When Melissa Kelly moved to Maine 12 years ago from New York, she began her research into Maine food. She knew all about chowders, lobster dishes, blueberry pie and other Maine staples — she had spent summers in the state since she was a child. But before she opened her Rockland restaurant, Primo, she wanted to gather even more information on the traditional dishes that had been cooked in Maine for decades.
While researching, she came across Marjorie Standish over and over. The Portland Press Herald columnist and author of the best-selling “Cooking Down East: Favorite New England Recipes,” who died in 1998 at age 90, was the standard-bearer for traditional Maine foods — along with the Bangor Daily News’ own Brownie Schrumpf.
“I just kept coming back to her,” said Kelly. “She’s really the gold standard for old-fashioned Maine food.”
So when Kelly was approached by Down East Enterprise to revise and edit a new edition of “Cooking Down East” – now subtitled “Favorite Maine Recipes” — she found herself scratching her head at some of the recipes in the book. The canned soup and margarine found throughout the recipes seemed antithetical to the natural, preservative-free ingredients Kelly celebrates with her cooking.
“Some of those recipes that use Jell-O and hot dogs and things like that, I just kind of said, ‘What is this?’ It seems foreign to us now, to have those gelatin molds and pineapple and marshmallow salads to be common dishes,” said Kelly.
“But that was the way it was done then. It was all about simplifying the kitchen so the homemaker didn’t have to spend all her time there.”
Primo, set in a grand 19th century house just outside of downtown Rockland, is anything but old-fashioned. Kelly’s 1999 James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast proves that, as do the countless accolades from Food & Wine Magazine, The New York Times, Gourmet magazine and others. The working farm on the grounds supplies most of the ingredients Kelly uses in her recipes. Greenhouses grow fresh vegetables all year long, while everything from turnips and cauliflower to fava beans and lemongrass are planted in orderly rows throughout her small but productive property. Pigs, chickens and a beehive provide meat, eggs and honey. The food you see growing is the food that will end up on your plate.
The common ground she sought between Standish’s style and her own cooking was to be found in the ingredients and the simplicity of the recipes. Kelly may serve some of the finest food in New England at Primo, but a look at some of her recipes shows that the heart of the food is its simplicity.
“There’s not a lot of intimidating recipes in the book. It’s very simple, quick and easy in a lot of ways, and it uses a lot of Maine ingredients, so it really was written with the home cook in mind,” said Kelly. “She really wanted to keep people cooking at home.”
Kelly’s revised “Cooking Down East” hits stores today and features the full text of Standish’s original book, complemented by 15 of Kelly’s own recipes. In between Standish’s Jellied Veal Loaf and Porcupine Meatballs is Kelly’s Pork Saltimbocca — her grandfather’s recipe and her favorite dish at Primo. In the seafood section are recipes for cooking mussels — something rarely done in Standish’s time, though a common dish nowadays at many Maine restaurants.
Standish’s helpful “Marjorie Says” interjections throughout the book are often paired with unobtrusive, useful “Melissa Says” comments. Kelly suggests using olive oil instead of margarine, panko bread crumbs instead of corn flakes, fresh ginger instead of powdered and, most importantly, fresh cheese instead of Cheez-Whiz.
“In my updating, I didn’t want to get too far away from the original spirit of the book,” said Kelly. “So we left everything in — but with suggestions, like taking that recipe that calls for canned cream of mushroom soup and using fresh mushrooms and cream instead. Change that Jell-O to fish stock, cooked down to aspic. Use fresh herbs, instead of Accent [the brand name for monosodium glutamate]. There are ways to meld the two into one.”
For every recipe that needed to be updated, however, there are plenty that shouldn’t be changed a bit. Standish’s versions for pickles, slaws and preserves were rightfully left alone, along with her baked beans, venison mincemeat, dandelion greens, or her treasured recipe for Melt-In-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake. In fact, all that’s needed is a little tweaking to honor the tradition while adapting to the times we live in today.
Melissa Kelly’s Pork Saltimbocca
2 pounds boneless pork loin, cleaned and cut into 3-ounce medallions
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, sliced
3 sprigs sage, chopped
½ cup Madeira wine
1 cup chicken or pork stock
Gently pound medallions into scallopini. Heat olive oil over high heat. Dredge pork in flour you have seasoned with the salt and pepper. Place pork in pan, being careful not to crowd. Brown well on first side, turn, cook for 10 seconds on the other side. Remove pork from pan and repeat with remaining pork. Once all of the meat is browned, add 1 tablespoon butter to pan. Once the butter foams. add mushrooms and cook until they are softened. Add sage and then deglaze with the Madeira. Cook the wine down in pan until it has evaporated. Add stock and reduce by one-third. Add last tablespoon of butter and swirl in to thicken. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add pork back to pan. Serve over a bed of mashed potatoes, wilted spinach and a thin slice of prosciutto.
Marjorie Standish’s Melt-In-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake
2 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup shortening
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup milk
1½ cups fresh blueberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat egg whites until stiff. Add about ¼ cup of sugar to keep them stiff.
Cream shortening; add salt and vanilla to this. Add remaining sugar gradually. Add unbeaten egg yolks and beat until light and creamy. Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with milk. Fold in beaten whites. Fold in fresh blueberries (take a bit of the flour called for in the recipe and gently shake berries in it so they won’t settle).
Turn into a greased 8-by-8-inch pan. Sprinkle top of batter lightly with granulated sugar. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes.