarian at the South Portland Public Library, a freelancer, and a sometime grant writer looking for a home in the local non-profit and/or higher education communities. The frequency of updates to this blog will vary, based on the demands of those other roles, though I will try for at least one per week. I have signed up for Google AdSense, which I hope isn't too much of a nuisance for readers. I do not choose the ads that appear on here, nor do I necessarily endorse all the businesses whose ads appear. As is in the nature of any food blog, I will often have praise for a local restaurant, shop or food producer. In no case will I have accepted any consideration in exchange for such praise, aside from a tasty meal purchased at their regular prices. A general rule of thumb will be "if I don't have anything nice to say, I won't say anything at all." Regular characters / dining companions for now are my wife, henceforward referred to as Hot Librarian (HL for short), and my daughter, henceforward the Little One (LO for short). Any other recurrent characters who begin to appear as we settle down here may be similarly pseudonymized.

And just as Odysseus could not have completed his journey without the labor of his crew and the aid of Calypso or Nausicaa, so I cannot do it alone. Particularly since I am new to the area, and as yet unfamiliar with all that it has to offer, I encourage comments. Comments are not actively moderated, so all I ask is: No spam, and please be generally respectful.

Kali orexi!