Late winter can be a frustrating time for chefs. Spring is just around the corner, and we are all craving something light and green, but soups and stews and other warming foods are still the order of the day. It’s a time that begs for creativity and looking at ordinary foods in new ways.

If there’s anything Maine has an abundance of, it’s creative chefs. So, in honor of Maine Restaurant Week, we asked a few what ingredients they’re working with right now that are especially exciting for them. As Alice Waters, the chef and food activist, once said, “Good food depends almost entirely on good ingredients.” In some ways, that’s obvious. But it seems particularly true this time of year, doesn’t it?

WILSON ROTHSCHILD

Terlingua, Portland

While Rothschild’s customers are dreaming of a winter vacation in the tropics, he tries to bring thoughts of warm weather directly to their tables. His favorite ingredient right now? Hibiscus flowers.

Hibiscus flowers are common in Mexico, and we don’t mean Mexico, Maine. Rothschild gets his from his brother, who lives in the Midwest and buys them from a Mexican store.

“It looks really beautiful, but it’s not just for looks,” Rothcschild said. “The flavor is very distinct – a nice floral tartness.”

Rothschild infuses honey with the red hibiscus and uses it in both savory and sweet dishes. It took some experimentation to discover the best way to use the flower. First, Rothschild tried infusing the honey with dried flowers, but that didn’t work. So he made a concentrated tea instead, and found that it added both flavor and color to the honey.

“Hibiscus gives a very floral but acidic, almost citrusy component to the honey,” Rothschild said. “It works really well with fatty pork. We also use it with yogurt.”

Rothschild drizzles the bright red honey on pork belly chicharrones, and into the creamy yogurt he buys from Winter Hill Farm in Freeport. He uses the yogurt in Terlingua’s housemade granola served at brunch, in a bowl with fresh and dried fruits and nuts. The honey looks like red paint spilled on a blanket of snow, and it contrasts nicely with blueberries and yellow pineapple.

“We’ve also used it dried, crushed up and sprinkled on ceviches, which is really nice,” Rothschild said. “It sort of bleeds a little bit.”

Sometimes the restaurant makes a cold drink infused with the flower, and customers can enjoy the occasional hibiscus Jell-O shot.

That should keep you warm until spring.

SARA JENKINS

Nina June, Rockport

When we called chef Sara Jenkins at Nina June in Rockport, she was “amusing myself by dreaming of Naples.”

We assume she wasn’t talking about Naples, Maine.

With her head already well ensconced in Italy, Jenkins still readily offered up not one, but three Maine-grown or raised ingredients that she is enchanted with right now. The first? Hoop house spinach from Dooryard Farm that she had been working with for the last three weeks.

“The spinach itself is so flavorful and so sweet and so delicious,” she swooned, “but I also think just to be eating something local and green in the winter is astounding.”

Jenkins has been keeping the preparation simple, making a bacon salad drizzled with a warm lemon vinaigrette. Then she puts an egg on top. Sometimes it’s a 7-minute boiled egg cut in half, sometimes it’s boiled eggs that she sieves on top of the salad. Either way, Jenkins says, it’s “really simple, but it’s so good.”

Another ingredient Jenkins has become intrigued with lately is eel raised by Sara Rademaker of American Unagi, an elver-to-eel aquaculture facility at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center.

“I’ve run it a couple of times,” Jenkins said. “She really encouraged me to do it, and I didn’t have much hope that I could be able to sell it, but I’ve actually sold some eel.”

Jenkins prepared the eel Roman-style, braising it for a long time in red wine with bay leaves.

Jenkins has also been buying grass-finished rabbit from Three Hares Farm in midcoast Maine.

“I get it with the liver, so I’ve been making a brandied liver paté that I usually make with chicken livers,” she said.

She’s braising the meat with white wine, lemon and rosemary, and serving it with polenta.

The rabbit has “just been super lovely and gorgeous to work with,” she said.

REBECCA CHARLES

Pearl Kennebunk Beach, Kennebunk

Rebecca Charles serves a lot of seafood in the summer, so this winter she was excited to do something a little different and put duck on the menu. It’s the first time she’s served it since opening her restaurant in 2017, and she couldn’t be happier.

“I love duck,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite things.”

Instead of serving the duck with the usual wintry accompaniments, Charles pairs it with fried rice so she can rotate the veggies that go into the rice and add some color to the dish. When she cooks Brussels sprouts for a fish dish, for example, she saves the outer leaves she’s trimmed away to go in the fried rice. Or she might add bright green peas that ordinarily go into her lobster stew. Charles molds the colorful fried rice with a cup – a plating technique she doesn’t usually care for – but “it looks kind of spectacular.”

The duck itself is seared in a saute pan until all the fat is gone. Charles saves the fat to fry the potatoes she serves with bratwurst (another new menu item, sourced from Nuremberg, Germany) and braised red cabbage.

The duck is finished in the oven. It’s plated with the fried rice, sour cherries (that usually go into pies) and housemade duck sauce. Finally, Charles deep fries parsnip peelings, and sprinkles the fried parsnip chips over the duck.

“We’re kind of thrilled to find all these other ways to use these things,” she said.

The duck dish has been a success at a time of year when being a chef in Kennebunk can get a little lonely.

“We have some people who come in every week to eat it,” she said.

STEPHANIE BROWN

North 43 Bistro, South Portland

This time of year, Brown confesses, she’s just a fan of meat. Any kind of meat.

North 43 Bistro chef Stephanie Brown garnishes bone-in veal Milanese, oyster mushrooms and white wine shallot herb reduction served atop house-made pasta and baby spinach with shaved Parmesan. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“Meat is my thing,” she said. “If we’re going to braise it, if we’re going to grind it, if we’re going to pound it, if we’re going to sear it, this time of year people just want to be warm and be fed.”

When we spoke, Brown had just added a veal Milanese to the menu. On her last menu, she featured braised beef short ribs. She’s also served a lot of meatloaf and 12-ounce sirloins this winter, often paired with a glass of white wine instead of red.

“I know it seems weird to want white wine with beef, but it’s very good,” she said. “A little off the beaten path.”

On colder nights, North 43 sells a lot more beef than fish. Brown said she buys her beef from a purveyor who sources it from local farmers in New England and upstate New York, as well as farms out West.

Brown said it’s generally more of a challenge to be creative with meats than with other ingredients because she’s limited to certain cuts and cooking techniques to make them presentable. She marinates all of her steaks in ingredients such as Moroccan spices, local maple syrup, molasses or fresh herbs. “It’s a little more interesting than just salt and pepper and meat on the grill,” she said.

But she’s not going to turn her nose up at simpler preparations, either.

“You have to be a little creative and think outside the box in some cases, but there’s nothing like the classics,” she said. “Classic beef stew, I don’t care who you are, so many people just love it.”

JONATHAN SPAK

Oxford House Inn & Restaurant, Fryeburg

Spak’s favorite ingredient wasn’t yet available when we spoke, but it will be very soon. It’s maple sap.

“One of the local farmers in Fryeburg taps the trees at the inn every year, and I poach a couple of gallons,” the chef said. “Some years I’ve braised in it, which is great because you get this subtle maple flavor that comes through.”

Spak also uses the sap as a kind of brine, which he says gives pork “great caramelization, but a really light, smoky maple flavor” as well. Spak said he has also used the sap in place of stock to make a sauce. “I haven’t done a soup with it yet,” he said. “That might happen this year.”

The Oxford House Inn, which has a year-round 70-seat restaurant, taps just four maples – they’re silver maples – but two of them are “huge,” Spak said. The two large trees produce about 15 gallons of sap per day during maple syrup season.

The staff at the inn also get a bonus every spring. The farmer who taps the trees brings a pint of maple syrup, right off the wood-fired evaporator, into the inn’s kitchen at the beginning of the year’s sap run.

Now that’s an ingredient to look forward to.

 

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