It Takes Every Kind of People

We north shore bloggers are at The Lyceum in Salem settling in to brunch on a rainy Sunday.  Let’s go around the restaurant’s long table for nine and make some introductions.

Meet the Passionate Foodie who is here at our late morning brunch after spending the previous day (and evening) in Boston’s South End moving between the Wine Riot, Coppa and Oishii.  The Passionate Foodie, or RichardPF as he is known on Twitter, is a food writer, a wine and sake aficionado, and restaurant reviewer– a person for whom the discovery of all things new and delicious is, well, a passion.

Over brunch Richard tells a mean story or two about the night before, entertaining his fellow diners with his determination to hit every spot and keep going, impressing us with his commitment to and zeal for the twin pursuits of fine dining and sharing what he has learned.  To be honest, we all are also in awe that’s he up and moving so early, brighteyed and bushy-tailed and ready for a brand new day of discovery.

Then again, we shouldn’t really be surprised.  Nothing about Richard says, “I’m tired.  I need a rest.  I’m jaded by too much experience.”  Instead his quick smile (and the mischief that it lights in his eyes) tell us he is more than ready to write up his experiences and quickly move on to the next.  And the next.  Passionate indeed – about food, about communicating.

“Come join me,” he writes on his blog, “and satisfy your hunger and thirst.”  You should take him up on the offer.

To my left is Kristen, across from her, Jill.  Effervescent as individuals, they are twice the fun as a team. Like Richard, they, too, know and love their food.  The team, known professionally as North Shore Dish, created and regularly update an online “guide to restaurants and all things food related on the North Shore.”  The women arrived at brunch talking about a friend’s recent birthday party and the cake Jill had made for it – rich chocolate cake iced with a mascarpone buttercream.  Hearing the words “mascarpone” and “buttercream” together in a sentence grabs my attention and I swoon.  I have to hear how it was made and Jill obliges.

Fun and gracious, yes, but business-minded too.  In a relatively short period of time the women have assembled an informative and authoritative website devoted to helping tourists and residents alike find good food on the north shore.  They know this subject inside and out.  Quality restaurants, restaurant openings and closings, chefs’ reputations, food festivals, hot dog carts, ice cream stands…turn to them with a question about any one of these and chances are they know where to send you.  If they don’t know, they promise to find out.

Neighbors, these two work together like the years’ long best friends they are, often completing each other’s thoughts, building on each other’s details.  Friendship, a common probing curiosity, and genuine interest in all things food define this team.

The Two Palaverers are another kind of team.  Husband and wife, Rob and Laura are diehard New Englanders hitting the highways and back roads of the region in search of  “regional character, culture and cuisine.”  They focus on finding experience, large and small, at every turn.  Follow them on Twitter and you might land in a winery in Connecticut, at a bird watch in Maine, or in a general store in western Massachusetts.

Marital teamwork may frame their efforts but a shared sense of adventure unites them, keeps them in the car and on the go.  An extended period of residence in Georgia, with a subsequent (and recent) return, has invigorated the couple’s love of, and rootedness in, New England.  Rob and Laura are New England to the core.

They are also two of the most positive people I have met.  They seem to have thrown their lot in together and accept whatever experiences come their way, ups or downs.  I get the sense they take stock often, reviewing the life they have constructed – past and present – with a sense of wonder and excitement for the future.  “Let’s see what’s around the next corner” might well be their team motto.  Best of all, they’ll make you wonder exactly that too.

Seth Albaum runs an online newspaper covering the city of Lynn.  As editor of Lynn Happens, the internet alternative to Lynn’s print paper of record, Seth gathers all kinds of news about his city – politics, education, community, arts, food, culture – and, like any print journalist, hopes readers stop and pay attention.

But unlike print publishers, Seth won’t worry about how to continue to pay for print runs in the face of dwindling circulation.  Freedom from at least one publishing concern allows more time to focus on content, and Seth’s rich and varied content comes from the city of Lynn itself.

Lynn Happens will open your eyes to a reviving and vibrant city.  In a downtown once known for its vacant factory buildings, spectacular fires, and hard-to-navigate streets, growth is happening.  Artists and families have moved in, restaurants are springing up to serve them, the events roster grows.  Lynn is well worth a visit.

So is Lynn Happens.

Mary arrived at the table with neatly tied packages of handmade caramels for everyone.  Naturally I warmed to her instantly.  With her business, The Savory Kitchen, Mary is on food’s front lines, creating treats (such as her pomegranate molasses caramels), writing about her efforts in her blog, traveling with her products wrapped to sell at farmers’ markets, and working in home kitchens as a teacher and personal chef.

I’ll bet Mary is a great instructor.  She appears gracious rather than imperious, and possesses an open and generous smile.  Generosity, that desire to share knowledge, is so important in a teacher.  So is confidence.  Mary projects personal confidence, the kind of confidence that makes the work she does seem possible for everyone she tutors to achieve.

I don’t need to place bets that she’s a good cook.  I know; I sampled the caramels.  A good basic caramel will balance buttery flavor with deeply browned sugar.  Mary’s did. They even went a step or two further than that, with follow up notes of tart astringency from the pomegranate’s juice and a treacly smokiness from the juice’s transformation into a syrup.  I can’t wait to find her and her treats at the Newburyport Farmers’ Market.

Heather writes Food For Thought, a weekly food column for The Gloucester Times.  The column, her brainchild, showcases the food people and food stories of the north shore.  And there are many:  local boy-turned-powerhouse chef, shop owner with eclectic mix of this and that and all things necessary, and a few town residents catapulted into national cooking competitions.

The list goes on.

Heather’s ability to get a good interview speaks to her genuine interest.  She asks rapid-fire questions, her eyes hold her subject’s.  She is not simply note taking, she is assessing.  Taking measure.  It’s one thing to transcribe conversation into print, and quite another to capture the essence of a person, place, or food with a few words of well-chosen description.

Fairly recently Heather has branched out into filming interviews and cooking segments as visual companion pieces to her written work.  These two media complement each other well and, best of all, offer context to the information given to the cook reading and watching at home.

*        *        *

A week has passed since we writers, editors, and bloggers met, introduced ourselves, and learned about one another.  As the meeting took place over brunch, we also ate.  I briefly flirted with ordering the chicken liver dish but in the end opted for frittata.  I can’t provide you with the recipe for the Lyceum’s ham, spinach and mushroom version, but I will give you the recipe for my favorite brunch time egg dish instead.  This casserole has been on our holiday brunch table for the past three years.  Sturdy, tasty, and crowd pleasing, it’s a keeper.

Ham and Potato Brunch Casserole

  • 2 cups (lightly packed) 1/2-inch cubes of baguette or white bread with crusts
  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 pound russet potatoes cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion
  • 1/2 pound smoked ham cut into matchstick-sized pieces
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh chives
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 3 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Butter 11×7-inch glass baking dish.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter with oil in heavy large skillet over medium-low heat. Peel and cube potatoes and add them to the skillet. Stir to coat and arrange in single layer. Cover and cook until potatoes are almost tender, 5-10 minutes. Remove the cover.  Increase the heat to medium-high, and cook until potatoes are lightly browned and tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.

Add onion and sauté until soft. Remove from heat. Gently mix in bread, ham, and chives. Transfer mixture to prepared dish.

Whisk eggs, half and half, sour cream, mustard, salt and pepper in medium bowl to blend well. Pour custard over potato mixture in dish. Let stand 15 minutes, occasionally pressing bread down to submerge in the custard.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake casserole, uncovered, until custard is set, about 30 minutes. Cut into squares and serve hot.

©2010  Jane Ward

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