“Tonight we are having P.M.S,” I announced to a few friends gathered at my house for dinner last weekend.
“What?” their faces wrinkled in disgust. “You know pasta, mussels and sausage,” I explained. They laughed.
The recipe from Rockland chef Kerry Altiero’s new cookbook “Adventures in Comfort Food,” is just one of many novel dishes that spur such dynamics.
Thirty minutes later when plates of Italian goodness landed in front of them with authentic aromas and glasses of coarse red wine, they fell under the spell of this punk rock restaurateur who opened Cafe Miranda in 1993, when Rockland was known by its cannery smell, not squash risotto with roasted kale (page 152).
Cooking for over 30 years, Altiero has finally put down his thoughts not only about life in the kitchen, but the whole approach to enjoying a meal with the right ambiance and pairings in a 240-page book with stunning photographs by South Portland photographer Stacey Cramp.
“It was like my autobiography via all the food I’ve done for years,” said the 58-year-old chef.
“Talking about the Italian bakery in Pennsylvania where I first saw a coal-fired oven, mentors, past crew member’s bolognese sauce …” he tapers off. “Everything we do we do with emotion and you can have it on your plate,” he said clutching his weeks-old gastronomic tome published by Page Street Publishing Co.
Regulars to his restaurant, which is tucked away on a side street, will be pleased to find signature dishes like zesty 50 mph Tomatoes (a fried dish named for off-season tomatoes trekked in on the highway), his lobster roll served on house-made focaccia bread (which he uses in 12 recipes) and deconstructed nachos.
“I was worried that people would buy the book and not come back,” he said.
The opposite has happened.
“People are finding us because of this book. We appeal to such a large cross-section. You can bring your kid in for a plain pizza and have the seafood paella and an $80 bottle of wine or a $3 bottle of beer,” said the farm-to-table chef who lives on a 17-acre farm in Owls Head.
Cafe Miranda has the oldest wood-fired oven in the state, a fun open-kitchen, an Elvis bust and tantalizing aromas. “In this book you take all of that home to you,” he said.
Recipes for “shiitakes have hit the fan,” and FBOM, Fabulous Bowl of Meat and Aggablagga (a calamari dish from Rockland’s James Beard winning chef Melissa Kelly, who wrote a glowing forward) are witty as they are winning and capture this chef with a rock ‘n’ roll heart.
Because he couldn’t call Kelly’s recipe “stolen from Primo. I took the advice of my then-toddler son,” he writes, and went with gibberish now synonymous with delish.
Altiero was named Maine’s Lobster Chef of the Year in 2012 and won Best Farm-to-Table Restaurant in 2013, but now the cook who learned from chefs in the trenches from Cape May, N.J. to Tenants Harbor, is just hitting his stride.
“It took me 20-plus years of doing this before I wanted to call myself a chef. The real chefs know their stuff. I don’t know everything. I know what I know from my little place. It’s like my little rock band. I’m not writing a symphony,” he said.
But the notes and the stars are lining up right now for Altiero, who just hosted Harvest on the Harbor’s Lobster Chef of the Year competition and has a new TV show in the works.
Moving from the range into the community, Altiero is becoming a spokesperson for honest cooking and an aware way of life. With his book under his belt, a new co-host spot on “Nosh” on VSTV, a show focusing on where to eat, shop and cook on the midcoast launching next year, you will be seeing more of this eclectic character who has as much energy as a pack of Millennials.
Like his perceptive and personal style, he makes the most complicated dishes seem attainable.
The tone in “Adventures in Comfort Food” will appeal to both accomplished and new chefs. This is not simply how-tos with laborious instructions, but rather scene setting windows to a tastier life. “The stuff in the oven is done when the mussels open,” he wrote in P.M.S., which I found akin to a friend looking over my shoulder saying “you’ve got this.”
Everything here can be made in a traditional home oven. To make pizza with pastrami, artichoke and red onion that will “blow your doors offs,” he says, “Crank your oven up as hot as it can go.”
Altiero suggests readers approach “Adventures in Comfort Food,” like his epic menu at Cafe Miranda. “Page through it. When something stops you, whether it’s a memory, a look, an ingredient; make that one. Whatever jumps out at you. Then you will be down the road and it will start taking you with it,” he said. “Let it take you.”
And eventually, if like me, you are not a natural in the kitchen, your attitude will shift.
“A good home cook follows the way the grandmothers cooked. They didn’t just say today we are going to need five pound of bat toenails and and eye of newt. Then you get all frustrated like you are putting together IKEA furniture and throw everything away and order out,” said Altiero. “This is not an IKEA diagram.”
The cookbook is traditional in its approach with entertaining notes. Stories about his Aunt Fluffy (a former babe in a mini skirt) and her “cream of leftovers” pasta dish, his grandmother Connie and instructions on how to make fresh pasta and when to serve Pellegrino straight up, you get a crash course in the experience of dining well.
“I’m not just telling you, ‘Here, make this recipe.’ I’m trying to get you clued into the processes that makes the dish what it’s supposed to be,” he said.
One thing will lead to another and like a perfect dinner party, things will flow effortlessly.
“It’s living the life of food,” said the author. “I’ve been so lucky to do that.”
Chef Kerry Altiero will be cooking and signing books at Maine Harvest Festival Saturday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. “Adventures in Comfort Food” is available at CafeMiranda.com, Barnes and Noble and Leroux Kitchen in Greater Portland.