My food-obsessed friends and I chat nearly every day. Sometimes by email, sometimes by group text, frequently on Twitter and Facebook. Many of our conversations begin with some breathless variation on this theme: “You have to stop what you’re doing and try (insert name of terrific potable or edible)…immediately!”

In pre-pandemic times, these exchanges made me feel a little guilty, knowing that I’d be able share only some of these finds with readers – the ones that came from Maine restaurants. And apart from my anonymity when I dine out, I’m not big on keeping secrets.

One of the few silver linings to putting restaurant criticism on pause is that I’m able to share more about my food-and-drink experiences, even when they take place in my own kitchen and dining room. As you might expect, I have been keeping track, making notes and snapping a photo when I can.

With this article, the first in a series about the best things I tasted over the course of a month, consider yourself officially enrolled in the gastronomic group chat. The password is “mmmm” (all lowercase).

Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes from Replenova Farm ($6/lb.) ordered through Portland Farm Drop

“Tomatoes in November?” I can practically hear you screaming.

Absolutely, but only if they’re as juicy and sweet-savory as the organic, violet-fleshed heirlooms from Replenova Farm in Durham. These are good enough to slice and slather with a little mayonnaise and a shower of flaky salt or chop roughly and turn into an oniony Provencal-style tomato salad.

And as great as the tomatoes are, Portland Farm Drop, a consortium of more than half a dozen local farms and producers, is just as big of a find. The online farmers market is a bit like a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) service, but one where you select only the produce you want. No more scratching your head over how to use up 14 rutabagas and a celeriac.

Is good vegan cheese an oxymoron? No. Rind cheese from Brooklyn, New York, has figured it out. Photo by Andrew Ross

Rind Cheese ($9.49-$10.99 per approx. ¼-pound wedge, available online through veganessentials.com)

“Vegan cheese?!” Again, I can almost year you shouting.

Here though, I was just as skeptical as you probably are. As a vegetarian for several years long ago, I powered my way through plenty of gummy, flavorless stand-ins for dairy.

But plant-focused affineurs Dina DiCenso and Joshua Katcher, founders of Brooklyn, New York’s Rind, have created a range of cashew-based, French-style cultured “cheeses” that — thanks to traditional cheese-making and aging steps — taste and slice remarkably like soft-ripened Camembert or Brie.

My favorites are the Cambleu hybrid, shot through with a layer of oak-smoked paprika, and their simple, yeasty-rinded French-style bleu. Both are ductile and buttery, with a tangy flavor profile that would fit right in on any cheese plate, vegan or otherwise.

Nigerian Maggi Crevette (Crayfish/Shrimp) cubes ($16.29 for 60, on Amazon.com)

These Crevette Maggi cubes pack an umami punch. Photo by Andrew Ross

This February, I visited a supermarket in Bradenton, Florida with a deli section that spanned the entire rear of the store. In its glass-fronted cases sat mounded bowls of prepared foods, everything from lentil salad to chicken lo mein.

As I approached, I spotted a woman ladling rice into a dish marked “Lagos shrimp pilaf.” I had never heard of such a thing. To me, it looked like a thick, crustacean-studded risotto. When I dug into the sample I was offered, my eyebrows shot up – this was no normal rice dish. I couldn’t get over the intensity of shrimp flavor.

Conspiratorially, the woman told me it was her recipe, and that indeed, it was essentially a no-stir risotto that she prepared in a pressure cooker. But the secret, she whispered, was more than the supermarket’s homemade fish stock.

The real flavor came from two bouillon squares added to every quart of stock. Not just any bouillon, but pale peach Nigerian “Crevette” Maggi cubes that pack a dual wallop of umami and seafood flavor. Perhaps it’s the slug of glutamates that does it, but I really don’t mind. I’ve been using her secret technique in my own seafood risottos ever since, and I will never go back.

Cataldi Madonna Malandrino ($23.99 from Monte’s Fine Foods)

Tuesday has turned into Pizza Night in my household. Now that the weather is a little too nippy to prepare a blistered pie on my propane-fired grill, I’ve begun buying bake-at-home pizzas ($15) from Monte’s Fine Foods, along with salad greens and a decent bottle of bold red wine.

Last week, when I discovered my go-to bottle was sold out, one of the knowledgeable staff delivered a proposition: Try the Malandrino Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, and if you don’t like it, well, times are tough, so instead of a refund, we’ll help you find something better next time. I chuckled and accepted.

Wise move, it turns out. Produced in an Adriatic valley the locals refer to as “the oven of Abruzzo,” this wine is flinty and vividly fruity, with a sturdy tannic structure and rivers of crushed berries on the palate.

As great a match as it was for a provolone-and-mozzarella-topped Margherita pizza, it worked even better as a companion to a tuna-and-cannellini-bean salad, crusty sourdough boule and (yes, I’m going to say it) a wedge of dried-porcini-dusted Rind bleu cheese.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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