The Maine Thing

Fish Taco recipe

Part of the reason why we are such happy empty nesters is when we sold our house and moved to an apartment above our store, we also bought a little place on a little lake in Maine, seven hours and 5000 light years away from NJ. There the air is always fresh, albeit slightly redolent of pine needles, and when the sun shines the sky is always a brilliant blue.

Mostly we like to be outside.  Hiking, sailing, kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, or just sitting on the dock reading a book.  But when the weather is not cooperating then we do another favorite thing which is messing about with the house. It’s a former camp, which to the uninitiated means a no-frills hut for hunters and fishermen, but fortunately, over the years, it has acquired what I consider to be the essential amenities of a home: indoor plumbing, electricity, heat and hot water.

However, our most favorite thing of all, and perhaps the one thing you can do in Maine at any time of the year–in any kind of weather–and that is eat, dine, nosh, you name it, we do it!  In fact we time our journeys so that after a quick six am-ish pitstop for a bagel and a cup of joe to go from The Coffee Corral in Red Bank, we are in Maine just in time for lunch at Day’s Crabmeat and Lobster Pound and Take Out, a type of restaurant we don’t have in our neck of New Jersey any more.

It’s the kind of place where you order at the window, then wait for your number to be called, and in just ten minutes or so you have the freshest fried haddock sandwich or crab or lobster roll you’ve ever eaten in your life.   Seating is out back at picnic tables, each with its own million dollar view.  Trust me, you will never wait in line at Red’s Eats again.

After Day’s it is just a hop, skip and a jump to our Maine cottage. But first we stop at the Fisherman’s Catch and Seafood Market in Damariscotta and pick up some crabmeat and fresh fish fillets.  (The lobster comes later in the week!)

   

 (I swear this guy in line ahead of me was Al Pacino but I was too afraid to ask!)

      In the summer, especially when the weather is delightful, time becomes of the essence so we rush to get the boats in the water and have a quick sail, or kayak or fiddle with the latest toy, the paddle board, because before you know it–it’s dinner time.  And that often means fish tacos.

Fish Tacos

I’ve been a fan of fish tacos ever since our friend, Doug Douty, of Lusty Lobster in Highlands, NJ  fame discovered them on a fishing trip to Mexico. He came back raving about how great these tacos were and even better, really easy to make: just flour tortillas, the freshest of fish and a crunch of slaw tossed down with a cold one. He had me by the time he got to the slaw–never even mind the beer.

Since then I’ve made them fried, and broiled and baked in the oven, breaded, blackened, sauced and unsauced and finally I  decided my favorite way to make fish tacos is the easiest.

First, to make cleanup a breeze, use one of those disposable aluminum pans you can buy at the grocery store.  Melt a little butter and lightly coat whatever boneless fish fillet you like–trust me you can use anything–even bluefish, and put it in the pan.  Spice the fillets up with whatever is on hand: some chili powder, paprika, some crushed red pepper, a little salt or Old Bay and let it hang in the fridge for a while.

Then make the slaw—once again I’ve made a hundred different versions and find the simplest tastes just as good as more complicated recipes with a ton of steps and ingredients.  Just grate or finely slice up some red cabbage. It has to be red cabbage; green does not work. Add some sliced, chopped or grated red onion, and if you like, a carrot and/or some chopped up hot peppers can go into the mix too. Then toss with a slurry you’ve made of about 1/3 rice wine vinegar to 2/3 mayonnaise and a pinch of sugar.  Put in the fridge and get yourself a glass of wine or a beer.

All that’s left to do is cook the fish and that just means you get someone else to put the pan on a hot grill until done—usually, it takes about ten minutes. Place your flour tortillas in foil on the unheated part of the grill so they warm up as the fish cooks.  (The fish can also be cooked in the oven at 425 degrees for about the same amount of time as on the grill.) The fish is done when it flakes.

The fish goes on the hot tortilla, top with the slaw, and serve with a wedge of lime.  If you want to get fancy put half an avocado on a hunk of lettuce to fill up the plate, grab another beer or glass of white wine and enjoy.

Our Empty Nest

 

IMG_0153I could never understand when my customers would downsize; who would give up five bedrooms and a couple of acres for a patch of grass and neighbors literally on top of them?  But then it happened to us.  Not overnight, but gradually.  First one kid, then the other went to college. Then one went to grad school; the other got a job–in Houston.  Even when the first got a job in NYC, she never came home that much.  Meanwhile the dogs died but the lawn, the taxes, and the upkeep on the house kept growing, and growing.

After the hurricane, when our waterfront home was one of the few on our street that did not flood, we sold our house to a neighbor with small children and a boat and a hankering for the life that only those who live on the water share.  It was time for us to move on.

