“Now you’re a real Mainer,” I said to my son as I registered him for preschool in Kennebunkport, where we had recently moved from Washington, D.C. “Just because your cat has kittens in your oven, it doesn’t make ’em biscuits,” said the sixth generation Mainer at the desk, only half joking.
I thought after we moved from D.C. to live here full time my kids would be real Mainers. Come to find out that was wishful thinking on my part. As the school registrar pointed out, even people born in Maine aren’t necessarily embraced as true sons and daughters of the Pine Tree State. Evidently it takes generations to impart authentic Mainer status. And my two were late to the game, making the trip across the Piscataqua River Bridge for the first time when they were both only weeks old, and moving here permanently in time to start school.
While I know the Kittens ≠ Biscuits Rule prevails here, in my heart I still feel like a true Mainer. I’m one of the few people I know who revels in the shorter daylight hours that come in the fall. I embrace the cold weather. I like nothing more than going for a snowshoe in the woods or a winter hike and coming home to hot cocoa and hearty stew that has simmered in the slow cooker while I was out. The clincher for me was when I realized that I actually liked shoveling snow. I find it both bracing and meditative, a workout and a spiritual interlude.
One of the keys to getting through a long Maine winter and all the activities it provides is proper fueling. Winter food should feed your body and your soul. And with the slower pace of the season, winter is the perfect time to up your cooking game.
During my childhood, my favorite meal after a long day of sledding and snowball fights was tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich. Like most people I knew, our soup came from an iconic red and white can, the bread was white and the cheese was American.
Oatmeal was another winter staple, though our version was the quick-cook kind garnished with a splash of milk and raisins, if there were any in the cupboard. My grandmother encouraged us to eat our oatmeal because it would “stick to your ribs.” That, frankly, left me with a lifelong off-putting visual, but I get her drift; we needed food to keep us full for hours of winter play.
Maine winters call for “stick to your ribs” cuisine, but that doesn’t have to mean ordinary. Here are two of my favorites, reinvented with 21st century sophistication.
NOT YOUR GRANDMA’S TOMATO SOUP
This homemade soup is a life-changing culinary upgrade. Roasting the tomatoes adds an extra step, but is well worth it. Roasting brings out the sweetness of the tomatoes and lays the foundation for a soup that has extraordinary flavor and depth. I usually make a double batch and freeze in individual containers, just right for lunch or dinner in a minute. When I freeze the soup, I don’t add any dairy until I’m ready to serve.
If I’m going to be serving guests, I’ll make grilled cheese sandwiches and cut them into croutons to float on the soup. Or if I’m in a hurry, I’ll simply toast cheese on rustic bread under the broiler. But any way you serve this soup, it is just amazing. It’s not your grandmother’s version, unless your grandmother is old school Italian and a seasoned pro in the kitchen.
Skip the dairy if you want a vegan option. You can serve with rustic bread rubbed with garlic and olive oil and lightly toasted under the broiler.
4 pounds fresh tomatoes (I use a mixture of heirloom and Roma tomatoes)
1/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
6–8 garlic cloves, peeled
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Clean and core tomatoes and cut in half. Place in a large baking pan with garlic cloves and rosemary and drizzle with 1/4 cup of olive oil. Toss to coat. Bake 30 minutes or until softened. Discard tomato skins and rosemary sprigs and save juices.
While tomatoes are roasting, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a large Dutch oven. Sauté onions over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and stir over low heat. Cook for 10–15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add stock, tomatoes and garlic with their juices in the Dutch oven and stir to combine. Salt and pepper generously
Let cool then use an immersion blender or food processor to process soup until smooth. Reheat soup in Dutch oven if you are serving a crowd. For richer, creamier soup, add cream and heat through.
Serve with crackers, croutons, a dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt or a classic grilled cheese sandwich.
WINTER WONDERLAND OVERNIGHT OATS
The beauty of overnight oatmeal is that it is impossibly easy to prepare and can be made to suit any preference. You like pecans or almonds? Go nuts. Is fruit (or jam) your jam? Throw it in. Feeling like Elvis? Add peanut butter and bananas. The recipe below is for one serving but I like to make four servings at a time and store them for a quick morning meal that’s healthy and tasty. Substitute almond, soy or oat milk and non-dairy yogurt for a vegan option.
1/2 cup rolled oats (not quick oats)
1 teaspoon chia seeds
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, peanut or other nut butter, Nutella, maple syrup, protein powder (optional—choose one or choose a bunch!)
Combine first five ingredients in a container like a Mason jar or other sealable container and mix thoroughly. Add any optional ingredients to taste. (I love peanut butter and slices of banana, dried apricots and cranberries, and chopped pecans and maple syrup, but the combinations are endless.)
Seal container and refrigerate overnight.
Serve cold or zap in the microwave for a warm way to start the day.