How to Forage Your Way Through a Frigid Maine Winter
Delicious ingredients are out there, even in the depths of winter.
Maine has some of the most punishing winters in the country, with bitter sub-zero temperatures, freezing gales and Nor’Easters that can dump mountains of snow over a matter of days. But Mainers are famously proud of their heartiness and resilience, even defiance, against the frigid winter months. So we asked two of our favorite Maine chefs—both of whom rely on fresh and foraged ingredients in their restaurants—how they survive the long winter. Here, they reveal the best ingredients they find under the snow.
At Vinland, chef David Levi famously only uses ingredients found in Maine—not even olive oil or black pepper or cane sugar. “Maple sugar and syrup, along with honey, are our staple sugars,” says Levi. He uses maple sap and syrups in desserts, cures and cocktails, like the bourbon-y Catmint Julep.
Justin Walker, executive chef at Earth in Kennebunkport, digs under the snow to find this versatile, menthol-flavored herb. “One of the things that we can still get in the winter are teaberry leaves," he says. "If you know where they are, you can rustle down and they’re fine frozen. The leaves are very tobacco-y, but you can steep them and make great ice cream with them or you can use them to roast fish with.”
Levi uses a wide range of dried seaweeds, including "dulse, nori, wakame, Irish moss, kombu, and kelp" year-round. He adds raw dulse to fish dishes, fries nori in ghee to use as a topping, and makes ramen stock from kombu. He even uses it in desserts. “We also use roasted kombu as the major flavor in our panna cotta," he says. "The dish is served with a buckwheat sugar cookie in which the major ingredient is sugar kelp, a mild and lightly sweet seaweed. It's a crisp, delicious maple sugar cookie with a slight nuttiness. But it's secretly medicinal." Sugar kelp is loaded with vitamin C, so Levi's cookie might help fend off those winter colds.
The Pine Tree State’s tall pines aren’t just beautiful. “Even in winter,” Levi says, “we forage some delicious herbs from the woods, including white pine needles, juniper berries (both the subtle, green first-year berries and the sweet, intense purple second-year berries, and wintergreen leaves and berries. All are common ingredients in our house-made tinctures and vermouth. We also add the white pine and green juniper to our house-made herb salt, which we use for all our meats.”
Levi looks to Maine's rocky coast for super-fresh seafood in the depths of winter. “If there is a candy of the sea, it's scallops," he says. "Incredibly sweet and firm, winter scallops in Maine are truly one of the most delicious foods in the world, and there's very little one needs to do to prepare them. We keep the dish simple and let the scallops speak for themselves.” Levi typically serves the scallops raw or semi-raw. "I love putting a good sear on at least one side and getting them warm through the middle," he says.
Levi reinvents the humble parsnip in a series of dishes. “We use parsnips as a major element in our brown breads," he says, as well as "poached in yogurt whey for parsnip-turmeric custard, turned into a syrup for use in cocktails, and milled into a flour as a base for parsnip shortbread.”
Though his restaurant, Earth, is closed in the off-season, Walker gets inventive with wild Maine moss in winter. “We have a lot of reindeer moss growing on the Hidden Pond property," he says. "It grows on ledgy areas. If it’s frozen you can reconstitute it in water, or you can burn it into an ash, which you can do a zillion things with. Or you can fry it. It’s very interesting fried,” he says. “But it's just an addition—you don’t eat a pile of reindeer moss, unless you’re at Noma.”