Southern Maine, Season by Season

Tuesday, January 5, 2016


Return to the Light


It's January - the Northern Hemisphere has once again begun to tilt towards the sun, and we are told we need to be suffused with the hope of more light and more direct sunshine. Astronomically, all we need do is wait for this light; our old world will eventually gift us with earlier sunrises and longer evenings. The longer day-hours are beginning to be felt even now, at the beginning of the month. 

But traditionally, this is also a time of reassessment, and of wondering what other kinds of light we may allow into our lives, and into our world. It's a time of new possibilities and buoyed hopes, which we express as fond wishes for others and in resolutions for ourselves. Renewed versions of ourselves, the better angels of our nature, as Mr. Lincoln so profoundly expressed it, might be just around the next corner. And maybe, this year, we can hang on to the joy, promise and exhilaration of Christmas. 

The Romans knew, however, that a new beginning could not happen except out of the ashes of the old, the former, the discarded. The god of January, of course, is Janus - the two-faced deity who looks forward expectantly but also glances back at what has been. 

To look back at the promise of Christmas, and to look forward towards what that promise might mean for the New Year, I offer a poem composed by my uncle, William A. Sommers. He's a poet of some renown, and he nails this one cold: 

We came too late
the trails filled with snow
tribes of warring gods
blocking passage on the plain
losing our way as
a once bright star
retreated into the
hovering darkness.

The stable bolted
the magi in royal retreat
shepherds and sheep
scattered among the hills
the family fled
wrapping the child
against a wilderness of fear
and the soldiers
decked with swords and spears
stopping, searching,
stamping out the message.
But being late
did not dissuade the soul’s
insistent hope
for a chaliced grace
invoking relentless journeys
repeated each year as token
of that glimmered joy
whose unseen light
guides our forever search.

Also in the spirit of looking back, here is a column that I wrote for my local paper in January of 2007. It followed a visit to San Juan in early January of that year that culminated in the colorful revelry surrounding Three Kings' Day: music, dancing, and fireworks all night!! There's much in this column that seems quite current - especially the recipes! I urge you to try the delicious chocolate tres leches cake that I concocted. It's out of this world - although tasting it may blow a few of your resolutions for the new year!

A Taste of Southern Climes in January

            Even though we have been treated to a number of days of above-average temperatures, true summer weather is, sadly, months away.  Is it any wonder that, in January, droves of erstwhile hearty New Englanders head south for a little taste of August?  I confess to have recently returned from a memorable tropical jaunt to the lovely Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.  Although the beaches, the local art and music, and the incredible ecology of the rainforest were on the top of my travel agenda, the food of Puerto Rico surprised and beguiled me entirely. It is rich in the bounty of the island and its surroundings: tostones, rice, and beans are among the basic, delicious underpinnings of a wealth of pork, poultry and seafood preparations.  The flavors are extravagantly spicy without a great deal of heat. And the desserts! (well, more on that last subject in a bit …)

            Here, therefore, is a menu that brings touches of Puerto Rican magic to warm a gray New England January.  Don’t think of these suggestions as entirely authentic; they’ve been filtered through the sensibilities of a short-term visitor who is, however, slated to become a long-term fan. For the main course, I suggest crab cakes.  Crab is everywhere on San Juan menus, and bags of the creatures are offered for sale at the sides of major thoroughfares.  I enjoyed crab-stuffed piquillos in Puerto Rico, but those spicy peppers are difficult to find in wintry New England.  Instead, a sprinkle of cayenne pepper will convey a bit of that special piquancy.  With the crab, serve shoestring fries. I had the good fortune to taste the best French fries on the planet near the beach on the Condado – it’s shocking how good a simple preparation like fried potatoes can be if they are properly handled.  Perhaps it’s time to experiment with that deep fryer once again! Add some chopped jicama to a green salad, and you have a simple yet evocative meal.

            But it’s the dessert that really conveys the wonderful taste of Puerto Rico. Stay tuned …

            Here is one of the best recipes I know for crab cakes.  Drain two 6-oz cans of best-quality crab, or (even better) substitute some fresh lump crab meat for one of the cans. Finely dice one very large shallot (or one small onion, but the shallot will taste better) and a half a red bell pepper. Saute the shallot and 2 tablespoons of the chopped red pepper in 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Add 1 / 4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more, if you like things spicy), a good shake of Goya adobo seasoning (I like the kind with pepper), and a healthy pinch of kosher salt to the sauté pan, and cook until the seasonings become fragrant.  Meanwhile, beat 2 whole eggs until combined, and add 2 / 3 cup bread crumbs; 1 slice firm white bread, crumbled; 1 tablespoon lemon juice; 1 1/ 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1 /4 cup mayonnaise; the sautéed vegetables, and the drained crab.  Form this mixture gently into six patties, and sauté them in butter until they are well browned. 

            These crab cakes deserve the best fried potatoes you can find or make – I would use Prince Edward Island potatoes for this critical side dish.  Fry them in oil, or make oven fries if you like. Just make sure the potatoes are crisp and hot and salted when they are served. 

 And then – dessert! Nothing but a tres leches (three milks) cake will do.  This classic Latin American preparation is most often made with a simple vanilla genoise cake, but I sampled a chocolate version in San Juan that was stunning.  Here is my version of that sublime dessert.  First, bake a simple but rich chocolate cake that includes the essential Puerto Rican flavors of coffee and rum.  Melt 6 tablespoons butter with 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, and 3 / 4 cup strong hot brewed coffee in a large heavy saucepan over low heat.  Stir constantly with a spatula, until the mixture is smooth. Remove the pan from the heat, and add 2 tablespoons dark rum, 1 / 2 teaspoon vanilla, and one large egg. Beat the mixture well; it will thicken. Add 7 / 8 cup sugar, 1 cup sifted flour, 1 / 2 teaspoon baking soda, and 1 / 8 teaspoon salt.  The batter will be thin.  Pour the batter into a 7-inch springform pan that has been well buttered and dusted with plain cocoa.  Bake the cake at 275 degrees for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the cake springs back when touched lightly.  Cool the cake in the pan.  Meanwhile, combine one 12-oz can evaporated milk, one 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk, and 1 cup heavy cream. Place the cake, in its pan, into a container large enough to contain it entirely. Pierce the cooled cake all over with a thin skewer, and pour the three-milk mixture over the cake little by little.  It will absorb a good portion of the milk mixture. Reserve the excess milk in a separate container. Refrigerate the cake for several hours or overnight.

            To finish the cake, unmold it onto a serving dish.  Beat 1 cup heavy cream with 1 tablespoon Bailey’s Irish cream and 2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar until it holds soft peaks.  Frost the cake with the whipped cream.  Melt 1 oz. bittersweet chocolate and stir it into the reserved milk mixture. Cut thin slices of the cake and surround each slice with a spoon of the chocolate three-milk mixture. Enjoy the very special tastes of Puerto Rico!


 Some seasonal flowers

My husband Paul bought these for me to cheer me after we'd de-Christmified the house. Everything always seems a little more hard and severe after the lights and the tree and the glitter are packed away for another year.  So these flowers were a real beam of light ... and there will be more of that very soon. Happy New Year!