Summer Begins, Halibut Swims, a Tasting Note
On Memorial Day
And just like that—it’s Memorial Day! The lilacs are in blossom, always a good
sign, though they’re earlier this year than in the past. The boats—fishing boats, sailboats, paddle boards, canoes--are in the water, and motels and hotels are spruced up with fresh coats of paint. The Adirondack chairs are on the lawn and
Rockport harbor from the back deck at Nina June Restaurant
the open-air restaurants have opened to the air. The tourists are back in force, we start to count the out-of-state licenses, and in the evening the fragrance of barbecue floats from back yards all over town.
This morning the veterans paraded to the cemetery for a final salute, led by the
high-school marching band, my grandson among them, tootling his trombone just as I did with my saxophone more than 60 years age (and, no, darling, it was not to celebrate the end of the Civil War).
The old folks called this Decoration Day because it was a day to decorate the graves with lilacs and other summer blooms, and not just the graves of willy-nilly fallen warriors but every grave—grandparents, parents, great aunts and
Maplewood cemetery, Lincolnville, with an old millstone for a marker
uncles, even cousins once removed. Take flowers to the cemetery, cut the grass, trim the weeds, spruce things up: It was a point of pride.
Not much of that tradition remains, once the parade to the cemetery is over and the bugle rings out the mournful notes of farewell. Nowadays, Memorial Day really marks the start of summer, especially here on the coast of Maine where, with the uncertainties of Covid still prevalent, we expect a huge flood of visitors this year—or so the state tourism board advises.
And with tourists comes the inevitable flood of news about lobster rolls. Is there a food publication anywhere worthy of its name that has not published at least
Lobster roll at McLoon’s, Spruce Head (South Thomaston)
one article about where to get the best Maine lobster roll? I don’t think so. This year, tourists are in for major sticker shock, I mean truly heart-attack inducing. My first tremor came when I stopped in late April at the infamous Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, planning to re-assess their vaunted lobster roll. And then I saw the price. At $39, I wasn’t about to try. Since then things have only gotten worse. At Beal’s in Southwest Harbor, according to the Bangor Daily News, the price is now $41.99 for a roll with four and a half ounces of lobster meat. That comes out darned close to $10 an ounce and, sure, there’s the mayo, there’s the roll, there’s the increasing cost of employing decent help, but still. . . . the BDN did a survey of lobster shacks and restaurants and came up with an average price of $30.54. (For what it’s worth, the BDN says pre-pandemic averages were around $18.) Beal’s costs more, but then Beal’s is on Mt. Desert, close by Acadia National Park and with splendid water views so I guess it’s worth it.
There’s also the increased cost of just getting the lobsters to shore—fuel is up, everyone knows that, but so are other costs, including new regulations for expensive gear supposed to prevent right whales from entanglement. Never mind that most of the lobster folks I’ve talked with have never encountered a right whale, or that the biggest problem for these magnificent but endangered animals is in the far-off Gulf of the St. Lawrence where they share shipping channels with huge ocean-going cargo vessels, somehow the powers have ruled that Maine’s lobster fishers must share the burden.
All that combines to make the cost of lobster rolls soar.
Nonetheless, I know the world is waiting to hear my take on where to get the best lobster roll in Maine. I’m not about to do that since I don’t actually believe there is a Best. But if you’re traveling in Maine this summer, here are a few
Lobster roll at the Bagaduce, Penobscot
places where you can get a Pretty Good Lobster Roll, if at sky-high prices, in addition to the aforementioned Red’s and Beal’s:
(Fyi, you can find all of these on the internet.)
The Lobster Shack at Two Lights, Cape Elizabeth, south from Portland off Rt. 77, great views too
Five Islands, Georgetown, south from Bath on Rt. 127, iconic Maine views
Sprague’s, Wiscasset, Rt. 1 by the bridge, across from Red’s Eats, not much of a view but easy to find
McLoon’s, Spruce Head Island, South Thomaston, off Rt. 73, spectacular views of Penobscot Bay islands
Claws, Main Street (Rt. 1), Rockland, sort of picturesque, semi-industrial views of Rockland harbor, easy access
Bagaduce Lunch, Franks Flat Road (Rt. 175), Penobscot, very pleasantly sited on the reversing falls of the Bagaduce River
Quoddy Bay, Eastport, I was really sad to find that this old favorite is no longer in existence—it was reason enough to go all the way to Eastport.
A 300-pound halibut fished off Vinalhaven about a hundred years ago; they don’t come like that anymore (with thanks to Peter Ralston for the image)
It’s not just summer, it’s also the full flush of Maine’s brief halibut season. Harvest is tightly controlled for this prized fish, with its clean, alabaster flesh
Pink alabaster—raw halibut
and its non-fishy fragrance (it always seems to me to be full of spring flowers). Maine Sea Grant has this to say on its useful website, www.Seagrant.umaine.edu : “Aside from a limited spring fishery with hook and line, there is no targeted commercial fishery for halibut in Maine. Groundfishermen working in federal waters are allowed to land one halibut per trip; these incidentally-caught fish provide the majority of the fish sold in markets.” This is the season, now until the middle of June, for local halibut, the finest kind, caught by hook-and-line in Maine waters within the three mile limit. This is the kind of fish that could change the mind of the most reluctant fish-avoider, and reluctant cooks also find halibut a delight because it doesn’t need a lot of fiddling: a couple of minutes to a side and you’re done. Halibut is best dealt with as simply as possible, no overwhelming sauces, no flavors that mask the delicious taste of the fish itself. A lemon-butter sauce is ideal, especially with a few slivered almonds toasted in the butter before serving.
Here’s how I sear halibut:
Seared halibut with lemon-butter and toasted slivered almonds
Make sure the fish is very dry—pat it dry with paper towels and then dust very lightly with flour along with salt and pepper. Heat up about a tablespoon each of olive oil and butter in a skillet and when it shimmers, add the fillet(s) or steak(s) and let brown on both sides—this should take about 4 minutes to a side, until the fish can easily be moved; a cut that’s 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick will be done by that point. Remove to a heated platter and tip out any burned fat in the pan. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of fresh butter and set over medium heat. When the butter starts to sizzle, stir in about a quarter-cup of slivered almonds and move them around to brown and crisp up, being careful not to burn them. When they’re just golden, add the juice of a lemon, more or less to your taste, let it sizzle, pour over the halibut, and send straight to the table.
Tasting Notes: Loving Lovage
I’ve developed a real love for lovage (Levisticum officinale) over the last couple of years. I have two plants in my garden and they flourish, with tall healthy stalks and bright green leaves. As perennials they can take a Maine winter too, although I’ve also raised lovage in Massachusetts and in Tuscany. So why do I love it so much? It’s the flavor of course—its taste is reminiscent of celery, but with hints of flat-leaf parsley too. If like me you find the blandness of supermarket celery to be of little interest (nothing but crunch), you’ll appreciate the astringent, celery flavors of lovage. I’m told it’s also a good source of the flavonoid quercetin, if you care about that sort of thing. I use it abundantly in any kind of mayonnaise-y salad—think potato, chicken, tuna, or egg salad, to which it adds both crunch and a balance against the rich flavors of mayo. Although I’ve never found it in the Mediterranean, it has become a standard for me in a battuto, the chopped vegetables (carrot, onion, garlic, parsley) that form the foundation of almost any Italian soup, stew, or sauce. I don’t see it being sold often, except in farmers markets, but it’s so easy to grow that I recommend it wherever you have garden space.