So we moved to Red Bank and a 2000 square foot apartment with, for the first time in our lives, new everything–plumbing, electric, appliances and bathrooms…because when we renovated British Cottage in 2005 we added an apartment above the store.  Part of the structure dates back to the late 1800’s so we removed the old ceilings and exposed the beams so the great room has a vaulted ceiling and we took down all the walls so that the kitchen, dining and living area are all one great room.  At the same time we added a large master bedroom and bath, guest room and bath/laundry room.

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The biggest challenge to moving was culling our furniture collection.  Part of the fun of having a five bedroom home, at least for us, was in the furnishings.  When we first moved to the apartment our daughter said we looked like we were hoarders but gradually we have pared and re-pared and I think, while certainly not minimalist, we are adequately furnished.

The test was this weekend when for Father’s Day our son and his two and a half and five year old sons came to visit for five days…would our empty nest be a welcoming abode or a nightmare for the young ‘uns to navigate?

Fortunately it turned out to be the latter.  With two couches and two armchairs centered around an enormous “Bricklayer’s Coffee Table” (for those of you not in the know this was invented by the guys whose innovative furniture designs helped take Restoration Hardware from a frumpy collection of brownwood furniture to the height of chic over the last decade), there was plenty of space   fire trucks and cars around the perimeter of the room.  Because the coffee table was made from already scarred planks of vintage wood, there was no danger of damage from the boys running vehicles and occasionally each other over the surface.

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Same with the couches,  both are vintage and then some.  One is a Gustavian settee we bought when we used to shop for antiques at Green Square in Denmark.  That is upholstered in a sturdy white canvas material. The other, an ancient Chippendale style sofa we picked up at a second-hand store twenty five years ago,  is on its third re-upholstery, this time in a dark denim cotton blend that is virtually indestructible.IMG_0111

We are fans of the unfitted kitchen; especially when the kitchen is open to the rest of the living space.   There are only lower cabinets and we had them made at the factory in Hungary that builds all of our custom furniture, in the same style as our British Cottage hutches.  In the center we designed an island that proved the perfect spot for our young guests to dine.

Besides the open plan, what makes this apartment so appealing is 9′ ceilings in the new part that give an airy quality to the entire space.  Even though our bedroom is a good size, with ample space for our British Cottage kingsize bed, it just feels spacious, which I think is important when there are two sharing one room.           IMG_0137

There is even room for a sitting area in an alcove overlooking Chestnut Street; so while not a waterview there is always something to see when looking out the bay windows.IMG_0141

Maybe my favorite room is the master bath.  Not the least bit opulent by today’s standards, just a simple, tranquil, open space.  Designed for us by the Hutchinson’s of Matawan Kitchen & Bath, with a soaking tub and an enclosed shower, plain white subway tile and the same hardwood oak floor we used throughout the house.  We made the vanity by sinking two overmount sinks into a British Cottage cabinet base, then added an antique armoire for towels.IMG_0127

Even though we probably have more stuff than the average bear; it all seems to work out.  Nothing too precious, or if it is then it was up high beyond the reach of little hands, and a great time was had by all.  Same time next year?IMG_0108

 

 

Cooking With Gas: These are a few of my favorite things…

Baked Artichokes, Shrimp, Mozzarella, and Scallops

         The late Marcella Hazan is often credited with being the godmother
of Italian cooking in the United States.  Of course I didn’t know that when I picked up her Classic Italian Cookbook in the discount bin at Barnes and Noble and that evening made possibly the best Chicken Cacciatore ever.  I only found that out years later when I read an interview with her in the NY Times food section that included a recipe for Baked Artichokes, Shrimp and Mozzarella I have treasured ever since.  But with a tweak–or two.
        Here’s my version:

Baked Artichokes, Shrimp, Mozzarella–and Scallops
Figure one artichoke per person.  Fill a bowl with cold water and the juice of a couple of lemons.  Peel off the tough outer leaves of the artichoke–maybe a few more than you think–then snap or cut off the top part of the remaining leaves.  Cut  into  quarters  and  pull out the fuzzy bits in the center.  Cut the quarters into halves or thirds and add to your bowl. (In theory the lemon juice prevents the artichokes from getting brown on you
but I find they still get a little discolored but not to worry).
Glug a fair amount of olive oil into a large saute pan, add a couple of chopped up cloves of garlic and a diced up shallot or two if you happen to have some handy.  Marcella says to saute until nut brown and remove-I leave the bits in the pan and then add my artichokes which I have drained well and dried a bit so they don’t splatter in the hot oil.  Add all the salt and pepper you want now.
Turn the artichokes so all sides are covered in oil and cook on medium/ low heat for five minutes.  Then add some water to partially fill the pan, cover and simmer until tender.  This takes anywhere from twenty five to 40 minutes depending on how hot your pan is to how big your artichoke pieces are. (Test hearts with a fork stab to get an idea of doneness).
Marcella says to put your artichokes into a buttered pan, I usually leave them where they are and add some butter–like half a stick because I like
a buttery artichoke flavor.  If you are feeling healthy I think you could skip the butter entirely.  Anyway spread raw shrimp evenly across the top (devein but leave the tails on for flavor).  And then I add scallops–cut into halves if they are on the robust side–because Keith won’t eat shrimp and I have to make this recipe.
Now here Marcella says to top with buffalo mozzarella, some parmesan, and a couple of tablespoons of butter cut into bits and sprinkled on top, then cook in the upper third of a preheated 450 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  I usually cook it cheeseless in a 400 degree oven for twenty minutes and then up the temp to 450 and add the cheese for about 5 minutes until it melts.  (I skip the butter because I have already gilded that lily).
Whichever way you go–watch that mozzarella carefully because it is really easy to overcook it.  Remove from heat.  Let rest and serve warm with lots of crusty bread to sop up the juice and lots of napkins because you just have to use your hands to get to the artichokes properly.  And if you left the tails on the shrimp it just makes sense to pick those up with your fingers too.
Buon appetito!

 

On Golden Pond

The World’s Best Fish Stew

       Like most visitors to Maine it was love at first sight.  I was 16 and working for the summer as a mother’s helper for a local Rumson family and they carted me along with them to their summer place on Prouts Neck. Most famous for being home to Winslow Homer it is a glorious peninsula composed of rocky crags on two sides and a sandy crescent on the third.  My little charges and I spent our days on the beach and climbing the cliff paths that circled around the neck, and it was a summer I will never, ever forget.       

      A similar thing happened to my sister when she first got to Maine, but she was her twenties and smart enough never to leave.  She landed on the Pemaquid Peninsula–just far enough north not to be completely overrun with tourists, but still filled with the requisite amenities that make Maine so delightful: a lighthouse, fabulous ocean vistas, lobster pounds serving the freshest and best seafood imaginable, estuaries, tidal pools, and even a sandy beach.

       We visited her many times over the years, and finally when we were empty nested we took the plunge, sold our family home, repaired to our apartment over the store in Red Bank (always the plan when we renovated a decade ago) and bought ourselves our own Maine cottage.

       As much as we love the ocean views, we opted for lakeside because our little lake (which is technically a pond because it is just shy of the required five miles) warms up so we can comfortably swim all summer.  And is great for sailing our little boat, and kayaking, and paddle boarding and running our little outboard to our hearts’ content without the fear of being swept out to sea.

       Naturally given the nature of our business, having our own home to furnish and decorate just adds to the pleasure of living in Maine. The first thing we did, and I know this is going to cause a lot of groans, was paint all the original knotty pine paneling Benjamin Moore’s China White and all the fir trim White Dove…. Yes, sacrilegious in some minds, but fully supported by legions of Scandinavians  who know how best to live in northern climes.  White makes smaller spaces live larger, reflects light and makes the day brighter and me, and happier.  (And we all know that when mom is happy–everyone’s happy.)

       Next we stripped the floors to a natural pine.  I love light floors because they hardly show the dust or dirt or wear and when they do one swish of the mop and they look as good as new.  With two small grandboys and a third sibling on the way, we want to make all of our visitors feel welcome and not fret over natural, and heaven knows with small boys around sometimes unnatural, wear and tear. You never know what they will get into or up to!

       We had new kitchen cabinets made for the galley style kitchen, mostly because I they smelled and I assumed  they were moldy.  When we took them out we found it was dead mouse–not mold–that we were smelling, so it turned out to be an even better decision to get new ones. We were able to insulate and mouse-proof, and yes, they are now white so the whole area looks larger and so much more inviting than before.

       Decorating was a challenge as there is essentially only one room on the main floor for cooking, dining, and living.  We had to have a large farm table, after all, we are British Cottage.  Even so, the one we chose has a metal base so it doesn’t look too massive, even though it is 96″ long and can seat twelve–squished–but still.  Our chairs are upholstered in black linen; not the fabric you would think of for a lakehouse but I thought they would have to do double duty as extra seating when entertaining a crowd so they may as well be comfortable.  And what else is Scotchguard for?

       I think cheap couches are a false economy.  Usually, the fabric choices are awful.  And they can be really uncomfortable to sit on because the cushions are made of synthetic materials that are (besides being toxic) either too dense or too sloppy for relaxing properly–which is, after all, the whole purpose of a vacation home. So we have a really good coach, but we had two slipcovers made in a cotton blend that looks like linen and wears like steel.

      The armchairs in the room are slipcovered as well so if accidents happen–the clean up is minimal.  I kept the fabrics light, threw in some blue and white lamps and a fabulous antique wooden coffee table with traces of off-white paint that looks great but can take a beating.  Are you sensing a pattern yet?  This is just our fabulous Jersey Coast style–in Maine.

        I try to use antiques when decorating as much as possible.  With furniture that has been used over and over again by family after family one more nick or scratch is not going to be the end of the world; it’s just another part of the journey.  The whole point of decorating is to make your part of the world a little happier for you and your family.  If you build it right, they will come.

The World’s Best Fish Stew

This recipe originated with Kate Shaffer, owner of Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westport, Maine; naturally I’ve taken some liberties but basically, it goes like this:

 Heat a glop of olive oil in a large pot, the more decorative the better because this is what you will be serving from.  Add a pinch or two of thyme, turmeric, fennel, saffron and crushed red pepper.  If you don’t have any of those on hand try some oregano or basil.  Heat just for a few seconds then add a large yellow onion & 2 celery stalks chopped up and 4 cloves of garlic minced.  If you have fresh fennel on hand and like the taste–add that.  For me a  little fennel goes a long way so I usually skip this step. Another step I usually skip is adding 1/2 a yellow pepper–only because I don’t have any in the house.  Then cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

 Add a 28 ounce can of whole tomatoes and their juice and squish them up a bit.  Fill the empty tomato can half with water and half with white wine–this is the bit I like because it means it is time to start cocktail hour.  Cook the mixture until it boils and then simmer for at least 15 minutes or as long as a couple of hours–the idea is to let those spices really season the stew.

 Just before you are ready to eat and the stew has simmered and is very hot, add your fish.  Any kind of fish works; I like a couple of pounds of cod or haddock the best.  Then add whatever else you like.  I generally splurge on 6 or 7 of the priciest fresh scallops and shrimp the fishmonger has on hand and chuck in a bag of mussels (make sure to take them out of the bag and scrub them first).  Cook until the mussels open and serve with some fresh parsley and a loaf of good bread and the freshest butter you can find.  Scrumptious.  Thank you, Kate.

On Board -My Farmhouse Table

British Cottage is now officially 30!  We opened our first store at 125 West Front Street in January 1986 with a container full of antique English pine bought with the cash buyout Keith received after parting ways with the Tetley Brewing Company.

Neither of us had a background in antiques; it was only by chance we met a Martha Stewart look-a-like from Connecticut at an auction on the grittier side of Gosport, a washed up city on the wrong side of the Solent.  We were looking for furniture to bring back to New Jersey (another part of the package was free shipping) and watched as this petite, middle-aged woman with fabulous hair and an outfit that coordinated with her pumps,  bought every piece of stripped pine that came up for sale.

Waiting to pay at the end, we met her in the queue and just had to ask what the heck was she doing there, like how did she even find Gosport?  She told us that antique English pine furniture was the heart of the “American country” look and all the craze in the states and advised us to buy every piece we could.  So we did.  And thirty years later we still are buying and selling antique pine (as well as a whole bunch of other stuff).

Looking back over the years we have sold some really fabulous items.  But we kept a few too.  This “On Board” feature will be the ones that did not get away.  Objects we’ve known and loved for years–even decades.

For us decorating is not about buying a catalog of matching items, it is all about the hunt, the experience, and the joy of finding an object that fits in a room just so–or doesn’t fit in at all –but you love it so into the mix it must go.  I’ll start with our dining room table.

It is an antique farm table from Ireland that Keith bought from Martin Dearden,  an aristocratic bloke straight out of Dickens, with a large manor home called Pennard House in Shepton Mallet, a little village in Somerset.  That is how you did things in those days.  You would go to a small shop on a High Street and invariably the owner would have a bunch of sheds or barns somewhere else so off you would go through fields and hedgerows to see great masses of furniture in astonishingly bad disrepair and then start making a deal.

The deal would usually involve tea, some biscuits and if it all turned out okay, in the end, a trip to the pub–there is always a pub in these stories.  (Pennard House is still in business today as a wedding and event venue–I’m guessing the antique barns are probably used for dining–and rinking).

Anyway, Keith bought this table from Martin and along with a number of other items it was loaded onto a container that eventually found its way to Red Bank.  When my mother walked into the store, she took one look at the table amongst the other new arrivals and claimed it immediately.  Made in the late 1800’s with three long pitch pine planks and a stretcher base, it has two drawers that reach all the way to the middle of the table and it was a beast to carry up the stairs to her second-story dining room overlooking the Shrewsbury River in Rumson.

Mother of six, friend to all, it is impossible to count the number of parties and holidays we enjoyed around her table–let alone fathom all the meals served on it prior to its arrival in America.  When my mom died, one of my brothers was quick to claim it.  A few years ago he moved to California and the table came full circle back to us, where it is now front and center of the great room above British Cottage.  We are happy to let the parties begin, again, at this fabulous table.